White Sound – Brief poems by Julie O’Callaghan

Author photo: Katie O’Callaghan

Julie O’Callaghan was born in 1954 in Chicago. Her great-grandparents had emigrated there from Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan. She was the second of seven children. Her father, Jack, whom she has written about extensively, was a High School teacher of English in the Chicago Public School system. She visited Ireland in July 1974, two days after her twentieth birthday. She was supposed to spend her third year of college studying abroad in Trinity College Dublin, and then go back to the United States. Instead, having written some poetry, she attended a poetry reading where, subsequently, she met the Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll whom she was later to marry. She never went back to live in the United States: I went back and told my parents that I was moving to Ireland. And I never finished my degree, which was a bit of a thing.

She took a job in the library in Trinity College, and continued to write poetry. In 1983 she had her first book of poetry, Edible Anecdotes, published by Dolmen Press. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.  Her second collection, What’s What, published by Bloodaxe Books in 1991, was a Poetry Book Society Choice.  No Can Do (Bloodaxe Books, 2000), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and Tell Me This Is Normal: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008) was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. A chapbook, Problems (Pressed Wafer, Boston), appeared in 2005. Her most recent collection, Magnum Mysterium, dealing with the untimely death of her husband, Dennis O’Driscoll, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2020.

Her poetry has been broadcast on RTE Radio 1 and 2, BBC Radio 3 (including a commission for Poetry Proms 2002), BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Ulster, Public Radio International (Garrison Keillor), and RTE and BBC television. She has also written poetry for older children. These include Taking My Pen for a Walk (Orchard Books, 1988), Two Barks (Bloodaxe Books, 1998) and The Book of Whispers (Faber & Faber, 2006). She received the Michael Hartnett Poetry Award in 2001 and was awarded Arts Council of Ireland Bursaries in 1985, 1990 and 1998. She is a member of the Aosdána, the Irish association of artists which was created in 1981 on the initiative of a group of writers with support from the Arts Council of Ireland.

John Register, Untitled

THE POETRY OF JULIE O’CALLAGHAN

I first discovered the poetry of Julie O’Callaghan when I was asked to review her first collection, Edible Anecdotes. This is what I wrote at the time: The voice of the mid-West on vacation – crude, colloquial and demonstrative. It is the brash voice of the American salesman promoting freedom, free enterprise and enterprising garbage. It is the voice of returned emigrants, lamenting their loss. It is the mixed voice of Irish people at tea-break overheard in snatches of conversation. All these voices are captured in dramatic moments or demotic monologues, and their vibrancy sings. Subsequent volumes amplified the range of that voice as it retained its demotic thrust while extending its emotional range. The heart-breaking poems about her father’s death that were included in No Can Do, particularly in a sequence entitled Sketches for an Elegy, continue to use a colloquial timbre but imbue it with a depth of grief that fuses the disparate sketches into a coherent threnody. And that voice achieves a desolate plangency in her latest collection, Magnum Mysterium where the concluding sequence, After Dennis O’Driscoll, strips the anecdotal technique to a bare and brutal account of an almost unbearable grief with the burden of her husband’s loss borne with a wry irony and an  indefatigable grace.

In a modest comment, in an interview with Trinity News, she confesses to her poetic weaknesses. I have no notions whatsoever. I don’t know anything about poetry. Rhymes, metres and all that. It’s just not happening up there.  While that may be true – and it may not – she has an unerring sense of poetic rhythm that propels the poems in diverse directions. And there is something else resonanting through the poems, something learned perhaps from her lengthy engagement with The Pillow Book  of Sei Shōnagon, a court lady to the Empress of Japan, completed in 1002. In a set of poems collected under the title, Calligraphy, and included in Tell Me This Is Normal: New and Selected Poems,  the American slang and the Irish incidentals give way to a purer sense of oriental decorum. Unlike the Canadian poet, Suzanne Buffam, who uses the pillow book to compile contemporary lists to update the Japanese poet’s style (see my account of this on the Suzanne Buffam page) Julie O’Callaghan offers a more wistful, more allusive homage (although she does, in a poem called 21st Century Pillow Book, teasingly introduce a set of urban lists). This Japanese influence adds an emotional depth and a technical breadth to a poetry that may, at times, seem slight but is, in fact, and in the words of Wendy Cope, poetry you can understand: lively, entertaining, well-observed.

 

 

Brief Poems by Julie O’Callaghan

Bag

I have here 
a plastic bag with handles

inside I carry a few pieces of myself 
a spare arm, replacement vein, extra skin

they do come in useful
on days like today.

***

Time

Only a moment ago
he lay beside me
saying silly poetic things.
The mat is still warm,
incense from his robe
haunts the air.

***

White Sound

When rain
whispers
it is snow.

***

Skinny

All I ever eat is cake.
I eat it at every meal.
Oh and I drink Snapple.
First I take a forkful of cake,
then I wash it down with Mango Cocktail.
That’s my secret 
on how come
I’m so skinny.

***

Facing West

Walls of twinkling skyscrapers
need all the help they can get.
They soak up the colours of dusk.

People quit cooking
or stop laughing at the TV
and turn peach, violet and pale blue

– they are facing west.

***

Over

When he saw geese
gathering on a lake in Wisconsin
he said, ‘Oh no – summer’s almost over.’

Over? It was still hot.
Summer thunderstorms still pounded
nightly on the roof.

***

Island Life

I live on an island.
But that’s not the worst part.
Water sloshes uncontrollably
at the edges
of this entire geological formation.
You can hardly
go anyplace
without falling off.

***

The Day

When the day came
(oh it comes)
and the big old horse
is too stiff
to be ridden
his owner
carries a little chair
into his stable
and reads him poetry
instead.

***

Once When I Visited the Mall

I bought a magnificent floral-skirt
the one I had been searching for
which I knew woud be perfect
for every occasion.
But at home
the flowers seemed faded.

***

Train Music

this is what
I was trying to remember:
sad train moan
in the heat
howling
to the nation.

***

Solitary Confinement

The rattling keys
in my hand
I come 
to our front door
enter
and 
lock myself in
set the alarm
and commence
my Life Sentence.

***

After Dennis O’Driscoll

I had everything:
a cozy house
a genius husband
a happy life
a Sunday roast
a flower garden with gravel paths

and then one day…

***

All poems © Julie O’Callaghan
Publisher: Bloodaxe Books

 

LINKS

Julie O’Callaghan’s website.

The Julie O’Callaghan page on the Bloodaxe Books site.

Interview with Julie O’Callaghan in Trinity News

Julie O’Callaghan reads a selection of her poems in the  Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. 

A review of Magnum Mysterium by Fred Johnston.

A review of Magnum Mysterium by Enda Coyle-Greene.

Julie O’Callaghan reads her poem “After Dennis O’Driscoll” at the UCD Special Collections Reading Room.

 

All poems © Julie O’Callaghan
Publisher: Bloodaxe Books

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