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Holding Out

Joseph O’Connor

Playing the Octopus, by Mary O’Malley, Carcanet Press, 84 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1784102807

On a windy autumn day in 1990, my friend the novelist Dermot Bolger and I found ourselves in the Rotunda reception hall in north central Dublin city for that year’s edition of the Hennessy Awards. In through the door came a dark and beautiful young woman out of a Sean Keating Connemara portrait or an Austin Clarke poem: men who had seen her drank deep and were silent. Her name was Mary O’Malley and she won the Hennessy Award that year. I’ve been a reader of her work ever since.

Playing the Octopus is her eighth full collection. Readers of the wonderful, transgressive journal that is The Stinging Fly will have seen and enjoyed some of these poems before, but it’s fascinating to see them again in the wider set of contexts and interplays and chimings a full aggregation of work affords. This rich, various cluster of fine, often moving, always skilfully worked poems has everything we go to Mary O’Malley for: truthfulness, seriousness, playfulness too, and then a particular sort of hesitating and hard-won wisdom, a pushback against nonsense or sentiment or fakery, the beauty of plain words placed in careful order, carefully – and always, the bliss of musicality.

Fiddles carved from windfall, bodhrans, the blues, Báidín Fheilimí, uilleann pipes and sea shanties, Frank O’Hara’s lunchtimes, jazz chants, “go down, ye blood red roses”: what Mary O’Malley calls ‘the whirligig roustabout music’ is in every page and line. This is the book of a musician who is working with words, and they sing, but never falsely.

Reading this, the good habit of taking peace
Where we find it, knowing it will be scorched by noon
And holding it inside our dark cistern
Makes more sense than roadmaps.

One of the book’s inestimable pleasures is its encounters with other writers and poets. The late Dermot Healy is present – or, shimmeringly absent – in the opening poem and the closing one also. Mary O’Malley’s imaging of him as a trawlerman plying around the storm-tossed Atlantic has entered my heart in some profound way I don’t even understand, as the holy picture by which I will always remember that twinkle-eyed, ragged genius whose goat-song blew gales through Irish literary mediocrity. For Mary O’Malley, as for many of us, meeting Dermot was a crossroads. The time after that was AD.

The spirits of Auden and therefore Yeats flit across “Breaking into Silence”. The ghost of Keats is there in “The Walk” and perhaps “The de Burgo Chalice” too. And my beloved John Synge subsists in the background of the lovely poem “Show Day”, particularly in the last three lines, where I also hear the sean-nós song “The Rocks of Bawn”, and maybe Patti Smith too, in the spaces between Mary O’Malley’s words:

The horses are spreading in drifts. They grow freely
As if the rock spawned them, the last locals
Unendangered, idled, wedded to the sea.

Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Amos Oz, Dylan, Woody Guthrie all make cameo appearances, and I sense the noble ancestral legions of Irish poets who wrote about the hare, in the sequence of powerful poems about animals. The hare, the rat, the raven, wolf and fox never made the immortalisation of being depicted on post-revolutionary Ireland’s coinage, but Mary O’Malley endearingly (but more than that) carves them out their space. These too have served.

There are three fine short poems about trees – a treeo? a treelogy? – and there’s a smart, taut poem about a poem I love, Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life” from The Birthday Letters, in which she pulls off a sort of cover version that reveals something important about the original, a difficult thing to do. One of her Easter Island figures appears in the poem “Firs”: “From Michael’s book the green gold came. The name I call them is not their name”, an idea from Michael Harnett that surfaces again in “The Ghost Chant”: “They were stitched between mountains across the river we call Delaware.” And one of the book’s most powerful poems, “Sweeney Returns”, connects the very earliest Irish poetry with contemporary urgencies.

He’s back again, perching thin-shanked
In the trees, roosting out on the islands
In full flight like a cock pheasant
Ragged from battle, a splendid eejit …
His feathers are grey, dragging and tarry
From the rubbish tips, the madness
In full black fire burning up his nights
The whirligig sky mocking and tarry.
Now his tribe are scattered everywhere
Destroyed with needles.
The not-good-enough boys
And girls dancing across the weir
Walking by any deep fast water
That will drown the voices.

Like William Trevor, like Colm Tóibín, like many of my favourite poets who work in prose, Mary O’Malley rarely uses metaphors or similes – she doesn’t need to – but when she coins one, it makes you shiver with the pleasure of recognition.

A certain woman is “resentful and forbidden a French nun”. Clothes-hangers are “clacking like train tracks”. “Days taken in like a consumptive’s skirts”. “The spent light, leaden, flat as a fishknife.” “The truth is good to touch, fresh as a June mushroom.” “Night and day separate like a peach around six.” A group of students watching the film version of Joyce’s “The Dead” “have the look of Gretta on the stairs”. There is such precision and acuity in this work.

And there is mischief here and there, a sheer love of playing around with words that no poet or creative writer of any kind should ever lose. “Come, mess,” wrote Joyce. She messes, beautifully. Words are sounds before they are anything else, and we play with them for the same reason the musician makes music, often towards a similar end. Her little poem “Franglais” is lovely to say aloud:

They gave us chic and soignée and farouche
You gave them weekend, posh and chips.
They gave us louche.

My favourite of all the fine poems here, “January Aubade”, seems to offer a sort of wisdom, on how to winter, how to be, how to write, how to live. I find its quiet insistence so moving, rather typical of Mary O’Malley’s work. These are poems that have seen a thing or two, but the light has not gone out. They are honest, tough, tender, beautiful, alive to the redemptive possibilities of the language(s) we speak in Ireland, quietly scholarly in their awareness of form and line, but tuned into the juiciness of popular speech, ready to walk into the world and find something worth loving, hard though that might be. She operates from a position of high knowledge, and that’s there for the reader who wants to see it, but such redemptive heart too, such courage and plain sense. So much of what the writer does is about holding out, as she knows. I adore the long dawnlit yaawwnnn of “raw daub” in the second line.

Hold out for the morning poem
A raw daub of light in the east, the moon
Still fading through rain that has not stopped
For months, the mad-making wind
And the sky close as a torturer’s hood, tight
As a vice. Hold out for the flake of white.
Keep driving into it until black rain yields
To the pale shimmer, the mind’s shield,
This is your birthright, lustre
A scapular to face down midwinter.
Fields will be sketched in, and people.
Colour will seep back into the world.
Keep driving until a door opens
And open it will – like when a theorem
Slides into place, or the subjunctive, a click
Of gears shifting up in the flick
Of a cat’s tail – and light pulses
A small galaxy through the glass
That releases slowly the mind hurt
From its ceaseless interrogation
In the unfriendly dark ‑ and opens it.

Dylan Thomas wrote that the only reason to read poetry is pleasure. This is a serious, beautiful and seriously beautiful collection, and I know I’ll come back to it often for the immense pleasures it affords. My only little quibble is with the publishers, who have come up with a gorgeous design for a book that deserves it, but I’d have liked to see even a brief biography of the writer, and there isn’t one. Where a poet has come from and what she’s been doing over a career is not unimportant. The implied contention that only the words on the page matter (if that’s what this is) is a little too Leavisite, for this reader at least. Mary O’Malley is a poet of her places and of her restless roads, which are only some of the things that make her so profoundly worth reading.


Joseph O’Connor’s novels include Star of the Sea and Ghost Light. He is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick and director of the UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School at NYU.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Rachel Andrews’s 2010 essay on John McGahern, “Minding the Language”. Here is an extract:

For McGahern, there is no difference between how a writer writes and that which he chooses to write about. Aside from Flaubert, he also quotes Henry James, who wrote that “art and morality are two perfectly different things, and that the former has no more to do with the latter than it has with astronomy or embryology. The only duty of the novel was to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was capable.” At the end of “A Literature without Qualities”, he writes that while serious work can be written out of a conflict such as the Northern Ireland Troubles, it can only be so in so far as “it attracts a writer of talent, and given no more or less importance than a comparable talent[’s] interest in a woman combing her hair or adjusting or … someone tending their garden or getting ready to meet their beloved”. Finally he concludes that: “All good writing is local and is made universal through clear thinking and deep feeling, finding the right expression and in so doing reflects all the particular form is capable of reflecting, including the social and the political.”

All this, of course, is merely an illustration of how and why McGahern wrote. Colm Tóibín once said in an interview that “John McGahern taught me that it’s OK to write repeatedly about the same things”. Those things involved a tracing and retracing of the story of his own life, incorporating into his fictions the places and memories of that life, along with the rhythms of a daily existence. He wrote most fully the story of his childhood in Amongst Women, his tale of Irish family life in which the dictatorial Michael Moran operates as a tyrant within the family home but is a frustrated, impotent character in the outside world, but the same themes of violence, abuse and the power of the church are also in evidence from the beginning of his writing career: in his first published novel, The Barracks (1962), through to The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking and The Pornographer (1979). At the end of his life, he left aside the mask of fiction to write Memoir and tell his own story directly – the heartbreak of losing his beloved mother at a young age, the cruelty of a tyrannical father, his early years as a teacher and writer, during which The Dark was banned and he was dismissed from his job because of the book and his marriage, in a registry office, to a Finnish divorcee ‑ but what is striking about this work is how closely it mirrors, in theme, in style, in description, the preoccupations of the world of his imagination: he was constantly retreading the same ground.

His essays make clear that this was a conscious decision, and it is this clarity of thought that allows his work to avoid parochialism or narrowness of focus. In a short essay, “The Local and the Universal”, delivered as a lecture at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2004, he says: “Everything interesting begins with one person in one place, though the places can become many, and many persons in the form of influences will have gone into the making of that single woman or man … The universal is the local, but with the walls taken away. Out of the particular we come on what is general, which is our great comfort, since we call it truth, and that truth had to be continually renewed.”



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