GALWAY POET Mary O'Malley recently published her latest volume of poems, Playing the Octopus, her fourth collection with Carcanet Press and her eighth in all since her 1990 debut, A Consideration of Silk.
The new poems range from Ireland to America and across myth and history, consider trees and animals, music and the sea, and salute revered poets and artists as O'Malley "steps into a zone of power and mastery", to quote her fellow poet Paula Meehan.
I meet O'Malley on a sunny Saturday morning at the House Hotel. As I enter the lobby I find her reading Robert Lowell's classic volume of translations, Imitations. It seems apt given her new book's sequence of America-centred poems and its translations from Seán Ó'Ríordáin and Lorca. Lowell also gets a passing name-check in 'First Visit to Penn's Landing'; “He's one of my totem poets” she tells me.
Another of the American poems, 'A Singing Supper', includes the lines "Later I thought about Ireland/How we're better away/Than going back, mostly." I ask her about that sentiment and her feelings about visiting America.
“I mostly go to America for work and I go to Europe to try to get time away to write,” she replies. “I find it utterly necessary; I do not think I could continue writing if I didn't get off this rock regularly. What America does is it just gives me permission to write or do or think anything which is interesting for a politically conservative country. People there are not hidebound, that openness of the continent is really true, despite its myriad problems. Also, some of the key influences when I started to re-read poetry as an adult were the American poets. And there is that envy as well for the ability to write those long, rolling, roving poems and lines. Reading them, you start realising how small and fenced in we are in Europe.”
The volume also includes sequences on trees and animals. The short poem 'November' goes as follows; "The skeletal arms of a tree/What do I see? Eyes open/A low hill capped in rain/A woodcut of purgatory./With my eyes closed, the sea."
O'Malley describes how these poem sequences evolve: “I’ve come to think it is like painters. I used to be fascinated by the way painters might do a big sequence on the same scene and I think these poems are similar. There is something I am working through because I tend to write in books as much as in individual poems. Until something is worked out the book isn’t finished. I didn’t know how I was going to write about those trees. The short one about trees I knew as a child came first because that was the most immediate to me and then the tree fell on our house and I wrote that one ['Last year a tree punched five holes/In the roof, smashed through/Windows, a glass house, the porch.']
"I also went back to Robert Graves’s tree alphabet and I have a book of trees at home. I remembered from Connemara when I was a child they used to put a bit of tree bark in a boat to ward off badness. And so the lore of trees comes in and then I realised there was this whole thing happening at this transitional stage in my own life where I am looking at things almost back through the generations as much as in the immediate moment. Either one poem wasn’t enough to do it or I’m not skilful enough to do it in one poem!”
The iconic figure of Mad Sweeney figures in two poems; "He's back again, perching thin-shanked/In the trees, roosting out on the islands/In full flight like a cock pheasant/Ragged from battle, a splendid eejit." ('Sweeney' )
O'Malley reveals these are the start of a new poetic series. “I know for certain, well I hope, there will be a lot more of those," she says. "Sweeney is something that I now see as an absolute immediate story for modern Ireland, for the young men that are lost. He’s that wonderful transitional figure; he is a lost man and yet he has this absolutely extraordinary strength and will to go on. It makes you think what is it about that desire to remain human.”
The book concludes with 'A Lift', which vividly evokes a car journey with Dermot Healy. “He was a good friend. I liked him a lot and I love his work,” O'Malley declares. “What he did for me personally is he took me very seriously; if he thought something was good he'd say so, and if he thought it wasn't he'd say so and I valued that a lot. For a man with little Irish he had an absolute fast-track into the Gaelic imagination, that surreal strand you find in Flann O'Brien and Cré na Cille. I think he was one of the most important writers Ireland has produced in the last 100 years, particularly his prose.”
The final two words in that poem and the book are 'pure magic'. They serve as an apt summation of the collection as a whole.