Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
‘Absolute circumstance’:
Mairi MacInnes

I

‘But then I understood something very simple: to make things happen, you have to go away.’1 The last words of Mairi MacInnes’s memoir Clearances echo back down her family’s generations. Her mother left Australia, where she had been born to English emigrants, to serve as a nurse in Gallipoli. There she met the writer’s father, a doctor from the Isle of Skye. MacInnes’s title—while it most directly evokes ideas of mental spring-cleaning (each chapter being a clear out of long-gathered memories and reflections)—plainly harks back to the treatment of the Scottish Highlands after the The Forty-Five. Her parents made their home first in County Durham, then in Windsor. She herself married an American of Irish and French-Canadian descent. He took her first to post-war West Berlin. Then she lived in Maine while he commuted to a teaching post in New Jersey. There followed a New Jersey sojourn sometimes together and sometimes not. These various arrangements were interspersed with years in Vermont, Mexico City, and Madrid. Finally, after her husband’s retirement, MacInnes returned first to the north Yorkshire countryside, and then, in old age, to the city of York.

Yet it’s not her own or her parents’ departures that prompt this concluding epigram reminiscent of what the young Joyce wrote about his Dublin. Rather, her husband would leave MacInnes alone with their three children for months on end while he held academic fellowships in Europe. She would be left to cope with nostalgia for the British Isles in an America that seems to have remained a foreign country. The subtlety and tact of MacInnes’s writing is revealed by the fact that she leaves it to the reader to link this insight into her husband’s motivation with her own

1 Mairi MacInnes, Clearances: A Memoir (New York: Pantheon, 2002), 275.

-187-

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