Templar Poetry, 2008 £4.00
Reviewed by Tony Williams, Nathan Thompson and D A Prince
Maggie O’Dwyer’s poems touch on empathy and its failure, describing the erotic life of the poet’s persona. She uses crisp, visual images to express her inner world. The first of these poems opens:
Nights you’re away, the amaryllis opens
like an underskirt of silk, ruffled red.
Against this bold visual clarity, O’Dwyer give us mundane domestic details:
On the TV, a man tells his story of love
and on another channel, a woman tells hers.
It’s a neat opening, suggesting the mood of cynicism and baulked idealism which runs through the pamphlet. The poems are nearly all stories of love in one form or another: a couple watch a romantic film at the cinema, but it’s their story that we’re watching; a loved one comes to life again through the handwriting in a recipe book; two poems addressed to a jazz pianist (one of them is evocative and concise, the other diffuse and querulous); but mainly the persona addresses past, present and future lovers, in a variety of attitudes.
I like best the pieces where the poet’s attention is focused on the loved one. When it’s inward-looking, the result risks a kind of self-mythologising which doesn’t appeal. One poem speaks of “ ;allow[ing] my mind/ to wander back to myself”, and this is a risk the poems here often run. In ‘Missing’, the very interesting conceit of person and landscape merging is obscured by the way it is claimed rather than earned: “my hands”
would be a bed for spotted irises,
my feet shift to the sway of bog cotton,
my body tremble under the quiet fall
of a fox’s paws.
Similarly an epistle to ‘The Poet of Baghdad’ attempts to express empathy, but I don’t think it really goes beyond a Westerner’s hand-wringing; I don’t think it’s a poem’s business to write references for the poet.
I’m much more impressed when O’Dwyer focuses her gaze outwards. ‘Blood’ meditates on family ties to produce a simple, lyrically effective narrative: “He will not leave his mammy/ and she will not leave her daddy”, so in the end “The grass grows long between them.” There’s a prose poem that explores absence and time through a plastic Minnie Mouse toy (no, really, it’s good), and a delicious story of another woman intruding on a relationship:
I found myself drinking Bancha tea,
slicing my carrots diagonally,
eating brown rice with chopsticks.
There are striking images dotted through Yes, I’d Love to Dance. At night, “the dark window is a mirror/ I see myself in”; a list of possessions includes “on sunny days/ a rectangle of yellow/ on my bed.” In the cinema poem the experience of being swept up in a film is convincingly evoked:
Afterwards they fall
like smooth cold milk,
you can’t separate
the colour from the sound.
There are moments when O’Dwyer shows great restraint, holding back from reflection to let her narratives and images acquire a mysterious lyrical power. I’m thinking of ‘The Handkerchief Tree’ and especially ‘I Ching’, where objects are described and allowed to sing, without being reined in by emotional explanation.
I like this. It’s not the kind of work I usually enjoy but it’s so well executed and engaging that I can’t help but go with it. Maggie O’Dwyer’s poetry is precise and domestic and serious. And although, on the whole, it’s clipped and pared down, there’s still room for a conversational tone:
Brad, did you ever get my poem?
It’s been two years now and now word.
The summer came that year, late
and hot, cotton blue skies for days
on end . . .
[‘Not falling This Time’]
I love the withholding of “late’” after the implication in the prior “The summer came that year”, which implies that some years summer doesn’t come at all. And “cotton blue skies”, conflating clouds and the colour blue is clever and beautiful and condensed, without sacrificing the overall tone of conversational engagement.
If you’re going to write descriptive poetry then you’ve got to be darn sure that your images are functioning well and that the senses are deployed accurately. And that’s never an issue in this collection. You don’t often get those moments, not easily avoided, when the writer’s experience gets in the way of what’s being said by way of imagining a shared experience that isn’t really there. Pretty much every phrase in this collection is accurately focussed and pithy, without being detached:
There’s a storm tonight Maria,
first a shiver of grasses, a hiding
of small birds, then clouds
purple with thunder, folding
the light from wheat fields.
The use of line breaks is beautiful here, as it is throughout. Each line stands as a questioning image in itself (excepting the first and last of course) before being clarified by the next. And it doesn’t matter whether the subject matter engages with a commonality of experience with the reader because the element of descriptive story-telling lifts the writing out of the confessional ‘show and tell’. You’re not being asked to engage with the poet’s personality directly, just obliquely by way of sympathy rather than empathy.
In short, this is the kind of debut collection that pamphlet publishers must pray for—it’s great writing from an accessible poet yet to make their mark but who is sure to do so. Maggie O’Dwyer handles the lyric with a panache and easy delicacy (while never being precious) that really sets her apart from the crowd. She’s a writer bound to find a place among the mainstream big guns, and truth be told she’s a more interesting poet already than many of them will ever be. I could quote more, but I really think you should just buy this one. It’s good stuff and worth four quid of anyone’s money. And it may be a collector’s item in time, so even if you don’t like it, I suspect you’ll make your money back.
D A Prince:
Maggie O’Dwyer graduated in art, and these poems reveal how strong the influence this can have on poetry. There’s colour and light in every poem, sometimes primary colour, at other times a precisely-defined subtlety of shade. The light might be full sunlight, or all the shades into which evening mist fades. However O’Dwyer uses them, they work: she has produced a visually luminous, sensuous collection, and has an ear for language to match the images. This puts her in the tradition of Irish poets who use simple words to create magic out of the natural world.
Look at the opening lines, from ‘Once upon a time’—
Nights you’re away, the amaryllis opens
like an underskirt of silk, ruffled red.
Time hangs on its petals,
the grass prepares itself for frost.
Here sexuality, immediacy and the yearning ache of long evenings alone when young and in love set the tone for the whole pamphlet. O’Dwyer shows what it feels like to stay up too late, listening to familiar music, drifting in thought and body, letting the evening stretch around her loneliness, when love is somewhere else. She’s not self-pitying in this; it’s a feeling anyone will recognise, and as friends are named, and slide in and out of these poems, she demonstrates that people and places are important to her, and inspire her. In the title poem, ‘Yes, I’d love to dance’, she describes the heart-stopping beauty of a tree, which looks “like a ball gown made with/ icing sugar.” Then, in the second half of the poem, invention takes over—
Tomorrow morning I’ll bring
a ladder, lean it against the tree,
push through its vaulted underskirt
of dark yew-green leaves
right up to my waist
and sit there for hours.
and finally, completing her fantasy—“. . . is that you/ I see gliding or floating/ towards me in that white shirt/ I ironed last week?”
I like a fantasy that’s grounded in ironing—and there’s enough domesticity tucked in around the edges of these poems (a washing machine, clothes horse, scrubbing bathroom sink) to mark the magical elements sparkle even more brightly.
The final poem, ‘I do’, is a beautiful love poem, every word falling so perfectly into place that I wish there was space to quote it in full. There isn’t, so here is the last stanza:
and oh my love, when the night
is dark, and the world is lonely,
I will give you my hand on your head.
the moon in a bone china cup,
the unfinished map of myself.
Tender and lyrical, Maggie O’Dwyer reminds us that finely-crafted poetry is worth searching for, and that it refreshes the way we look at the world and those around us.