Tara Bergin, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet Press, £9.99).
It’s been four years since Tara Bergin’s debut collection This is Yarrow hit shelves and deservedly snagged both the 2014 Seamus Heaney Award and 2014 Shine/Strong Poetry Award. In this brief absence, Bergin has not merely been looking out of her office window for inspiration; she has in fact been researching The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx and the eponymic woman’s life and untimely death with help of funding from the Arts Council Ireland.
The story of Eleanor Marx was one I was sadly unfamiliar with until I came across this collection, but it does highlight one of the ways poetry can function as even more than just poetry; it’s an educational tool that inspires and translates important history into relevant and modern pieces of literary art, a feat I feel Bergin has achieved with this collection.
In Bergin’s second poem ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’, the reader becomes privy to a stripped down history of Marx’s suicide in the style of Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, which Marx herself was the first to translate into English;
She orders chloroform, with just some traces
Of prussic acid-blue- a beautiful imitation
She says it’s for the dog but she is the dog
Throughout this collection there are poems tethering the work to its namesake, even if the reader is aware of them or not. When I reached the end, acknowledging some of them for their blatancy (such as ‘Dying’ (40) and ‘Karl Marx’s Daughters Play on the Oujia Board’ (76)) and just enjoying other while being ignorant of the references, Bergin makes sure that the reader realises the references with a handy notes section serving as an epilogue. One such poem is ‘The Stenographer’ which utilises actual excerpts from the court case in the trial of Madame Bovary:
It exists only in cut-outs and commentaries […]
We see her downfall in the forest […]
She dies in all the glamour of her youth […]
I am passing over nothing.’
I was impressed with this on first reading anyway; the visual effect of the ellipses in square brackets was a pleasant sight and also hinted that this was a cut-up poem that held more than meets the eye. Despite all of this however, it truly is a lovely little poem, and very much in tune with the themes of tragic women interwoven with nature throughout.
What is also clever about The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is how these aforementioned references to flowers in multiple poems, such as the mint and laburnum in ‘Strange Courtship’, all eventually culminate in one big overlaying reference back to Eleanor Marx. In ‘Oh My Little Eleanor…’ found on the closing pages of the collection, the speaker directly talks to Eleanor and pulls on every flower referenced in the collection, making it seem that each flower was merely an addition to her bouquet:
Your favourite flower is all flowers
And your favourite colour is white
But oh my little Eva
Your favourite flower is orchid
And your favourite colour is night-
The language of flowers blossomed in England in the Victorian period when Marx was alive. A quick google will tell you the meanings of the flowers Bergin mentions, and in the case of this poem especially it’s fascinating to see the depth of work behind the text. White flowers are commonly associated with purity and innocence, while black flowers connote death and the afterlife. Orchids on their own also represent fertility, virility and sexuality, so an orchid in Eva’s favourite colour could be said to represent the potential reason behind Eleanor’s death.
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx also has poems rooted specifically in the modern day such as ‘The Hairdresser’ and ‘The Hospital Porter’, but even the lack of reference to Marx herself can’t keep the tragedy out of their stories. This link really does keep the pace up of the collection and I happily read through it in its entirety first time around.
Bergin’s collection to me is a true success of both poetry and biography. Each word in the poem has an underlying meaning that adds up to a truly atmospheric second collection I’m happy to recommend (I’ve bought this collection and leant it out to two people since reading it myself in fact). While I’d never had the honest pleasure of reading about Eleanor Marx before now, I can say that she is a person truly worthy of having an entire collection based on.