Sunday, March 9, 2014

Maeve O'Sullivan's Latest Book of Poetry

The following is the incredible address that Damian Smyth* gave to launch Maeve O'Sullivan's latest book of poetry, Vocal Chords**. Maeve lives in Dublin and has led a number of haiku workshop retreats at Anam Cara with Kim Richardson.

I want to thank Kim [Richardson***] and Alba Publishing for the hospitality this evening and, of course, for the events to unfold a little later. I want to thank Maeve and Kim for inviting me to say a few words to launch this significant volume of poetry. It’s an honour and it is a pleasure and, in return, my gift to you is my intention not to delay you long.

But sometimes it's hard to keep faith with poetry. All that archness and posture, the rune and the chant, averted head and evil eye that John Montague talked about. Stiff and mannered and off-putting and a bit fusty and a bit full of yourself and more than a bit fey and more than a bit difficult.

All my life I think there's hardly been a waking hour when some version of poetry hasn't preoccupied me and sometimes I think it's like fly fishing or embroidery or an obsession with bus timetables from services that no longer run; imaginary journeys through fanciful landscapes ushered in by a language of odd syntax and odder grammar.

And it appears as counter-intuitive like being able to remember people's names but not their faces. Some peculiar ailment.

It's not fanciful. This disquiet, this unease, this assumption that it somehow matters that such a peculiar register of the voice is reached and sustained. Does it matter? Can we account for all the hours of reflection on this little thing, our life? And the lives of others?

And then, out of nowhere, when you least expect it, something is overheard on a bus or stumbled across in a letter or newspaper or something falls out of a book that looks like a book of poems, which has exactly that ease and grace and poise which makes the heart secretly inflate ...

‘Our round window looks out
onto the lush garden.
The place is warm, and well-run
But it’s not my home.’

How simple is that? How much love and commitment and companionship and how much abandonment? Suddenly, all the toil and bother and interrogation vanishes and is replaced by that unique power and quality of poetry to deliver what only it can, simply, directly, but not without magic.

‘All week herons have been appearing:
on the page, on water, in the air’;

'This is how I would like my three sisters to be:
close, relaxed, hanging out happily'

'She takes a notion to defrost the fridge-freezer:
attacking the ice with steam and a blunt scissors';

'And I thought I knew something
about rhythm, and the west';

'He is from County Leitrim, and proud of it.
'Lowest birth rate in the country', he says,
'but I'm going to change all that'.

That drop into poetry is exhilarating to me, so clearly effective in setting up mood for a change of tone or emphasis, such a self-confidence in the strength of the poetic voice which is already on its way. For me, that is a mark of real poetry at work. Unforced, relaxed, self-assured, engaging, lulling. This poetry has a lovely character.

Though not quite overheard on a bus or stumbled across in a letter or newspaper, Maeve O’Sullivan’s poetry arrived with me through the shorter form of poems in a few journals and magazines and then, in full volume, through the miracle of social media. Or, rather, the miracle of my engagement with social media, Twitter to be precise, a medium I fought against and resisted for years but was finally forced into by my employers. Happily, unexpectedly, through the simple confluence of interest and comment, I grew more familiar with Maeve’s work, her thinking, her writing, her – if I may use this word, and I think I may – her art. Now in two volumes, first Initial Response, her exquisite haikus; and in Vocal Chords, she has come in and come out as a writer, as a poet, as an artist.

Too often, writers shy away from that word. It is left to the visual artists – who carry the word in their very degree – and often the classical musician. Writers can talk about the artform or the artistry of certain passages; but describing themselves as ‘artists’ can seem an uncomfortable category, one at odds with the fake democracy of writers and with the apparent ubiquity of words themselves. Art might make us look and sound as if we thought ourselves prophets of old, Magi of a kind, a priesthood.

Writers aren’t that, of course. But they are artists; in the sense that the effects aspired to are best achieved through the deployment of artistic skills, hard won, honed, practiced and polished.

This isn’t about formal trickery.

Because poetry is about itself. It declares itself in the first words, in rhythm and perspective and insight; it is engaging and friendly and subtle and full of mischief. Something nerveless also; something candid and merciless:

And when at last I’m put into the ground,
Or else cremated, ashes back to Gaia,
Book by book, my library will burn down,
Consuming, then, my memory, my sensorium.

All of which is, quite honestly, simply to say that all the form in the world does not make a poem. The poem is elsewhere than in the form though it is invisible and inaudible without the form. This is a very long winded way of saying that the poems in Maeve O’Sullivan’s collection which employ certain forms, especially the villanelles, are true, true, true poems. Their character is lifted, amplified, shaped, moulded, delivered uniquely by the form chosen, elegantly executed, beautifully apt.

Sweet as a nut - exact, perfect, full to its particular edges, from the inside out. There is a satisfaction to be derived from poems as ‘New Time Waltz’ and ‘Snowdonian’ which cannot be achieved in any other way than formal dexterity embracing genuine delicacy and precision of thought.

Of course, the sections define themselves. Gorgeous attention to colour and water and stone and the resonances of 'human hurt'. (The poems engage, in their moods and challenges, some of which are quite vexing and difficult to tolerate.) There are poems which just work and move profoundly because they work. The set-piece sojourns in the care home are strenuous ethically. Extremely difficult matter, calling for extremely cautious judgements delivered again and again, line by line, clear-eyed, cool, restrained, measured, loaded, but charming in the best sense.
The poems are beyond balladry - though there is a ballade mood; it is beyond song as such, though songs and music are threaded through the book; it is beyond minstrelsy, though a fugitive soul is alive in the poems and in the work as a whole.

The whole collection drifts through a life and exposes quietly the life of the poet, in diverse detail in a variety of locations through the poetry, poem by poem, and this particular poem evokes and pro-vokes poems to come.

Song is the legacy certainly but the poems are vigorous and confrontational (in that they face in to big themes, especially loss and erasure and death and the dramatic poses those things strike in a life.)

Hits? As I go through the book there is so much that is good and in different varieties of good. Everyone wants hits - Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair; Objet d'Art, Snowdonian, Your Shangri La, New Drumbeat, Fathomless, Ruffled (extraordinary, memorable), every item in the third section (its nail ready to scratch), Heartwood (my word!), Drumshanbo, Vocal Chords itself ... among others.

I haven't said everything I want to say about these poems and this book, but I think I might have said everything you all want me to say! (But how clever some of the poems are, not just in formal terms though that too.)

Anyway, Maeve, enjoy the evening. The rest of us will attend to the readings, enjoy the music, savour the moods and, in our time, read and live with the book itself.

*Damian Smyth’s first collection, Downpatrick Races, was published by Lagan Press in 2000, and this was followed by his remarkable epic poem, "The Down Recorder." In 2010, Lagan Press published another collection by Damian, Market Street, and ‘Lamentations’, a sequence of seventy brief elegies. his next collection, Mesopotamia, is forthcoming this year by Templar Poetry.

**Vocal Chords is available: via the Alba website (, in Books Upstairs in Dublin or directly from Maeve (@maeveos on Twitter or

***Kim is leading his second silent retreat -- "Loosening the Bonds" -- at Anam Cara from 16-22 August 2014.

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