Despite the historical evidence to the contrary, the first person singular is often imagined to be the best, or even the only, suitable focus for a lyric poem. It is for this reason that poetry which concentrates on characters other than the writer can seem so refreshing. Bernard ODonoghues is a case in point.
Though set for the most part in the rural Cork of his childhood, his usually very short and precise poems are often centred on minor incidents in the lives of neighbours and half-acquaintances. Returned to and retold, these reveal new meanings through the benefit of hindsight.
Yet ODonoghue is anything but a nostalgic Irishman abroad, yearning for the auld sod. In poems that have at least one foot in the past there is, too, the kind of dangerous, vertiginous draw that Oisin must have felt revisiting his own Tír na nÓg.
From the title of the opening poem, “The Day I Outlived My Father”, ODonoghues fourth collection concerns itself with borrowed time, with setting out alone into new territories where, in a beautiful phrase, the poet must read alone / the hoof tracks in the summer-powdered dust.
The echo here of cowboy and adventure stories serves to recreate a vanished childhood world even as the poem records its loss. Never overstated, it is this tension that makes for the best of ODonoghues work.
Always interested in narrative forms, ODonoghue knows that the point of entry into a story itself colours the ultimate meaning.
In The Quiet Man, for instance, the famous film is first seen
Entering in the middle of the film, the audience remain in their seats until the same point comes round again and the character of McLaglan again ends up lying battered in the hay …
In a clever turnabout, the title now seems also to apply to the quiet men of the cinema audience, catapulted back to the north Cork they thought they had left behind. And on their return, like the poet himself perhaps, they are confronted by what another poem calls the fear of settling / for what was near to hand. Here Outliving could almost refer to a form of exile.
A master of creating depth of meaning through the juxtaposition of anecdote, myths and fable (hardly surprising in one whose scholarly life is concerned with medieval literature), ODonoghue is also Outliving in yet a third sense. Through the characters his poems remember and perhaps sometimes even create, he can step out of his own existence and, in the lives and experiences of others, find and explore the only common ground that means anything.
Pat Boran is a poet and programme director of the Dublin Writers Festival. His most recent collection is As the Hand, the Glove (Dedalus, 2001)