Carnivorous, by Moyra Donaldson, Doire Press, 72 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1907682681
The connection between visual art and poetry is a long one. Ekphrastic poems allow a poet to amplify and expand the meaning of the piece of art being viewed. Most new collections by contemporary poets have at least one ekphrastic poem. Less common is the collection that is informed as a whole by one particular painter, acting as a trompe l’oeil, to create both an aural and an optical illusion that the depicted poet and poems exist in three dimensions as opposed to the depicted objects.
The painter in question is the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, the poet Moyra Donaldson and the collection, her seventh, has as its curious title an adjective “carnivorous”. The image of a Venus Flytrap on the front cover alerts the reader to the dual meanings of carnivorous. Not only does it denote an animal feeding on other animals but it also translates as a plant able to digest and trap small animals, especially insects.
Some red in tooth and claw is to be expected ‑ or maybe an exposé of the meat and dairy industry? Such an approach would presuppose a heavy dose of figurative language. The surprise lies in a subverting of those expectations. Donaldson states that “something carnivorous in my blood responds” to a foxhunt in “East Down Foxhounds Parade”, imagines “the whole world fed on blood” in “The World Over”, but believes “We sit suspended / on the meniscus” in “As Above, So Below”. Both Rothko and Donaldson invite the viewer and the reader into a form of space which contains but decentres the person within in it and the person who is looking at the painting or reading the poem.
You find yourself crying ‑
having that connection, you know
how unconnected you have been.
“In the Rothko Room”
Rothko maintained that to be moved by the colours only in his Colour Field paintings would be to miss the point, and that those who wept before his pictures were having the same religious experience he had had when he painted them. In “Each Year I Do the Fence”, one of the opening poems, landscape is absent. The poet is painting the fence with creosote to stop it rotting. Each year brings some further decay, “algae, splitting, looseness” and although she cannot repair everything she closes the poem with an endline which fuses subject and object.
I tie back my hair and get on.
The fence does not stand for anything else. It is an object in space. The echo of William Carlos Williams figures strongly here and in Donaldson’s spare use of figurative language in her poems. There is a certain irony here, particularly as she has chosen an adjective as her book’s title. The transformations that occur in the poems stem from the verbs which open almost every poem’s opening lines and end with an extension of that verb’s possible tenses. I am drawn to poets who handle time in innovative ways. In “Drumhirk Farm: All Soul’s Night”, a portrait poem of her mother, the opening lines are: “My sleeping mother is very young / and very old.” There is above her on the wall a bright blue butterfly. She is “as light as a sackful of feathers” when she carries her past the “shadow shapes of cattle”, and the last line extends the present continuous; “it is long ago and now, never and forever”. The comfort afforded by many of Donaldson’s alliterative phrasings beguile the reader into almost not noticing the distorting of our consuming realities.
Although Donaldson was born and bred in Co Down, there are few colloquialisms in this book. One in particular stood out and that was her careful unwrapping of a boiled sweet during the sermon “so as not to make a fissle” in “Hamilton Road Presbyterian 1964”. Donaldson has said she wrote this book when she felt devoured by life. The literal and metaphorical devourings in the best poems allude to our collective appetites of desire. My favourite of these was “Ten Days in May”. Of the sixty poems in the collection, this is one of only two where a living figure apart from the poet herself appears. The poem opens with John making “a sweet rice pudding / that calls for lots of double cream / sugar and cinnamon; oven baked”. Its taste acts as a mnemonic device bringing the poet back to the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike of 1974. This two-week strike was called by unionists who were against the Sunningdale Agreement that proposed power-sharing with Irish nationalists. It succeeded in bringing down the Northern Irish assembly and executive. The poet remembers her Uncle Norman’s uncollected milk churns and the gallons of creamy rice pudding her mother made to use it up, as the news at six reports the shooting dead on Stratheden Street of “Maureen Moore aged 21”. The final three lines of the poem are chillingly visceral:
… and a girl of thirteen
steps onto a mine in Andersonstown
both her legs blown off.
The sweet rice pudding John is making at the opening of the poem is from a Sunday supplement recipe, and there is something doubly chilling about the end of this poem when contrasted with its opening. It is as if the recipe for hatred has circulated through the printed word and resulted in a thirteen-year-old girl losing both her legs. Over and over again in the poems in this collection things die in order to satisfy our desires. In order to cope with this tragedy the poet has to become more than the self.
I wasn’t one person and never had been.
“In the Year of Not Caring”
And again in “The Erne Rushes Through Me” she transmutes into a woman with blue damselfly eyes, as “red gilled perch and silver trout” swim through the ventricles of her heart. From her throat swallows rise. The last lines remind the reader of the tragic.
as if everything in the Garden is lovely.
Like Rothko, the tragic notion of the image is always present in her work. Her poems arrest us, catch us unawares in their lack of soft edges, their use of the architectural space to bring us on quite often uncomfortable journeys among the realm of the dead. She embraces taboos and examines the darker side of our humanity. In the last lines of the brilliantly titled poem “We were Speaking and then the Bright Half-Moon and Jupiter”, she muses:
as if the word was out that you can hate
as well as you can love, or better
She ends the poem with another of her memorable last lines: “Kneel down for it and do not blink.”
The Rothko Room in the Tate Gallery has a bench on which most viewers sit. Rothko advised viewers to stand eighteen inches away from his paintings. He also wanted the lighting to be kept pretentiously low. Inspired by Michelangelo’s blind windows in the vestibule of the Laurentian Library, he wanted his paintings to inspire the same poignancy, to cut through the white noise of life and to evoke the ecstasy, the anguish, the desire, the terror of our humanity. The poem “Irrevocable Things” chronicles the death of a favourite horse by lethal injection and bullet. This poem won first prize in the North West Words annual poetry competition, and is as chilling to me now as when I first heard it read. The poet wants to turn back time, but cannot. Killing is irrevocable.
Wait horse, wait,
we’ll do it better, it was a kindness
that we meant.
This desire to undo time and all her regrets informs so much of what makes us human, no less so here.
All the regret for every hurt I’ve ever caused,
sadness for every thing I’ve ever lost,
is pouring through this rent, that wound,
his drawn-back lips, his emptied eyes.
The empathy she evokes in this poem is where our shared space as human lies. Rothko said that his paintings were an unknown adventure into an unknown space, and in many ways this could describe a poem. The columns of print Donaldson favours are written in free verse, but their content is not so much anti-lyric as similar to the load-bearing columns in Rothko’s paintings. These are her “interstices of sky and earth and time” (“Each Year I Do the Fence”) through which we enter poems that haunt the realms of the dead, and that are the bones that sit beside her in the dark in “Ghost Story”, the final poem of this collection, but one which could easily have opened it. Desire is an appetite that is never satiated, but Donaldson has shaped this collection using the abstract art of Rothko as a type of architecture though which we companion her into the cost of desire to grieve, celebrate and remember in this “past future perfect continuous” (“Time Travelling in Mayo”). An important collection.
Deirdre Hines is an award-winning poet and playwright. Her poetry reviews have appeared in Sabotage, PN Review, Riggwelter and Rochfort Street Review. New Island Books has published her play Howling Moons, Silent Sons and her poetry book The Language of Coats.