The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Swimming Against the Tide


Jane Grogan



Bernard O’Donoghue. Outliving. London: Chatto and Windus, 2003. iv; 56 pages. £8.99 paper.


Growing up in the west of Ireland, we knew that the girls of Cork were somehow different. While we scrubbed around in badly elasticated knee socks, word was that any self-respecting Cork girl carefully tucked up the hemlines of her school uniform to show off outrageously bare teenage legs. Those girls had an elusive glamour, a mysterious, bubbling source of confidence which I was pleased to find confirmed in Corkman Bernard O’Donoghue’s latest collection of poetry. Among the many rich stories and tableaux of Outliving is a warm tribute to those mysterious older sisters, the “Pleiades of Woolworths-girls, / They’d stepped straight out of the pictures / At the Pavilion or Capitol or Ritz, / Still made up for the American night.” O’Donoghue’s poetry sparks off many such recognitions. Digging the rich earth of everyday experience is his forte, to recycle Seamus Heaney’s metaphor. But his is an unusual emigrant voice and one which Irish poetry has yet fully to embrace. He mixes the plangent affection often born of the emigrant’s homesickness with the darker, deeper creative relationship which distance affords, most strikingly realised in Stephen Dedalus’s description of Ireland as “the old sow that eats her farrow.”


O’Donoghue is a poet, critic and fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. Outliving is his seventh book of poetry; an earlier collection, Gunpowder, won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1995 and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Award. Outliving, too, has recently been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Award. Occasional poems, translations (including Dante and the Irish-language poet Liam Ó Muirthile) and reworkings feature prominently, the personal store of poems, narratives and characters made public treasury. O’Donoghue’s generosity is evident in the acknowledgements: some of the poems here have been published before in festschrift, leaflet, even a local feis programme, and more are written for, or in memory of friends. An Irishman long in England and a frequent visitor home, his writings are informed by a sense of alterity that makes him a familiar stranger to Ireland. His poetry fuses memories of his youth in 1950s Ireland with depictions of the confident “Celtic tiger” of his holidays. Neither “here nor there,” as the title of his last collection had it, he resembles a character he himself might describe, a “Connaught stranger,” that almost familiar figure of the migrant seasonal worker from the bare fields of Connaught to the rich farms of southern Ireland. Many of his subjects are staples of the Irish poetic tradition, of lives scratched out on English building-sites or in the dim Cork nights: diaspora, memory, old age, death and the small betrayals of a lived out life. So, too, are their more kindly companions: music, disencumbrance and the promise of new paths to be beaten.


But O’Donoghue wards off sentimentality by employing techniques of impersonation, a wry self-mockery and the occasional startlingly harsh parallel. He speaks for the older figure of the fish-out-of-water Irish emigrant (even as he himself embodies the new)—the barely literate labourers, those who never returned—and releases some of the invective which they might feel against the “poverties and embarrassments / too humbling to retell” of the mother-country which laid them waste, banished them and still held them thrall. The final poem of the collection, “The Mule Duignan,” is purge enough for any Hiberno-sentimentalist. Being away is what enables these searching poetic visits to a nation which, as O’Donoghue acknowledges, for all its mythological grandeur, is capable of inflicting a terrible humiliation on their own kind. It is this doubled perspective, of being at once inside and outside, which gives his voice its power.


The opening poem explains O’Donoghue’s title, that he has now reached the age at which he starts to outlive his father. Self-doubt in having “broken ranks” is followed by a resolve to harvest new freedoms: “like mad Arnaut / to cultivate the wind, to hunt the bull / on hare-back, to swim against the tide.” Outliving thus finds O’Donoghue writing from a position not unlike that of Seamus Heaney in Seeing Things (1991). Looking to Aeneas’s search for Anchises, with transport supplied by Dante’s Charon, Heaney ventured to stand tall alongside his father. A haiku had Heaney making his way across the slippery winter ice, armed with his father’s stick (“1.1.87”). Persevering likewise to keep company with the dead, O’Donoghue also strikes out with his father and some Dante to hand, and the underworld is never far from mind. He assumes a companionability with the dead, drinking wine and lighting candles to Dolly Duggan “across the smoky hush / of Catholic Europe” (“A Candle for Dolly Duggan”) or crouched up by the fire in their untaxing company (“The Company of the Dead”). The challenge of living with, or for, the dead is one to which he returns again and again in this collection.


In Seeing Things, Heaney metaphorically rubbed his eyes, not to dispel illusion but “[t]o credit marvels” (“Fosterling”). Not seeing things is something O’Donoghue sets out to redress. He evokes the marvels in everyday life that slip by us, unnoticed and unvalued, but also the stubborn visions that we prefer not to see nor remember but which continue to make claims on us that are never entirely fathomable: a body pulled from a river, a movie hero lying “battered in the hay,” the dead, dusty remnants of a once becoming beard. He writes with warmth, perceptiveness and a lightly worn intelligence, peopling his poems with local, literary and classical heroes. Behind these quiet tributes are fundamental questions about how we live in the world, with each other and towards death. “Our faultline,” as he put it in his last collection, is “that we’re designed / To live neither together nor alone.”


The idiom is simple yet deep, the natural ebb and flow of the narrative voice at once inviting and soothing, but there is turmoil behind the calm in the careful observance of the stain of a red kite’s wing or a friend’s name inscribed in an inherited book. We find the age-old topography of Irish diaspora (from rural Ireland to mainland Europe by way of Lindisfarne, airport lounges and the building-sites of London and Bristol), but O’Donoghue ventures further, into Tetovo, Basra and Afghanistan. The father’s perspective of a cherished daughter lying across a dentist’s chair is precisely that of the photographer of the “thrown-away body / of the young Taliban soldier” (“Vanishing-points”). Although at time it comes close, nostalgia never really takes a foothold. Instead the poet brings off a curiously ahistorical sense of human involvement. O’Donoghue’s poems testify to ongoing social bonds and responsibilities. With sensitivity and compassion “Goalkeepers” (like “Celebrities”) tackles the burden of living with the suicide of a friend when not even these “Custodians. The last line of defence, / Most celebrated lineage of heroes” can save their less-celebrated brothers.


He is particularly strong at charting the odd corners of emigrant experience, where rituals are at once absurd and basic: the false telegrams used to secure passage home for the summer against the eventuality of the true message of a mother’s death; wood preservative carefully applied to an English fence whilst far away a friend is making his final journey from church to graveyard. But his faith in language and narrative, in the stories we tell and what they tell about us, is matched by a surprising interest in language which just doesn’t work, at least as communication or expression. In one respect this interest is associated with the well-recognised constraints of writing in the coloniser's tongue. “The Wind in the Willows” bluntly begins, “It couldn't have been written in our neck / of the woods, because—misnamers of everything—we called them salleys and used them magically / to divine water or, not sparing their rods, / improve children.” But in mechanical babblings (“Rhubarb, rhubarb”), mysterious Joycean “gibberish” (“Derevaun seraun”) or a hopeless call to a deceased neighbour (“Any Last Requests”), O’Donoghue finds that communion with the living, let alone the dead, is often sustained on the intractable. Certain good is in more than words alone.


Less successful are the ekphrastic poem, “The Potato-Gatherers,” based on the painting by George Russell (AE) and the slightly laboured, descriptive nature poems. This may be because they lack the vivid human subjects O’Donoghue evokes so winningly, but also because the conceit occasionally does not hold up against the bright clarity of the verse. At times like these, the snug idiom shows its rigour, and can be strangely deflating. But these are rare disappointments in a collection of epiphanic narratives of remarkable range, executed with warmth and flair. O’Donoghue’s affectionate celebrations of local heroes recall the storytelling, but especially the memorialising impulse of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, “Epic,” a meditation on a local farmers’ row: “Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind / He said: I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.” Writing from the interstices of a geopolitical “here” and “there,” his voice, mediating but never quite reconciled, gives a new and vital direction to the tradition of Irish poetry.






Grogan, Jane. “Swimming Against the Tide.” Rev. of Outliving, by Bernard O’Donoghue. The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>