By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
“There is nothing like live music, live theater. It’s always better to go to the cinema than to watch movies at home. If you want to have a beer, it’s always better to have it in the tavern than at home. Things come alive when they’re performed,” said Dr. Eamonn Wall, Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English, as he introduced the final installment of the 2016/2017 Irish Lectures and Concerts Series. The series came to a close on April 4 with a poetry reading by Irish poet Mary O’Malley.
O’Malley’s reading certainly lived up to Wall’s opening remarks. From the moment the poet took the podium, the room seemed overtaken with a hushed electricity. O’Malley has a palpable presence, the kind that can be felt as clearly as the sun’s heat or a draft of cool air. There is a sense of gravity and depth in her personality that inspires solemn contemplation in the observer.
O’Malley opened the reading with a poem titled “The Shark’s Dream.” Describing the poem’s titular character, she read, “His dreams are hard as glass; his fin, a lesson in the principles of abstraction, is as sharp as an iceberg. Its deadly beauty cuts through the unknown, elegant as the mind of God, and as indifferent.” Much like the shark in the poem (which is a basking shark, a common sight off the coast of Connemara, Galway, where the poet grew up), O’Malley’s poetry also “cuts through the unknown” to reach a state of divine and indifferent elegance. She is in this way a true poet: not simply a gifted manipulator of language, but someone who, through her gifted manipulation of language, achieves communion with the extraordinary.
Much of the poetry that O’Malley had selected for the reading dealt with the sea, a place she has scarcely ever been without, having grown up on the western coast of Ireland and later living in Lisbon, Portugal, for ten years. As a preface to her poem “Sea Road, No Map,” she told the audience about her experience living aboard a marine research vessel as poet-in-residence: “I was invited by a man from the department of the marine to do a residency onboard this fabulous ship called the Celtic Explorer…Most of this book came out of that particular journey, and this poem started on the deck, where they gave me a little place to stay out of the way with a desk. And there I very happily stayed.”
Aside from writing poetry, O’Malley also teaches at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she occupies the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies as a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her experience as a teacher shone through in the Q&A portion of her reading. Rather than stand awkwardly while the timid members of the audience formulated their questions and then worked up the nerve to ask them, O’Malley asked her own question of those in attendance: “How many of you here actually read poetry much?” Most audience members raised their hands. In response to those who had not, O’Malley asked, somewhat rhetorically, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t like music? Anyone here who doesn’t like song?” When not a single hand rose, she said, “Right, well we’re in business then, because the two are very close together, as I’m sure you know.”
O’Malley’s questions to the audience helped make the Q&A session feel natural and unforced, as if it were a conversation or class discussion instead of an organized event. Soon audience members grew comfortable enough to ask their own questions. One student asked whether O’Malley starts writing her poems with an intentional idea or with an image, to which O’Malley responded, “I find that to start with the idea—a sort of rhetorical poetry, where you start with an idea is…It’s not that I don’t have an idea, [but] it’s something that I’m exploring myself, you know, rather than something I want to get down. The images and the cadence would be the strongest. They’d be the two main starters, I would think.”
When asked whether she writes for herself or with the reader in mind, O’Malley said, “I don’t write for either, I’d say. And this might sound a bit precious, but it’s the truth. I mean, of course I write for myself—there’s no question about that…It’s a compulsion. I wouldn’t have written poetry if I had any way of avoiding it. And that’s the truth.” The question brought O’Malley to talk about a period of her life when she quit writing poetry altogether. She said, “I did manage to avoid writing it [poetry] for about ten years. Completely. Now I’m not talking about not being able to write, I mean consciously avoiding it.” The period to which she was referring occurred while she was living in Portugal and raising her children while teaching at a university there. She said, “Any art form is hard if you’re serious about it. The life of an artist isn’t easy…I didn’t succeed [in leaving poetry forever] because I would have cracked up if I hadn’t done it.”
Ultimately, O’Malley said that she writes “to serve the work itself.”
As a native Irish speaker, O’Malley has translated many traditional Irish poems into English. She has also translated the work of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca into English. O’Malley’s poetry is available through Salmon Poetry and Carcanet Press.