True Space, and other poems by Mary O’Donnell
Mary O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s best known contemporary authors. Her seven poetry collections include Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody (1993) Unlegendary Heroes (1998) both with Salmon Poetry, and Those April Fevers (Ark Publications, 2015). Her poetry is available in Hungarian as Csodak földje with the publisher Irodalmí Jelen Könyvek. Four novels include Where They Lie (2014) and The Elysium Testament. A volume of essays, Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell appeared from Peter Lang last June, and her new fiction collection, Empire, was published by Arlen House in 2018. Her 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 2018 (Mariner). She is a member of Ireland’s multi-disciplinary artists’ organization, Aosdana. www.maryodonnell.com
(After ‘An Old Woman’ by Giorgione)
Once, I was pure animal,
Safe with my secrets,
knew how to breeze
through the days, tugged,
hugged by sweet air.
I quietly smelt, touched, kissed
sad men, women who laboured,
women who danced, rooms of strangers;
fields of murmuring grass.
I held the power to provoke,
like the reins to a grey stallion,
free to squeeze or release:
every movement signaled to the watchers,
for whom I was subject.
Now flesh is my lament,
my beautiful animal stalls
against headwinds that erode.
I cannot kiss, or feel a kiss returned.
In time, even a blade of grass stings,
bones shrinking, hair undone
awaits a mutilating comb.
Such combings amount to nothing.
I tear away the faulty fabric
concealing a woman’s raggedness
from such terrible desire.
Better to let my right hand point
to the true space between my breasts,
flesh exposed, offering this lament.
Homewards across the Bog of Allen
The same weekly trip, bypassing towns, quick tics of winking windows
from a distant village where the sun glints. You’re distracted by etiolated clouds
in late afternoon, when sun breaks between one road sculpture and the next:
bog oak and six moon phases, all copper burnish, starkly lit. Your life
amounts to segments of waxing and waning, where even decline is growth,
and finds dignity. Behind the moons, the lipped bog, hickory brown, then stacked banks
where the sleán cuts deep. You’d stop the car if you could, tumble into a heartland
where no village or town can grow, the rapacious wind composing long notes
in winter’s fret, the birch, the rowan – here a lament, there a reel.
Further out, the composition of ancient self continues – a blackened slurch of turf,
wild to the end. No grief here as some bog-imp digs up, wriggles out, lifts and tucks you
to itself, fondles your spirit in the sun’s final flicker, ferries you, almost virgin,
like a gift to the planes of night.
I grope from bed to bathroom, perch
for a quick nocturnal pee, try not to fully waken.
Whiteness glows through frosted glass,
and there’s been snow. I shiver in night air,
the shower curtain hovers with ghostly imprints,
a Turin Shroud, some weeping face.
After the tang of night urine,
I pull striped t-shirt over thighs,
my toes retract on cold tiles. Back in bed
I’m heat-seeking, animal. Entwine myself
within your arms. At my cold touch,
a tremor runs through your body,
you kiss my head, mumble about cold feet,
roll away into sleep. I steal warmth
from the broad of your back,
thieving your heat, steady heartbeat, till dawn.
The Hairdresser’s Lament
I never thought I’d have a private gig
like this: a plea for a house visit,
information leaked in whispers.
An infant. A Spanish swimming-pool.
Would I dress the mother’s hair,
prior to the funeral?
I see her already, bent and white
over a kitchen sink, my fingertips pressing lightly
to her scalp, as with all my women’s heads.
I’m told I give a good massage.
But never before like this. Her abundant hair:
already shorn of sanity.
On the phone, she whispered something
about hair loss – already – fistfuls losing grip.
But I’ll shield her, I’ll raise her roots
with back-combing, a gloss of coppery furls
cheek-brushing like the wings
of a safe casement against her dark.
The car chugs through November fog,
I’m chewing cigarettes as I squint
to check the details: the kid-skin bag –
my brushes, combs, colorants, conditioners –
whatever it takes to create a weave
of mourning hair, for her to look like a mother,
as her child might view her if he could.
As I tilt the steering-wheel to her high gates
and home, the years of women’s heads
flash before me: upside-down as I rinse clear –
their smiling waxed eyebrows, wet temples,
closed eyes with centipede lashes
as necks relax, and hairs slip down to matt
in the plughole like drowning voles.
My Mother at 91.
Out of the sullen lake of the day or the depths
of a long car journey, from memories
of blue-smoke men in kitchens, where politics
and horse-racing were first rhythms; in your daily doings,
you still recite your childhood, crisp as yesterday.
You found time for music on war-time radio
with the Italian family up the street: Il Duce’s anthem
by heart, in our grey-paced border town.
By the 60s you were into Acker Bilk,
the young Joan Sutherland. You gathered the notes
and scattered them with ease, taught me to hear
beyond the topography of cochlea and timpani.
I still veer off the beaten track,
crazed for new territories. Reckless.
The Blackwater at Ballyalbany Bridge.
On the shallow riverbank, water sucks
at tufts of moss and willow, branches throw
calligraphies of shade at passing water-hens.
From the low-arched bridge, tawny waters
I once imagined inscribe a journey
to Lough Neagh of the eels; I threw paper boats,
rushed to watch them from the other side,
white nibs scribbling upstream.
An un-noted river, but purposeful,
a slim brown god, slow-soaking Drumlin silt,
it caresses trout, then flicks at dipping fern.
The kind of place where myths are formed
by people set to punt on other waters,
away from quick speech, the parochial puddle.
I too wanted something else, and remember:
this river, scarcely deep enough to drown in,
floated dreams I could not then decipher.
They flickered on the surface of the shallows.
It took me years to write them into practice.
© Mary O’Donnell