Nationality: British. Born: West London, 1957. Education: University of East Anglia, B.A. in English; studied at Cambridge University. Career: Teacher of creative writing, London Lighthouse; writer-inresidence at an English prison, 1992–93; creative writing fellow, University of Leeds, 1996; poetry reader, British Council, Palestine, 1996. Since 1990 tutor, Arvon Foundation. Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and contributor to periodicals. Address: Notting Hill, London, England.
Spilt Milk. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.
The Invisible Mender. London, Cape, 1997.*
Critical Studies: In Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994, and 84(2), summer 1994.* * *
Sarah Maguire is one of a number of young women poets emerging in the late twentieth century (Lavinia Greenlaw and Kate Clanchy also come to mind) who combine acute powers of observation and metaphysical wit together with flexuous technique in the writing of free verse. In Maguire's case, she was a gardener before reading English at the University of East Anglia, notable for its school of writing supervised by Malcolm Bradbury. The school may have helped her verse technique, and undoubtedly her practice in gardening encouraged the minute observation of detail that is a notable feature of her poems.
Maguire's first book, Spilt Milk, made a great impression and caused her to be chosen as one of twenty New Generation poets. "Wit and lyricism, precision and suggestiveness," commented Tim Dooley in the Times Literary Supplement, "her poems attend to wider issues—sexual politics, nationality, exploitation—without losing their primary sense of physical presence." Two of these early poems have become familiar in anthologies: "Uisge Beatha" and "What Is Transparent." The first dwells on the pleasures of love in terms of whisky (the title is Irish for "water of life"): "the hot sweet smoked malt /that I burned of and for you." "What Is Transparent" makes a quite startling use of light and translucence to get across two phases of the speaker's life, each marked by a coal miners' strike:
I find two candles,
Turn out all the lights and watch the news:
The bluish screen tricking the faces of these men
Who work with darkness, underground.
Unusual for a young poet, Maguire's second book, The Invisible Mender, is even better than her first. The gardener's eye comes wonderfully into play in a series of poems called "Nursery Practices." These feature "The Grafting Knife," with the tool's cherry wood clasp finished with brass; "The Greenhouse," with unopened air heady with the odor of cloves and roses; "The Growing Room," with walls of loam shelved in green trays; the "Year-Round Chrysanthemums," with the flowers' magenta and saffron faces "phototropic with desire"; and the whole, personalized in "Watershed," the shrewdly observed chronicle of a dry summer. In subject as well as style the poems make for uncommonly pleasant reading.
In a darker vein "The Hearing Cure," quite an ambitious poem, makes temporary deafness the occasion for a tender elegy on the protagonist's mother:
slim messengers of fear.
you start to tell me things
I've never heard before,
all that silence
frozen in your limbs …
What might seem a tone oversubdued is ratified by the continuing theme of hearing and deafness: "a litany," "we've hardly talked," "you'd not complain," "their sight is sound," this last spoken of the bats whose high-pitched cries are the first thing the speaker hears after her period of occlusion.
Since then Maguire has embarked on a sequence called "The Florists at Midnight." Most of the poems in the sequence are written in a stepped verse composed of triads (three-line stanzas) feminized from the usage of William Carlos Williams and mediated by Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, the latter of whom has exerted a vast subterranean influence on British women poets many years her junior. To learn from her elders in this way, as Maguire certainly has done, is to be subtly original. Her subjects are her own, and her special knowledge of gardening once more comes into play. She mourns the flowers cut and packed in cellophane and, in doing so, comments upon our deracinated and sanitized civilization:
of tulips, of lilies, of dahlias
spill down from tiered shelving
nailed to the wall.
Lifted at dawn,
torn up from their roots
then cloistered in cellophane,
they are cargoed across continents
to fade far from home …
The strength is in the fact that Maguire knows exactly what these transit sheds look like. The depth is that she might almost have been writing about asylum seekers.
As in the published volumes, there are poems about travel. Maguire finds herself lost in the suburbs of Marrakech or looped by jasmine in Yemen or, in Aden, listening to the distant, heated voices intermingling with the scratching of the cicadas. And again there is the core of personal feeling, the sense of loss voiced in pieces based on the ghazel, an Arabic form in which the poem is constructed of discrete couplets and a form she has made curiously her own.
There can be few projects envisaged by a contemporary poet that offer so much of interest. This writer is an individual, an unmistakable voice among the young women who form so notable an element in the poetry of our time. They have brought into consciousness matters hitherto unexplored. Much of the hope for the future lies with Maguire and her near contemporaries.