I first met Bernard O’Donoghue in 2013 when, escaping from a first-year History lecture, I found myself in Oxford’s labyrinthine English faculty where he was giving a class on Seamus Heaney. I returned at the same time every week, sitting at the back for fear of being discovered as the one cross-disciplinary interloper in the room, and revelling in his analysis of Heaney’s interlinked worlds – many of which, of course, are also his. Three years later, after a talk by Julian Barnes at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, I met him again as we were both leaving the theatre. ‘I remember you,’ he said, smiling, ‘and ah, you’re a poet now!’
The Seasons of Cullen Church, which comes half a decade after O’Donoghue’s last collection, Farmers Cross (Faber and Faber, 2011), is full of such moments of warmth, recollection, and chance meetings. ‘So wistful is the recognition now’, he writes in the opening poem, ‘of all the places that I hardly noted’. It is these places (‘their occasions unrecallable, / like a green caravan in a field-corner’) that return to the poet in ‘the medium term’; in dreams and visions, or less tangibly, in ‘good directions’ plotted against intimately known landmarks and the lilt of ‘local parlance’ (‘Mahogany Gaspipes’). But such landmarks inscribe a personal, particular history: the ‘display cases, … art-objects or explanations’ of Heritage Council projects are far from his mind, and instead we find untended fields now populated by ‘tinker’s ponies: piebald, skewbald, / ungroomed, unshorn, stumbling blindly…’ (‘Ballybeg Priory’).
What drives this searching recollection? O’Donoghue writes in ‘First Night There’ of the opposite of familiarity: a ‘dark evening’ in a new place where one must ‘people / the whole empty lifescape on your own’. In this blank city the horror of finding ‘no one in the bars / or walking by the sea’ – no-one, even, in the hotel foyer which is a ‘mausoleum’ – haunts the poet afterwards with a ‘tremor of the memory’. The volume’s many tributes (including to fellow writers Brian Friel, Sarah Broom, Mick Imlah, and Heaney, among others) suggest that attempts to recreate lost landscapes are a way of bringing back the dead. At the same time, these places with their singular, unforgettable characters are, as O’Donoghue suggests, also fuel and fire for a writing life. ‘I have seen such places even today’, he writes in ‘The Dark Room’, recalling an overnight stay in the ‘Poetic Seminary’: places of quiet solemnity where ‘bees, intent in their darkness, / generate the honey that will bring them praise’.
Another imperative behind the book is O’Donoghue’s acute sensitivity to the ‘poverties of our present time’, as he calls them in ‘Stigma’. This piece begins with the characteristically vivid memory of a farmhand, Con, known by his ‘feckless family’ and his wages (‘which everybody said / was far too much’). It is only in the poem’s last stanza, as the poet puzzles over his own preoccupation with ‘Con’s shaky bike and his one pair / of sandals’, where we realize what has been on his mind all along:
beggars on bridges for us to trip on,
or asylum seekers loping through
the infra-red at detention centres
on the coast of France, or drowning
in their hundreds in the Med?
A similar poem, ‘Migration’, starts with the story of Ledwidge, a builder killed in the Troubles, before describing how ‘native blackbirds’ are joined for the ‘first February chorus’ by migratory ‘battalions / that fly down the North Sea and Baltic / to escape the cold’ and then return, calling to mind both the thousands in flight from Ireland in her difficult years and those now arriving there for refuge. It is a measure of the humanity of O’Donoghue’s vision that these scenes are rendered no less urgent or close at hand than his own familiar sights.
One departure from O’Donoghue’s earlier collections – though not from his wider oeuvre – is the appearance of many verse translations from both classical and Middle English texts, including a retelling of sections from the Aeneid V and IX in memory of Mick Imlah. Perhaps partly in homage to Heaney, whose own Aeneid VI was published posthumously this year (and reviewed by O’Donoghue in both the Irish Times and Poetry Review), these pieces have a flexible, measured quality that points to their translator as no less a master of living language, verse and rhythm, than a textual expert. Particularly striking is ‘The Move’, a brief version of a Middle English elegy, that fleshes out the poet’s sense of death as a permanent separation which remains very much a part of life: ‘My quiet love has moved houses’, it begins, ‘Where she is now, the only door / is in the roof and always shut’. Building a conversation between these translations and the volume’s more contemporary pieces are other poems that are not translations, but draw heavily on tradition. ‘Riddle’, for example, takes the shape and form of the cryptic Old English conundrums of the Exeter Book, but loses none of O’Donoghue’s present concerns: ‘Are your ears burning? / Is someone walking on your grave, once again…’?
Towards the end of the collection are two special gems: a beautiful sequence that lends the book its title, and ‘The Boat’, a fragment from O’Donoghue’s current project, a translation of Piers Plowman. ‘The Seasons of Cullen Church’ is a poem whose formal regularity (five sections, five lines, pentameter) not only evokes symmetries of architecture and liturgy but draws the reader beyond the short cycle of the year’s four seasons to consider longer movements, outsider of time and further afield: ‘Mass / for the visiting priests: natives returned / from California, Manchester, or the Far East’. ‘The Boat’, dedicated to Heaney, is a far more unassuming poem that nonetheless plumbs this collection’s ‘deep water’. O’Donoghue’s silhouette blurs into Heaney’s as the sailor caught ‘in the wind and the waves’, such that –
no matter how firmly
he tries to hold on, through the boat’s slithering
he bends and he staggers, so unstable
the body is. And yet he is safe.
Or ‘safe and sound’, we are told, ‘as long as he stays within the boat’s timbers’. The double pun on ‘sound’ and ‘timber’ rings clear: this volume attests to a poet who, like Heaney, has time and again sounded out truth between the beams of experience, and is now, in ever deeper waters, still holding on.
‘The Seasons of Cullen Church’ is published by Faber, RRP £12.99.