Book reviews: Good Growing Anywhere

Bernard O’Donoghue, The Seasons of Cullen Church, Faber, £12.99, ISBN 9780571330461
Alice Oswald, Falling Awake, Cape, £10, ISBN 9781910702437
Reviewed by Karen McCarthy Woolf

the-seasons-of-cullen-churchThe Seasons of Cullen Church continues a career-length engagement with matters of time, place, politics and an ongoing conversation with literatures of the past and present. Born in Cullen, County Cork, in 1945, Bernard O’Donoghue left Ireland when he was sixteen, settling in Manchester, before leaving to study at Wadham College, Oxford where he later became a Professor of Medieval English and Modern Irish Poetry and is now an Emeritus Fellow. As such, the geographies and paradoxes of home as an ideological and physical presence, and what this might mean to a lifelong émigré, whose co-ordinates of class, national and economic identities have incontrovertibly shifted, are deeply embedded at the book’s core.

An epigraph from Juvenal’s Satires sets the tone and parameters for the shape and subjects of this, O’Donoghue’s seventh collection, that bridges the abyss between nostalgia and historical excavation; metaphysics and the mundane; as well as the intimacies of personal recollection and the ‘confessional’ as both Catholic ritual and an often pejorative literary term:

Poverty, though bitter, is most miserable in this –
that it makes men ridiculous. – Juvenal, Satire 3

In this manner, the opening ‘Waiting for the Horses’, which takes place on a train, references a ‘wistful recognition’ of places forgotten or barely noticed, “their occasions unrecallable, / like a green caravan in a field-corner”. This simile is oddly emblematic of O’Donoghue’s style – not in the sense that the work is forgettable, but rather that the reader has to look closer to discern the subtleties that emerge from a poetics hinged on the juxtaposition of green on green as opposed to the more obvious dichotomies of black and white. And so we encounter the three childless sisters in ‘The Din Beags’, whose thwarted attempts to bury a beloved horse, Robin, are symbolic of a life of material deprivation, where “even having so little, there was room / to have less”.

O’Donoghue’s capacity for spinning a yarn might tempt a reader to dismiss these autobiographical vignettes as anecdotal on a cursory reading. On the contrary, many of the book’s character-driven poems are fruitfully complicated, both by an explicit questioning of the narrative in view and its contemporary validity. This is the case in ‘Stigma’, a poem that recalls an itinerant farm worker ‘Con’ who was obliged to support his “feckless family” from his wages, which when stated as £120 per annum, serve as a chronological as well as financial marker.

“But why / do I keep on returning to that time –”, O’Donoghue asks:

                                 […] Why not stay
with the poverties of our present time:
beggars on bridges for us to trip on,
or asylum seekers loping through
the infra-red at detention centres
on the coast of France, or drowning
in their hundreds in the Med?

In part, the answer lies in the other kinds of poems that populate the book: in this case translations and responses to medieval and classical texts, including Dante’s Purgatorio, Piers Plowman (which O’Donoghue is currently translating for Faber) and Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which contain some form of contemporary resonance. ‘The Raven’s Portion’, for example, a rendition of a section from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which O’Donoghue translated in 2006), allows for an allegorical and metaphorically charged reading of the excesses of neo-liberal greed, where the scavenging bird, who has waited his turn to feed after the dogs, is described as:

impassive, cold, detached, embedded, high,
knowing he’ll get his portion in the end.

Equally, the book’s closing poem ‘The Boat’ dedicated in memoriam to Seamus Heaney, and a translation of Piers Plowman (‘Passus 8’) brings with it a raft of multiple meanings, where the plight of humanity is personified by a man, struggling to stay aboard a vessel in stormy seas. Here, as he does consistently elsewhere, O’Donoghue avoids the trappings of the polemic, to present instead a more conflicted and therefore more complex argument:

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 boat’s timbers.

falling-awakeFalling Awake is also a seventh collection and, like O’Donoghue, Oswald continues to pursue enduring thematic preoccupations in a work that showcases her provenance as gardener, a conduit for the rhythms and fragilities of the natural world, and as a classicist and lyric poet of startling and captivating intensities. 

The poems here are mesmeric, incantatory, songlike – an appropriate manifestation, given that the muse, in this first part of a book of two halves, is Orpheus. Through repetitions, anaphora and the use of the imperative Oswald propels the reader forcefully – yet with characteristic elegance – forward into the text. She is also a master of elision, as illustrated in the rather brutally titled ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’:

can you hear the severed head of Orpheus

no I feel nothing from the neck down

This (unpunctuated) question appeals to the reader not as viewer, but as listener, where the emotional possibilities of the aural and oral as utterance are amplified by an expanse of white space. Then, the answer that follows requires an engagement with what is (or in this case, is not) felt. And so the spell is cast, and so it continues, in a manner so sensually immersive it becomes almost vertiginous, as the book’s counterintuitive title implies. “May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of rain” she asks, somewhat rhetorically, in ‘Vertigo’:

and the light is still a flying carpet
only a little white between worlds like an eye opening
             after an operation

no turning back
             each drop is a snap decision
a suicide from the tower block of heaven

Note that the life (and death) of rain as detailed here has a temporal, mortal limitation. All that happens in this moment, in this abbreviated life span, takes place within two minutes. As with The Seasons of Cullen Church, Time, and its relative relationships between past, present and future, as our only and greatest measure, is both the explicit and subtextual subject of her attentions:

I who can hear the last three seconds in my head
but the present is beyond me
                        (‘A Rushed Account of the Dew’)

This first section concludes, as might an overture, “with the night now / as if dropped from a great height // falling” (‘Evening Poem’), followed by the closure of the interval curtain, here presented physically as a black dividing page.

As the book’s initial section dispenses with punctuation, ‘Tithonus: 46 minutes in the life of the dawn’ is unpaginated, the book’s temporal structures giving way to an indented timeline of dots and dashes, which, in its visual reminiscence of a (vertical) horizon line, represents the dawn. Originally published as a pamphlet to accompany a performance, this is a piece that hones in on a specific and fateful encounter: the moment when Tithonus meets the dawn (who subsequently falls in love with him and, in asking Zeus to make him immortal, forgets to request that he never grows old). Punctilious to the last, Oswald announces Tithonus’s voice as commencing “at 4.17, when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, and stops 46 minutes later, at sunrise”.

Although the precision of these directives might be a little too exacting for the more autonomous reader, their effect is to render the mythological as immediate and alive – and by extension, as relevant to the ‘right here right now’ of the poem’s present tense. Coupled with the anaphoric “as soon as” that pulses through the poem like a heartbeat, Tithonus’s monologue becomes an urgent and almost obsessively repeated meditation on the dawn as muse, who in all her beguiling, tuneful beauty, prompts an examination of the “whole horizonless question of desire”.

Despite the ambition of the endeavour, when it comes to a philosophical rumination on love, ageing and mortality, Tithonus (and indeed Oswald, who being born in 1966 celebrates a half-century) is not devoid of humour:

           very nearly anonymous now
having recently turned five
thousand with the same wedge of
yearning lodged in my chest as ever
              and getting accustomed to
surviving like a bramble very good
at growing anywhere.

The Poetry Review 106:3 drop shadowFirst published in The Poetry Review, 106:3, Autumn 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author. Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds was published by Carcanet in 2014.