The collection which keeps calling me back because it is enduringly rich and interesting is Mary O’Donnell’s The Ark Builders. This is her sixth collection and as meditations on experiences like mortality, histories, and concerns about climate change, they feel as though they could only have been made as poems – no other form would have allowed such sensuous, physical, expression of thinking.
O’Donnell’s concern for speech and languages goes way deeper than the social, “wilderness of etiquette.” She is an acute listener to the elements, to the, “wind, skilled articulator, artful dancer”, to the past at a ‘Fairy Rath’ where the “Old gods lean in close.” She advocates listening to the land. In ‘Only on the Edge’, even “earnest” conservationists, “forget to press an ear / to the lip of the land where language / still flowers, seeking pagan ears / and a modern mouth.” The poet ventures to many edges, ‘secret states’ and the liminal. She intends “to write the silence.”
Wry, gentle humour is a saving grace, particularly in the poems about women ageing. In ‘Girls of the Nation’ where, “Plumage is maintained by pensions”, there’s “A gang flight through the aisles of M & S – / luxury, prepared dinners, new thermals – and / Midnight blue balcony bras, just in case.” In cafes they are, “Holding their breath as someone else’s memory / falls off the shelf,” while “Flights of meaning / Moult into nothingness.”
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Dr Mary O’Donnell was raised in Monaghan and lives in Kildare. She attended Maynooth University to study German and Philosophy, and from 1982 onwards began to publish both poetry and prose. Thirty years ago her first poetry collection, Reading the Sunflowers in September appeared from Salmon. Since then she has published six more poetry collections, four novels, including The Elysium Testament and The Light Makers, and three collections of short stories. Her eighth poetry collection, Massacre of the Birds, will be published in October this year.
She writes essays and cultural commentary and contributes to both academic journals and popular reading matter. An essay, “My Mother in Drumlin Country”, published in New Hibernia Review during 2017, was listed among the Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2017 in Best American Essays (Mariner). Adjudication panels she has served on include the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, the Irish Times Poetry Award, and the New Irish Writing Award, as well as on the Board of the Irish Writers Centre. Currently a member of the Toscaireacht with Aosdana, (to which she was elected in 2001), she holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UCC and teaches writing and literature in Ireland and internationally.
A collection of essays on O’Donnell’s work appeared during 2018: Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell, Poet, Novelist, Short-story Writer (Peter Lang), ed Prof Elena Jaime de Pabos, with contributions from Irish and Spanish academics and writers.
Chris Kinsey lives in Wales. Her writings are rooted in the landscapes and people of the Mid Wales borders. She was BBC Wildlife Poet of the year and won Natur Cymru’s prose competition in 2012. Chris has five published poetry collections: Kung Fu Lullabies and Cure for a Crooked Smile (Ragged Raven Press) and Swarf (Smokestack Books); Muddy Fox (Rack Press) and From Rowan Ridge (Fair Acre Press, 2019). She has also written short dramas for the BBC and was a reviewer for: Envoi, New Welsh Review and Planet.
© Mary O’Donnell/Christ Kinsey