Massacre of the Birds, by Mary O’Donnell, Salmon Poetry, 92 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1912561285
The American poet Robert Frost once likened inspiration to a “lump in the throat”, which sets poets off on a journey of writing. The poem from which Mary O’Donnell’s new poetry collection takes its title has as an epigraph this fact published by Newsweek in 2015: “Of the five billion birds that fly through Europe each autumn to spend winter in Africa and the warmer countries north of the Mediterranean, up to one billion are killed by humans” What follows is “A Husband’s Lament for the Massacre of the Birds” – a poem memorable for its indictment of the damage that humans have inflicted on the natural world:
He welcomes too in his garden dream
the fan-tailed warbler, glued to death in Cyprus
in an agony of open beak ‑ chaffinch, blackcap,
quail and thrush ‑ O loss, loss, as the songs die,
and little throats close against the final mutilation.
It’s a passionate poem – “Let us bellow in rage, / let us bellow in sorrow, let us plant these spaces / to make havens for the hunted’ – and one which places O’Donnell in the position of opposing the injustices that have fuelled it into existence. In another poem, “Against the Vanishing”, there’s a commitment to the ethical notion of what the poet calls the “lakeshore of conscience”:
See the white playboys
pose with rifles over zebra, elephant, or cape buffalo,
as if this action was radiant.
Here again O’Donnell deftly balances nature against its reckless destruction. But it is not the only subject addressed in this wide-ranging collection. She also brings a distinctive voice to bear on poems which move from the demise of the natural world to humanitarian issues. “The Little Waves, like Judgements” and “Message from Malmö” deal with the plight of Syrians arriving in Visby and Malmö: “Direct Provision and the Old Agricultural College Ghosts” considers Albanians, Moldovans, Nigerians housed in Ireland. “#MeToo, 12 Remembered Scenes and a Line”, which consists of a litany of violations against women, is one of the standout poems of this collection.
1968, County Wexford, the light flick
of the Colonel’s hand up my summer dress
as I dart from the hotel stairwell;
1970, Leeson St, the priest
with a November evening burning appetite
for PG Wodehouse, by my hospital bed;
Of course, the best of poems are always much more than their subject matter. “Poems, like dreams, have a visible subject and an invisible one. The invisible one is the one you can’t choose. It writes itself,” Alice Oswald noted in Get Writing. Throughout her new collection, O’Donnell proves herself a smooth stylist, converting ideas, emotions, opinions into genuine poetry. It helps that her imagination is a sturdy one. In “Ghost”, for instance, she wishes to haunt her own home forever:
I want to be a ghost in my own house.
You may still live here, you can come
and go in the casual glide of daily tasks.
Just leave me be, happy in my haunting
of this room, which has never had a key.
Her often striking use of imagery also enables her poems to transcend subject matter. In this way, the collection permits that “invisible” subject Oswald writes of, to be present and to mature at its own pace, so that there’s a sense of wholeness to the work. Some of the more memorable images include the “fluted birch, nippled oak-buds”, the heron, with his, “grace / of wing-tilt and wind, /the dangling twig legs.” Or the river in “The Blackwater at Ballyalbany Bridge”, viewed as “a slim brown god, slow-soaking Drumlin silt, / it caresses trout, then flicks at dipping fern.”
The emotional world of this volume is also finely tuned, particularly in the touching poems about ageing and the intricacies of mother and daughter relationships, such as “My Mother Remembers her Irish” and “My Mother Says No on Bloomsday”. In “Mother, I am crying”, a daughter travels back to her family home and her father’s grave with her mother – the result, a frank appraisal of her parent’s life:
All your passion amounts
to this: the life you had together, in which children
never quite equalled the sum of two parts, a rule
of nature. Later, the car whizzes past the Hill of Tara,
crowned in full May bloom. I think of the long dead,
and all that sunken ground,
what shifts beneath us
even as we live.
It’s a candour which is also refreshingly apparent in “On Reading My Mother’s Sorrow Diary”, where humour and directness combine to reveal the strain of holidaying with a mother and husband. “Never again, to a car journey from Malaga to Jeréz (filthiest town I’ve ever seen), / and she’d scream if my husband attempted / Spanish one more time, his Gracias Senõrs …”
Mary O’Donnell has always been a diverse and talented writer. Since 1990, in addition to her numerous volumes of poetry, she has published essays, novels, short stories and it is no surprise that this new collection should offer us poems of such purpose. Ultimately, Massacre of the Birds is a wise collection which celebrates “the riotous world within and without” with great integrity of feeling, a lightness of touch, and a demand for action in these precarious times. These are poems that declare “we are not so alone after all”, convinced as they are that hope can be a beautiful and achieved thing. Fitting then, that this vital collection should conclude with “The Future Wears a Yellow Hat” ‑ a poem of optimism for the future:
It greets us effortlessly, waving its yellow hat
as we cross a high bridge from opposite directions, smiling ‑
Enda Wyley is an Irish poet, author, teacher and member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists. She has published six collections of poetry – her most recent, The Painter on his Bike (2019, Dedalus Press). With her husband, the poet Peter Sirr, she co-hosts the podcast Books for Breakfast, about books and writing.