Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Volume Two, December 2020.
Mary O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s best known contemporary authors. Her poetry collections include Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody (1993) Unlegendary Heroes (1998) both with Salmon Poetry, and Those April Fevers (Ark Publications, 2015). Her eighth poetry collection Massacre of the Birds appears from Salmon Poetry in October 2020 and can be ordered direct from Salmon. 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’ affiliation, Aosdana. www.maryodonnell.com
One Saturday morning in 1986, a group of six poets gathered in an upstairs painter’s studio in Temple Bar. Three women, three men. The women were Paula Meehan, Sara Berkeley and myself. The men—for some reason—I cannot recall, and I think that in the end they may not have pursued a life in poetry. We’d been selected by the late and lamented Derek Mahon, then Writing Fellow at Trinity College Dublin and were to have several workshops with him.
What I recall is how everything—and I mean everything—streamed into my consciousness that first morning, Derek’s striding arrival in long brown boots, the setting, the light, the bare wooden floors of the studio, and all of us around a table. We scarcely knew one another, although I’d met both Paula and Sara before. Like all young acolytes, we had assembled our offerings, bare poetic fragments of our lives then, in all their half-realised, not-quite-fully-formed fidelity, and laid them on the table before the one who was, truly, a poet with a poet’s mind.
The question of fidelity is apposite. Everything about continuity in poetry and writing is a lesson in fidelity to an idea as well as an ideal, to quasi-religious notions aligned to infinity, to the understanding that there will be no answer, no conclusion, no final ‘best poem ever’ no matter what any critic says. The workshop sessions passed blissfully. For me, this came from the fact that I was coming in from the suburbs, with its limited spaces, bourgeois notions (as I saw it then), and being allowed to expand my imaginative and mental horizons in a milieu that accepted what I wrote, seemed to understand what I was trying to do (even if I didn’t understand it myself). I remember Mahon questioning my use of the word ‘wire brush’ in my poem Border County, (‘Now, when winter scours this plain/like a giant wire brush . . .’) raising the matter of its domestic sound. It hadn’t seemed in the least domestic to me, as the emphasis for me was on the word ‘giant’, so I was not thinking of a bottle-brush.
However, this is the sort of sifting debate that makes poets reconsider and redraft, and made this workshop so memorable and useful. Mahon was kind, good-humoured, and very very open to our work. He became part of the puzzle of my life in poetry, one to which I would return every so often. As a mentor, he kept in touch, encouraging in small ways by doing the Irish thing of ‘giving you a mention’ in a newspaper column, for example, or in my case, perhaps ten years later, quoting a few lines from one of my poems in the preamble to one of his own. I felt honoured.
But how to keep going as a poet, whatever about as a fiction writer? After the Mahon workshop I drifted on for a few years, writing, writing, publishing in journals and magazines, receiving a few awards that absolutely thrilled me. I left teaching, believing that as a full-time teacher I’d never write the poetry I needed to write, and entered journalism, which gave me more time to myself. I was a believer in art, in poetry, without ever seeing that for some in Ireland, it was a strategic game of whispers and nods, of in-groups and the institutionalised grabbing of advantage that sometimes excluded others.
I realised gradually also that it was expected that younger poets (especially female ones) would not speak out too much, or review too many books in anything but a careful, sycophantic way. I watched, appalled, as some poetry colleagues dedicated poem after poem to poets they could not possibly have known closely, watched the waiting game for those who wished to ascend, and occasionally regretted my own open, frank, disposition. Because of this early experience, I am all too aware today of a few younger poets who play the game of watching and waiting like slick performing seals, who already have forgotten how we as writers need to live, metaphorically at least, in the equivalent of an anchorite’s cave, to be alone, unsocial, spare in our dealings, full of a religious passion about the words that emerge into our work. Don’t do it, I want to tell them, don’t do it!
Like the Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz, I’ve always been in two minds about art, and that is probably why I also write fiction. Like Rózewicz, I can respond to mainstream poetry, the celebrated, the out-there, the poetry which nobody is supposed to criticise. But like Rózewicz too, part of me wants to fling it all away with no testing of the daily agenda, no reference to some social disaster, no honouring at all of the poetry heads who have preceded me. And yet . . . I too write with a responsive eye to society’s moods and changes, to environment’s disasters, to the untested future and its possible outcomes.
Rózewicz was once described by Czeslaw Milosz (in his History of Polish Literature) as ‘a poet of chaos with a nostalgia for order’. This holds true for many poets today, I suspect, who necessarily work through their own divisions and contradictions. Many, like me, despise aesthetic ‘values’. Poetry is not medicine, it is not good or morally uplifting. It lives in the interstices, amoral yet virtuous in the philosophical sense of virtue, stereotype-crushing yet recognising the forms of our dreams in the Platonic sense. It is healing, refining, and it sifts through human consciousness—if we allow it—replacing the dross with the healing freedoms that are often spare, brief, and free of political ideology.
Most of us won’t write anti-poetry in the style of Rózewicz. Most of us won’t dispense with adjectives, metaphors, punctuation marks, similes, myth and complicated diction. The world—and poetry perhaps—has moved on and nobody but the insane or politically manipulative would dare to deny the fact of the Holocaust. Instead, we now possess different emanations of human activity in our present to which we can choose to respond. Because a poet’s work arguably requires something lifted from the seed-bed of the local, which has never before held such possibility. We witness this with every CNN news report from Wolf Blitzer, we see it on Al Jazeera, on France 24, on BBC News and RTE News.
We also witness it in the local supermarket, on the street where an underfed child carries a kitten close to her chest, and in the hotels and guesthouses of Dublin which house whole homeless families in rooms for months, years, on end. We witness it when people are undermined for their identity, whatever it may be.
But this is where poetry lives: it inhabits the house of the now, keeping an inspired eye on the future, where its ethical—rather than aesthetic—responsibility—is to speculate and transform.
The presence of Derek Mahon in a 1986 Temple Bar workshop in Dublin offered my first chance to speculate and transform. I hardly knew what I was doing. I lacked the confidence of many male colleagues of those years, who seemed able to sweep forward and believe in their work. That workshop, because it asked me to reconsider my ‘giant wire brush’ image (though in the end I retained it) taught me that nothing is ever quite complete. There will be no final answers.
© Mary O’Donnell