Tied to the wind - a review
Tied to the Wind, by Afric McGlinchey, Broken Sleep Books, 328 pp, €17.99, ISBN: 978-1913642907
Migration, trauma, and shifting identities across borders feature in the questions I circle in my head as I read Tied to the Wind. And there is much here to add to that mix. I also note the space between the protagonist, Itosha, and Afric McGlinchey, the author. Perhaps this distancing allows McGlinchey to write about her childhood self more easily. She mentions in her blog the challenge of writing a memoir, and chooses to define the book as auto-fiction, because memory is too tenuous and fragile to pin down as fact.
As Oliver Sacks wrote: “Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” With this, I qualify my own creative reading of Tied to the Wind.
This is Afric McGlinchey’s third book. Two poetry collections, The Ghost of the Fisher Cat and The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, and a chapbook, Invisible Insane, were previously published to much critical acclaim, and her collections have both been translated into Italian.
Tied to the Wind is poetic in intent and portrays “a young girl’s attempts to tether herself to a life that keeps coming unfixed, every time her family moves from Ireland to Southern Africa. Interwoven into the narrative are the puzzle pieces of a fateful decision to undertake a skydive, despite her fear of heights.” There is a family at the centre of these stories. A mother, a father, a brother, a sister. The interjections, set apart at the foot of some pages, by both Molly and Ivor (Itosha’s younger siblings) lend the text the air of something which has been, if not agreed upon, at least discussed with the surviving family members.
The book is formed of a collection of fragments, each page containing a short flash piece, or prose poem (depending on your inclination to categorise) or a right-aligned lyric. These short texts are like a series of interconnecting beads which the reader has to string together to follow the journey for herself. And yes, you must string, your hands, your body becoming implicated in this visceral experience.
“Tied to the Wind doesn’t pretend to present a cohesive picture of a life,” McGlinchey warns us. I would suggest that Tied to the Wind doesn’t tolerate pretence of any type; as readers, we find ourselves drawn in but not allowed to suspend our faculties. These flash pieces light up aspects of our own lives, of ourselves, and as such we are implicated in the making of the story in a way a solid narrative novel could never achieve.
On receiving a copy, I was struck by its weight, size and texture. It is similar to an old-style school textbook in its size and holding it is a comforting sensation. The feather illustration on the cover is so realistic you almost feel like blowing it away. And the cover fixes some of the motifs we will find in the text – the colour of a clear sky, the element of air, the windblown feather of a bird.
Other key elements:
The sky: Irish, Southern African, clear or cloudy, rippling with heat, or clouds “eating up the sun”; day: “Time passes more slowly in a field when you are lying in it. Watch the silvery sun being pulled to the horizon as though there was a secret magnet.” night: “He takes my hand. Not a word about the incident, just points out all the stars streaming a sash of liquid silver across the sky.”
The sky is a recurring character. Itosha’s relationship to it deepens through her parachute jump, which is a presence throughout the text. The on-the-brink almost breathless skydiving poems appear at intense moments in the otherwise prose narrative. Air, in its wind form, pushes the words of the skydiving interludes to the very right edges, as if the words are almost being blown off the page.
You’re here, a comet on the rim of the sky, as the earth spins and hurtles. You look up for proof that your parachute is still open, the wind shouting inside it. Before and after have been sheared away. There is only this.
There are feathers to be found falling through the text: “The first migration …”, where the birds are air-surfing above the children, the seagull, “Skimming down across the sea … lonely bird, just like me, to Itosha’s mother “folding her cleverness away under bright-coloured wings”, her father’s piano hands “flying like birds”, her mother as a carrier pigeon and she herself “feeling an uprush of birds in my chest”, or a swift, the bird tied to the Ireland/Southern Africa migration route, to name but a few.
With Itosha, we swallow-dive, “leaping into the air, feeling its rush flow over your body, flipping, then plunging into the pool. Everything is different under water, that denser element.” For someone whose greatest achievement is the reddening of a belly flop, I am in that body leaping, flowing, feeling the dive. For the child Itosha, experiences are intense and embodied and the writing captures this in concentrated form. We are given visceral detail and drawn into the body of the text again and again.
Itosha recounts her many guilty secrets, from the snake killed because she disturbed it, to self-blame after shouting to her brother for help, an act that triggers a family schism. As the Rhodesia she has been living in becomes increasingly militarised, she is surrounded by soldiers on R & R from the war and exposed to the physical and psychological consequences of this. Her detailed snapshots of characters such as Jack before and after service and the impact of their PTSD on those around them are powerful testimony to the damage inflicted by war and conflict.
Jack, when he and Itosha first meet, is not what she expects. “He reaches to rescue a dragonfly fizzing dustily on the surface, wades to the edge, lays it on the concrete and watches until it shakes its wings and totters off.” But later, after he’s been to war, where “He didn’t die, though all the rest of his stick did”, she is horrified by his behaviour. “Now he’s driving the car directly at a mother balancing a basket of avocados on her head, baby swaddled behind her in an orange kikoi. She topples into the ditch, becoming a parcel of soaked orange cloth.”
And the avocados become code perhaps for grenades and violence, reappearing later in the garden of her house, now full of soldiers.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — … The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind
Emily Dickinson 1263
McGlinchey tells the truth, but from the angle of a skydiver, and we are drawn into this world of spinning experience. Along with Itosha, we are trying to make sense of it all. “Black, why are you called Black? He laughs softly. I can ask the same thing. Why are you called Itosha? Maybe because you are an African girl? I giggle.”
We never find out either of the whys, but the questions resonate in our heads as we read on. “Back in my room, I lean on the sill. Maybe my name is a sign. Maybe I am meant to be an African girl.” And years later, she thinks: “What a name. Who gave it to him? Why didn’t we ask if he had another name, a birth name?”
McGlinchey resists the ever-present temptation to editorialise. Itosha experiences the world in the present moment and we are invited to share her perception. She grows in understanding as she ages but no overarching world view is presented. We are invited to look here, and here, and here, and make of it what we will, just as a child must do.
His shadow looming on the wall, whistle of the thin, flexible riding crop. Ivor makes not a sound. So I hold it in too, but grasp with each successive whip-whip-whip, squeezing Ivor’s hand tight. One, two, three, four, five six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve … That’s enough Seán. Mum’s grey voice in the doorway. After Dad follows her out of the room, we stay knelt over the bed as we catch our breath and check out the welts on our bums. They begin to trickle red. Ivor turns to me. We won, he says. How do you mean? I ask him. Because, we didn’t cry.
Later in the book, as her parents discuss moving country, Itosha describes their conversation: “Their voices leave spaces, like a threadless hem with a line of small holes.” And again, we are pulled into this family dynamic, not just as observers, but in a more visceral way.
When Dad returns from the hospital, words are coming from his mouth but they take a while to reach me. Intensive, he repeats. Care. We must take care of her. She almost died, as he looks at me. Do you understand? That heart attack nearly killed her. My heart caught on a hook.
The use of pauses and charged language intensifies the experience of reading these pieces. Each resonates with the reader all the more for not being fully embedded in a conventional narrative. Glossing over these provocations to remember our own childhoods is not possible: there’s nowhere to run on the mainly white pages. This way of writing, as bursts of embodied emotion in poetically charged language, makes clear the flash, momentary nature of memory. At the same time, the language allows the reader to experience each piece in their own body. “My heart caught on a hook.”
We find ourselves reading the story of a young girl growing into womanhood, between continents, with constantly shifting surroundings, unable to find stability, as she highlights at the end. The white space in this book becomes the blue sky in which the words are falling towards earth with an inevitability and we as readers are called to construct a narrative for ourselves with an increasing sense of urgency.
This text could be seen as an enactment of trauma. There’s a sense in which all moments exist and are equally relevant at any time: the constant rattling of the ice cubes in a bucket becomes a sound track to the endless parental partying, “and we’ve missed it again, the tree-wafting, world-sleeping nightness of night”; the association of a chocolate bar with an incident of childhood sexual abuse; the teen’s voice declaring “Adults are not to be trusted. Not even priests. Especially not priests.”; and the breathlessness of the interspersed skydiving experience throughout the book. All of these contribute to the sense of a text so intense and fragile it is cracking in places, allowing space and time to mix and meld.
For some readers, secret spaces might be perceived, hidden between these prose poems and skydiving pieces, “places more intimate even than our own bodies”.
"I find myself writing about the fact that some people have never had a tree, or a room or even a bed to themselves. They have lived every minute of their lives in the presence of others. But no matter where anyone is in the world, whatever their circumstance, they can go to this secret place, the most intimate thing we have, more intimate even than our bodies."
Although this is a unique work – auto-fiction in a flash-fiction format with an intense use of language and a fearless approach to content – there are two other books with which the themes of PTSD and the search for a place to belong resonate for me. Robin Robertson’s The Long Takealso uses poetry to portray trauma and PTSD. And Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water handles the story of a girl’s migration and search for a sense of belonging through a form of poetry. In McGlinchey’s work, she captures both these themes through a similarly hybrid form.
This book is a skydive from the first slap and a four-year-old and her brother on the run, wondering “how will I know my own home?” through numerous shifts of place, family issues, the impact of war on individuals and communities, through violence, racism, sexism, alcoholism, and finally, to the note passed by a stranger to Itosha: “If you tie yourself to anything, tie yourself to the wind.”
The brave reader dives in to these intense experiences, but this book lands you gently, if shaken, at the end. Your parachute is McGlinchey’s sure-wordedness and craft, her ability to catch the winds of language and fly us with her. Do not open this book lightly, but know that the experience will be well worth it.
First published in The Dublin Review of Books, 1/11/2021