I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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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…

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