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

Breviary – Brief Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll

Dennis300Dennis O’Driscoll (1954 – 2012) was an Irish poet, essayist, critic and editor. Regarded as one of the best European poets of his time, the book critic of The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby, considered him “the lyric equivalent of William Trevor” and a better poet “by far” than Raymond Carver. He was born in Thurles, County Tipperary where he was educated  by the Christian Brothers and then studied Law at University College, Dublin. After completing his secondary education, at age sixteen (1970), O’Driscoll was offered a job at Ireland’s Office of the Revenue Commissioners, the internal revenue and customs service. Specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,”  he was employed for over thirty years full-time. He relished the sobriety of his role as a public servant, in one poem crowning himself “Lord of the Files”

Reviewing the work of Dennis O’Driscoll in Slate, Adam Kirsch had this to say: “In addition to being a poet, O’Driscoll is a career civil servant, and his years working in offices have given him a disabused perspective on the daily life of the average citizen of Dublin—or Denver, for that matter. No poet since Philip Larkin, a famously effective librarian, has made sharper observations about the nature of contemporary work: the jargon, the boredom, the small compensations.”

From 1987 he had an entertaining column, Pickings and Choosings, in Poetry Ireland Review, which metamorphosed into The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006). This anthology of quotations about poetry which contains nearly two thousand smart sayings obsessively gleaned from six hundred poetry sources is published in the United States by Copper Canyon Press (2008) as Quote Poet Unquote. Nicholas Lezard praised it as “an anthology that aims to recharge its subject, to demarginalise it, or at least to demystify it, in the sense of showing that poetry is a human activity, but not in the sense of making the finished product any less mysterious”.

His book on Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney is regarded as the definitive biography of the Nobel laureate. In  Stepping Stones, it was Dennis O’Driscoll’s bold idea to trace the Nobel laureate’s life through conversation. “Is there a more wise, profound and eloquent interviewee in poetry than Seamus Heaney? I wanted to capture his ideas at much greater length than other interviews had; to rescue reflections or recollections that would be absent from the record otherwise. My hope was that the book would present a three-dimensional portrait of the artist, a biography in all but name; by doing so in his own words, it would amount to a Heaney autobiography also.”

Breviary

Dennis O’Driscoll wrote nine books of poetry, three chapbooks, and two collections of essays and reviews. The majority of his works were characterised by the use of economic language and the recurring motifs of mortality and the fragility of the everyday commuter life. He wrote with the clarity of the eastern European poets he admired, poets such as the Czech poets, Czesław Miłosz and Miroslav Holub, and the Polish poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska. He was also attracted to brevity. In each of his collections he has a set of short poems he has called Breviary. Some of these poems are printed below.

 

Breviary, Interior

Brief Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll

DUSK

blue jeans fade
she slips
into a sequined gown

***

SNOW

earth is plaster cast
a red fox trickles
down the mountain path

***

MANNA

a yolk of moon
its shell speckled with stars

***

HOSPITAL

between pre-natal and mortuary
the research unit

***

ARS POETICA

butchers put price tags on meat
or neatly trim the fat around its edge

***

NIGHT WATCH

to get to sleep
he started to count sheep
but they too were
being led to the slaughter

***

PERSEPHONE

with sweaters
striped as deckchairs
unseasonable hockey skirts
schoolgirls surprise
the winter streets
like spring

***

OFF-DUTY

reclining in the garden overnight
your deckchair soaking up the moonlight

***

FLOODS

Water under the bridge
flows from the tears of those
who cried their eyes out
over spilt milk.

***

FAME

The bells your
name once rang
no longer toll,
their clappers
fallen silent.

***

SUMMER

The pickaxe plop
of a lobbed-back shot
all summer from
the tennis club.

***

THE FATHER

after William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon the familiar sound
of his red car

coming at night
around the final bend
toward home

scattering white chickens
and shattering glazed puddles
of rain

***

All poems © Dennis O’Driscoll
Publisher: Anvil Press Poetry, London.

 

Breviary, Interior

 

LINKS

The Dennis O’Driscoll website which includes a biography, a bibliography, selected poems and some interviews.

Afterthoughts on Contemporary Poetry in English, an essay by Dennis O’Driscoll.

Irish poet Peter Sirr writes a tribute to Dennis O’Driscoll.

Seamus Heaney’s tribute to Dennis O’Driscoll.

Seamus Heaney in conversation with Dennis O’Driscoll on Vimeo.

George Szirtes reviews the New and Selected Poems of Dennis O’Driscoll.

Review of Dennis O’Driscoll  by Adam Kirsch in Slate magazine.

Gerald Dawe’s memoir and review of the critical and autobiographical essays of Dennis O’Driscoll, The Outnumbered Poet.

 

Dennis300

 

All poems © Dennis O’Driscoll
Publisher: Anvil Press Poetry, London.