Valparaiso: The personal odyssey

Biblio: A monthly review of Irish Books

AT THE top of Dalysfort Road, as in several other Galway city locations, there is a particular spot which offers a panoramic view of Galway Bay that is as spectacular as any such like vista on this planet.

Any time coming over that hill I happen to see a ship coming in the bay, the opening lines of Pádraig De Brún’s poem jump to mind:

“Tháinig long ó Valparaiso

Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuain”.

No matter how often this happens, it always – as it did the first time I came across the poem in secondary school – brightens the day, lifts the heart and puts a little pep in the step. The fact that the poet rejects the ship’s invitation to join it on a long voyage, “away from the misery, mist and cold”, and lives to regret it for the rest of his life, never occurs to me, so strong is the promise and hope of those opening lines.

By calling her new collection Valparaiso, Mary O’Malley invites us to join her on this voyage of promise and indeed in the first poem ‘Poems On A Leaf’ gives us the wherewithal to sustain the journey:

“Be life veined

Be strong as winter

Be the sun’s dance

On every water.”

Good pragmatic advice indeed as the next poem underlines the great difficulties that faced the poet and now faces the reader:

“I hear the earth is not reliable, the poles not where they ought to be. I never thought they would but wanted stamps, and rest among the pilgrim souls

all maps discarded, just the studded way of paintings signposted in shells, the hope of traveller’s courtesy and all our road unravelling before us”.

At first, the voyage is tentative, unsure as life’s experience has taught caution, that all is not what it seems and from time to time a note of cynicism and bitterness informs the poetry;

“We got our Christianity from Egypt not Rome But – the Pope won

So all the convent girls sing oh oh oh

De Bello Bello Gallico”

And then the poet fully commits herself and takes the sea voyage to Valparaiso:

“It was making day when I looked out at the kind of beauty that leaves death unthinkable, purple slate, gannets rising in small explosions and everything makes sense.

The world is round again and we are its sun describing a horizon ratskin waves stretch to America lumps of sea rise under the bow and below acres of drowned Ireland and a mountain”.

Thus strengthened, the poet pushes on, more confident now, finding in the mysteries and the disappointments of her past life a strange consolation that leads finally – though not necessarily the final one – to her human condition:

“There is never merely one Albertine so long as love has love has her in its power and never only one soul, one Madeleine,

so the quantum effect, despite unease, stays, leaving us to weave eternally through the universes we create, cold as theorems

hot as suns.”

There is a curious 18th century feel to this collection, tinges of Gulliver’s Swiftean voyage or the innocent Candide’s travels driven by Voltaire’s biting satire and leading to the almost inevitable conclusion that the most satisfactory way to deal with life’s vicissitudes is simply to “cultiver son jardin.”

Mary O’Malley’s Valparaiso is a journey well worth taking. Her powerful poetic images resonate and the reader will be the richer for the experience. It may open the door to allow him/her to come closer to a possible understanding of his/her individual human condition and voyage.



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