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Just Wade In

Jean O’Brien

Sunlight: New and Selected Poems, by John O’Donnell, Dedalus Press, 152 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-910251317

The publication of a New and Selected is always a milestone, a marker of how far the poet has travelled, and John O’Donnell’s Sunlight is just that. It charts his oeuvre from his early days to his ongoing development as a mature poet, when he had won a number of awards for his work, among them two Hennessy awards, one for poetry and one for fiction.

Reading O’Donnell’s work, the word constant comes to mind: it is the nub of everything he writes. He has an intrinsic core of honesty, humanity and steadiness; we are in safe hands here. The title poem, a loving paean to the deceased mother to whom he has dedicated this book, has the lines:

is how the light continued pouring in through the big window
without pausing to acknowledge any sense

of what just happened,

which carry a faint echo of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

... the sun shone
as it had to …

or Beckett’s

The sun shone having no alternative.

not so much in the actual lines as in the sentiment of a poet doing what a poet has to do ‑ write good poems and strive for excellence, both of which O’Donnell has done from the time he first put pen to paper.

His work speaks of a life well-lived and well-observed. He is a loyal son and has some loving and well-crafted poems on his father (see “The Shipping Forecast”) and grandfather (see “When Grumpy Met Lindy”) with perhaps a hint of trying to fill big shoes, as in “Icarus Sees His Father Fly”:

Making a man of me, or you? so much I’ve tried
      To make you proud. Shouts of encouragement     
      Loud in my head. Your voice once more. My arms spread.

O’Donnell has a number of runs of sonnets, six in his collection Some Other Country (2002) written engagingly from biblical characters’ points of view and another run of six in “On Water” (2014). The sonnet has been described as a room and O’Donnell possesses the room with mastery and quiet control.

O’Donnell has wide-ranging concerns, not least moral and societal ones, as in his devastatingly simple nine-line poem “What The Tide Brings In”, from Some Other Country (2002), that lulls the reader with lyric lines such as:

A slatted crate that once held oranges. A ball
kicked brightly out of reach. Whale songs.

and then ends with a kick:

An unnamed bundle in a fertiliser sack.

with its mute hard-kending that pulls us up short in both senses.

Another poem with social concerns, “Kola’s Shop”, although published in his first collection, Some Other Country (2002) is prescient of the current mood in the wake of Brexit. In a later collection, On Water (2014), he has a moving poem, “Beads”, about the girls who ended up in homes and orphanages, shunned by society for their own ‑ or in this case their mothers’ ‑ sins; wrong that is only now being admitted to as we still uncover all we though had been safely swept under the country’s bulging carpet.

This is a poet who know what he wants to say and does it well, from his lyrical poems, to his use of the sonnet and other forms, from his judicious use of rhythm, rhyme, assonance and alliteration and other devices that help a poem have the effect that it is striving for, he has a deft hand.

As with most poets of his generation O’Donnell has poems about other poets and deceased Irish literary figures. A lovely one, “Lamp”, recalls Caroline Walsh, a much-loved and wonderful encourager of poets, whom we all miss. Caroline wrote a column in The Irish Times and if we were lucky enough we would be delighted to see our names included. O’Donnell uses the story of prehistoric cave painting from around the world to carry his well-wrought metaphor of knowledge, light and inspiration. He also uses the idea of a lamp in an engaging memorial poem for Seamus Heaney contained in his new work and titled “The Lucan Planet No. 33”, which was an old bicycle lamp that ran on kerosene.

the enamelled blackness of the chamber suddenly aglow
in its own solstice …

In the second stanza the poem deftly segues into a different kind of light and moves us down to its poignant final lines:

Wheel-spin: spoke-song
the Consolation that what’s well-made endures, and shines on.

1/9/2018

Jean O'Brien is a poet. Her latest collection, her New & Selected Fish on a Bicycle was published by Salmon in 2016 and is currently being reprinted. She was a recipient of the Katherine & Patrick Kavanagh Fellowship 2017/18. 

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