Decades before the publication of Geomantic (2016 Dedalus Press), Paula Meehan wrote an autobiographical poem called “The Pattern,” which portrays a heartrending and conflicted mother-daughter relationship: “Little has come down to me of hers,/ a sewing machine, a wedding band,/ a clutch of photos, the sting of her hand/ across my face in one of our wars/ when we had grown bitter and apart” (The Man Who Was Marked by Winter, 1991). In the final lines of the poem, the speaker remembers her mother knitting. Her mother says: “One of these days I must/ teach you to follow a pattern.” Due to the complicated nature of mother-daughter relations in Meehan’s poetry, she likely rejects her mother’s pattern (and legacy). Nonetheless, it seems intriguing that the concept of a quilt inspired the structure of Meehan’s most recent collection, Geomantic. In an interview with Jody Allen Randolph, Meehan mentions that the poems in this collection were inspired by the pieces of memorial quilts knit together by the Irish to commemorate Dublin’s youth who have died from drug abuse. This collection is configured according to an intricate pattern centered around the number nine. Every poem is nine lines long; every line of every poem consists of nine syllables. The collection contains a total of eighty-one poems. Even the title Geomantic is nine letters long. Indeed, this collection is Meehan’s commemorative quilt. Her interest in this type of commemoration is not new. Painting Rain (2009) includes “Prayer for the Children of Longing,” which the community of inner city Dublin commissioned her to write in memory of youth who died from drug abuse.
Although the compact nine-line structure of each poem differs from the more narrative style found in much of Meehan’s previous work, the poems are quite beautiful and absorbing. Throughout the collection, she weaves together poems written in the present tense and poems written in the past tense. Personal memories comprise a major theme of the collection. “The Moon Rose Over an Open Field” reveals why Meehan developed a love for poetry as a child: “When I heard it first my fate was sealed:/ it offered a pathway out of fear,/ order from chaos when I was young.” Multiple poems contain mesmerizing images of ghosts associated with childhood. With its reference to “threads that bind us tight to the past,” a poem called “The Fascinator” offers insight into how readers might consider the collection as a whole. Coming to terms with the past is a theme that runs throughout many of the poems. Occasionally, references to Ireland’s history are entwined with personal memories. Additional compelling themes include dreaming, aging, addiction, death, and loss. Repetitive images include winter, rain, the moon, and the city. This repetition contributes to the patterned feeling of the collection in general.
The reader can easily become engrossed in the creative arrangement of the collection. Some of the poems relate to or play off of one another in fascinating ways. This sense of connectedness creates a desire to try to piece the poems together like the pieces of a puzzle—or the pieces of a quilt. For example, “The Luck” opens with the line “I don’t do the past, said my father.” On the following page, “The Pearl” opens with “My mother did nothing but the past.” Several pages later, “The Clue” opens with the same opening line from “The Luck”: “I don’t do the past, said my father.” Whereas the father is allowed to be a speaker in these poems, the mother is discussed in the third-person. Meehan’s use of pronouns is also striking in other poems. Many poems are written in the first-person. The “I” is often an assertive and active voice, and this is illustrated in some of the following opening lines: “I sketch the patternings of the sea” (“The Patternings”); “I walked your ghost trail through the city” (“The Conjuration”); “I “was dreaming of Gardiner Street/ again” (“The Old Neighborhood”); and“I imagine our ghosts hand in hand,/ the full May moon overhead” (“The Road to Agios Kirikos). Meehan’s use of pronouns is especially interesting because her references to “we” are often invoked in situations involving a collective sense of overcoming hardship: “We’ve born too much loss” (“The Row”); “By an unmarked grave we knelt and wept” (“The Boy from the Gloucester Diamond”); and “Like refugees newly come to town/ we made a stern language of beauty” (“The Storm”). Her connection to her local community and her strong sense of Irish identity are reflected in many of these references to collective identity.
Geomantic is an absorbing collection filled with poignant and thought-provoking pieces. It offers endless fascination. Readers are given a rich array of compelling family, religious, intellectual, and societal issues to mull over. Meehan is a candid poet who is unafraid of the vulnerability associated with depicting deeply personal issues. Beautiful and haunting images are likely to linger with the reader long after the book has been closed.