Songs of a spirit's resilience


Poetry: When Dorothy Molloy's first collection, Hare Soup, won The Irish Times/Poetry Now award for best Irish collection last year, the judges agreed that reading it was like attending a tightly paced cabaret show.

 Using carousel rhythms and a bravura vocabulary, the balanced arrangement of grotesques, fables and reflection ensured that Molloy's poems about abusive relationships, lovers, religious faith and childlessness retained their shocking immediacy.

If it was a miniature Ariel, the comparison with Plath was made not just because its author had died before seeing her collection in print, but because a vengeful and articulate sense of the female body was at the centre of both women's work. Accurately or not, Hare Soup too gave the impression of resulting from a relatively short period of intense creativity.

Gethsemane Day has been assembled from Molloy's unpublished poems, so it's less a second collection than a filling out of the shadows that threw her poetry into such sharp relief when it first appeared. Much of the book revisits the Gothic toyshop familiar from Hare Soup: the "card-games" in Happy Families hint at incestuous pastimes; while Barbie seems modelled more for voodoo than Ken, with a face shaped from an Irish Times "mashed . . . in glue" and "furred banana nose".

Molloy favours direct statement; most of her poems begin with simple declarations of surreal intent and sail confidently away into phantasmagoric realms with the reader securely aboard.

In the last third of the book, this method becomes truly poignant as the traffic between fantasy and reality itself becomes a symptom in a series of lyrics about the liver cancer which took hold of her life so quickly in the winter of 2004.

This Christmas no star.
A trail of prescriptions leads to the cancer ward;
she lies on a mattress of straw,
the animal breath at her neck.
Nurses with antlers set canulas
into her veins, tinsel her blood
through her drip.
Camels unfurl their black lips,
at her hair with their fluorescent teeth.
Adeste, adeste; St Nicholas
brings her a bell, to ting-a-ling,
ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting
till she's well.
- Bedlam

The nursery-rhyme ending demonstrates Molloy's skill in dealing so lightly, and so bravely, with the truly macabre. Light verse in extremis is a strange genre and one that risks triteness, but poems such as My daddy's a skeleton and Freed Spirit, show her using its gobstoppery rhymes with a great force, even when recounting the pain of a CAT scan:

Can they see
how I'm gyred through the ether and reach for the stars?
Can they see in this stalk of wild fennel, the twinkle
and spark?
Aeons pass by in a ticking of nuclear
clocks till a voice on the intercom crackles
and pops:
"Remember the bell you can squeeze if the going gets
tough." "Much obliged," I reply, in a wheeze that
comes out of
the grave. I force my eyes through to the back of my
head, half-see them as darkly they wave.
- Freed Spirit

Admittedly there are lines in Gethsemane Day which contain occasional dud beats in the metre that Molloy would probably have revised before publication, although it's difficult sometimes to tell whether these were not intended to fit the nursery-rhyme spirit. The dream-world of my pillow is a rare instance of a looser, more anapaestic stanza, which gives a glimpse of the greater range in tone and technique that would have suited the less intense times she should have lived to enjoy.

Overall, these are vital poems, much younger than the poet's 62 years, which will long sing of the spirit's resilience in the face of death.

• Selina Guinness lectures in Irish literature at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dún Laoghaire. Her anthology, The New Irish Poets, is published by Bloodaxe (2004)

Gethsemane Day By Dorothy Molloy Faber, 49pp. £8.99