Magnum Mysterium, by Julie O’Callaghan, Bloodaxe Books, 92 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 9781780375144
If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, then it surely follows that grief must be its opposite; and is death, but not the death of love ‑ another “great mystery” — a grief too heavy to be borne? These are questions that might be uppermost when approaching Magnum Mysterium, Julie O’Callaghan’s new collection, her first since 2008’s New and Selected, Tell Me This is Normal.
Divided into two sections, the collection’s opening poem, “Island Life”, has a short first line: “I live on an island” that could only be followed by another blunt and equally full-stopped line: “But that is not the worst part.” This perfectly placed poem closes with, “You can hardly / go anyplace / without falling off” and establishes a note of wariness carried seamlessly through into “Sitting in a Cloud” where “The Irish monk / in his igloo of stone” is resigned to his fate as “he watches weather approaching”.
There is a whistling in the dark feeling to the poems here, especially so in “Voyage”, where “That guy Magellan” expects that “those blasted Spice Islands will appear / any second / just over the horizon / Absolutely.” Wry humour is again evident in what for me is a standout in this section, “Norman Rockwell’s Apples”, with its almost throwaway lightness of touch. “What is this? The garden of Eden?” asks the poem’s speaker. The answer to that question, “Maybe it is”, having to wait until the first line of the following stanza in order to deliver what feels like the punch line of a bittersweet and intimate in-joke.
Another favourite here is “The Day”, with its opening lines: “When the day came / (oh it comes),” encapsulating for me what is so extraordinary in O’Callaghan’s art. That bracketing of the second line, like a whispered aside, is a device that effortlessly defuses what might have been polemic in many a lesser poet’s hands. I read this poem several times marvelling at how much O’Callaghan achieves while seeming to do very little. This is an enviable skill.
Something that must be mentioned here is the beautifully balanced sequencing in this section, and indeed the entire collection. “Floating World”, for instance, finishing on “I can see you // from where / I lie in the pool / up in the sky” goes out bravely ahead of the poems which explore the death of the poet’s father, Jack.
This sequence binds grief at the loss of a parent with the sad acceptance that perhaps this is, after all, the way the world is supposed to work. In “Stay” the poet acknowledges that “You get up off this rock / and fly away. / I get up off this rock / and stay.” The ground is laid here for the final poems in this section in which the poet looks at a world where “Bruisers with Groceries” not only carry on but “Mosey down / to the store ‑ trying to remember / what normal people eat.”
The collection’s second section, “After Dennis O’Driscoll”, is another example of this poet’s genius with brevity. That one word, “After”, not only gives all due respect to the importance of her late husband’s work, and its centrality to her own, but also sets out in often harrowing detail the strange new “after” life in which, rootless suddenly, she finds herself.
Many of these poems, “Medium” for example, read like overheard conversations: “You say get to work on your poems / you say stop wasting time.” The everyday, ordinary, taken-for-granted moments in a long and happy marriage are held up and examined in poems such as “Socks”, where “Light bulbs keep / popping / and the house creaks / with scaredness / and all your beautiful socks are unmatched.” Loneliness is picked at like a scab in lines like “I must have made a / vow of silence / I must be a monk.” (“Vow”).
But even here a bleak, black humour manages to break through. In “Faith”, an “Angel of the Lor”’ is encountered, and, after the expected platitudes are dispensed with: “Dost thou think the Lord hath forsaken thee?” the poem’s speaker is advised to “Get over yourself.”
It is that element of “getting over”, in every sense of those words, an always adept handling of language and line, and an honesty of poetic voice, which gives this fine collection its power. In poems that are deceptively simple ‑ a hallmark of the best of O’Callaghan’s work – Magnum Mysterium illuminates and lifts emotions we all have to live through. I read and re-read it finding something fresh and astonishing every time.
Enda Coyle-Greene’s debut collection, Snow Negatives (2007), won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006 and was followed in 2013 by Map of the Last, both from Dedalus Press. Her third collection, Indigo, Electric, Baby, was published by Dedalus in February 2020.