Ghost of the Fisher Cat
Page Count: 78
Publication Date: Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Cover Artwork: Altered photograph, design and typesetting by Michael Ray, based on a mural which has been attributed to Némo
About this Book
In this, her second collection, Afric McGlinchey dives into a ‘river of familiars’, inspired by the Parisian urban myth of a black cat and its apothecary owner. Borders between the fantastical and the real blur as characters and relationships are evoked in lyrics that veer from natural to political to perceptual disturbances, from the ghostly to the hallucinatory. Some characters are frozen in inaction, while others overcome seemingly impossible odds. Across a time-space continuum, what unifies the collection is the power of the imagination and will to transcend our circumstances, to answer the mysterious imperatives of the heart.
‘You’ll want to eat her words like figs.’ Susan Millar du Mars (Skylight 47)
‘An acute and affecting music.’ Paul Perry
‘There is a sensuous physicality...deeply intimate associations are produced in small details.’ Lonesome Reader (blog)
‘McGlinchey’s strength lies in her ability to record the noisome flux of the world.’ Dave Lordan (Southword)
‘An exciting poet with the true nature of a nomad.’ Emmanuel Sigauke (Munyori Literary Journal)
‘Afric McGlinchey’s poems....work a plethora of intriguing images into beguiling narratives and have something of John Ashbery about them.’ Ryan Rushton (The Skinny Mag)
‘Her gift is in capturing a poise between the light and the dark, the broad and the localized...an exciting poet with innovative structures and narratives.’ Leanne O’Sullivan
‘Afric McGlinchey belongs to an endangered species: she sees the world through the eyes of her soul.’ Paul Durcan
'...moves really beautifully between strangeness and familiarity. What's also particularly striking is the tone and register of the language and how the flow carries you along with it.' Vona Groarke (on The Poetry Programme, episode Ireland's Rising Generation of Poets)
Afric McGlinchey’s début collection, The lucky star of hidden things, was published by Salmon Poetry, and features a number of poems set in Zimbabwe, where she was raised. The collection was translated into Italian and work has also been translated into Spanish, Irish, and Polish. Her awards include a Hennessy Emerging Poetry Award, the Northern Liberties Poetry Prize (USA), Poets meet Politics Prize and a Faber Academy fellowship. She has read at international festivals including the Poetry Africa Festival, the Harare International Festival of the Arts, Troubadour London, the Benedict Kiely Festival in Northern Ireland and Paris Live, as well as throughout Ireland. She was one of the writers selected for the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in 2014, with readings in Rome, Bologna, Lugo and St Agata. Afric was Poet in Residence at the Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre for four months and was awarded a Cork County Council arts bursary in 2015. Afric has been selected as one of Ireland’s Rising poets by Poetry Ireland Review. She lives in West Cork. www.africmcglinchey.com
Excerpt of review by Noel Williams for Orbis:
‘I like the way she can swing from realism to surrealism to pure fantasy, leaping from the literal to the allusive, from the mildly humorous to the deadly serious. It creates surprises in the individual poems as well as the collection as a whole, which takes real skill to get it right. She’s taking risks, and passing through worlds, bringing them together very effectively in a single volume. The work is also rich in cosmopolitan knowledge, which mostly adds a further dimension. The variety yet connectivity here, and the surprises which lie in wait for the alert reader, make this an unusual and successful collection.’
Review: Ghost of the Fisher Cat reviewed for Southword (Issue 29) by Roisin Kelly
Ghost of the Fisher Cat by Afric McGlinchey, follows The Lucky Star of Hidden Things. McGlinchey’s titles instantly catch the eye as well as hook the corner of the mind that wants to know more about the fisher cat or a star that signals the coming of an African spring with its appearance in the night sky. McGlinchey’s first collection took much of its inspiration from the poet’s upbringing in Africa, while Ghost of the Fisher Cat is, its blurb states, interested in exploring the tenuous boundary “between the fantastical and the real”.
‘Cat Music’ is a startling, effective poem to open with. It consists of two-line stanzas, but the entire poem is composed of one run-on sentence that describes how a drowned cat is deftly skinned and crafted into strings for an instrument. From the very first stanza, McGlinchey’s confidence with language and line breaks is acutely displayed:
Despite the somewhat gruesome scene being described, the vowel sounds are delicious. This handling of language that turns something brutal into something beautiful is crystallised in the poem’s last lines, where the catgut instrument makes music that is “so intricate / and astonishing, / you would think / the animal had arisen”.
For someone (me) who would love to write a Paris poem (to write one well, that is), ‘Souvenir’ is a joy. Here is a city where one can “let fingers trail” along railings hung with love-padlocks on the Pont des Artes; here is the delicate “crêpe de sucre de citron”. This simple sequence of French words to describe what is basically a pancake suddenly seems as delicious as the thing itself. Likewise, the sound of what is probably an ordinary street, the “Rue de Chat qui Pêche”, is somehow mysterious and wonderful in this poet’s hands.
A little internet research reveals that this street is the scene of the myth from which Ghost of the Fisher Cat derives its title. The Rue de Chat qui Pêche is the narrowest street in Paris (maybe so not so ordinary, then) that leads down to the Seine. In the fifteenth century, some students were convinced that the apothecary’s enormous cat that fished expertly with one paw was the devil, and killed it—but the cat’s ghost returned to continue fishing from the riverbank.
In ‘Familiar’, a poem that expands further on the myth of the fisher cat, the speaker expresses fear and disgust towards Dom Perlet, the apothecary, and the cat that follows him like a familiar. The voice could be from any era in human history: it’s of one who fears the unknown, who would rather burn something strange than try to understand it. But McGlinchey can’t resist slipping some gorgeous language into the narrator’s description of the cat:
One of the things I enjoy most in poetry is when myths or stories are used as the writer’s starting point and then, through language and craft, become something unique that is entirely the poet’s own. McGlinchey performs this task with understated skill. Many poets have described many places, but it’s not often that on reading them I feel such a desire to visit these locations. Now I long to go to the Rue de Chat qui Pêche and see for myself its mural of a man and his black cat, which also provides the background for the book’s cover. (Sadly, a paragraph at the back of the book explains that the mural no longer exists.)
McGlinchey knows how to present images as a gift to the reader. Cats “compose the dark”; her lover “becomes a lion under the glassy moon”. ‘Confluence’ describes the nature of a distant relationship between two people in stark but beautiful images, recalling the works of Hammershøi. We can almost see the man against “the window’s blazing snap of light”, or the delicate hollow of the woman’s clavicle, like a wishbone, that “gives luck / only when broken”.
‘On Receiving a Letter from a Soldier after his Death’ convinced me that McGlinchey is as much a painter as a poet—it just so happens that her medium is words. There’s more than a hint of Vermeer in these lines: “Every window shows a body / moving. A man pours from a jug”. In this particular painting-poem, the colour of leaves on the street’s trees are the ‘milk-green’ of a corpse. The domesticity of “milk-green” recalls the “butter-yellow” of Eavan Boland’s kitchen window lighting up a suburban dusk in ‘This Moment’. Boland’s child running to its mother arms is also recalled in McGlinchey’s woman “[hastening] in the half-light / to a capsized child / beneath a swing”. And, like Boland, McGlinchey reveals to us these bittersweet currents that run like a river “rushing into trees” below every step we take in this world of dead soldiers and dead plants on a city balcony.
Any poem that takes its starting point from a quote of Homer Simpson’s is okay by me. “Young lady, in this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!” he shouts at Lisa when she invents a perpetual motion machine. That line will never fail to make me laugh. But then it’s a pleasure to read on to the love poem that the quote inspired—an outcome that that particular Simpsons episode’s writer surely never envisaged. As the narrator goes forward “into the big bang / of first love”, she finds that love is like landing “soft as a cat, / on a red-brick ledge, / among African violets”. The narrator’s breasts, in the hands of her lover, are “newly-found / planets”; the touch of him is enough to ensure that she burns “for decades”. What a simple, astonishing little piece.
McGlinchey knows both how to open a poem with lines that make you thirsty for more (“If I follow footprints to a future memory, / I find you”) as well as how to create a last verse that demands several re-readings, existing as it does both as an end to a poem and in its own luminous bubble. This is evident in the closing stanza of ‘Fin de Siecle’:
If I don’t quite know what these lines mean, their perfection is unimpeded. The imagery is surreal, the rhythm confidently measured; and the fact that these lines are used to end a poem that is called ‘Fin de Siecle' (End of the Century), hints at some significance beyond themselves—and what’s more, persuades the reader of the existence of that deeper meaning.
Towards the end of the collection, the titular poem provides something of an explanation of why McGlinchey writes, as well as how. A silver fish in the gutter may or may not be proof of the existence of the ghost of the fisher cat, but what matters is the way in which you decide to perceive it.
The narrator urges the reader to “observe / for yourself” the proof, the dead fish—and there! The cat itself is disappearing swiftly into the shadows. If we didn’t see it, that’s because “[it] requires a certain leap of your own / to jump out of one world / and into another”. In other words, for those who turned around too late to see the elusive fisher cat, a writer like McGlinchey is there to describe such a thing on our behalf, and to offer us a glimpse into the strange, wonderful world she inhabits.
© 2016 Róisín Kelly
Review: Ghost of the Fisher Cat reviewed for Sabotage Reviews by Grant Tabard
Galway-born Afric McGlinchey has been far and wide and I can smell the adventure in Ghost of the Fisher Cat. She grew up in Zambia, Limerick, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and lived briefly in London, Paris and Spain before returning to Ireland in 1999. Paris is very much the focus of this book: McGlinchey uses her own memories and expertly stitches them into the Parisian urban myth of The Street of the Fishing Cat.
La Rue du Chat qui Pêche is still the narrowest street in Paris. More than an oddly-named street, it is also the scene of a grim, centuries-old legend. The story goes that in the 15th century a certain Dom Perlet, a canon engaged in alchemy, lived on this very street, accompanied by his smart hyacinth black cat. A particularly gifted fisher, catching fish with one swipe of its mighty paw, the cat went prowling by the river quite often by itself. Convinced that both the alchemist and the black cat were the impersonation of the Devil, three local students agreed to kill the unfortunate mouser and throw it into the Seine. Curiously, once the cat died, the alchemist disappeared… only to reappear again a bit later, like a traveller coming back from a lengthy trip. As for the cat, it continued fishing peacefully by the banks of the river …
A fantastic story, I can see why the poet gravitated towards this grim tale. But McGlinchey doesn’t dwell in the sunken pit, she integrates light with the dark seamlessly. It’s all in the same universe of flooding starlight. Loss is bound up with love, and wonder entwined with tragedy. Her poems are beautiful to the core, almost otherworldly, hitting right in the solar plexus.
The collection is split into five distinct parts; Familiar, Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, Leavings, Cold Air Awakening and Particle of Light Through a Raindrop. ‘Cat Music’ is like a concerto for violin:
I can hear the gulp of water from the rain barrel, feel the slopping fur dripping on the paving stones. Other more veiled poems waft soft dark lines, such as in ‘Night’s Three Faces’:
Like Prufrock, it’s a strange love song, this time between the ghosts of those fated lovers, Abelard and Héloīse, skimming across Parisian lovers’ bridges. That’s followed by ‘A River of Familiars’, which wouldn’t look out of place in a George Szirtes collection. The poem is formed of fourteen couplets:
McGlinchey’s stanza breaks are delicate but deliberate; her line endings too.
Throughout the collection, her voice is vibrant, conjuring an uncanny revenant. This is a lively yet introspective, supernatural collection. There is also a transcendental presence in her work – is she a visionary like Blake?
Ghost of the Fisher Cat is Afric McGlinchey’s second collection published by Salmon Press. It follows her much-acclaimed debut collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, published in 2012, where we were treated there to a feast of the senses, but invited also into a vulnerable personal world of loss and upheaval and compassion. Like all good books in any genre, the strongest impression one was left with was the distinctiveness of the language, served in this case, by lightning quickness of thought and a canny hand in crafting dramatic and unlikely associations.
In her second collection, the poet goes even deeper. The dominant setting has moved from that of southern Africa to Paris and away also from the poet’s direct lived experience into the realms of the imagined. The Paris we move through is a historical and geographical hybrid.
A feature of her style is the enviable first line: “I have a cat that sharpens her scent on men…”, Even in cities,/there are places to be alone,/with drizzle and roses…”: “Near the estuary, silt xylophones/over shale and pebble…”; “Cats compose the dark…”, and “…imaginary balconies seek fifty poplars…”
A facet of Afric’s hand is the way she can achieve enigma through the use of crystal clear imagery; a kind of surreal imagism where the interplay of image and association confounds easy ascription. These works are deliberately puzzling iconostases to a guarded reality well worth the divining.
–John Fitzgerald (Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh award)
It’s a heck of a book…I kept thinking of Les Murray…There was an overall feeling of stepping into a physically alive bazaar – the exotic richness and sophistication but always something humane...many standout poems of such substance and ambition – and sheer accomplishment.
– Jim Maguire (Author of The Music Field)
Afric McGlinchey's new collections of poems, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, is an absolute cracker. The poems, from start to finish, answer for all (and then some) of the intrigue in the title and beautiful cover. The poem, 'A River of Familiars', is one I particularly enjoyed. If you're wondering what book of poems to read next, I would recommend you pick up this one.
Edward O’Dwyer (author of The Rain on Cruise’s Street)
Review: Ghost of the Fisher Cat reviewed by Maria Rouphail for Pedestal
What do violin strings, the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and poisoned quinces have in common? They are conceits in Irish poet, Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat. Prompted by a Parisian legend of a ghost cat and its sinister human companion, McGlinchey riffs on luck, doom, and the uncanny, “familiars” which people the world over have perennially foisted onto felis domesticus, especially if its coat is black.
After all, black cats are preternatural, magical beings. McGlinchey’s chat noir, a shapeshifter par excellence, is no exception. His legendary prowess at capturing fish from the Seine engenders suspicion in a neighborhood gang that both cat and master, the alchemist Dom Perlet, are one and the same Devil incarnate. The boys drown the cat, and Dom Perlet disappears. To everyone’s horror, cat and master later return, albeit in different form.
For McGlinchey the fisher cat serves as a complex signifier, a projection of the many states of human desire in all their manifest ambiguities. Of course, the reader intuits this connection immediately. But McGlinchey gives outright expression to the motif in the eponymous poem, “Ghost of the Fisher Cat” (and here the cat, like the poet, is female):
Obeying a law of its nature, the cat hunts to live. So, too, the “sinuous,” cat-like artist who “fishes” in the murky waters of the unconscious for the “fauna” of creative sustenance, and this
“Cat Music,” another strong poem, describes converting animal intestines into catgut for stringed musical instruments. Production commences with “A drownling…lifted from a rain barrel.” That fact, and the poem’s title echo the urban myth of the fisher cat maliciously killed in water.
“Cat Music” establishes the inexorable work of the abattoir in the first six of ten deftly enjambed couplets, with the final step of catgut-making looped into the seventh. There is stripping, cutting, scraping. Mesenteric fat and filth washed away, the intestine is treated
When played with a bow, the transformed material produces “music so intricate / and astonishing” as to bring the cat back in new form. Music is now a sublimation of the (cat) body.
Despite the factual inaccuracy—catgut originates mostly from sheep or goat intestines—“Cat Music” establishes the paradox of life and death as a form of repurposing leading to transcendence. It is also an ars poetica, much like “Ghost of the Fisher Cat.”
The 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 without corpse or cause goes to what is most terrifying: the possibility of our exiting the world without a trace. In “Flight MH370,” McGlinchey’s “you-are-there” approach puts the reader into an omniscient position as the plane “hastens / into radar silence.” We move among the passengers who contend with “exploding” thoughts. One man “takes the hand of a stranger.” He does so to “keep him feeling / alive, until the last moment.”
A problem exists with this logic, however. No one can say for sure what happened on that fated flight. But “hasten[ing] into radar silence” is not something the passengers could have known about, much less felt. There is no reason to assume that as the plane began to veer fatally off course—especially in the dead of night over the dark sea—anyone would have been aware of the danger. McGlinchey relies on our knowing the outcome, an assumption that undercuts the poem. More melodrama than compelling mystery, the poem misses an opportunity to get at the existential heart of the event.
One noteworthy poem is “The Glass Delusion.” Its allusion to a work by Cervantes—assuming it is deliberate—is conceptually clever. Among the Spanish writer’s dozen or so short novelas ejemplares (1613), “The Glass Graduate” (“El Licenciado Vidriera”) stands out as particularly enigmatic.
Cervantes’s story centers on young Tomás Rodaja, who climbs from impoverished obscurity to nearly the pinnacle of academic fame. His ambition is thwarted when he unknowingly eats a poisoned quince offered as an aphrodisiac by a woman seeking to seduce him. Tomás’s mind immediately descends into raving lunacy. First, he believes himself to be made entirely of glass. To avoid breaking, he effectively removes himself from community. As well, the prudential scholar has disappeared, and is replaced by a malcontent who dispenses caustic admonitions to all comers. What the glass man utters is frequently wrong and outrageous. He is flat out crazy and must be stopped. An “alchemist” monk restores Tomás to his former lucidity, at which point the young man can no longer access the “glass” alter ego engendered by the poisoned quince.
McGlinchey’s self-absorbed “glass man” revises this character and his predicament. The poem begins with personal history:
When his mother responds that her son is therefore an artist, a great “fire bellow[s]” into him. He then begins to see even stranger things:
A chance encounter with a woman who feeds him a doctored quince initiates him sexually, and it goes badly. From then on, the artist is “locked” in a mirror, his heart a “bird of glass / thud[ding] its frantic wings against [his] chest.” He fears “breaking into smithereens,” and he must paint with his body “encased in iron ribs, for protection.” His self-consciousness is unbearable as “eyes…gaze / so freely at my every wheeling thought.” And worse, he fears to have become, like a clear glass pane, invisible.
What to make of the plight of McGlinchey’s speaker? Returning to Cervantes, two points should be made. First, the “glass man” was a noted psychiatric phenomenon in the early modern period, as McGlinchey indicates. Second, Tomás’s debilitation occurs through extreme self-absorption—a significant moral failing in the Spanish Baroque, which presumed a reciprocity between the private self and the community. They must harmonize for the well-being of both.
In “The Glass Delusion,” no corrective reciprocity occurs, no transformation, or “leap…out of one world and into another.” There is only an intensification of an original malady in the artist’s collapsed inner world. Without the resources of community and shared myth, the speaker falls into deeper existential isolation. Can McGlinchey be describing a contemporary predicament? Perhaps she is.
Review: Ghost of the Fisher Cat reviewed by Clíona Ní Ríordáin for Dublin Review of Books, 1/10/2016
Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, is firmly rooted in French terrain. The book is articulated around a central conceit – the eponymous fisher cat [le chat qui pêche], familiar of the fifteenth century alchemist Dom Perlet. The book’s cover reproduces an image of the black cat (credited to the graffiti artist Némo) and a note on page 76 informs the reader of the cat’s fate. Drowned by “vigilantes” in the Seine, the animal disappeared, as did his master, only for both to reappear some time later and return to their previous pursuits.
Conjuring up the ghost of the fisher cat enables McGlinchey to pursue various cat-like poses and postures. The five sections of her collection each contain cat poems, like “Cat Music”, the first poem of the collection. This elongated series of unrhymed couplets traces the transformation of a “drownling” into catgut; the poem’s form mimics the process, concluding neatly with the ghost of the cat seeming to issue from a tuned instrument.
The stray cat continues to prowl throughout the pages of the book. Sauntering through “Souvenir”, leading the poet to unexpected territory in “Leap”, recently spayed in “Tea with Tiresias”. “Le chat qui pêche” reappears both as a locale in “La Rue du Chat qui Pêche” and as a cat in the eponymous “Ghost of the Fisher Cat”, or in “Familiar”, voiced for the vigilantes, with the demise of the cat described in gruesome detail. The cat poems are frequently shaped by the movement of the cat itself; the poem “Hunters” wanders from one run-on line to the next, tracking the motion of the yelping cats’ mating game. Elsewhere, the crazy city cat of “A River of Familiars” pushes the couplets out of kilter. This poem, with its taxonomy of cats, comes closest to the playful spirit of TS Eliot’s celebrated Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but McGlinchey’s cats are more whimsical and surrealistic, branding the poet narrator in “Scratch”, leaping with an energy that is inspired by Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital, the “vital impulse” in a poem that mirrors the suggestive Matthew Hollis epigraph “I have a cat now. It comes in, it goes out.”
The polished formal mastery of the cat poems summons up another French ghost for this reader, the shade of the poet Yves Bonnefoy, who died on July 1st, 2016. Bonnefoy, in a two-part interview with Michael O’Loughlin, published in the review Graph (4, 5, Spring and Autumn 1988), evokes what he calls the “lure of forms”, arguing in favour of what he calls “écriture”, to which he attributes “a new meaning in the concept of writing”, where the writer enters the flux of language. McGlinchey seems to immerse herself fully in the possibility of language in the poems that are not inspired by her colony of cats, but in poems like “In Sunlight” or “Whoosh”, where the power of words is deployed without the need to pursue an elusive cat. The most convincing poem of the collection, “I Is Not Always Me”, carries an epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud (Je est un autre) where McGlinchey via her Other, her migrant double, muses on how a foreign language percolates:
Perhaps, therefore, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that the book contains two collections – Afric’s Book of Impractical Cats and Aifric’s Slow River of Language. In the latter, echoing Bonnefoy, her work is characterised by “this I who decides to be” and she follows the flow of language itself.
Clíona Ní Ríordáin is professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches translation studies and literature. Her most recent book is Jeune Poésie d’Irlande: les poètes du Munster 1960-2015, (Éditions Illador, 2015) co-edited and co-translated with Paul Bensimon.