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Review: The Ark Builders, by Mary O'Donnell

Peter Gillies, Stride Magazine, October '09

In both subtle and striking ways, one senses that Mary O'Donnell's most recent poems are shifting almost imperceptibly between past, present and projected future experience. In The Bee-Keeper's Son, the longest of the poems forming her new volume The Ark Builders, the speaker frets he has not / come to his senses, where all at last / is pure synthesis. However, in closing the same poem O'Donnell soon indicates the tiny leaps which inform the seamless transitions so central to her writing:

Each three century span, they quicken, at peace
With sounds from within the ark: plane, chisel, blade,
At peace with what's beyond: creaking ropes, the mast
Drying in the sun, a gentle slop of water as the hull cuts on,
On, always west, following the sun. At night
Before sleep, each boy takes a bee in his palm on trust:
A gesture, a touching, creature to creature.

The separate concerns associated with Northern and Southern Irish poets remain blurred in O'Donnell's output. As with her five previous collections, The Ark Builders reflects her affinity to both British influences and the heritage of the Irish Republic where she still lives in County Kildare. Born in 1954, O'Donnell has seen huge shifts in her lifetime, mainly towards the construction of the so-called New Ireland. Many of the more absorbing poems reveal a simultaneous optimism and anxiety about what those moves might mean for the future, so that the disquieting effect of nationalist and religious bigotry becomes meshed with hope of more multicultural and pro-European ways of living, as in the ambitious Growing into Irish Through Galicia. Not only does this poem subvert the speaker's clichéd expectation of Irishness through some young Spaniards who perform with Uilleann pipes, / bodhran, barrelling rhythms, wrist-flex, shoulder-roll, / the music of ancient fields and isolation, / where rain drenches memory, but O'Donnell also insists upon the necessity of personal transformation if traditionally entrenched and complacent attitudes are to be overcome so that a nation's self-awareness can be allowed to grow.
The third stanza confirms that this poem is really about the act of nationalistic disability itself: how one must learn to navigate through language, politics, culture and history with an open mind:

Late learner, half-blind, tone-deaf.
Not your fault of course,
blame background, the Border, the bashful
silk of English,
one language hushed by the rhythms of the other,
until this rush to the senses.

Absolving the self is problematic and O'Donnell's speaker ridicules herself for being a stranger; for having an outsider's miscomprehension; and most tellingly, for her own naive desires and yet she still hopes to find something truly authentic when No longer backed up against the tide, / the shell of your hearing opens, / old words roll like sand in mussel-flesh, / grit to a pearl. This strain of optimism dominates the poem's ending whereby she can expand, singing out hellos, / Ireland to Galicia and back again.

Moments of transition are also prominent in a number of poems where O'Donnell becomes more concerned with what she alludes to in one title as Ageing Girls whose cosmetic obsessions seem bound up with female creativity and sexual desire:

Prolapses repaired,
faces tightly injected,
they dress to kill
so they can live.
When they strip
by the shore,
nobody cares,
nor if they spend, gamble,
drop twenty years
in a certain light.

These themes also carry other connotations in further poems: especially as O'Donnell is much given to setting her women in versions of art history. In The Sisters of Viareggio, for example, she transposes a Renaissance painted composition to express something of institutionalised motherhood:

Madonnas suckle infants,
call children, scold and cuddle.
A young mother spoon-feeds her twins,
surrounded by beneficience,
smiling companions of dark eye
and hair, straight from Raphael.

Likewise, a familiar painted image from the past dominates Café Terrace at Night 1888, a poem which again relies on the writer's visual exactness:

This morning I turn to those yellows

On Van Gogh's cafe terrace,
Atavistic, darkly cottoned, like
The woman with the red shawl,

Head inclined like a bird

These painterly poems are the highlight of this moving and emotionally precise collection. At her best, O'Donnell discovers the unflinching directness with which both visual art and literature can communicate with us in times of deliberation and confusion. All through her production of these poems, as the title of the volume so aptly suggests, we can sense a constant and emphatic plea for a new beginning.