Arc Publications logo

50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— VĂ­ctor Rodríguez Núñez

Review: The Ark Builders, by Mary O'Donnell

Chris Kinsey, Envoi, Issue 156, June 2010

The collection which keeps calling me back because it is enduringly rich and interesting is Mary O'Donnell's The Ark Builders. This is her sixth collection and the poems are highly accomplished. As meditations on experiences like mortality, histories, and concerns about climate change, they feel as though they could only have been made as poems-no other form would have allowed such sensuous, physical, expression of thinking.

Mary O'Donnell doesn't 'do' shorthand, stock, or stereotype - well, only to send it up, as in Les Francais sont arrives. Die Deutschen auch:

So, hairy sweaters all the way,
Fiddle-me-flagrant on the flagstones,
Jig-em-to-hell at dolmens

There is plenty of heart in these poems: sensuous passion, concern for people - the 'survivors' and the dead - , for Ireland and the wider world as climate change threatens. However, O'Donnell is original; there is a freshness of
apprehension and accuracy of perception to her work.

Her poems are deeply rooted in Ireland's landscapes and changing cultures. I admire the exactness and the way she inhabits a Burren Falcon:

...her feathers flatten, she is scattershot
in the sky's skin, blood-charged as she lunges
where limestone encloses the mountain's

In The Poulnabrone Dolmen' the poet's daughter is less enamoured with all those sad rocks!

O'Donnell's concern for speech and languages goes way deeper than the social wilderness of etiquette. She is an acute listener to the elements, to the wind, skilled articulator, artful dancer, to the past at a 'Fairy Rath' where the Old gods lean in close. She advocates listening to the land. In Only on the Edge, even 'earnest' conservationists, forget to press an ear / to the lip of the land where language / still flowers, seeking pagan ears / and a modern mouth. The poet ventures to many edges, secret states and the luminal: ,q>This water-land takes me, / misfit mortal, to flowing point. She intends To write the silence.

Wry, gentle humour is a saving grace, particularly in the poems about women ageing. In Girls of the Nation where Plumage is maintained by pensions, there's A gang flight through the aisles of M & S - / luxury, prepared dinners, new thermals - and / Midnight blue balcony bras, just in case. In cafes they are Holding their breath as someone else's memory / falls off the shelf and Flights of meaning / Moult into nothingness.

O'Donnell is satisfyingly ambivalent about rain. It might be a disturbing symptom of climate change, the earth's dementia / her watery heart fibrillating which leaves the polar bear 'Arkless'. It 'messes' up lives, in particular, those of the traditional fishermen, yet it often prompts eroticism, love-making amongst wet leaves and uncut meadows. Ark building doesn't come from 'High-security homes' or 'Four-wheelers' (the poet herself isn't averse to a drive). It might come from traditional crafts. Buy this well-crafted book.