Mary O’Donoghue, even more than most poets, is in love with words. She delights in strange and exquisite vocabulary, in retrieving precious gems from the dictionary’s seldom-visited corners. Curios like the following stud her verse: “miffed”, “scarper”, “bruxist”, “thigging”, “churt”. Yet O’Donoghue’s mining of the dictionary is aimed not at flashiness but at exactitude. Again and again in her work we find precisely the right word in precisly the right place: “a gallimaufry of cast-offs”, “the roking stewpot”, “the fichu of my frock”.
Mary O’Donoghue was born in 1975, grew up in County Clare and now lives in Boston. Her poetry collections are Tulle (Salmon Poetry, 2001) and Among These Winters (Dedalus Press, 2007). Her novel Before the House Burns appeared in 2010 from The Lilliput Press. Her poems, short stories, and translations have appeared widely both in Ireland and in the United States. She has received the Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing, artist’s grants from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as well as fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, most recently in 2012. She is an Associate Professor of English at Babson College.
While O’Donoghue has produced some affecting poems about her family and about her childhood in County Clare she is by no means limited to Irish themes. Her work is fuelled by her various and fecund imagination, which ranges to characters from Greek myths (Hebe, Erymanthus, Eurydice) medical conditions (schizophrenia, catalepsy) and historical characters such as 17th-century midwives. Modigliani’s muse, a female arctic explorer and the not-so-historical Germaine Greer are all also in the mix.
O’Donoghue writes for the most part in an intensely musical free verse, fusing her images together around intricately interlocking patters of rhythm and internal rhyme. Indeed, she has likened her writing process to carpentry, describing how multifarious images knit together to make a poetic whole. Her occasional ventures into formal verse are equally impressive. ‘Swallows’, for instance, finds her tackling the tricky sestina form with typical verve, opening in bravura fashion by quoting a historical remedy for “Sinews that are Shrunk”.
This is serious, confident work. Yet it is marked by wit and humour, and is in places laugh-out-loud funny. ‘The Stylist’ takes the idea of inscribing poetry on strands of hair to its madly logical end – sestinas on ringlets, tercets in a mullet, haiku for a short-haired poet. Her ‘Leading Apes in Hell’, unforgettably set to music by the Bee Loud Glade, is another daring exercise in taking a notion to its outlandishly inevitable end point.
Textured, rich in strange imagery and always surprising, these are poems to read, relish and reread.
Tulle, Salmon Publishing, Knockeven, County Clare, 2001
Among These Winters, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2007
Before the House Burns, The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2010
O’Donoghue at Dedalus Press
O’Donoghue at The Lilliput Press