Poetry: The sorrows of Cullen and the joy of children gone wild
Reviews of new collections by Bernard O’Donoghue and Martina Evans
Martina Evans: her ‘unlikely and likable poems’ should have a wider audience
Over the past 40 years, Bernard O’Donoghue has made Cullen in north Cork into a familiar place for his readers. The world of his poems, though, is no “second home” pastoral. It is unrelentingly tough and worldly and, in his seventh collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church (Faber, £12.99), O’Donoghue has no illusions about its cruelties or how its inhabitants make one another suffer. What is unusual and affecting about his poems, though, is the tone with which they relate their sorrows, a tone which admits the cruel as a normality like any other.
The Will typifies this, its use of a single adjective – “naturally”– comprehending but unforgiving of the action it describes:
When they discovered that my grandfather
was going, unexpectedly, to die young
of meningitis, they naturally set about
ensuring that his wife would not inherit the farm.
O’Donoghue’s poems often seem to catch their subjects on the hop, noting their images and phrases when he should have been doing something else. In Procne, this is figured with the kind of elaborating syntax in which O’Donoghue specialises: the speaker’s attention is caught by “the swallow that alights on the porch roof / to practise her elegy: distraction / from sleep, or from a breakthrough composition”. That introduction of the idea of a “breakthrough composition” then hangs in the background as the poem cycles through its variations on the sound of the swallow’s “elegy”, which is imagined interrupting not just O’Donoghue’s work, but also the work of the poet-warrior of the sagas, Egil; the matchmaker of Troy, Pandarus; and then the Ovidian story of the title, Procne remembering the rape of her sister Philomela “and keeping alive the memory of shame”, a line which seems like a key motive of O’Donoghue’s unembarrassed art.
O’Donoghue taught at Oxford for decades and, while his poems are wary of the learnedness they draw on, it is difficult to imagine any other recent book so peppered with versions of and references to Virgil, Pindar, Ovid, Dante, Piers Plowman and the Gawain poet. O’Donoghue loves these poets, not for their epic heroics, but for the footnoted details their readers often forget.
In keeping with this, and perhaps to counteract the high tone these names bring with them, O’Donoghue’s versions are the opposite of high-flown: instead, he risks a plain, prosy style, an almost awkward labour to bring us unintimidatedly to the scenes and characters he values. The pathos of a poem such as Menoetes (after Virgil) is generated by the sense of unjust waste he attaches to his description of its eponymous subject,
a young Arcadian who had always hated war –
for all the good it did him. He’d grown up
in a small house, working as a fisherman
in the rivers around Lerna where the catch
is plentiful, knowing nothing about war
or politics, living in the same district
where his father had farmed his rented land.
In As if the Hare, O’Donoghue acknowledges that – like many poets identified with a particular landscape – his given material may appear limited: “But if I always seem to be returning / to these few fields”, that poem begins, before it discovers the kind of image which brings his poems to life, the appearance there, only “yesterday”, of a hare who seems almost a double for the poet: “half-turned sideways, affecting indifference / as if what people thought meant nothing to him, / as if absorbed in writing his own message / in the dust”.
In The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet, £12.99), a selection from 20 years’ work, Martina Evans shows that she too has a recognisable territory and also a completely original tone. She is, always, a vivid poet, whose tales and stories are frequently hilarious and anarchic. But she is, also, a subtle, challenging writer with a wonderfully destructive approach to the pieties she describes.
One of the book’s new poems boasts the inauspicious title, Fine Gael Form a Coalition Government with Labour, March 1973, and records how the speaker’s two teachers, “the old whiskey / master and the young pastel-lipped teacher”, were so excited by the political developments that when they met “over his coffee flask the day after the election, somehow / they couldn’t separate”. The pupils were, for once, forgotten: “We weren’t called in after eleven o’clock break, / we ran wild for miles, for hours, for weeks”. For Evans, the cabinet of the 20th Dáil matters a lot less than the glimpse of freedom the children get as they make their own days. The result is less Lord of the Flies and more a happy carnival on which Evans presents a delighted aerial perspective:
boys were seen riding the roof
of Paddy the Priest’s cottage like
it was a horse. And when Mick Looney
passed the graveyard the crane-shot
from his combine harvester showed him
a child sitting on every stone.
Another new poem, Watch, again pits the speaker’s experience against the expectations of the public world, offering an unsettling countdown to her wedding day as she goes through the motions of putting her watch in the 40-minute cycle of her washing machine, “bending to place the watch inside the drum / carefully, like a bundle of delicates” before leaving the family home:
I could hear the clink of glasses
and murmur from the bar as
I went out into the dark and stars
of the backyard to take
the futile action of hanging
the glittering face by its worn strap
from the clothesline
up to my ankles
in wet grass.
Long resident in London, and as articulate on the Brexit fiasco as on the long reverberations of the Rising, Evans is a poet whose unlikely and likable poems should have a wider audience both here and there. In an earlier poem, Facing the Public, Evans described her mother’s fantastically dramatic way with words: “She didn’t just have an operation; she died in the Mercy Hospital / and came back to life only when Father Twohig beckoned / from the foot of her blood-drenched bed”. Evans, typically, shifts gear as that poem progresses, maintaining her poise and tone as she considers the aftermath and the irresistible momentum of speaking out in public:
Never, never, never would she be able, as long as she lived,
even if she got Ireland free in the morning,
no, no, no she would never be able to face the public again.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book, The Way In (Gallery), was joint winner of the 2016 Michael Hartnett Award