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Eugene O'Connell reviews Bernard O'Donoghue's newest poetry collection




Eugene O' Connell's books include One Clear Call (Bradshaw Books) and Diviner (Three Spires Press). A selection of his poems have appeared in the recently published anthologies Poets of the South, edited by Gabriel Fitzmaurice, and Fermata, edited by Vincent Woods and Eva Bourke. He is co-editor with Pat Boran of The Deep Heart's Core, an anthology that explores the theme of Vision, due out from Dedalus Press in February 2017.






The Seasons of Cullen Church

Bernard O'Donoghue

(Faber & Faber, 2016)

ISBN: 9780571330461

£12.99, hardback

Buy from Faber & Faber




At first glance The Seasons of Cullen Church, Bernard O’ Donoghue’s eight collection of poetry, might seem to engage the same themes and motifs that have preoccupied him for over forty years, themes to do with the received wisdom of Place and how the ‘rural pre industrial values, the inherited faith and mythologies of a particular place and a particular time’ have impacted on his psyche.

The fallibility of memory, why particular themes and topics have a peculiar hold on the imagination, are interrogated here with a veracity and rigour- the style is more graphic than the understated tone that is his usual style. That said, the repetition of phrases like ‘I suppose so’ and ‘seemingly’ signal to the reader to be alert not to take anything ‘as read’ (flagging the issue as to the reliability of the narrator).

That local people would ‘naturally’ go about dispossessing a wife of her rightful claim to a family farm after her husbands death in the poem The Will, is devastating in the low key matter of fact way it’s presented, the narrative is couched in the phraseology normally associated with social occasions, the meitheal that gathers to defraud a vulnerable individual, is ominous by comparison with the jovial one that gathers to save the harvest.

This agility with form, ‘making it strange’(saying one thing in terms of another) an almost unnoticeable feature of his high art, a languid seemingly easygoing style that draws the reader in only to be bushwhacked by what Tom Paulin calls that ‘infinitely gentle manner of displacing our more predictable reactions to things’- the siblings in the Din Beags, quiet country people ‘even having so little, there was room/ to have less’ are shocked to find the man they had hired to bury their beloved horse ‘saw off the legs’ so he wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of digging a deeper grave.

That empathy with the animal kingdom, that new accommodation that humanity will have to reach with our fellow creatures (also evident in the poetry of Martina Evans) is a signature trope in his work, an empathy with the underdog that allows him license to speak for the dispossessed; to raise taboo issues like the widespread appropriation of land by neighbours in the post famine years an issue still not talked of to this day.

His person likeability, a trait he shares with Heaney, gives him carte blanche Poaching Rights (the title of his first collection refers to requesting the right to speak for the community) to give voice to outcasts like Con, a lower class ‘servant boy’ whose plight mirrors, in a curious way ‘the poverties of our present time:/ beggars on bridges for us to trip on,/ or asylum seekers loping through/ the infra-red….’ (Stigma).

The poverty of spirit, more potent perhaps than the actual poverty, of the time he grew up in is signalled by the epigraph to this book ‘Poverty, though bitter, is most miserable in this- that it makes men ridiculous.’ Juvenal, Satire 3.

A poverty exemplified in the casual brutality, the thoughtless violence that goes with a society that O’Donoghue himself, and he has been a very perceptive commentator on the closed nature of a ‘monochrome’ society, that is not only reductive by nature but more ominously, and this is a feature of the highly wrought poems of this book, gives people license to behave in a particular way.

A ‘catholic guilt’ that has left it’s mark on his own psyche, the mortal sin ‘My sin / was a lie:’ in the poem A Sin of Your Past Life, is having to invent a sin to tell the priest at the obligatory Friday confession.

And yet, it is a society he is drawn back to, ‘But if I always seem to be returning/ to those few fields, few years of long ago/ as if there’d been nothing in the interim’ (As if the Hare).

A society that he recognises, for all it’s faults, that had a unique culture- a mother lode of lore and mythology that he constantly mines, the highly ritualised conversational style of the Seanachai is an obvious influence on his narrative style.
A society caught in a time warp, a place where the local vernacular still contained traces of Elizabethan English, ‘scamps’ in the poem The Inseminators for instance but also the cadence of an older Shakespearean  type English.

A slanguage that’s a curious hybrid of the colonial and the native that is grist to the mill for someone of O’ Donoghue’s obsession with and facility for language- that allied with his unique mastery of sprung rhythm, where the stresses fall on the accent of the speaking voice rather than on the artificially imposed iambic pentameter, give his poetry a unique flavour.

A poetry, nonetheless, that has evolved over time, become more plainspoken. A ‘seemingly’ simple style that, that demands but also rewards close reading, those signifier words that often throw the flow of a sentence, all to do with an almost obsessive attention to syntax. The teacher in the poem And Spoil the Child, an old-style school master, would make the pupils say the syllables of a word backwards as a way of making them appreciate metre and syntax, which may have been an early influence on O’Donoghue himself (a compensation perhaps for the ferocity of the Master’s behaviour in that particular poem).

An almost obsessive attention to structure, close to Stage- craft, an often unnoticed aspect of the work, is a key aspect of the narrative, notice the number of thirteen line poems that fail, purposefully, to become sonnets.

The classic O’ Donoghue exit line, ‘It might clear up/ properly in a while’, somebody said,/ and someone else said ’We’ll be lucky’ in the poem At the Funeral in Oxford of Darky Finn, is a masterful example of Philip Larkin’s ‘poetry of lowered sights’.

His choice of subject matter and diction, often archaic, masks, a highly innovative and experimental mindset- the indecisive nature of the thought process (prevarication involved in planning a journey from Oxford to London) is mimicked in the stop/ start structure of the poem You Know the Way where that particular phrase is repeated three times (a lovely example of how the occasion that inspired the poem is itself embodied in the actual poem itself).

The symbolism of the number three, a repeated trope- most notably in Ter Conatus (from the collection Here Nor There), is key to the highly ritualised movement of the title poem The Seasons of Cullen Church. A reflection on the Easter ritual, the poem was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Cullen church, where the voice of the ‘believer’ is interrupted three times by the voice of the non- believer (a poem where ‘mystery’ is revealed not in church ritual but in the ‘frosted sky’ over the graveyard- the stunning last line of the poem).

Ironically, it’s an obsession with Place- the narrowness of his preoccupations’ the holy cows of a particular time and place’ that give a pressure-cooker edge to the work, forcing him to shift perspective, innovate, summon a formidable array of life experience (as emigrant himself, as renowned scholar) to address issues, almost always of conscience, that have a public and personal relevance. He has talked recently of how choice of subject matter must have a wider significance than the merely personal, ‘It doesn’t matter where you set up the camera, but why’ (a quotation from a Polish film director Kieslowski he admires).

In a recent interview with the London Magazine, he has talked of the retrospective nature of this book, even used the phrase ‘closing up shop’ a reference to Connolly’s Bookshop one of the poems in this book.

That retrospective feel is hard to shake off, when you consider the overall architecture of the book the backward movement over a life, the encounter with someone ‘in the small hours’, in the penultimate poem Meeting in the Small Hours, that takes place predictably (such a trope in O’Donoghues’ poetry) in a car, where there is ‘small talk’ about giving up the cigarettes- until you realise with a jolt that the Companion may not necessarily be ‘still with us’.

A revenant poem, note also The Move and the ‘grave’ motif in Riddle, that is strangely resonant of Not I- there is a Beckettian feel to the language and tone of this book, an architecture that’s pared down to the bone. The allusion to birds and bird-song, symbols of the soul in Irish mythology and in the old English poem The Seafarer, as backdrop or ‘chorus’ to the poems of this book in particular, is quietly atmospheric- lending an almost spiritual quality, if I dare use that word of this poet who is above all ‘a wise celebrant of uncertainty.

A Poet where the liminal is fore grounded, as always, as in the strategic placing of the The Boat, a take on PiersPlowman passus 8, dedicated to Seamus Heaney, as the final poem in the book that ends with the quatrain, ‘it’s the same with the righteous:/ if they fall, they are falling only/ like a man in a boat who is safe and sound/ as long as he stays within the boats timbers’.

©2017 Eugene O'Connell



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