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Review: The Ark Builders, by Mary O'Donnell

Reflections on the way we never were

Mary O'Donnell was born at Monaghan in 1954 and educated at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. She has taught English, German and drama and worked as a journalist for the Sunday Tribune and as a broadcaster for RTE.

She now lives near Straffan in County Kildare and has a burgeoning reputation as the author of five collections of poetry, three novels and a volume of short stories.
She has a good eye -

as we behold ourselves, mirror-wise,
the women we always were,
just older, looser, still there

- a good ear and a wonderful way with words as she conjures up

another thread from the garment of memory,
childhood's trove of misremembered tales,
chased and polished to fit the need of each

and recalls visions of the way we never were.

Although these poems are not particularly bleak she sees beyond the cheerful chat to the emptiness of the soul:

Now it's cafes, Tuesdays with the girls,
Holding their breath as someone else's memory
Falls off the shelf. Secret atheists, they believe in nothing,
Only that final shredding when all they have discovered
Is unlearned again, and flights of meaning
Moult into nothingness.

She is especially good on the natural world:

Away then, up the road
to the spread field where humming barley
catches the last mist and the sun throws
a limb of delight across the world's deep bed.

Burren Falcon is Hughesian - think The Hawk in the Rain - as

She escapes the falconer's arm,
outward though not half far enough,
her senses mewl for mice, chicks, newborn lambs
with sweet eyes and succulent hearts.

There is a sense that this is a land where the Old gods lean in close and we hear

the music of ancient fields and isolation,
where rain drenches memory.

The images come thick and fast - Although it was summer, we took the rain on our tongues and my mottled / skirt rising, neither of us bothering / to undress

- and she is not afraid to mix the personal and political in a poem, as with An Amnesiac in Dublin:

we avert our faces, try to recall older struggles:
Lockout, Rising, the death of Collins;
amnesiac, we remember the war we took no part in
while the infant state's arse was slapped to life

and

What ill-formed creature
crouches within such braggadocio,
the fuckem and forgetum?