Poetry Review | Sunlight, New and Selected Poems by John O’Donnell

This new collection from Dedalus Press consists of 27 pages of new poetry and around 130 pages of poems taken from John O’Donnell’s three previous collections – Some Other Country (2002), Icarus Sees His Father Fly (2004), and On Water (2014). As a newcomer to his work, I started with the new poems to see what he was writing now and worked backwards to put them in context.

There is a mournful tone to most of O’Donnell’s new poems with death, absence and the haunting past at the heart. The collection starts with the title poem, Sunlight, where the light pouring in through the window crosses his mother’s deathbed, unconcerned with her passing. But there is also consolation. In Mackerel, in memory of Billo O’Donnell which talks of:

‘shouldering you through these streets for the last time,’ there are happy memories: ‘the whole line wriggling with life, and you laughing like there’s no tomorrow.’

The absence of a father, the loneliness of a stranger in the lit Café, the potential loss of sight in Pterygium and the sea providing a wealth of imagery and a strong sense of place, many of the poems are also stories. A strong example is If You Have To Ask You’ll Never Know, which starts with a horn lifted from a dead confederate soldier leading via the river boats to the jazz bands of New Orleans, to land among the famous horn players: 



‘and all the other cats
who’ll know a little place, no questions asked,
with good tunes and decent liquor where we can all go
after the encore’s last note has sounded.’

These new poems come at the end of a book which samples collections covering sixteen years, so, if you are familiar with the other collections, what can you expect? I would say, a gentle development rather than any radical change in style. 

The selection from Some Other Country, as the title suggests, includes poems on the theme of leaving home and its loss, looking back to the Irish famine and migration to America but also, more immediately, Kola’s Shop and the violent racism faced by todays immigrants: 

‘the scar on Abayomi’s face, nineteen
stitches in a crescent, lip to ear from where
the glass went in, a stitch for every year’

However, it also includes Sports Day where the future is still up for grabs and is as much another country as the past:

‘For every boy breasting the tape there are, will be
So many also-rans, who’ll prise open
the future’s oyster shell to find a world
of sand instead of pearl.’ 

But for now they are all: ‘bright rags of colour/Streaming out into a dying sun.’

Father son relationships are a recurring theme and from Icarus Sees His Father Fly, the title poem captures a very particular relationship with the moving conclusion: ‘shouts of encouragement. Loud in my head. Your voice once more. My arms spread.’

History and its continuing impact is strongly felt whether O’Donnell is considering the holocaust, as in Judenbengel or Ireland’s sectarian troubles. Shakespeare in Ireland conveys a very vivid sense of past hatreds not yet over with an encounter with a ‘blood-revenant’ (a ghost or  a corpse come back from the dead for revenge) amid locals dancing in rehearsal for battle: 

‘who’d this night gladly kill me, one brute blow
as jigs and reels come rivering off the bow.’

All three selections from past work include a biblical poem. From Icarus Sees His Father Fly, that poem is This Child, which includes accounts of the birth of Christ from various characters including a touch of humour with the endearing innkeeper’s daughter who brings him a gift of a rag doll, hoping the child would be a girl. 

Sporting metaphors run through many of the poems, celebrating aspects of football and golf especially. Wilson from On Water  considers the changing relationship between father and son through the golf they play together, wearing away the club maker’s name until soon only ‘son’ will be left.

It is hard to summarise a book which includes poems from three previous collections, published over 16 years but its recurrent themes make Sunlight a coherent collection in its own right. Like the sunlight which casts light equally over the ‘tubes dials and switches’ of the title poem and on the lifeless body of the mother; religion, history, social conflict and close relationships are illuminated not indifferently but with much of the detachment of a witness. 


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