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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
Best of Irish Poetry 2010

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Songs of Earth and Light

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JENNIFER MATTHEWS

 

 

Jennifer Matthews

Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg, and has read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK. In 2010 she was anthologised in Dedalus's 2010 collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places.

 

 

 

 

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Diviner
Eugene O'Connell
(Three Spires Press 2009)
€12
Buy Diviner

"My grandfather had the gift," Eugene O’Connell remarked at his launch. He was making it clear that the poem ‘Diviner’ was about his grandfather’s abilities, and not his own. In the poem, ‘Seeing the Light’ he creates another portrait of a family member. "I envy your faith Mama…. Your trust in that ghostly other-world/ More real to you than the one/ You see every day with your eyes." I would respectfully disagree with O’Connell, however. His work very much displays that "trust in that ghostly other-world", his poems functioning as prayers that guide us to forgotten spirituality. Diviner, O’Connell’s third collection, longs for a personal connection to the spirit world and creates portraits of those who do.

The landscape of the book exists between the immediate world and the other-world, bringing us to the holy shrine of Knock, funerals, Tír Na nÓg and the Elysian Field. Many of the figures in the book are either creators and diviners or doubters wrestling with their beliefs. In ‘Doubting Thomas’ the gap between story and experience is explored, illustrating how modern, cynical society can be difficult to convince based on faith alone. After an extraordinary experience, the speaker "embellished/ The story for the sceptic in the pub, nothing/ Would compensate for the finger in the wound". O’Connell’s ethics are strong, and his challenge to the reader is clear. We are asked to look at ourselves, and at the weaknesses we indulge in.

While Diviner contains many classical allusions as well as nods to Seán Ó Riordáin, a major influence seems to be Narrenschiff/Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, a fifteenth century satire on the social ills of the time. O’Connell’s book begins with a Narrenschiff quote:

You fellows, come and be on hand,
We’re headed for Scluraffen land,
And yet we’re stuck in mud and sand.

The premise of Narrenschiff is that a group is sailing off to the island of fools, and the work elaborates on the nonsense they get up to on the way. O’Connell modernizes this satire in a series of short poems, each tackling a human failing, such as vanity in ‘Mirror, Mirror’ or superstition in ‘Oracle.’ Each poem is fourteen lines, sonnet-like in shape but not strict in meter. The series mixes humour and darkness, and the reader often finds themselves laughing out loud at the awful reality in them. In ‘Of Golden Calves’ we meet the familiar figure of a drunk young one, "Feted in the papers of the world, her ass/ More familiar to the public than her face." I’d personally spearhead a campaign to paste this poem into the ladies’ loos in pubs around town, in time for the Saturday night alcohol binge. Indeed, as O’Connell says, "Oul’ dacency’s gone out of fashion, dated." Form is always deliberate in Diviner, and he experiments with other kinds of poetry including some engaging prose poems with a mythical feel and a humorous found poem, 'Abbeyfeale: A Directory'.

Many of the poems in Diviner are more personal, being apt and compassionate studies of family members. Be assured, these family poems do not fall into the category of 'anecdotes with line breaks’ with no attempt at heightening the language, as is the failing of much published poetry nowadays. O’Connell knows what he’s doing. While his wording is accessible and sometimes colloquial, this is strength, and his lines have character and bite. In 'Hors d'oeuvre' he describes his mother's seedlings as "high maintenance divas.... demanding delicacies- caked cow-shit/ for hors d'oeuvre if you don't mind".

Through a couple of these more personal poems the author explores the Ars Poetica. In 'Apron Strings' he considers the ethics of writing about loved ones without self-examination first. "Poets who turn their mothers/ Into plaster saints deserve nothing/ better than to be burned on a pyre/ of their own unpublished verse." In one of my favourite poems, 'Keener', is a startling image of madwoman-as-storyteller (or indeed, storyteller-as-madwoman) wherein a grieving woman who drank the blood from her husband's wound, "Launch[ed] into this lament that people had/ forgotten until it came alive in her mouth". I can think of no clearer vision of what a poet does. O'Connell should be proud of what Diviner achieves- it is at once accessible and challenging, with fresh images and an engaging sense of humour. And as Thomas McCarthy said in his introduction at the launch, "There is a radical truth in everything he writes."

©2009 Jennifer Matthews

 

 

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Author Links

Interviews with various poets through Ó Bhéal

Matthews poems on Poetry International Web

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)

 

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