Candles and Cabbage

Martina Evans – Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, 2018) 

Martina Evans’ latest poetry collection takes the form of two dramatic monologues. Set in Mallow, County Cork, 1919 and Dublin, 1924, they mark the two foundational conflicts of the Irish Republic: the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They also tell a tale of women’s experiences across two turbulent generations.

Both speakers are sceptical of political causes. The first, Kitty Donavan, is made so by necessity. Her dressmaking business is being shunned by the locals for taking business from the British Army. Her daughter too is in love with the young, one-armed socialist, Captain Galway. Kitty is cursed with migraines and relies on the doctor’s laudanum “tonics”. The opiates alternately cushion her from the violence and, caught between doses, emphasise her need.

Kitty’s work provides a language for her suppressed anxieties. Working, her “scissors swim like a dolphin with relief”. They trace “the crown & the letters of Royal Red”, all the while listening to the young rebel Eileen Murphy talk of the future Irish State. No more Royal Red, she says, the post boxes and the uniforms will all soon by green.

I’d imagined something magnificent like

A pure Peacock hue until she showed me

The colour on a bachelor’s gate

On the road to Quartertown. Pure disgusting.

A horrible dark green like an old leaf

Of cabbage you’d see a snail on top of.

Evans’ verse is tightly packed with images, but loose enough in its metre to read naturally. One can take the book at a running pace and enjoy a story with deep emotional beats, or slow the pace and reflect on the careful choice of wording. It’s not a symbolic poem, but its images – a peacock hue, a bachelor’s gate – are not chosen by accident.

Violence is always around the corner in Kitty’s Mallow. Soldiers shot in the guts, the Tans beating innocents on the street corner. As it builds to a terrible climax, Kitty barricades herself in. It is Eileen Murphy, the young rebel, who escapes the first poem. Her sewing skills, taught by kitty, make her the fastest sock darner in the IRA.

The second voice, Miss Babe Cronin’s, is more direct than Kitty’s. She is less evasive about her evasion. A stenographer; Babe’s language is clean, but she can’t help but listen. The “open tap of propaganda” from Eileen Murphy’s mouth, “nice looking in spite of the man’s black cap”, eventually turns her head. She starts running packages for the pretty young rebel girl.

Once again Evans’ turns an arresting image to great descriptive purpose:

…A fair haired girl with

Plaits down to her waist handed it over

But when she smiled at me, weren’t her two

Front teeth missing? In that church with the girl

Dressed all in white among the white candles,

It was an awful shock to see her gums.

As if the door of hell opened, I knew

Full well it was a firearm…

The bitter ironies of the civil war carry through the second poem, contrasting the Independence conflict in the first. The armies of the Irish Free State hold British guns, while the rebels speak Gaelic and carry the crucifix. Both sides are buried in their respective traditions. Both carry dogma.

For the women caught between the sides there are the old certainties of men and men’s folly. Men bring danger and adventure, fire and fear. This is perhaps why Evans picked the counterintuitive title; “Now We Can Talk Openly About Men”. The cover, pink and rather twee, seems to have been designed based upon this title alone. I can’t help but feel there are more appropriate colours out there – perhaps dark green and pure disgusting?

Overall, it’s a gripping read. The poetry is both pacey and touching by turns. The personal voices carry you along with them. Reading, you are inside the conflict, scurrying between brief moments of reflection. I will be surprised if awards aren’t won for what Evans has achieved here. A smart concept brilliantly realised.

– Joe Darlington

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