8 Nov 2014

The Last Pair of Ears by Mary F. McDonough

The Last Pair of Ears by Mary F McDonough is the surprise shortlisted book for the Saltire Society's First Book (2014) award.  Certainly the writer and publisher of The Last Pair of Ears didn't expect critical attention and recognition, and it wasn't one of the hyped new writers on the list, but perhaps the chief reason that the book may have gone unnoticed is because it was a self-published title.  It's a great sign of the times then that it did come to the Society's attention.

Gadfly, a consultancy based in Glasgow, have stated that they began their publishing operation by accident.  Appreciation from the Saltire Society is a great achievement, and with a good crop of first collections out in 2014, there would have to be some very special reasons why Mary F McDonough's The Last Pair of Ears has risen above the pile.

Although it is believed to be the first ever self-published book shortlisted for a major prize in Scotland, Mary F. McDonough's collection was originally intended as a birthday present. It is also a highly coherent and themed collection, striking  tender lyrical notes as well as presenting more discordant and occasionally violent imagery.
Martyn Clark, director of Gadfly has said:  "For us as a company, and as individuals, making the book was a way of making a mark. It gave us the opportunity to think about how we do business. In creating the book, especially the fine art edition, we brought together our personal philosophies, our creativity, and our business goals. We discovered that business really can be personal, and that it's better when it is. That's really revitalised our business, helping us to see how brand is something that has to be developed from the inside out, if it's going to have integrity. It really has to be personal to be meaningful."

The fine art edition of The Last pair of Ears is certainly a beauty to behold, but in the meantime, and at the time of writing at least, if you are curious then the collection is availble for reading in PDF, EPUB and MOBI format, free from Gadfly's site.  Not everyone likes to hear art (and in particularly poetry) mentioned in the same breath as business, but there can be no harm in that, particularly if you view business as being about relationship as opposed to be about making money.

The Last Pair of Ears

The sadness of finding herself unable to protect her son from mortality, and having to argue with him over pajamas that are too small, are the commonality of the poet's day.  These taper into stories of the poet's battles with her own mother — the first of which is a fight over leg-shaving. It isn't long after that she is not only looking after the child, but looking after the mother too.

Mary McDonough describes her collection The Last Pair of Ears as representing her "exploration of the power of narrative to heal as well as to distort and influence" but it would seem that dialogue would be more apt a description, than narrative.  

Nonetheless, what is in no doubt, is that the poems fall quickly into place as a series which categorically define woman as a kitchen-dwelling, morbid bearer of babies, who when she has finished with the younger and present generations, will probably have to go to work caring for the elder generation next.

The first half of The Last Pair of Ears is baby-laden indee, with real and imagined children dominating not a few of the verses.  Some of the children, have real and pressing needs, while others are more like psychological factors in the emotional life of the day, existing in an imagined past when babies were 'just maybes' (Away Back),  In this poem, Mary McDonough compares the motions and emotions of a woman's pregnant body, long before the days when we could see their antenatal heartbeats on a computer.  By the time we get to the section titled Carrying / Caring, we are unable to consider the poet's breakfast egg without considering children, born and unborn.

Some of the poems in The Last Pair of Ears hit invisible bumps in the road, so just when things appear to be flowing nicely, the rhythm is rocked. 

Here are the first two verses of Blue:

Babies can be hard to keep,
harder still for untrue women—
something always goes wrong,
and their babies get lost.

Once you’ve got them, keeping babies
is the problem;
they don't have to be thrown down cliffs
or fed to their fathers to be

The way the cadence drops is perplexing; it works in the second verse and not in the first, and yet the first verse does offer a metrical character, while the second verse doesn't.  This astrophic jumping in and out of rhythm is a contemporary characteristic, sometimes employed because the poet has no idea what she's doing, and believes that writing a string of words is poetry.  In this method of writing, end-stopped lines are more effective than usual, and this difficult poem about the death of babies, not only uses a few of these sudden stops but also ends with a peculiarly jarring image — 'impotent cardigans' — which will be up to you to unpack for yourself.

Several general themes lie thick in The Last Pair of Ears — babies, as we have already discovered are all over the place, as is the care of the aged which is exemplified many times, but at its strongest in Riding the Dementia Express.  In large, the emphasis is on what some might normatively call 'woman's work' — and then there is lore, and cookery, in combination with a cold domesticity that is somehow imperative, like a voice that has just been heard for the first time.

No woman should evah be without her ol' coffee can a' grease. Y’all need one a' them old big ones. Ever’ time you cook bacon, when the grease's cooled off, but it ain't turned that milky yella color, dump it in the can on top of the last batch. Save it up. Nothin' better for makin' beans have some taste, or crispin' up some fried eggs, or making you some hot water cornbread. Bacon grease is the answer to most cookin' questions. I cain't cook worth a durn without it.

The babies and children of The Last Pair of Ears are alien, almost out of hand, set apart from human nature and presented solemnly and seriously, but still with a strong sense of intimacy:

With his brows scrunched together, two angry caterpillars, and his pink, raisin lips, he looks like me. He usually looks like his Dad; I wonder why it is only in anger that he resembles me.

In all, you would think it a gloomy picture, from cradle to grave, with images of dependency leading to moments of tenderness, and featuring memories which often focus on clothes, colour and cookery, and which culminate in quite explosively unpleasant moments, such as Webbed, about two thirds of the way through the book.  Webbed draws a few of the themes of the book together, in the image of a woman (as spider) railing against biology and the passing of time:


A corpulent spider
presides over the ruins of herself,
In her cotton-white sheets and hair,
Barking orders,
Scanning with opal-lensed eyes.

Nurses scuttle.
She throws forks, soup,
hissing through 7 teeth,
demanding her daughters, her babies:
where have you took them! Bitches!

There is therefore an almost impatient quality to The Last Pair of Ears.  Once you have completed reading it however, it appears that The Last Pair of Ears offer a unity of thought and theme, and it's only once you have read it that you can see it as a whole.  It is certainly this effect which has found it nominated for the Saltire Society of Scotland 2014 First Book of the Year.

From Webbed, incidentally, the poet's path follows into a poem about Family Secrets, which is shadowed by a short poem called Clock, which records the not-so-charming process that time records upon the skin — before the penultimate section which is on love. 

In this section the female voice appears to crave a little more, requesting in one poem not to be called 'Missus' because 'No Missus was ever decadent'.  

The Last Pair of Ears is an intense collection, personal and accessible,a dn aglow with women's stories.  It also somehow exists outside the poetry scene, which is at times can seem a tightly-knit and homogenous community in Scotland, particularly in our two largest cities. It is again, doubtless, this slight outsider feel that has brought The Last Pair of Eyes to the attention of so many.  It doesn't revel in play and nor does it wrestle with Scottish identity — it is merely an unpretentious, and almost reactionary book, intelligent and not glossy, and somehow methodical in the long and short of its descriptions.

To read it however is to experience its grasp of and enthusaim for its subejcts.  It is a complete book, and it is a book that completes its task, telling a story that will be common to many women.  It is exceptionally touching, in the second last poem, to read the lines:

I say ‘bye, bye, baby,’ as I drive away,
and I mean it.

and to find the baby and the mother conflated in one expressive blast.  

The Last Pair of Ears aims to accomplish something much more than simply place poetry on the page.  It tells one story, and many stories, and likewise frames the more general narrative of birth, life and death —  and as such is a most stirring achievement.  It has a freshness and a feeling for the way women live and in its ambitions to tell a larger story it takes some quite unexpected viewpoints.  There is no doubt that it is a very strong first collection.