Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Karen J. McDonnell

Four Poems                     This Little World Launch Speech 
Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Karen J. McDonnell won the 2014 WOW Poetry Award and was runner up in the 2015 Wild Atlantic Words and the 2015 Baffle poetry competitions. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Poems for Patience and Robert Monteith awards, as well as being longlisted for the 2014 Over the Edge New Writing Prize. Her poetry and other writing has been published and anthologised in Ireland and abroad, including The Honest Ulsterman, Crannóg, poeticdiversity, The Irish Times, Poetry NI: Poems for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, Wild Atlantic Words 2015 and Rubicon: Words and Art Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’ (Sybaritic Press). An excerpt from Unsettled – A West Bank Journal was nominated in the 2014 Best of Net (non-fiction) in the U.S.

Karen’s Website and Author’s Blog

Books

This Little World, her debut poetry collection, was published by Doire Press in June 2017. For further detail see http://www.doirepress.com/writers/g_l/karen_mcdonnell/

‘This is a book infused with insight and mythic assurance; a book of intuitions made loud and voices marked by vision, the work of a poet who will be read for her adeptness in tracing the heartlines of human experience, and for the sake of imaginative enrichment.’ —Martin Dyar, author of Maiden Names (Arlen House)

Karen J. McDonnell: Four Poems

Biographical Note                  This Little World Launch Speech                 
Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Turlough
Lineage
New Quay
Shell Gathering

P .

Turlough

A benign pondling straight
from Constable’s studio:

Cattle graze calcific patches
on a summering canvas.

Then rains, in on the Atlantic.
Malevolent down the mountains.

Underground drowns and you
sinkhole in reverse, spewing.

Roads disappear, fields are
islanded. Senselines tangle.

Your water-mischief engulfs
us. We are lost.

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P .

Lineage

His line is in his face.
My fingers trace dark-eyed,
Norman origins.

I close my eyes. In the distance,
mist is drenching a wood.

See a man moving quietly,
neat in leather boots,
peating half-rotted leaves.

He steps off a path known only
to memory and the closed eye.

He tenses the string on the bow.
He leans, stretches, releases.
The arrow hits home.

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P .

New Quay
In 1969 nine children died in the ‘Red Bank’ disaster, New Quay, Co. Clare</sma;;>

Six strange beasts rose up,
still breathing, in the water
where you drowned.

They seemed to be walking;
heads held proud of the sea.
Then a flash of neon green

dispelled impressions
as flippers breached,
harrowing the surface.

Reddened faces, then hands
and wet-suited torsos sucking
up out of the shallows.

Squelching, chatty men
speaking of currents strong
enough to pull buoys under.

You never had a chance,
when adventure turned to disaster,
capsizing every summer.

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P .

Shell Gathering

Coming home from the funeral
we stop in the hot day
for ice-cream at Crusheen.

The sun hammers down.
A day for the beach and shell gathering.
No weather for heat-seeking black.

Out on the Mare Nostrum, an Israeli eye
scans a Gaza beach
where children play football.

A held breath.
A lining up of crosshairs.
Slight pressure on the fingerpad.

The air shivers, but the sea remains calm.
Shells whoosh in, shredding the children.
And their fathers run, to gather them in.

 

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Looking back through time and memory: Celeste Augé launches ‘This Little World’ by Karen J. McDonnell

Karen J. McDonnell Biographical Note       Karen J. McDonnell Four Poems            
Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

This Little World by Karen J. McDonnell, Doire Press 2017, was launched by Celeste Augé on Saturday 17th June, 2017 at the Galway Arts Centre

Celeste Augé launching This Little World

There are books of poetry that jump out and hit you on the head with overwrought emotion, opinions or anxieties. This Little World is not one of those. It’s a book that demands a quiet space, for you to take the time to slowly read – or re-read – individual poems so that they sink in, the way a good conversation with a friend sinks in, follows you throughout the day; the way snippets of chat are later recollected and gain added meanings, maybe even a different perspective. These are poems that need time, the way a friendship needs time.

At the outset of her collection, in the poem ‘Rear View’, Karen J. McDonnell asserts: ‘I drown in other lives’. This Little World looks back through time and memory, through different perspectives, including those that flare beyond Ireland’s boundaries. From the hills of Clare to ‘Sleepless in Armagh’ to a soldier on the Somme to Limerick in 1918 to Nazi death camps through to present-day Middle East to Syria, McDonnell fashions poems out of the quiet unseen moments – the small incidents and insights – recognising that we are all human, together.

In ‘The Good Room’ – an evocative title for any Irish person of a certain age, a room we’ve been banished from or invited through depending on the circumstances – the poet looks at transgression, at spending time in spaces we’re not supposed to: ‘Tell me, child, why / do you still grasp this time-shard / when memories are lost as easily as a daisy hair clip / in a day’s rough and tumble?’ The poem asks the question within a memory, providing delicious irony. And isn’t this the role of the writer, to watch and remember and piece it together later, to illuminate context and meaning?

Another glimpse of Irish-ness is contained in the powerful poem ‘Shell Gathering’, which opens with an image that is very much located in Ireland: ‘Coming home from the funeral / we stop in the hot day / for ice-cream at Crusheen.’ This image sets the scene for shell gathering beyond these shores, creating a breathtaking twist. Well, you’ll have to read the collection to discover it.

Flashes of humour and whim combine to give us delicious lines like this one from ‘Super Moon’: ‘Optimism is no match for Burren / mists.’ That first line sucks me in, then the poem succinctly dives off into a perfect description of the life of the artist and more specifically the process of writing poetry: ‘Chasing a super moon / in cloud cover is fruitless.’ It speaks both of the challenges of life in the West of Ireland and the difficulty of writing poetry, of finding truth in the midst of our complicated world. In the playful ‘Sleepless in Armagh’, when ‘the boy racers of Armagh are at it’ – it being handbrake turns in the B&M car park – the speaker wryly speculates: ‘This was once the most militarised zone / in Europe. Where are the police? / Could we not have a bit of the tough stuff back?’ Then later in the poem, after at least one prayer, she confesses: ‘I’m an ecumenical non-believer.’ The poet’s fine sense of whimsy lights up another poem, ‘A Bad Dose’, which describes getting a writerly affliction while in A&E: ‘Worse still is the dose / I catch in there. Hospitals: / completely overrun by adverbs.’

This Little World does what good poetry should: transform the everyday and draw our attention to it. The poet takes the sense of powerlessness felt when faced with natural or man made disasters beyond our control, and from them casts images of beauty. The poem ‘In Zaraq’ features the lines: ‘On a high wire / a plastic bag hangs / like a hawk / treading stilled air.’ It brings to mind an earlier poem, ‘Swansong’, so that both images reverberate across my mind: ‘A discarded fertiliser bag. / I tried to fool myself, but the sea / slunk out, leaving behind a / desolate, soaked swan / that I couldn’t reach.’ What else can we do when faced with the impossibility of action but write, or failing that, read a poem? One of my favourite poems of the book, ‘Palmyra, 2016’ contains the striking observation: ‘Even ghosts can only bear so much suffering.’ So the collection ends, halfway across the world from County Clare, where it began.

Karen has taken the time to listen to the world, to write these poems, wrestle them together into a collection. Writing poetry is never easy in a world that rewards feeding the corporate giants. And although other people can help, ultimately the writer does it alone. In that way, writing resembles birth. To quote from one more poem: ‘Birthing. / Not always joyful. / Forceping dactyls. / Similes I’ll never like. / Elusive adjectives.’

But now comes the christening, the publication of Karen’s poems in the world, the celebration with friends and family as This Little World joins the extended family of books already published, as her new book – her first – joins the conversation between poems – and poets – across boundaries and through time, goes out to find its place in this world, independent of the poet who birthed it.

 – Celeste Augé

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Celeste Augé is the author of Skip Diving (Salmon Poetry, 2014), The Essential Guide to Flight (Salmon Poetry, 2009) and the collection of short stories Fireproof and Other Stories (Doire Press, 2012). Her poetry has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Award and in 2011 she won the Cúirt New Writing Prize for fiction. She lives in Connemara, in the West of Ireland, with her husband and son.