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Review: The Ark Builders, by Mary O'Donnell

Gillian Drake, Roundyhouse 30, 2010

Mary O'Donnell is an Irish poet and author of novels and short stories. The Ark Builders, her sixth poetry collection, deals with change and how it affects individuals, the land and the planet.

Women in particular are observed as they undergo the transitions of ageing, from the teenaged daughter who resists / the culture of the tribe to the women we always were, / just older, looser, still there. All have the poet's often wry and humorous sympathy, which extends also to her country in the throes of change as its history is recast and sold to tourists: Time to hawk hairy sweaters . . . / Butter churned by fairies / when the moon's waxing. In modern day Dublin, meanwhile, Amnesiac to the present, / we avert our faces, try to recall older struggles: lockout, rising the death of Collins . . . Elsewhere she takes a more global theme, speaking of the ageing earth's ...dementia, / Her watery heart fibrillating.

The poems are readable and accessible, conversational and informal, often having a sense of one-to-one intimacy - assisted by free flowing stanzas with naturalistic speech rhythms. They are clear sighted and thoughtfully observed, noting sensory impressions such as The smell when soda / Was spooned or recording unsentimentally the perspective of a falcon whose senses mewl for mice, chicks, newborn lambs, / with sweet eyes and succulent hearts. In The Fairy Rath, she describes a prehistoric burial mound which has held the faggotted bones of babies - / stillborn, miscarried, or unbaptised but, despite the fearful and superstitious reaction of many visitors to the place, she hears no dark whisper. When contemplating the great transition of death she is often off-beat and humorous:

Are Dinners for One the thing over there,
or is the banqueting hall
Like Hogwarts refectory, floating candles,
platters or iced-cake and all?

Meanwhile, unborn greats - Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven - await life on earth. But although there is humour, there is serious intent - they, like the rest of us, are bound for eventual return, / a terrible promise, and revenge.

Despite the lightness of touch, this is not a light-hearted collection. It asks questions about where we are heading and, although it is not hopeless or overly pessimistic, there is ambiguity, at times a sense of resignation. Change brings many challenges: ageing women have face-lifts to maintain the appearance of youth; there is the question of how to deal with death (There are no instructions. / There is no correct way of finishing...); the poet's remembered childhood image of Africa, full of animals (like the ark of the title) is now transformed to one dominated by a human rainbow of misery in which disease and pollution hold sway. Ark imagery recurs throughout the collection, but there is no mention of any other rainbow: in the title poem, Noah and Mrs Noah are long gone. / Rain continues to fall. We are all, it is implied, travellers in the ark, but it is not clear whether or not we will be saved.