Savouring each preposition

In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:

Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’

‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’

‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.

‘Maybe not.’

She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’

From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.

Joe’s ‘I might’, incidentally, shows a linguistic tendency characteristic of Irish people. The Irish language has no words for yes and no, instead generally affirming or negating by repeating the verb used by the other speaker; this grammatical pattern is often carried over into Irish English: ‘Will you have another cup?’ ‘I will.’

The use of herself (‘Herself and Joe met…’) at the start of the passage is another feature of the dialect, one I’ll explore properly another time.

Later, Martha is working inside when Joe returns, and we learn more about their mismatched tendencies and how the couple accommodated these in their marriage:

‘Any post?’ she asked him when he came back half an hour later.

‘Not a thing,’ he said.

‘Any news at the creamery?’

‘Not a word.’

It was almost a ritual. She clutched at the few sentences he let fall without prompting, and would sometimes go over them afterwards, savouring each preposition, each monosyllabic word. Once when she had the temerity to reproach him for not talking to her more often, he said she’d have something to grumble about if he was out every night in the local with the boys, or running after some flighty woman who wanted to be run after. She had to agree that it surely would be something to grumble about, but it wasn’t a fair comparison. He was a just man, so he said, ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind,’ and went away before she could retaliate. She wanted to scream after him, ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind, too, but I need to share it. If I don’t share it with you it might be with one of your friends who holds my hand too long when saying goodbye, or squeezes me when we’re dancing at the hunt ball.’ It wouldn’t do any good, of course. And she didn’t want to start screaming. She calculated that one scream led to another, and she might end up screaming at herself.

In another story this tension might be the fulcrum, but for Maeve Kelly here it’s background texture. The real drama lies in circumstance, in sudden events on the farm, which I won’t reveal. But these too reflect the couple’s divergent natures. In the aftermath, with ‘silence in every corner’, Martha talks to herself:

Her monologues were successful therapy. In the past, she had talked herself out of gloom, neurosis, over-confidence, inhibition. She could intone her predicament to the sink, word for word, until it hung there quivering under her accusing eye, and finally disintegrated with the bubbles in the dish water. Joe’s healing process was slower and perhaps more painful because he was not able to articulate his despair. Their fathers would have said, ‘God’s holy will be done,’ and slipped the problem easily on to divine shoulders. Such faith and such relief were not a part of their lives.

Another story in Orange Horses, ‘The Fortress’, depicts a similar difference except that this time the woman is the quiet one and her husband is the chatterbox:*

Her words were sparse, each one expressing its precise meaning, whereas he used words with lush extravagance, rolling them off his tongue, relishing the embroidery they added to his thought. She envied him his verbosity sometimes, because she felt traitorously that if she had such words within her control she would make better use of them.

Orange Horses, published by Tramp Press as part of its Recovered Voices series, is one of the strongest story collections I’ve ever read. Tramp’s Lisa Coen describes its multitude of voices as ‘a complex and brilliant weaving of a secret history of Irish women from an author capable of profound empathy and scathing imagination’.

The striking cover design is by Fiachra McCarthy.


* The stereotype of women talking much more than men gave the name to an excellent mythbusting linguistics book I reviewed in 2016.

4 Responses to Savouring each preposition

  1. Deb Kean says:

    Thank you for bringing this book to our notice!

  2. As a long-married person myself, these vignettes are telling. You may well find your partner the most important person in the world, a person you yearn to please because she/he pleases you, but you cannot escape the aspect of your conversation that is a struggle for control – of of your mutual life, your individual lives, your emotions, of the conversation itself. (This is an incomplete list of a few facets of the one thing – the marriage.)

    The first vignette demonstrates how this control can be exerted through silence as much as verbosity. Each partner is asking for help to fend off looming, disagreeable experiences. She is feeling stifled, oppressed, he perhaps exposed, revealed, embarrassed. She yearns for more words from him. He fends off her probling inquiries. But like revolving terrestrial bodies, an invisible gravitational force pulls as much as it pushes, and their mutual orbits continue. At least for now. Both mention the possibility of other orbits.

    For now, neither seeks or wants an ultimate triumph of control, as this would likely drive the other partner away. It is a precarious, continuous balancing of what you believe the other needs against what you need the other to give. Arm wrestling where you may not seek to win, but surely cannot accept defeat.

    I look forward to picking up this collection. Thanks for bringing it to your readers’ attention.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your eloquent thoughts on this. The vagaries of human personality and need are such that compromise and ongoing negotiation are vital if the relationship is to prosper. If you get the book, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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