Nicola Spendlove

Nicola Spendlove adores words in all their forms. She is a regular writer for a number of print and online publications — including HealthyPlace, Waterford News & Star, and Ireland before You Die. Nicola is also an accomplished spoken word artist, award-winning playwright and passionate creative writing facilitator.

When Nicola is not writing, she enjoys travelling, working as an occupational therapist and spending time in her adopted hometown of Tramore, Co. Waterford.

On Ethna MacCarthy: Poems, by Ethna MacCarthy

It is a disservice to Ethna MacCarthy that she is remembered primarily as being a close associate of Samuel Beckett’s, and the granddaughter of poet Denis MacCarthy. The Coleraine native was an accomplished clinician, scholar, linguist; and indeed poet in her own right. In her short lifetime, MacCarthy’s work was published in literary magazines and as part of larger anthologies, but it is only now that a collection solely of her own is being released by Lilliput Press.

Many of the poems in this collection offer a window into the lived experiences of MacCarthy, and tell tales of everything from her travels to her work as a paediatrician. Clinic, for example, which was first published by The Dublin Magazine in 1946, paints a vivid picture of a five year old ‘listless princess…disowned by father, dispossessed by childhood’s dynasty’ who presented at one of MacCarthy’s own clinics. Poetry and medicine have of course met before in literature- the ‘functional ward’ of Patrick Kavanagh’s The Hospital comes to mind- but is a truly rare treat to read a piece of poetry told through the exacting eye of the doctor. The transformation of an unfortunate young girl into a fairy tale character under MacCarthy’s clinical gaze feels as if the reader is being let in on a secret, and we are left to imagine what horrors have left this particular patient walking the world ‘in dignity…defiled’. Similarly, MacCarthy offers a fly on the hospital wall position to readers as she describes her tutelage as a medical student under Dr Alfred Parsons in Vale. Anyone who has ever been party to a ward round will surely smile at her description of ‘student satellites’ trailing behind a man who ‘had time to see a troubled students’ private pain’.  It is in these descriptive pieces that MacCarthy is arguably at her best. They are written without pretence and are largely free of flowery language, and this allows them to be read in one large gulp as it were, swallowing up the feeling of the piece without pausing to consider a complex metaphor or odd rhythm. The combination of this distinctive writing style and a perspective rarely seen in the arts is genuinely a joy to behold.

As the poems selected for the collection were not necessarily written to belong in an anthology together, there are a number of different techniques used across the various pieces- and it reads at times like a writer experimenting with composing poems as opposed to a seasoned poet. The uneven rhyming scheme in the previously unpublished Chestnut Tree, for example (‘the chestnut tree has thrown her russet gauntlet down and stark but for her gilded bark’) is jarring and comes across as a writing exercise rather than a finished piece. It is perhaps unfair to criticise MacCarthy for this, as she of course would not have had any say in what pieces should be published in a collection put together posthumously. On the other hand, there are stylistic experiments that work well and offer another side to MacCarthy’s work. Barcelona, a short piece written about time spent in the Catalan city, is delightful in both its playfulness and pensiveness. The bouncy rhyming scheme and everyday details (‘being ill I ate only hake and white grapes in the land of wine’) combine to create a tone that strikes the rare balance of being nostalgic without being sentimental.

As an overall anthology, it is difficult to pick out a particular theme, or even a group of themes, to this work. Indeed, there are many pieces that you would struggle to believe were written by the same hand as each other. There is little flow and continuity between the pieces themselves, but perhaps the strength of this is that any of them can be read and appreciated as a standalone poem. While the poet’s measured clinical eye might have compelled her to put together a more cohesive combination of pieces had she been alive to do so, it is truly wonderful to see Ethna MacCarthy finally be celebrated as an artist herself rather than a character referred to by other artists.

Ethna MacCarthy: Poems

By Ethna MacCarthy

(Lilliput, 2019)

ISBN-13: 978-1843517696

© 2020 Nicola Spendlove