Poetry round-up: Balancing life and death on a knife edge

Jane Clarke and late Dorothy Molloy collections demonstrate true connection with nature

Autumn, with its Celtic and Christian feasts of Samhain and All Saints' Day, feels like the perfect season to launch The Poems of Dorothy Molloy (Faber £16.99):

“[Father] ... dials


on the palm of his hand. He presses


a fist to his ear; hears the Angel of God

on the line.

Outside, the apples

ferment on the trees. Father puts down the phone.

He rests

his great head on his knees. (November)”

The pagan night when the gates of the underworld are wide open, closely followed by the most eerie of Catholic feast days could be the bursting container for Molloy’s work, “... I fling myself/down on the bed that she made/of dirt from the Catacombs, blood/of the saints. Under the counterpane,/nettles, goose feathers, a torc.”(Looking for Mother). Molloy’s Hare Soup leaped dramatically into publication in 2004. A new and vital voice drenched in colour, balanced life and death on a knife’s edge yet Molloy died just weeks before. There have been two posthumous collections since, Gethsemane Day (Faber 2006) and Long Distance Swimmer (Salmon 2009).

This handsome substantial volume contains all three collections and 40 unpublished poems carefully chosen from the National Library of Ireland’s Dorothy Molloy Carpenter archive – a valuable addition to the Molloy oeuvre. Two unpublished villanelles (if they were written earlier, the poems are not dated) show Molloy building muscle for the powerful Bones, “I feel the bones that will lie in my grave;/They live inside me, snug, in their enclave.” Death salts the best of the Molloy poems, the gallows humour equally intense as Molloy faces down death in Gethsemane Day:

“They’ve taken my liver down to the lab,

left the rest of me here on the bed;

the blood I am sweating rubs off on the sheet,

but I’m still holding on to my head.

What cocktail is Daddy preparing for me?

What ferments in pathology’s sink?

Tonight they will tell me,

will proffer the cup, and, like it or not, I must drink.”

Molloy’s Catholicism burns with a baroque passion more reminiscent of Spain (where she spent 15 years) than Ireland while visual art informs poems about saints and cathedrals, a full-blooded response signalled by the colour red which occurs as frequently as blood – the body is central here. Envelope of Skin, “My belly a factory, a recycling plant...” depicts the body as a work of art to be plundered for poetry:

“Alone in my cave

I quest, striking matches

as I go. Paintings

in blood and excrement glow

on my palaeolithic walls.”

The “warm animal” of Molloy’s body connects with many poems about pets, particularly the point at which their bodily lives are extinguished. The unpublished Race to the Veterinary Hospital’s circular refrain evokes the claustrophobia of that recurring memory:

“Somewhere between the harbour and the pier his heart gave out.

Run, Sally, run.

You clutched, de-clutched, changed gear. She turned to stone.

Run, Sally, run.”

In Dog-kite:

“Now she’s a comet,


all wag-tail

and bright eye.

I see her whizz

between the stars;

she flares and disappears

in the night sky.

She left her paw-marks

in the wet cement.”

The fierce tiny triumph of “a comet” grounded by “paw-marks/in the wet cement” reflects Molloy’s Credo from her last notebook, “... one essential thing... for my voice to ring out ... use ... every available second ... God’s energy in me ... go deeper ... connect to the universe with my feet ...” Because however high they fly, Molloy’s poems are always earthed. The unpublished Poem using some images from May Swenson, “Earth will not let go our foot ...” is a fascinating find. Swenson’s playfulness along with her passionate yet rooted exactitude is a striking match for Molloy, a kindred influence. In fact, Swenson’s wild poem, Weather could be a prayer for the untamed elemental Molloy, “I hope they never get a rope on you, weather./I hope they never put a bit in your mouth.”

Jane Clarke speaks more quietly in When the Tree Falls (Bloodaxe, £9.95) yet shares common ground with Molloy. Her observation of nature is equally precise, her poems are also honed to the bone. Clarke knows exactly how much to withhold so that the understated artful phrases echo eloquently across the white space of the unsaid. This quality is further enhanced when her subjects also withhold:

(for Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan)

“Finding the words carved

on their plain, granite headstone,

faithful comrade, lifelong friend,

reminds me of my grandmother

who used to say there was none of that

in her day. I wish I could ask

the faithful Julia and Elizabeth

were they grateful for the mercy

of sharing a grave, did they choose

those words to save them from shame ...”

(In Glasnevin)

The principal subject of this elegiac collection, Clarke’s father, is a powerful presence; a fascinating lovable man so wedded to the land that “... he/ and my mother returned early from honeymoon/because he was lonely for the fields.” Precise observations of nature and lore are handed down: “When I was a child my father wrote the twelve days/of Roscommon fair on the back of a Players pack/and taught me to recite them as farmers used to.”

Each poem builds on what came before and what we learn about him from one poem adds to the charge of another. Knowing how much he loved those fields is to hold one’s breath as he tries to leave the house for the last time in He Stood at the Top of the Stairs. He is a particular father, remembered in a particular way:

“That I could find the words to tell him

what he will always be,

horse chestnut petals falling pink in the yard,

the well hidden in a blackthorn thicket,

a summer evening’s hush,

cattle standing orange in the shallows.”

And he is also universal, an instantly recognisable touching Everyman, wheeled, “through the haggard,/ up the yard to the sheds. The cattle lifted/ doleful eyes from heaps of silage./Hello lads, he said.” (Blue Cards)