reviewed by Ian Chung
Afric McGlinchey’s debut collection takes its title from the translation for Sadalachbia, the traditional Arabic name of a star in the constellation Aquarius, which ‘appears in spring, signaling the end of hibernation and prompting nomads to move their tents to new pastures’ (the explanation is the author’s, and it comes from a page before the poems). The title is an apt one, considering that the collection is written from the perspective of someone taking stock of her past, in preparation for the next phase of her life. In capturing the experiences that have shaped her, the overall effect of The Lucky Star of Hidden Things is to create a satisfying emotional arc, as it journeys through African memories to McGlinchey’s Irish present.
A loving tribute to all that McGlinchey has gained and lost in the process of treading the paths of the global nomad.
McGlinchey’s experiences of growing up in southern Africa feature most prominently in the poems from the opening section, In my dreams I travel home to Africa. The first couple of poems serve up scenes of everyday life, accented by borrowings from Shona and other African languages that are explained in a glossary. Occasionally, this can feel like it has been done for the sake of adding a touch of exoticism, e.g. in ‘The water bearers’, when ‘Three piccanins’ is simply replaced two stanzas later by the straightforwardness of ‘The children’. Since these early poems all deal with quotidian scenes, they also share an unfortunate tendency to blur into each other.
Where the collection really begins to come into its own, however, is in the final stanza of the poem ‘Counting’. Whereas the previous stanzas of the poem offer up sensual but not particularly memorable images (‘the pool’s small diamonds’, ‘cerise satin gown’), it is the simple clarity of that last stanza’s image that finally brings this poem about a human connection gone missing into keen focus: ‘the earth has circled one thousand, / four hundred and sixty times, around the space you’ve left behind’. This gift for the strong finish also manifests in other poems that are inspired by human relationships, e.g. the ride in a lift with an elderly person in ‘Last conquest’ becomes ‘sorrow’s invasion borne / in a tomb of silence’, or the reminiscing about ‘my soon-to-be-ex’ in ‘Dessert’ that wraps up with ‘You did the main course. / Here’s dessert, baby.’
In the next section, The road, the strongest poems continue to be those which McGlinchey anchors in the interpersonal. So a poem like ‘On not flicking my tea towel at his departing behind’ that begins by lamenting, ‘It’s indiscernible really, / the transition between controllable child / and charming, deviant adolescent’, concludes instead with the decision to ‘cherish war-free youth, / forgive impatient hunger, / grab the tender moments.’ The Lucky Star of Hidden Things is about memories and the passage of time, and McGlinchey recognises that one inevitable consequence of the latter is that our relationships with people evolve or threaten to end, which leads to this plea in ‘Quest for another hour’:
the fracturing world, that somehow, by a state of grace, remains sufficiently intact to spare us one more hour, or day, or week.
The collection’s final section, Leaning into your world, is also its most thematically focused and therefore consistently enjoyable, as it advances through the various stages of a developing relationship. It opens with the sly injunction of ‘Do not lie to a lover’, ‘but on the other hand, / do not always / tell him the whole truth’, then segues into the insistence that ‘you know / we’re better than this – so // hold on’ (‘On hold’). Yet there is less certainty to this claim than might be expected, since the next poem ‘Interruption’ self-consciously references the ironic ending of Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love’, though McGlinchey’s choice to cite only ‘what will survive’ suggests more of an interest in genuine exploration than scepticism.
Ultimately, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things comes across as a loving tribute to all that McGlinchey has gained and lost in the process of treading the paths of the global nomad. Her evocative language creates worlds for her poems to inhabit, but it is those poems specifically about human relationships that are likely to prove most welcoming to readers. In tracing the various strands of her lived experiences and their impact, McGlinchey demonstrates the truth of her collection’s Carl Sagan epigraph, ‘We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.’ Nonetheless, one also senses a particularly contemporary sensibility when she declares in ‘Totems’, ‘I have no ogham / to stroke my way back to tribal roots’, suggesting instead that ‘My totems are a laptop open to skype’, ‘Facebook updates’, ‘your wrist, within reach’. It is a reminder that in the midst of our individual trajectories, sometimes we still need to pause and reflect, take the time to ‘think I will / say yes’ to someone else.