Moonlight, a Full Moon, by Louise C Callaghan, Salmon Poetry, 74 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1912561933
Stars Burn Regardless, by Jean O’Brien, Salmon Poetry, 78 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-191502205
In Moonlight: A Full Moon, Louise Callaghan’s fourth collection, we enter a world already established in her previous books, The Puzzle Heart, Remember the Birds and In the Ninth House – a quiet world where fleeting moments are captured with a precision of language, feeling and thought. The collection falls into three sections – each revealing the intimacy of the poet’s life through minute details of the ordinary. It’s for the most part a serene collection offering respite during the turbulent times we live in, when many of us have turned to nature for emotional comfort. Callaghan, however, in the opening section, is realistic in her interpretation of the natural world. In “High Tide Late September”, she walks the strand, feels close to happiness but also acknowledges “the sea’s monstrous and unpredictable ways”.
Thematically, it’s a varied collection. Dead poets populate the pages – Eavan Boland, Angela Greene, Derek Mahon – and Callaghan is deft at capturing them, her imagery exact and memorable. Most vivid of all, Pearse Hutchinson is found in “August Harvest”, delighting in his solitary bachelor life, digging potatoes from “the soft black clay”. But Callaghan is not just inspired by the memory of deceased Irish poets. Refreshingly, Moonlight: A Full Moon is also a collection that reaches far beyond Ireland – Marrakech, Capri, the Pompidou Centre in the late sixties, a bus journey to Santiago. These are poems celebratory of ordinary experiences abroad – and are, as the poet Anne Stevenson has previously said of Callaghan’s work, “personal in a good way”.
Elsewhere in the book, poems of memory, schooldays and childhood abound – and humour too. In “The Red Wool Coats”, two young girls, in full view of the house in the middle of a freezing winter’s day, remove their knickers and their bainín-wool coats with “defiant glee”. That they know full well there will be trouble later makes this poem a burst of energy that offsets the collection’s restraint with a welcome giddiness.
“Corona”, the final part of this collection, consists of a series of lockdown poems. It’s probably the last thing most people want to read about right now – but as a section it succeeds, the poet’s effective use of language reflecting her confinement. She is a woman jogging around the “A4 page/ of her small garden”. This restricted life has inspired her, and the poems she has produced during this time capture well the stillness of the world during the pandemic. The landscape, music and people of Inis Meáin are also celebrated here, in finely wrought poems like, “Concertina Player” or “Cartography and Music: Inis Meáin” the latter reminding us of Tim Robinson, cartographer of Inis Meáin, who died also during the pandemic, in April 2020.
Callaghan quotes the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu (709-770), in her poem “Easter Rain”. “Time closes in on me, / I have achieved nothing.” In Moonlight: A Full Moon, much has been achieved. It’s a fine collection of quiet restraint and meditation, which is not without the necessary flash of humour either.
Jean O’Brien has been publishing poetry for nearly three decades. Shadow Keeper, her debut collection, was followed by four more, including Dangerous Dresses and Fish on a Bike: New and Selected Poems. Now comes her recently published sixth volume, Stars Burn Regardless. There’s an immediacy of thinking in O’Brien’s new poems which locates us quite firmly in the varied experiences and emotions she depicts. “Still Here”, the opening poem, though set in the pandemic, offers readers hope that communal healing will come, the lines spare and eloquent. “When all this is over,” the poet says, channelling Derek Mahon, “We must not forget that the forests / hold our breath, every leaf ‑ /a green promise, / every bud ‑ a gift.”
In other poems, O’Brien exposes her “griefs and losses” – among them the dead. “Foremothers, forefathers, parents, a sister, a beloved aunt” appear, but also a beloved nephew, whom this book is part dedicated to, Tom Taylor, who tragically died in November 2020 at the age of twenty-seven. Heart-breaking then, is the poem, “Zipolite, Mexico”, dedicated to him – a poem as achingly true as the quote from St Augustine which accompanies it. “Those who have left us are not absent, they are invisible, / they keep their eyes full of glory fixed in ours full of tears.”
Stars Burn Regardless is a collection that broaches tough subjects, such as the discovery of up to eight hundred children’s bodies in a septic tank in a convent in a Mother and Babies home in Tuam. In response to this, O’Brien condemns the “wolves, wolves of lies, subterfuge, deceit, the kidnappers”. In another poem “Incandescence, Coke and Mirrors”, she is knowing, acknowledging how “This world is full of broken children / masked and masquerading as adults.”
The early death of her mother has previously deeply impinged on the emotional terrain of O’Brien’s poetry. “Suppose”, in this new collection, returns to her mother again in a poem memorable for its emotional drama and violence, the poet as a child watching a hammer hefted by her troubled mother through an already cracked window.
The Doctor came and they gentled her out
into the waiting car. She returned weeks later –
eyes shattered, her speech hammered fragments.
But there’s a crack in everything ‑ that’s how the light gets in ‑ and there is joy to be had in many of the poems in this collection too, most notably in “The Most Expensive Henhouse in England”, written in the voice of a fat contented hen. And no wonder! The roof of its henhouse is a painting by Francis Bacon that the artist left behind in St Ives in 1959: “I gaze at it and my brown eggs release.”
Above all, Stars Burn Regardless transforms the heartbreak of living into something hopeful and true, as exemplified in the concluding lines of the poem “Time Out”, from which the title of this collection comes.
At night the stars burn regardless, if seeming
a little brighter and we finally learn to turn
our heads upwards and look and look.
Enda Wyley’s recent collection is The Painter on his Bike, Dedalus Press. She co-hosts the podcast Books for Breakfast about books and writing and is a member of Aosdána.