Gill McEvoy’s pamphlet The First Telling is a journey through the terror and shock of rape which leads to a rediscovery of strength and of hope. These poems outline the stages of recovery and chart the narrator’s multi-layered emotional development throughout.
Primarily, the first three poems are concerned with the narrator’s misplaced guilt and shame, whilst the next three examine her attempted coping mechanisms and their side effects. The inadequacy of all these well-intentioned but ultimately self-abusive therapies and strategies is exposed and examined. From the outset, the following six poems, delve further into subconscious and metaphorical expressions of the experience. The final poems develop a critique of the level of compassion and empathy the narrator experiences, both self-reflexively and from others.
In “The Second Telling” introduces the second half of the exploration of recovery, beginning with a gradual recognition of kindness and beauty. The narrator’s dreams reflect her memories of her traumatic experiences, relived in present tense, interweaving subsequent predatory and metaphysical mood poems in a form of self-exploration, which also use colour later to symbolize emotional growth. Consider when she imagines herself “covering the walls in black … with a dagger of red” with all that is implicit in those colours and that imagery.
The First Telling deals courageously with the taboos of today’s western society, and also offers hope and motivation by way of constructive strategies to help cope and deal with trauma. In particular, the breaking point, at which the narrator saw clarity and purity in the dark is expressed fluently in “A rook”. It is perhaps worth studying that poem in some detail as “A rook” both pivots and pins the collection. It reads as follows:
taps on my window, early.
I fed it cheese, and bread.
Its eyes are kind.
The poem hints at a welcomed escape from daily life, and there is great beauty in the affection that is describes the human and the bird. This simple layout and narrative creates a sense of clarity and peace. An innocent tone is created partly by the seeming naivety of the onomatopoeia, whilst the simple foods and minimalistic setting contribute to the narrator’s tranquillity and her appreciation of the “simple things in life”. Since the narrator reciprocates the bird’s expression of care, the sense of calm extends to the reader. The poem’s diction is tonally very soft, cut through by that tapped communication. Rhythmically, the verse is at a slow and restful pace, with that non-verbal interjection breaking apart the poem’s narrative, perhaps hinting at the conflict of choices and ambivalent mind-set. The haiku-like airiness of this short, three sentence poem (and indeed McEvoy’s Oriental influences are strong), is interrupted only by those bird noises, while the page’s whites pace allows for an open interpretation, albeit one with a hopeful conclusion. The rook is so often a dark harbinger, and yet this short poem turns its intervention into something far more optimistic. Viewed in the context of the terrible experiences detailed in the collection, this is surely telling and significant.
In addition to the caring aspects, the naming of the time of the experience as “early”, suggests that the bird is perhaps an expected and regular visitor; these lines give just a snapshot of an ongoing relationship between the human and the corvid. Although there are indeed examples of such ongoing interactions (Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds being perhaps the most notable), there has been a long tradition of distrust between that species and ourselves. So often a black-feathered bird brings doom in a painting or in a book. Hughes’ Crow perhaps says it all. McEvoy’s “A rook” subverts that entirely.
Arguably this poem’s challenge is not so much to offer a re-branding of the rook, but it offers us a chance to redefine ourselves in relation to the world, and is that not the central truth of this beautiful collection?