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Mícheál McCann: Grace Notes

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Understanding a Shared Grace

Imagine this: being known by another —no— allowing ourselves to be truly known by another person, is the painful, scintillating truth we may uncover within some idea of grace. The difficulty that comes with how neurotic, earnest, or pained we might be is not these things themselves, but the striving to articulate them to another person; anticipating some response, hoping for some graceful acceptance in turn.

To expect the breath of grace to suffuse a room of its own accord is facile. Grace, while certainly not transactional, enfolds when I tell myself to you panoramically, and suffer the agony of actually being encountered. Differently put, to know and plumb one’s own mind is a position of grace; to strive to find the language or form to express some impression of it is a gesture to grace; to stand calmly and convey this knowledge to another human is the beginning of a single long note that marks the opening of the string duo we come to recognise, with practice, as grace.

Somewhere, sometime: a mother a limping cat a potted plant may incline its jade ear

awaiting your onslaught of prayer, whenever you decide you are strong enough.

Grace revels in our wonderful inarticulacy: our rising and waning faith, our desire to sing even when followed by some long silence. This instinct is explored in full throughout the work of Marie Howe; her poems innovate what is understood as ‘poetic revelation’. The thing itself, the person themselves, the fact of existence is point enough for revelation in Howe’s work. Howe’s fourth collection Magdalene (2017) is dominated by poems written in the voice of a contemporary Mary Magdalene figure. These poems are deeply concerned with personhood, and the obstacles we intentionally construct to keep others out; and, I believe, they speak to the possibility of grace in self-knowledge. Howe writes a voice that finds itself segregated from others by the unkind hand of a male-written history, and simultaneously a voice that pushes itself away from others. In ‘Magdalene: The Addict’, Magdalene says:

I liked Hell, […]

The worst had happened. What else could hurt me then?

I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come.

Then nothing did, and no one.

‘Magdalene’, as a patriarchal construction, has had her personhood limited to prostitution, her presence at the final meal and as one of Christ’s disciples is subject to frequent debate. In these poems Magdalene is infected with this patriarchal construction of herself, as she largely defers expressing herself outwardly.

In Marie Howe’s poem ‘Magdalene—The Seven Devils’, Magdalene repeatedly attempts to list the seven devils that were cast from her by Christ. The speaker begins: “The first was that I was very busy. […] The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the / living”. Reaching the seventh, Magdalene realises this was only the first, and re-states and re-states this ever growing list of devils.

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong to anyone.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

This litany of ‘devils’ reads like a contemporary mind (and what is posited originally as seven becomes twenty-two devils by the poem’s end), and concludes with a fear of our own unknowability:

The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—

Howe’s depiction of a fear of being encountered is perhaps most finely distilled in the poem ‘Magdalene: The Affliction’, where the speaker sees themselves walking across a room as though they were someone else. “It’s what I thought I saw when you looked at me.” A defensive absentness that is ruptured by another person seeing Magdalene in her inarticulacy, and reaching toward her:

So when I looked at you I didn’t see you

I saw the me I thought you saw, as if I were someone else.

I called that outside — watching.

Howe continues:

and then I was looking at my old friend John —

suddenly I was in and I saw him,

and he (and this was almost unbearable)

he saw me see him,

and I saw him see me.

He said something like, You’re going to be ok now,

Or, It’s been difficult hasn’t it,

but what he said mattered only a little.

We met — in our mutual gaze — in between

a third place I’d not yet been.

Howe’s depiction of the unendurable agony of John encountering the speaker of this poem is alarming and memorable. An understanding look from one person to another is the psychological fulcrum this poem turns on, and symbolises the possibility of a shared grace. What better way to focalise ‘grace’ than some place that eschews ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, but rather somewhere reached in an unspoken communion between two people.

I used the word inarticulacy before. Howe, very seriously, presents inarticulacy as a serious thing for us to consider. Our lives only become articulate when we have concluded living, when someone collates our experiences into a rational narrative for our eulogies. In a sense, our eulogies will never be accurate, for life itself exceeds the limited imagination of neat public memory. What Howe touches on in these poems is the importance of acknowledging our own irreconcilable quandaries: an obsession with sex, obsessive compulsive disorder, a historic sadness. Our livelihoods are held in our inarticulate joys and despairs. To exist with one another in this imperfection, to know it, is to be able to — at last — look out from our narrow selves to the possibility of this ‘third place’, as Larkin says, while we still have time.

Mícheál McCann is from Derry. His poems appear inPoetry Ireland Review,The Stinging Fly, and elsewhere. His first pamphlet of poems is forthcoming from Green Bottle Press later in 2020. He is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast researching North American AIDS writing, temporality and positive affect. Is also a spoofer.

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