Off Duty, by Katie Donovan, Bloodaxe Books, 96 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780373164
Off Duty, the most recent collection by Irish poet Katie Donovan, presents an uncensored look at the realities of living and caring for someone with a terminal illness. Though the collection offers an unflinching assessment of Donovan’s late husband’s deteriorating condition, crucially the poet evaluates herself with a similarly microscopic gaze, powerfully articulating her inner emotional life as a carer and regularly confronting her own flaws as she suppresses a tide of contradictory feelings. Naturally, Donovan’s account of her own lived experience does not exist in a vacuum, and some of the greatest strengths of the work lie in her ability to tiptoe around the trauma of events beyond her control and still make the space to acknowledge the chance fragments of joy she experiences as she continues to raise her young family.
Donovan’s frankness does at times makes for uncomfortable reading, yet this offset by a true tenderness and lucidity. A wry sense of humour still rings through the darkness, not altogether stifled by the long shadow cast by her husband’s illness. It’s also perhaps unexpected that a collection charged with narrating a death would have so much vitality within its pages ‑ what Peggy O’Brien has called Donovan’s “remarkable fertility with imagery” which “serves a profound exploration of the first and last mysteries of the flesh”. Donovan’s children are certainly the agents of spiritedness throughout the work, as their mother gazes anew at human life, and those poems specifically detailing Donovan’s relationship with her daughter provide particularly compelling accounts of childish incredulity.
Off Duty also contains affecting poems about external events that have struck the poet, such as the flooding of Prague in 2002, or more chillingly, Andrea Yeates’s drowning of her five children in a bathtub. Donovan’s poem “Labour”, dedicated to the memory of Savita Halappanavar, offers an unnervingly mechanical, almost dystopian account of giving birth in modern Ireland, as unsettling as it is pertinent. A supporting cast of characters from Donovan’s own life also flit through the collection: taxi drivers, electricians, doctors and the postman.
Their inclusion achieves a similar effect to that in the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”, where he concludes with the lines: “Work has to be done./ Postmen like doctors go from house to house”. “Aubade” grapples with the poet’s sheer terror of his own mortality and yet ends by reverting to the everyday. Similarly, Off Duty must address the loss of a loved one, from within a selfish world that will go on without him. Donovan’s inclusion of her various run-ins with these characters anchors her story among the lives of others; many of whom, having experienced and survived loss, are now able to offer support to her in her time of isolation.
Such isolation does not simply begin at the time the poet assumes the role of carer. Faintly chronological, “Off Duty” charts the change as Donovan and her husband adjust to the drain of domesticity on their romantic life, as in “Poem to a Sleeping Man”:
When the circle of our domestic hum
grows wearisome, you disappear
into the remnant of your single life,
and I cling, weeping on the wreck
of what I wanted in romantic love,
wondering if it ‑ whatever it was meant to be ‑
has flown this coop …
In “The Next Exit”, the nature of the poet’s paradox becomes apparent: “Because you’re ill, I now can’t spill / the vitriol the way I did”. Such strength of animosity is in stark contrast to the tender and uncompromising love that Donovan is able to feel for her children ‑ her continued imagery spilling and flowing onto the pages, only serving to further highlight a treacherous double standard, as in “Hold On”: “my breasts weeping in my sharp work shirt / for you, so far away, without their comfort”.
This gap in feeling is further highlighted in “Tears Naturelle”, in which the poet confronts her need for a prescription for chronically dry eyes. Has she simply resisted the urge to cry for so long that she no longer needs to? Or, perhaps more worryingly, does she simply not feel an urge? It’s a daunting piece of introspection, that plays out unnervingly in verse:
…and now I have
a bottle of borrowed tears
to irrigate my orbs.
Meanwhile my blood moves,
my breast makes liquid food,
my mouth is able to make
a comfortable swamp
for my damp tongue.
It’s just the eyes
refusing to comply,
to watch or even weep,
to some desert of their own…
The return of Donovan’s husband from Germany, where he had been seeking treatment, seems to herald some successes, but when his cancer returns, it is described with a new viscerality, mirroring its aggressive nature. Though any acerbity of Donovan’s subsides as her spouse’s health weakens further, the physicality with which she recounts the reeking and “hideous death flower” of the tumour indicates the continued horror in which she must now work and operate. It’s when writing about this time that Donovan’s interplay between the vile and the beautiful is at its most affecting. In “What Can I Give Him?” she responds to the moving carol that uses the lines of Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, assessing the last and most precious gifts that can be bestowed upon her husband:
… In this place of death,
where his room is empty
of all he has been forced to shed,
and he is simply grateful for each breath,
we have this lift: our shy daughter
ablaze in song – and he sits easy:
at last, a gift he can receive.
The helplessness that Donovan feels echoes through the poem, as mirrored by Rossetti’s appeal: “What can I give him? Poor as I am.” Similarly, the bleakness of the hospice, and a December spent there with small children, makes for sombre reading ‑ and yet somehow amid the morbidity the evocation of young, shy girl “ablaze in song” serves as a reminder of life, and of all that is still to be lived.
As the collection concludes, Donovan dedicates more time to this contrast, exploring “the guilt of our continued living / In that brutal forward motion of survivors”. More than merely abstract, such guilt is supplemented by a run-in with the undertaker, who the poet worries “caught” her laughing. Throughout the collection, Donovan’s voice remains relatable, despite her extraordinary circumstance. She does not romanticise death, or the dying; nor does she make excuses for any ugliness she finds within herself. Yet in ascribing such a tapestry of thoughts and feelings to trauma, she is able to tenderly replicate her experience in all its contradictions; in both its darkness and its light. Off Duty is certainly an account of grieving, for the dead and the dying, but it’s also a study of those who go on living, and who, in time, will thrive again.
Julia O’Mahony is a writer, living and working in Dublin. She currently contributes literary features to Totally Dublin magazine, as well as pieces on current affairs, book releases, and cultural goings-on in the Dublin area. She is the winner of the Pete Walsh Award for Critical Writing.