On Sarah Maguire’s Spilt Milk

Spilt Milk was one of several books, also including Susan Wicks’s Singing Underwater and Thom Gunn’s Collected, which, after a few years’ absence, coaxed me back into writing poetry in the late 1990s. I remember reading it by a pool c.1998 and thinking it was the ideal holiday poetry collection, because it’s suffused with what became Sarah Maguire’s perennial themes: heat, sultriness, sensuality, sex, food, gardens, a tangible sense of place – her native West London, Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East – and Irishness, of her birth-mother and adoptive parents. Each poem seems so well-made and moves around through time and space.

But, like The Pomegranates of Kandahar, Maguire’s last collection published while she was alive, it also has a sharp political sense: of the uncertain times just before, and then after, the fall of the Berlin Wall; of women’s rights; of respect and support for migrants; and much else besides, but without seeming forced or didactic. I think that’s a very difficult balance to achieve. (Maguire went on, of course, to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which has done so much important work in rendering poets from other tongues into the Anglophone poetry world.)

It’s a slim collection, with only 33 poems, but has more vivacity and truth than collections twice the length. Sarah Maguire only published two (and a half) subsequent collections before her tragically early death, in 2017, but, for me, each is beautifully honed and exemplifies a less-is-more approach. In that respect, and in her non-prolific approach, Maguire reminds me of Vicki Feaver.

The title references not just the sex-drenched poem of the same name, but alludes to the opening poem and to two other poems, ‘The Fracture Clinic’ and Psoriasis’. The book has a pleasing thematic unity which is charming and moving in many ways and moods.

‘May Day, 1986’, is exactly what you want from a collection opener: properly substantial, it sets a disquieting tone which never leaves the reader throughout the book. It’s dedicated and addressed to the Polish poet Tadeusz Slawek, and revolves around Maguire, in Ladbroke Grove, considering the impact of Chernobyl on Poland and nearer home: “[. . .] the radio-activity an inaudible fizz/ in the cells, rupturing thorax or liver,/ the intimacy of the bowel. They say it won’t/ reach here.” The poem moves from the past, taking in Jane Austen and Socrates, to the present and then the future. It ends with an unforgettable image: “Later, on the news, they will show/ gallons of contaminated Polish milk/ swilled into sewage, a boy crying/ at the sting of iodine he must swallow// against the uncertain air.”

‘The Garden of the Virgin’ concerns Mount Athos, where women are forbidden on account of Mary apparently having “declared this garden// her domain, declared/ (recalling Eve)/ no other female/should come to foul// this paradise.” And in ancient times even female animals were not allowed: “Ewelambs and their ewes/ were slaughtered. Cows/ butchered. Heifers slain.// The sow, the gilt/ and the nanny goat:/ all dead and banned.” It’s a four-part poem which not only explicitly tackles the gender bar but is chock-full with telling detail, ending with the (again unforgettable) image of a hermit waking “sodden/ from a lycanthropic nightmare” in which “He had sensed/ the slow breath/ of the wolf, had stared// deep into her lemon eyes,/ as still as oil/ or candlelight, then// felt himself run off with her –/ feral, hirsute, opening out his lungs/ to greet the moon.”

‘The Fracture Clinic’ brilliantly encompasses the day Maguire’s parents adopted her (“They climbed the big stairs to the Priest’s house// in St Charles Square, and found me silent in a cot”), the first time (since her birth) that she met her birth-mother, and the breaking of a leg or foot that has necessitated an operation. Like so many of the poems in the book, it moves backwards and forwards through time, implicitly showing the reader how history matters and how the present and the future matter even more. The three components of the poem – adoption, meeting with birth-mother and the contemporary hospital scene – are so cleverly bound together by the final image, which draws the reader’s thoughts back to birth:

[. . .] Now I’m lying in Recovery,

my wrist encircled by my date of birth, my postcode
and my name, all written upside down.

It’s such a feat, to draw together such weighty subject-matter, with her trademark exactness of word-choice and description. For example, the use of “big” in “They climbed the big stairs to the Priest’s house” so beautifully and subtly implies the adoptive couple’s nervousness; and I love the disorientating just-so-ness of

They have taken me to St Charles Hospital
where I drowned in anaesthesia: beneath a star-shaped atrium

I watched the milky light turn crystalline, then I went

That “St Charles Hospital” echoes “St Charles Square” from earlier in the poem adds to the sense of life circling round. The positioning of “under” at the start of a new line is neatly done.

For me, the poem has absolute truth about it, but relies on tremendous narrative pace and tightly-reined energy to tell and entwine its remarkable stories, rather than any high-register pyrotechnics. It’s so wonderfully and admirably well-crafted. The title has, of course, a secondary meaning of sorts, that the forced separation of Maguire from her birth-mother could be healed by time and love.

I very much hope that a posthumous collection (or two) of Maguire’s poems will be published.

Sarah Maguire, Spilt Milk, Secker & Warburg, 1991

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