Robert Potts, review of Gethsemane Day by Dorothy Molloy, in the Guardian (27 May 2006)

Source: [online at - 27 May 2006; review 17.

Dorothy Molloy’s posthumous second collection begins with a poem which subtly summarises her aesthetic approach. Titled “Barbie”, it begins: ‘I made a doll of plasticine / and spit; a witless, / empty-headed thing’. The unreal, plastic ideal of the Barbie doll is creepily refashioned with organic, decaying materials - ‘periwinkle shoes ... rotten eggs / for eyes, // a furred banana nose, / and rows and rows of green fluorescent / teeth’.

For all the disquieting ugliness of those ingredients, there’s also something positive at work here: rather than accepting the mass-made, off-the-shelf icon of vast-breasted, tiny-waisted objectification, Molloy is making something for herself: something which, even in its fragility or ugliness, is defiantly independent and alive. In several of her poems, she similarly takes familiar icons and symbols, and refashions them for her own independent ends.

That Molloy was diagnosed with, and died from, cancer of the liver, necessarily dominates the second half of the collection, and provides a certain narrative momentum. It also means that the iconographies she predominantly refashions are those of the medical profession and the Catholic church.

For instance, as “the sacrifice at the new / Mass ... They offer me up on an altar of tin ” for radiotherapy; and the narrator gradually assumes the iconic posture of sculpted martyrdom: “my hands out of the way, criss-crossed on my / chest, I endure; stare through closed / lids at nothing on earth. ” In the title poem, “Gethsemane Day ”, the narrator, waiting for test results, asks, in the sing-song plaint of the infantalised patient

What cocktails is Daddy preparing for me?
What ferments in pathology’s sink?
Tonight they will tell me, will proffer the cup,
and like it or not, I must drink.

That “Daddy ”, conflating the paternalism of the medical profession and the patriarchy of the church, also reminds one of the other father-figures in Molloy’s poetry; her daddy “in a grave where there’s room for more ”, and the sinister figure in “Happy Families ” with its tacit suggestion of child abuse (a topic handled, head-on, in “Ghost Train ”).

“Philomena McGillicuddy Comes Unstuck ”, earlier in the collection, was a boisterous rebuke to sex-phobic Catholic education, performed in swinging comic verse:

When he was big and strong and hairy,
she was like the Virgin Mary;
now he’s small and weak and balding,
she’s got the hots, in fact she’s scalding;
schoolboys booze and come home bleary,
the Pope in Rome is airy-fairy
Philomena’s hesitating,
No, by God, she’s masturbating ...

Molloy’s verse in that poem is deliberately and appropriately noisy; and across the rest of the collection, it is impressively subtle and flexible. Sharp enjambements snap regular beats across line-breaks, while introducing a tug between smooth and rough metre by carefully placed internal rhyme. Echoes of nursery rhyme or comic verse vie with grave pentameter statements. In form and content, Molloy effectively and unfussily shows a hard-won independence of spirit coexisitng with the hopelessness of hospitalised flesh.

Several poems celebrate female strength and desire, or demonstrate the crippling effects of repression and control; others acknowledge, unsentimentally, Molloy’s fear and dependence as well as her strength. When the symbols of Catholicism are reintroduced in the final, mortal pieces, to transform the cold and instrumental processes of the hospital, Molloy has turned them unmistakably to her own purposes.

[ Robert Potts is a former editor of Poetry Review ]

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