The description ‘compulsive reading’ rarely applies to a poetry collection, no matter how well written, so it’s a welcome surprise to find a book that’s hard to put down until every poem is read. Martina Evans has achieved this with Now We Can Talk Openly About Men, a sequence of narrative poems in the form of monologues by two women at the time of the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War.
Miss Kitty Donavan tells her story in the first 39 monologues, set in Mallow in 1919. Kitty comes vividly to life in the opening lines, where she captures the reader’s interest by describing her shock at seeing a man who reminds her of the husband she thought had died by drowning:
I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up,
leant back against the wall like a drunkard.
Was that Himself I’d seen on the back
of a Crossley tender on Main Street?
Kitty’s voice is audible in the rhythm and vocabulary of her Irish accent and dialect as she draws us into her physical and emotional world. “Himself” soon represents various types of patriarchal repression as he stalks the poems and Kitty, leaning on a postbox outside her house as if spying on her and others. The red postbox is linked to British colonialism, and will soon be replaced by green postboxes according to the republicans, including Kitty’s adopted niece Eileen.
Himself also brings thoughts of religious repression to Kitty, as she remembers with regret that she didn’t follow Eileen’s advice to “shove his head down in the water with/ my boot. I wanted him to be taken by God/ with no hand in it myself”. She realises this is a “Sin of omission” and he haunts her like a guilty conscience, ironically described as “risen again” and “resurrected”, her faith in the Bible convincing her that he too could return.
The dominant patriarchy of the church targets the women in Sinn Fein, with the priests refusing to give them communion; while the “Shinners”, as the Sinn Fein members are colloquially known, are also patriarchal and delegate women to domestic roles. Eileen isn’t as accomplished a needlewoman as Kitty’s daughter Flora, but the dressmaking skills she learns from her Aunt Kitty make her the quickest sock darner for the Shinners.
The choice of title is thought-provoking, along with the fleshy pink colour of the cover, reminiscent of wartime women’s powder compacts and roll-on corsets. The cover reminds us that this is about women’s voices, it’s about men seen through women’s eyes, and it’s about having been silenced and then finally given the freedom to speak: a freedom made possible for the narrators as their inner voices are addressing unknown readers, while the poet also has the freedom of writing from a later date.
This is not a simplistic binary vision of good and bad, oppressors and oppressed. While Sinn Fein are described as supposedly asking women to volunteer, in Kitty’s view they exploit the fact that “young girls are easily forced”, with all the suggestions that choice of wording conjures up. Women fear unprovoked acts of violence, as the military police and Sinn Fein both mix friendliness with random and sadistic acts of intimidation. Sometimes a Tan “might be trying to click with an Irish girl” but “then you could turn a corner & a gang/ of them would be stamping on an old man’s hand.”
The women respond by using domestic implements as a method of self-defence, particularly Kitty with her scissors at the ready while she works at her sewing. There is a beautiful image of the solidarity of women as mother and daughter sit with their elbows resting in halved lemons to whiten and soften them, finding escapism from the fear all around.
The story is fictional but based on military reprisals in the town of Mallow for the shooting of an officer, and the first half of the book builds to this climax. The second half is told in monologues by Miss Babe Cronin in Dublin, 1924. The Irish War of Independence has been followed by the Civil War and Babe is living as a guest at Hayes Hotel, owned by another of Eileen’s aunts, Mrs Hayes. Babe is a harsh gossip and her perspective provides a sharp contrast to the first set of monologues, with Kitty viewed through a severely critical lens that shows women should beware other women as well as men.
Babe quickly develops a close and obsessive friendship with Eileen that sounds like infatuation, describing her in a way that contrasts with Kitty’s monologues. Babe’s Eileen is androgynous, “wearing men’s grey breeches” and “she was nice looking/ in spite of the man’s black cap, the cropped hair,/ bitten nails, weather beaten face & all.” Although Babe describes herself as having “no time for rebels” she’s soon smitten by Eileen, while raging inside as the “open tap of propaganda/ poured out of her mouth”. This is one of many striking metaphors that slip smoothly into the vernacular of the monologues, while the physical description shows how Evans can suggest a whole character with a few carefully chosen details.
The Sinn Fein Babe describes is full of contradictions and the collection is masterful in the way it covers the complexity of the situation. She realises Eileen knows wealthy people through Sinn Fein, who give her the expensive jodhpurs, fishermen’s jumpers and puttees. Her friends are “women with plenty of money,/ leisure to get mixed up in politics” and she states without irony “I should have joined Sinn Fein, to meet the right people.”
Although this period in Irish history has been well covered by poetry, fiction and plays, Evans’s approach through a sequence of 74 dramatic monologues is an innovation. Sometimes it’s said that the writing of narrative poetry shows that the author has the desire to write a novel, but at other times this poetic form provides the perfect medium for a subject and this is the case in Now We Can Talk Openly About Men.
Now We Can Talk Openly About Men by Martina Evans is published by Carcanet Press, £9.99.