Katie Donovan – Ishi

Profile Katie Donovan LE Poetry & Writing June 2018

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Ishi and other poems by Katie Donovan

Katie Donovan was born in 1962 and spent her youth on a farm near Camolin in Co. Wexford. She studied at Trinity College Dublin and at the University of California at Berkeley. She spent a year teaching English in Hungary, 1987-1988. She moved back to Dublin where she worked for “The Irish Times” for 13 years as a journalist in the Features Dept. She qualified as an Amatsu practitioner (a form of Japanese osteopathy) in 2002 and continues to practice part-time. She was Writer-in-Residence for Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown 2006-8 and has taught many courses (in Media and Contemporary Irish Literature as well as Creative Writing) in IADT Dun Laoghaire (2006-13). She was a lecturer in Creative Writing, with a focus on poetry, in NUI Maynooth 2015-17. She has just completed a three year course in Somatic Experiencing, a form of trauma therapy. Devised by Dr Peter Levine, this therapy works with a client’s neurological system to process and release past trauma, and rebuild resilience. She has published five books of poetry, all with Bloodaxe Books, UK. Her most recent, “Off-Duty” appeared in September 2016. It was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize, 2017. She is the 2017 recipient of the O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry. Her first collection, “Watermelon Man” appeared in 1993. Her second, “Entering the Mare”, was published in 1997; and her third, “Day of the Dead”, in 2002. “Rootling: New and Selected Poems” appeared in 2010. She is co-editor, with Brendan Kennelly and A. Norman Jeffares, of the anthology, “Ireland’s Women: Writings Past and Present” (Gill and Macmillan, Ireland; Kyle Cathie, UK, 1994; Norton & Norton, US, 1996). She is the author of “Irish Women Writers: Marginalised by Whom?” (Raven Arts Press, 1988, 1991). With Brendan Kennelly she is the co-editor of “Dublines” (Bloodaxe, 1996), an anthology of writings about Dublin.  http://www.katiedonovan.com/


(“ishi” means “man”: in Yahi tradition names could only be exchanged
if a mutual friend made the introductions)

The last of the Yahi
ended his days
observed, confined,
sharing the ways
of his tribe
before extinction:

flintknapping arrow tips
from obsidian,
making medicine,
basket weaving;
gifting the haunting frailty
of his ululation.

A living exhibit
in a museum,
stumbling with
unfamiliar words,
he passed on what he knew
with dignity,
before dying
of “the white man’s disease”:

Descended from thousands,
his small family
hid in the Cascades,
on the rocky margins
of Deer Creek canyon,
avoiding Gold Rush enemies.

He stayed
in Grizzly Bear cave
nursing the woman
who had named him.
When she died,
he burned his hair
and was silent for a year.

Motherless and starving,
he risked the mercy
of the usurpers,
he had nothing left
to lose.

They gave him
a shirt and tie,
this last of the “wild Indians”.
When he died,
they stole his brain.

He is remembered
as “Ishi”,
the nameless man,
to the end of names.

The Diggers

He bought the red van
to carry cellos in,
and rigged the trampoline
for our children’s fun.
Five years since his death,
and the cellos are silent.
The van gives trouble,
so I trade it in.

Now, I must be ready
for another clearing:
the diggers are coming,
to disinter our septic tank.
A brand new one,
with a filter,
and all the mod cons,
will be sunk in the garden,
between clumps of chalky soil
and hunks of granite.

I roll away the trampoline –
like a ferris wheel upended –
and hook it on the massive arm
of the elephantine sycamore.
A disc of ivy, exposed,
trembles as a mottled frog
loses its cover, and shuffles on.

The trees are loaded with buds,
the birds – blue tit, chaffinch,
pigeon, wren –  wing in for a feed,
the dish where the robin likes to bathe
must be moved, all the pots
ranked elsewhere, out of the way.
The one old rose, barricaded –
its root too deep to lift –
daffodil bulbs dug up and saved.

The children are so tall. They’ve outgrown
the blue slide that went to the dump
last summer. The basketball hoop
is rusted through. The boy
has a husky voice, and the girl
asked me yesterday if I could explain
this word she heard at school: porn.

I wonder how the daisies will feel,
torn and scattered by
the mechanised bucket;
how the earthworms will survive,
ripped out of their home,
the small bushes and the bluebells
only about to flower.
Change: I scold myself
for cowardice.
I’ve seen enough real graves.
I know the difference.

After the carnage, I’ll watch
how the land lies;
encourage the grass;
reinstate the trampoline –
how the screws fit,
and the safety net sits;
bury the bulbs
and wait for next Spring,
for blossoming.


(on June 16th, 2015, five Irish and one Irish American student died
when a 4th floor balcony collapsed; seven others were severely injured)

Crack of rotten wood,
the balcony tips and swings,
hands grasp – some
not fast enough, some
too slippery –
bodies plummet,
bones are smashed
to smithereens.
Mothers fly across the ocean,
hoping to hold them again,
to hear them breathing,
those babies who suddenly
grew up, went to California
for summer fun –
now stretched
in stiff white hospital beds.

Eucalyptus and coffee,
peaches and sushi,
maverick conversations
fit for branching neurons –
Berkeley, where I grew
for two full years,
out of my small Irish plot,
into a nourishing garden:

now you are a graveyard,
a valley of fallen stars.


The cars move forward, endlessly –
it’s always rush hour. Strewn
on the road, the detritus of the drivers.
And the corpses. Today, a young fox.
He’s perfect. I pull over, hoping,
find the body warm.
But as I pick him up – the other drivers
irritated by the interruption – I know
rigor mortis has claimed his fluffy limbs.
The heat is from the sun, shining
all morning on his lifeless form.

© Katie Donovan