Like Cliffs of Granite
Irish female poet's collection sharp antidote to chick lit
By Wena Poon
The Ark Builders
Someone annoyed me recently when citing his favourite poets. They're all dead white men. Does he read anything by anyone alive? I mean, what is he, still in school?
It's really sad. If you find yourself in the same rut, try buying a book of poetry by someone who's alive. We listen to music by living singers and we watch films by living directors, so why should we buy books by dead poets? They certainly no longer need the recognition or the extra royalties.
Mary O'Donnell is an Irish poet. That fact alone does not command attention in the international community.
I think of her as the Julianne Moore of poetry. Moore did not attract Hollywood attention in her younger days because (I read) she was viewed as someone with classically pretty looks, which were a dime a dozen in that world. But she just kept soldiering on, and now, she is indisputably at the top of her game.
Like Moore, O'Donnell suffers from a crowded playing field. Ireland needs another poet like the world needs another stray kitten. It's hard to get noticed. In fact, The Irish Times calls her the "secret unseen star of Irish writing". If I were O'Donnell, I would be bloody annoyed. Fat lot of good that does to me, to be secret and unseen, when I'm trying to show the world something amazing.
O'Donnell's poetry is so good that I would not bat an eyelid if you told me that it was by one of those dead white men who were assigned to us English majors in college. Yes, this is a compliment from my tacky, ill-bred, cynical self.
The poems in The Ark Builders could have been written by a long-lost contemporary of Philip Larkin. Her poems resound with the metaphysical brass of John Donne, with the occasional strain of A. E. Housman, and a little melodic gurgle of Edward Thomas.
In fact, these poems are exactly what these guys would have written if they were a 50-something Irish woman with teenage children today. It's not her fault that she inherited their brains and intelligence. Their aesthetics and sensibility are quite thrilling when played through the instrument that is a modern woman.
Irish culture in 2010 is in a weird, in-between state, and The Ark Builders captures that perfectly. I love the poem acknowledging Celtic roots in the remote western coast of Spain, 'Growing into Irish through Galicia'. I can imagine writing something like that if I ever run into Chinese in Cuba. 'Les français sont arrivés' is a splendid complaint about tourism in Ireland and how locals cannot really fault foreigners for their ignorance because they themselves have only a murky grasp of their own past. 'The Poulnabrone Dolmen' is an honest, simple sketch of the poet lingering among ancient rocks while having to deal with her teenage daughter's contempt of her Irish heritage.
But O'Donnell is not always serious. I like the subversive 'Summer, Salsomaggiore', in which a woman at a wedding party looks across the dance floor and notices a bored husband. She fantasises about taking his hand and running into the damp woods to make tempestuous love in "a madness of leaves" and "gummy gnats". You know that's what Keats secretly wished of Fanny Brawn when writing 'Ode To A Nightingale'.
As a city rat, I love the wet feel of nature in the poems and the raw, fresh sensibility. I love how each poem is not conscious of itself being a poem. And I love how, although they are clearly written by a woman, they are not feminine, but are strong, beautiful, yet genderless, like a big, old granite cliff.
I know there are few occasions in life – unless you're still in university – to read a book of poems. That's why I am going to give you some context. This book is perfect if you:
* are a thinking woman and frustrated by feminine namby-pamby writing and chick lit – this is the shot of espresso that you need;
If I ask you who your favourite poets, and all you can recite is a list that looks like the table of contents in The Norton Anthology, you really have to get out more. To reverse years of flawed university education, let me let you in on a secret:
Poets need not be dead to be any good.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010