Eugene O'Connell reviews Bernard O'Donoghue's newest poetry collection
Eugene O’Connell was born near Kiskeam in northwest Cork in 1951. He has published a number of chapbooks, one full collection of poems One Clear Call (Bradshaw Books 2003) and one book of translations, Flying Blind (Southword Editions), which was volume 12 of the Cork European City of Culture Translation Series. Diviner, a new collection of his poems, was published by Three Spires Press in 2009. He is editor of The Cork Literary Review.
Photo © John Minihan
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Bernard O'Donoghue is in some ways nearer to Irish prose writers—stylists like John McGahern and William Trevor come to mind (others will be mentioned anon), than he is to his poetic contemporaries. He did after all describe himself once as someone "who writes small-scale moral stories".
Gesture, the language of body movement and behaviour, (a favoured trope of McGahern and Beckett) is a fundamental aspect of his poems—the "unspoken" rituals and mannerisms that offer insight into character.
The "slender sacerdotal finger" of the old priest in the poem 'The Canon' " … meeting the steel/ of his uniquely cut short hair, to concentrate/ on the slow movement, then waved it all away/ as the violin relaxed into the rondo" evokes the ascetic nature of a cleric frustrated by the vulgarity of his flock.
The crocodile tears of the widow for her late husband, deliciously named Stuart in the poem 'Virtue', is illustrated in a devastating line "tearfully sniffing/ into her scented hankie, recalling Stuart". The last line of the poem drips with irony "and how she missed his arm upon her shoulder". The reticent "upon" is deliberately lukewarm when you compare it to the wholehearted last lines of 'Casella', a later poem in the collection. "Three times my arm closed up behind him/ and passed straight through him, back on to my chest".
That hand gesture, a signature motif of O’Donoghue, most famously in the poem 'Ter Conatus', references the Orpheus in the Underworld myth in Dante’s Purgatorio, where the ecstasy of finding his wife turns to grief as he realises his hands are closing around a mirage.
Farmers Cross, itself the name of the townland that Cork International Airport was built on in the nineteen-sixties, is full of reference to local Gaelic and prehistoric lore.
The "tinker boy" in the poem 'Tinkers', turns the table on the dog that is set on him by befriending the animal that he names Bran—evoking the mythological Irish wolfhound of Fionn Mac Cumhaill who is endowed with magical powers.
The "outlaws' cave" in the poem 'Hover', is that of 17th century rapparee Donal A’Casca, a chieftain of the O'Keeffe clan who lost possession of his lands and went on the run—who was tracked down by the English and killed in his cliff top cave. The last line of the poem 'Bandogs of the Day’ refers to a line in the folk song Mairéad Ní Cheallaigh, the lover of Donal A’ Casca who betrayed him to the crown forces and was herself stabbed to death by Donal.
Mairéad Ní Cheallaigh, one of the great local songs of Duhallow, was composed by Edward Walsh, a local man, one of the founders of the Young Ireland political movement—who died of fever in Cork in 1845. He was one of the first translators of Gaelic poetry into English, and a major influence, along with Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan, on Yeats and the literary revivalist movement.
'Rubbish Theory', a seminal poem in this volume, taps into the rural tradition of celebrating a life or immortalising it by deliberate repetition of a signature saying of that individual or by ritualising some quirk or element of his character.
"Setting spuds for Jer Mac with Thade Buckley / from Doon",a seemingly inconsequential line in the poem until you realise that the names of the individuals reference poems, elegies to these characters in previous collections that will flesh out the meaning of this particular occasion.
One of the lovely ironies, and there are many in Farmers Cross, is that the first person singular voice of the Anglo Saxon narrator – versions/adaptations of the classic Anglo Saxon poems 'The Wanderer' and 'Piers Plowman' are placed strategically throughout this book – is employed as the voice of the rueful narrator (a deliberate subversion of the traditional lyrical voice).
O'Donghue's unflinching eye for the false in secular or matters of faith has a leavening effect on his tendency to be drawn back to a lost Eden, an idyllic childhood in Ireland before his father's untimely death and break up of the beloved home, a healthy scepticism that saves the poems from becoming maudlin.
Eschewing any comfort in faith or the afterlife, accepting that nature is arbitrary, the only comfort in his world view is in personal demeanour—keeping your dignity (à la Good Behaviour by Molly Keane) in the face of the unspeakable happenings that afflict us.
Gawain, the all-too-human protagonist of the Anglo Saxon saga, whose tale was translated by O’Donoghue for Penguin, must keep his tryst with the Green Knight, though it will mean certain death.
The lost Eden of his childhood does have parallels with the Anglo Saxon world view. It was "a heroic age" where manliness, spiritual values, a moral outlook (Dev’s "comely maiden" speech was the mission statement for post-war Ireland) were fore-grounded—sins, especially of the flesh, meant exile. ‘Gone to England’ was a euphemism for a fall from grace.
The "dacent man syndrome" mirrored the Anglo Saxon in that your status was determined by the value of the gift you were able to afford—generosity or "nature" as it was known colloquially being the noblest virtue. It was a culture that was dependent on action, the heroic deed ensuring fame – dying young guaranteeing immortality – where old age or physical or mental "want" was seen as ludicrous or tragic-comic.
The loss of dignity of a friend he has gone to visit in an old folks' home, in the poem 'Dream' is neatly encapsulated in the line "he addressed me by someone else’s name". The exceptionally high number of poems devoted to Alzheimer's, "doting" in local slang, is an aspect of his work that would make for an interesting academic study.
John Burnside claims O’ Donoghue as a "poet’s poet" in an article in Prospect magazine, an interesting observation – considering that he is an immediately accessible poet and one who has captured the public imagination – imagine an Ireland without this oeuvre of work. (Farmers Cross is his seventh book of poems.)
The point is apt, these seemingly simple "small-scale moral stories" cloak a range of sophisticated stylistic devices, subtle shifts in perspective, spring-loaded syntax (John McAuliffe’s phrase), classical socio-cultural and political allusions (the "public servant with an Irish name/ who died in a lonely copse-hedge near Abingdon" is a reference to David Kelly’s controversial death.
Bernard O'Donoghue is one of the few poets where the personal and poetic voices overlap, the intuitive and the cerebral, the dualistic mind/body nature of our being—the sacredness of the moment rather than slavish adherence to any of the official orthodoxies.
©2012 Eugene O'Connell
O'Connell at Poetry International Web
Irish Times review of O'Connell's Diviner
O'Connell in the MLC Writers Index