FIRST THOUGHTS: Mary O’Malley reveals an affinity for the metropolis with new book

Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley (Carcanet Press, £9.99). Review: Colette Sheridan

Mary O'Malley. Picture: Ray Ryan

IN this very fine and hugely varied collection of poetry, Mary O’Malley’s concerns range from the ecological, to surviving in lonely cities with brio. She writes well about nature, rooted in the west of Ireland, sometimes giving a voice to animals.

Even the despised rat is imbued with sensitivity and a sense of injustice, stating that it only eats “what is left”. And the reviled rodent, who is sent out “among the junkies/And rubbish sacks, into the gaol cells/” points out that it will still be in existence “when the seas rise/.”

There is a sense of the animals (and trees) having a greater stake in the earth than emigrating humans who, in the poem, Show Day, “...miss their votes/The smell off rotting seaweed, the sight of horses.”

The horses, writes O’Malley are “the last locals/Unendangered, idled, wedded to the sea.”

There is such reverence for trees that not even the felling of them leads to despair.

The poet chooses to look on the bright side (literally) when she writes in Tree II that “I take no joy/In your downfall but look at how/The tree-shaped brightness dances.”

Nature can be harsh, but the light always shines through. In January Aubade, the elements could be interpreted as akin to the artistic process which, when seemingly trapped, eventually rises to the fore. The sky is “close as a torturer’s hood, tight/As a vice. Hold out for the flake of white.” Eventually, in this journey-like poem, navigated in a car, the light “...releases slowly the mind hurt/From its ceaseless interrogation/In the unfriendly dark and opens it.”

The Walk is a beguiling poem about a couple who are married for a year. As they walk Knockranny Hill in Connemara, they take in the sights including “...wings of painted butterflies that perch/Tilted with hatpins on their slim necks.” With the poem’s reference to Bunyan, the couple could be said to be on a kind of pilgrimage — not to a holy place but rather somewhere bright. One of them suggests looking at flights.

“Flight tracks criss-cross to New York and Spain./ The sky is twenty fathoms high. It’s wild goose time.”

This poem, which hints at tensions between the couple, stemming from one being very different to the other, is ultimately playful and humorous. Written in couplets, it is an amusing study of how a marriage survives through negotiation and acceptance.

O’Malley, while firmly connected and attuned to Ireland’s west coast, also reveals an affinity for the metropolis, in this collection, Gotham city. There is something deeply romantic — and robust — about the woman in Fairytale, New York, who is “riffling” through garment rails, totally absorbed as she searches for “a myth / To wear”. It must fit as well as the one she has discarded, a hand-me-down that she picked up once in a hurry. She finds “a new version of the old dress,/ A fake tiara and a cat thrown over her shoulder/For Opera occasions. You’re Antigone/Or you’re Electra, said Mother Sugar. In physics/All the possibilities are true, said Feynman./ She passes over the red silk, the white homespun/For a sealed pelt in rust and silver/Something to match the river’s/Steel sheen in the city when she roams/At night, unafraid, anonymous.”

Is this woman bordering on a bag lady? Or just an independent spirit who knows the importance of style but is streetwise enough to pick something that matches the river – like camouflage for the urban wanderer?

In Gotham Dusk Poem, a woman past eighty has a “wonky” walk that isn’t surprising as she wears six-inch heels. She doesn’t care. She’s part of a cityscape where “Batman strides towards us./ People take no notice.”

But even in an anonymous city, there is the desire to be individualistic. As Mary O’Malley suggests, there is art in the everyday — even in fashion choices.

The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades (Chatto & Windus, £12.99 HB; ebook, £7.99) Review: Sue Barraclough

A LAWYER-turned-writer now living in London, in her debut, Joy Rhoades uses her memories of her grandmother’s sheep farm to create this pastoral romance. The story begins in January 1945 and moves through the final months of World War II.

It’s an easy-to-read tale of Australian rural life and family drama. The protagonist Kate is not always easy to like, but we sympathise with her predicament as she copes on a remote sheep farm with an absentee, soldier husband and an ailing, war veteran father. Kate turns to a tatty copy of The Woolgrower’s Companion when she realises her father is struggling to manage the drought-struck farm, and she does her best with a difficult farm manager and his orphaned nephew.

As Kate battles to save the farm from the bank, there are misunderstandings, forbidden love and a disturbing secret. Rhoades paints a vivid picture of the Australian bush, the strict social code, snobbery and racism.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Granta PB, £12.99; ebook, £9.35). Review: Holly McKenzie

CHRONIC pain sufferer Mary Parsons has started to give up. Crippled by debt and pain, she begins an unorthodox treatment that offers long-overdue relief from the symptoms which had stopped her from leading a normal life. In order to cover the costs, she applies for a mysterious job, and finds herself employed as the ‘Emotional Girlfriend’ to movie star Kurt Sky.

As one of several women employed to meet the needs of the A-lister — alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend and obtusely named ‘Intimacy Team’ — Mary must offer nurturing and support at scheduled intervals. As her feelings develop into something real, their relationship shifts, leaving Mary questioning the fundamentals of love. The Answers takes a modern look at romance and dissects the honesty of love from a new perspective.

Though the basis of the story isn’t presented as well as you’d hope, the questions the novel puts forward leave you reeling. An intriguing, if slightly over-cooked, story, perfect for the beach.

On Time: Finding Your Pace In A World Addicted To Fast by Catherine Blyth (William Collins HB, £16.99; ebook, £9.99). Review: Dan Atkinson

THIS comes from the author of the praised 2009 book The Art of Conversation. “Our world is on fast-forward,” she declares, and who could disagree? “Whatever your goal, if you cease to feel like time’s slave then everything improves.”

This is part how-to guide and part philosophical rumination on “how time went crazy.” There is some excellent advice — I was taken by “notice where time leaks,” such as the “twists and turns in routines,” and also by the urging to clear up my “chaotic workstation.” Then there are wanderings off the point, such as to Gunther Grass’ war service, to Madonna’s exercise regime and to the bizarre assertion that mothers staying at home is “creepy.” Nor does cramming in references to, inter alia, Dante, Philip Larkin, Tolstoy, Alexander the Great and Leonardo da Vinci necessarily signal erudition. Above all, I was never quite sure whether the author wants us all to slow down or to use time more effectively, which are not the same thing by any means.



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