A world trip bookended by losses
A career break after her parents died took poet Maeve O’Sullivan to 13 countries on four continents and inspired her latest collection
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Cicero
When my publisher, Kim Richardson of Alba, and I were synchronising our diaries for the launch of my new poetry collection, Elsewhere, in the Teachers’ Club in Dublin, we didn’t realise that the date we had chosen, November 23rd, was Thanksgiving. Of course this sort of clash is not problematic in Ireland, but it turned out to be most fitting, given that the feeling which has predominated in the wake of this event was one of thankfulness.
This book, my fourth, is also a first in a couple of respects: it’s my first themed collection, and also the first to combine long and short-form poetry, which I have segregated in the three previous ones, Initial Response (haiku), Vocal Chords (poetry) and A Train Hurtles West (haiku). One “first” flowed into the other: the theme was travel, a nine-month solo worldwide trip to be specific, and the forms would just be whatever emerged, so there would be no segregation.
Although I wasn’t sure if there would be enough material for a book, I knew that travelling to 13 countries across four continents would be inspiring, especially as I’d only ever visited two of them before (France and Spain). Like many other writers and artists, I find travel to be an exhilarating muse, and for a while had yearned for more than a fortnight’s holiday in some or other part of Europe.
A confluence of circumstances – for which I am grateful – made the trip possible: the main ones being the sale of our family home following the deaths of both parents, and the fact that my teaching job allowed me to take an unpaid career break, with the guarantee of returning to the same job. And so this dream of spending time travelling the world and writing, which I’d had several years earlier, finally became a plan.
Most of the work in the first section of the book was written between 2014 and 2016, before my expedition. There are haiku from both Dún Laoghaire, where I grew up, and from in and around Dublin city, where I’ve now spent more of my life. The world trip, taken in 2016-17, was rooted in loss: the death of our father Maurice in 2010, the death of our mother Mairéad in 2014 after five years of dementia, and the sale of the family home in 2015. The closing date of this coincided with the death of my close friend Bruce.
the birthday book of my youth
used for deaths now too
After spending the summer planning, decluttering, clearing and sub-letting my apartment, and brushing up my Spanish, I took the first of many plane journeys, one year to the day after Bruce died – heading into the great unknown. I flew to Lima via Madrid, and started the first 10-week leg in South America, visiting five countries during that time. There were lots of firsts: visiting Machu Picchu with a new friend, salsa dancing in Colombia with my niece Derval and her boyfriend, and snorkelling on the Galápagos Islands:
the tropical fish
that lived at my uncle’s house –
I’m in their tank now
Both long and short form poems were being written as I went along, also some haibun, a hybrid form which combines prose and haiku. With no day job, travelling companion or English-language TV to occupy me, I was constantly writing, editing and submitting on the hoof, using my smartphone. Some work started to be accepted by journals, a trend that thankfully continued.
Australia was my next port of call, where I saw the sights of Sydney and visited my cousin Catherine in Melbourne. Though I had a great time, it seemed strange to be back in the Anglophone world after so long in South America. I missed the lower prices and the Spanish, but not so much the plumbing, the mosquitoes or the lack of a decent cup of tea! It was followed by Japan, a culture shock on a whole other level. It was weird and wonderful to finally be in the home of the haiku, 20 years after I first got the bug, and even weirder to be writing them there:
heated toilet seat –
memories of growing up
in a large family
While in Kyoto, I visited Kompukuji temple which has connections to haiku masters Basho and Buson, along with members of the Hailstone Haiku Circle, and took a photo there which would become the cover image for Elsewhere. There followed short trips to Hong Kong and Kathmandu, two very different cities. On New Year’s Eve, I flew to India, where I spent seven weeks. After spending a month on a group meditation retreat in the Himalayan region of Sikkim, I took in New Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur, and later Bodh Gaya, Mumbai, Sarnath and Varanasi:
smells of incense and cowshit –
Like many others, I found India to be fascinating and overwhelming in equal measure. The next stop was Sri Lanka, where I spent a couple of weeks exploring sights of natural beauty and sites of historical interest. The food and the beaches were pretty damn good too! My ticket brought me back to Dublin in March. I spent a fortnight catching up with friends and family – wearing warmer clothes – then headed off again, to Spain this time.
I spent another month on retreat – a writing one this time – in a residency in the hills outside Barcelona. The collection started taking shape. In May I headed northwest, spending some time in León and Gijón before embarking on the last 75 miles of the Camino de Santiago from Sarria. I always knew I wanted to end my trip with the Camino Francés, another first:
the granite touch
of the cathedral wall –
Danny Boy on fiddle
Since my eldest sister Jean had been diagnosed with her second cancer in December, I made an extra trip to Paris, her home, after finishing the same Camino route which she had herself completed in 2014. I was very glad that I spent some time with her and her family there, since it was the last time that I saw her alive. She died at 63 in early September, just three months after my return home. Sadly, we also lost an aunt and uncle in the month after her Dublin funeral.
Fast forward to the Teachers’ Club at Thanksgiving, where about 50 friends, family members, fellow writers and colleagues gathered to mark the publication of Elsewhere. It was a huge honour that the launch was performed by Paula Meehan, who I’ve admired greatly for several years. We were also happy that we’ve decided to donate 30 per cent of the profits from sales to Friends of the Earth Ireland. On the night we displayed a photo of Jean, in whose memory the book is dedicated. After my reading, my sister Ruth, brother Des and I closed the proceedings by singing Sentimental Journey, a song we used to sing with Jean.
Despite the various losses and other challenges (think jet lag, tummy bugs and altitude sickness), I am hugely grateful for many things: that my health and safety are intact after my trip, that I had both a job and a home to return to, plus caring communities of friends, family, colleagues and neighbours; grateful to live in a country which has (relatively) clean air and water, and decent safety regulations for buildings, vehicles, roads and food, inter alia; grateful to Kim / Alba that I can now share my creative response to this special trip in book form, and grateful for all its readers, present and future.
Elsewhere is published by Alba Publishing and is available at Books Upstairs, D’Olier Street, Dublin 2 and The Winding Stair bookshop in Dublin 1. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Twitter @maeveos. Maeve O’Sullivan is the featured poet in the current issue of The Blue Nib journal. She will read in Rathmines Library on Wednesday, December 13th (with Amanda Bell, Maurice Devitt and fiddler Bernadette NicGabhann) and in Inchicore Library on Wednesday, January 17th (with Anne Tannam). Both readings are free and take place at 6.30pm