Odd as F*ck, by Anne Walsh Donnelly, Fly on the Wall Press, 96 pp, €11.99, ISBN: 978-1913211424
The Woman With An Owl Tattoo, by Anne Walsh Donnelly, Fly on the Wall Press, 40 pp, €7.99, ISBN: 978-1999598648
Anne Walsh Donnelly’s poems take readers on an excursion through a range of emotions as she relates lifelike scenarios drawn from her own experience. She narrates telling anecdotes in a tone that is by turns sincere, ironic or satirical, relying on her sensitivity to language to animate verse influenced by modern and historical Irish writers, reflecting Dean Swift’s satirical wit, Brendan Behan’s gritty realism and Paul Durcan’s ear for dialect and diction. Her poetry draws on myth, local idiom and a first-hand experience of rural and agricultural worlds, fitting comfortably within the modern Irish tradition despite – and perhaps because of – her head-on approach to discussing provocative topics and submerged notions.
The title poem from Odd as F*ck lets readers eavesdrop in the high street chipper – or in a cafe or some other public location – as a local citizen indulges in her daily ration of friendly gossip spiced with tendentious barbs.
Birdy, did I tell you, Victoria dyed her hair,
same colour as a hawthorn berry?
I nearly choked on the Body of Christ
when she knelt beside me at the altar on Sunday.
I knew the day herself and Jim
got married it wouldn’t last.
Dancing like a goat up the aisle, no Father
to give her away, no proper hymns at the Mass,
just some of that Chris de Burgh shite
all the young wans are into nowadays.
In one section of the book, entitled “Voices”, we find a series of satirical poems in which the poet gives voice to animate and inanimate objects, using this conceit to involve readers in a distanced way in a one-sided conversation that sheds light on the circumstances which have shaped her life. The most unexpected of these poems, entitled “Vagina”, begins with these lines: “‘Don’t you dare write a poem about this conversation,’ / said my vagina, as I towelled myself dry.”
In the poem “My Therapist’s Dog”, a house pet obliquely discusses the poet’s experience with therapy.
‘A jeez, not you again,’ her golden retriever muttered,
as I stepped out of my car and slammed the door shut.
‘When are you going to stop coming here?
She has to have two coffee pods
before your sessions. The doctor told her
to stop drinking. Sets her heart racing.
It’s you – not the coffee.
You’ve been coming here far too many years.
I said as much, to her last week.
Why do you have to hug her after every session?
She’s your therapist, not your mother.’
As readers engage with Donnelly’s tales, they come to realise that her stories concern them and their lives too since the narratives may coincide with parts of their own emotional journeys and, in any case, they deal thematically with topics that are sure to come up when people get together with friends to have a few drinks and sort out the world.
“Conkers” sheds light on Donnelly’s personality and identity by means of an anecdote relating to an early time in her life.
I stand under the canopy of a Horse Chestnut tree,
wait for a conker as strong as Cúchulainn to drop.
The mist dampening my face turns torrential.
A breeze bolts through the branches like a train.
I get dad’s screwdriver,
bore a hole in my conker.
It gets stuck halfway through.
‘She’ll have to leave school now,’ says Mrs Brennan,
In a voice that reminds me of the Joker in Batman.
‘The buck that did it won’t have to,’ says Mam.
The table trembles as I bang the conker
and force the screwdriver out the arse end.
It smashes into pieces.
A lump lands in Mrs Brennan’s mug.
Mam scoops the remains in her hands and says,
‘Go play with your dolls, like a good girl.’
Donnelly has swiftly emerged onto the Irish literary scene, following up the publication of her recent chapbook The Woman With An Owl Tattoo with the launch of a full collection, Odd as F*ck, both titles published by the UK-based Fly on the Wall Press. She has also published a book of short fiction and written plays and creative non-fiction – clearly a woman in a hurry. Readers who want to know why may easily satisfy their curiosity since her life is an open book – literally. Along with several published interviews, Donnelly’s poems relate the story of her recent life experience.
Highlights of her trajectory include a broken marriage, raising two children as a legally separated single mother, discovering the importance of writing in her life, and a road to Damascus moment at age fifty where, after a period of confusion and denial, she discovers her identity as a gay woman. She reveals this important news first to her children, then to her parents, and finally, to the whole world. Donnelly’s life experience – with all its high and low drama – is the main topic of her recent verse. Relating telling episodes from her own experience, she relies on vivid imagery to narrate her travails in a mood that can range from disarming sincerity to barbed irony.
Having grown up in a rural part of Carlow, Donnelly later moved to Castlebar in Mayo. While these settings are remote from Ireland’s cultural capitals, she has enjoyed the good fortune of having emerged as a writer at a time when it is generally recognised that every part of the island harbours individuals with an uncanny gift for language who might become promising writers. Donnelly has observed that this rural isolation imposes restrictions on her life, including difficulty in travelling to literary events or visiting family for support, but her poetry reveals that these circumstances also provide grist for her mill since the imagery she uses draws heavily on her experience of small town life and agricultural settings.
In interviews and poems, Donnelly characterises herself as a late bloomer in many respects but now she seems to have decided in her mid-fifties to be a force of nature. True talent in poetry may be rare enough since writing success most often comes by dint of dedication and hard work, but we might consider a broader meaning of talent: a particular bent or an inclination that defines us. Donnelly’s writing displays a gift for unabashedly recounting events that illuminate her feelings and illustrate her life experience in a way that wins the sympathy and empathy of readers.
But there is a dark side to this story – Donnelly relates details that speak of intense suffering: “I shuffle / on feet glued to flagstones. // Skin tarred and feathered, / by the depression that steals/dopamine from my hacked brain.” The lines above are from her poem “October, 2016”.
Her poem “To Be a Stranger in Your Own Home” begins as follows:
You go home for Mam’s brown soda bread,
and her apple tart pastry crumbling in your mouth.
You go home to thaw your frozen heart beside the fire,
listen to your Dad’s corny jokes.
But the poem ends with these rueful lines:
A snare catches the paw of your nightmares.
You leave before they wake.
You must be the consumer of your own woes,
take them wherever you go.
In the lengthy poem “Days Like These”, the poet reflects on the course of her life and her beliefs about herself. The verses quoted below speak explicitly about dangerously low self-esteem and profound doubts concerning her worthiness as a person.
I fall in love with a woman.
Consummate the relationship
And am now considered to be ‘intrinsically disordered’
Even if I could find my God,
I am not worthy of his love.
As Donnelly narrates uncomfortable episodes and relates how she managed to achieve a sense of overcoming through writing, her poetry compels us to consider why it was so necessary for her to find a way to boost her sense of self-worth. Several poems in The Woman With An Owl Tattoo extol the love of women and delight in portraying details of female sex, seen up close and clearly from a feminine point of view. Some of these poems are artless but related with a sincerity that makes art superfluous, and they help readers to grasp the overall import of Donnelly’s verse. Her confessional poems share with readers her need to feel good about herself after having survived ordeals that included grave bouts of depression. Her narration of her troubles attracts our sympathy as the truth emerges that the causes of her suffering have often not been of her own making: her narrative amounts to an accusatory social critique.
While in many places today people commonly consider that it’s OK to be gay, reading Donnelly’s poems obliges us to ask whether it is OK to be a woman. It is sensible to question how far we have come since classical times – when it was clearly not OK – or since the Renaissance, when new translations of classical texts ushered in an upsurgence in misogyny. A number of Anne Donnelly’s lengthier poems have a subtext that says “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
Donnelly’s propensity for confronting submerged topics is an important part of the appeal of her verse; her poems invite readers to contemplate notions that have taboo associations, and this attribute of her verse has drawn the attention of readers and critics since the beginning of her writing career. Her willingness to broach provocative themes has surprisingly resulted at times in kicking in doors that someone has unexpectedly left ajar. Donnelly has found an encouraging degree of support for her often provocative verse. For example, she has recently been appointed poet laureate of the small, bustling port town of Belmullet in north Mayo through a Poetry Ireland initiative that is helping small towns take part in a series of poetry events.
Donnelly’s verse prompts readers to contemplate delicate themes despite the difficulties they are likely to encounter in finding the language to discuss these topics when the words themselves have become weaponised. She makes use of the power of narrative to create a comprehensible human context that lets readers approach sensitive topics without anyone having to get hurt. Part of her success is owing to the fact that many people want to discuss important subjects, such as misogyny and LGBTQ+ issues, which are surrounded by a minefield of loaded terminology. Her writing induces readers to identify with her as she relates the circumstances of her life and presents emotionally charged topics in an understandable context. Working within a well-worn tradition, Donnelly harnesses the power of literature to give exposure to issues that may be too contentious to intelligently discuss in the venue of public discourse.
Dick Edelstein contributes essays, reviews and articles to journals and websites in Ireland and the United Kingdom and is a contributing writer at the 3 Quarks Daily web portal.