This is Tara Bergin’s second poetry collection; her first, published in 2013, This is Yarrow, won the Seamus Heaney Prize and the Shine/Strong Award so it comes as no surprise that The Tragic Death of Eleonore Marx should excite much interest. Deservedly so, this is a collection from a unique poetic voice. Playful, dreamlike, with dark fairytale qualities, most of the poems in the collection narrate or remark on the life and death of Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, who was a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation and who translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, before taking her own life in the same way as Emma Bovary.
The book’s cover is very much in keeping with its occult atmosphere. Red lettering marks out the title and the ‘O’ in ‘Of’ is a heart-shaped Ouija board pointer, relating to one of the collection’s key poems, “Karl Marx’s Daughters Play on the Ouija Board”, where Eleanor discovers that her lover of many years, Edward Aveling, has betrayed her and married his other mistress. This is the discovery that will lead to her suicide.
LAURA Here take this pencil. and poke it through the heart; that’s right, through the little hole in the centre, yes, and place your hands on the little heart, and now let it move your hands around, you must let it move your hands around, don’t try to control it, or it won’t work. Don’t try to make it up; Let the heart spell out the answer. Ask it something, Eleanor.
Even the title of this collection is undercut with a questioning words, their meaning and interpretation. Why “tragic”? Its very use in the title may be problematic because we tend to think of the word ‘tragic’ as a hackneyed response to any death, yet these poems invoke the sense of Eleanor’s death as an absolute tragedy.
It is unusual to have a central theme running through a poetry collection (and even more unusual to provide helpful, explanatory notes at the back of the volume). Yet Bergin approaches her subject from varied angles that provide greater insights into Marx’s suicide than one poem alone could give. In “The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts”, the poet provides a numbered account of the event as it happened chronologically. The ‘turn’ comes in the final part:
10. Nearly all of this is true.
How is the reader to interpret the nine ‘facts’ presented earlier in the poem? Which bits are true? Which untrue?
However, Marx is not the only focus in this collection; “Appointment with Jane Austen” is set in a pub which sits opposite Austen’s final home at Chawton, Hampshire. The poet visits the pub in the hope of capturing something of the Austen spirit, but finds Jane curiously absent from the scene (as I did when visiting the Austen house museum two weeks ago!).
I looked out at the wet; I looked out at the southwest rain, And the redbrick houses. I watched the famous silhouette Gently swinging back and forth above the gate. I raised my glass to her impassive, sideways face. Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.
A cultural movement that is gaining momentum where the lives of women who were married or related to famous men are being excavated, re-examined and given due attention. To say that women who ought to excite the interest of society have often been written out of history is a truism. This upsurge of interest, led by the new generation of writers, comes as a vindication of the significance of such women in history. The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx adds significantly to this cannon and places Tara Bergin as an emerging and important poet in the English Language.