Be gone 2020, I would not have you back

We are nearing the end of year that nobody will miss, although there have been sterling efforts to find the silver linings in it. I have endless admiration for those who managed to clear their head of all the chaos and panic and distractions engendered by the pandemic, and who were able to plough on with their creative projects, or even dream up new ones.

I regret that I wasn't one of that body. From the first news update, I've been lost in a perpetual cycle of checking feeds, counting numbers, becoming obsessed with world events that I have no personal interest in, or control over. I tried to write - but found inspiration hard to come by. It became even harder to come by when I was awarded a small grant by the Arts Council to respond to the pandemic, and after an initial spasm of creativity, my ideas dried up to a small knee jerk. I changed tack and tried to restart my  novel - surely in the downtime afforded by lock-down, I'd be able to do that at least. But that well was dry too.

The one time I felt the remotest connection with my creative self was during a two week holiday in Co. Kerry in August, where I was able to sit and watch the mountains and sea and felt safe. The daily rhythms of walks and eating and sitting and watching were all that was required, apparently. But once I returned to the cell of four walls, little sky and concrete pavements, the paralysis resumed.

So I'm hoping that 2021 will be a better one for this writer, anyway. That the anxiety will reduce as the good news spreads and people feel safer. And I hope that the bookshops can stay open, and that publishers can resume their launches and that all the writers whose books came out this year will get lots of attention and airspace next year. I hope that 2021 will be a better one for my loved ones and for those friends who I'd love to have a casual coffee with some time again. I hope that my courage will return, and with it, the glimpses of pattern and shape that I've missed so much.

Things for which there is no longer purpose

It takes time to get your eye in, when beach combing.
Stones merge, little distinguishes itself from shingle,
pell-mell debris of tides on the channel
between this side and the next.
You need to keep your glance down,
let the slow rhythm of step after step,
pebble after rock after pebble,
give distinction, let shapes emerge
and form into sea-glass, shells,
gaping crabs, innards violet.
The urge grows to find patterns beyond
the Fibonacci cockles.
Why this search for meaning?
What can this nibbled lid of a ceramic coffee pot
tell me of accident, of transience?
Or this, a knuckle of sandstone:
sea-tossed, hand-crafted, who knows?
Or, most mysterious, the metal-encased,
rust-imbued pipe. Ship’s screw, gas line,
fifty years, two centuries, tossed by waves,
then dumped without ceremony?
Who says its purpose was to be found,
to be understood?
Earlier, we turned hair-pin bends
in search of beauty.
There was a time when I could navigate,
feel the grip of wheel, trust my steering,
my courage.
Now I leave that to you,
knowing that more than coins flip,
that every breath has two outcomes.


Valentia Island, August 2020

Billy Mills reviews The Hollow Woman on the Island

(from Elliptical Movements May 2020 -

Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent book is determinedly Irish in conception and construction, drawing as it does on figures and events from Irish history, particularly the early 20th century and the period of the Troubles and highlighting the intersections of family and national history and geography and the influence of religion on both. The influence of Irish poets of the canon, especially Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, Mahon, Kinsella and Boland, is also evident in the writing.

Unlikely looking gift, this five-barred
metal gate, rusting, crossed,
tethered in its lock by blue nylon strings.
The signs unwelcoming: dogs beware,
walkers climb at their peril
in this kingdom of scrub and rock.

O’Mahony is a very literate writer who uses the tropes of the tradition with considerable skill, extending them by the inclusion of female experience that has often been marginalised. This is particularly the case in the fine sequence of poems that give the collection its title. This set of four Hollow Woman poems deal with the poet’s experience of ovarian cancer in an idiom that seems to owe much to middle-period Kinsella, an idiom that O’Mahony does much to make her own.

What matter
if the eye of faith betrays?
Trace your truth
with a thumb, a tongue,
an index finger,
a thought

a scratch
on paper.

Ultimately, however, this writing is best read as an extension of the tradition, not an expansion of it. It is poetry that is comfortable within its clearly defined limits.

The question arises .... whether or not poetry written out of a supposed shared unproblematic sense of self which is in itself problematic do justice to the world we inhabit? On the whole, and not, I think, unrepresentatively of most contemporary verse, the voices we hear reflect a Wordsworthian ‘man speaking to men’, more inclusive, admittedly, not narrowly gendered, but still fundamentally wedded to the basic assumptions of the ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ and its associated Romantic sensibilities and expectations. ... Which is not to take from the undoubted skill of the other poets under review; they all do what it is they set out to do with a great deal of ability, but it would be interesting to see them take more formal risk in their writing, to expand the idea of what poetry is, and is for.