We’d crossed three bridges to be here . . .
Many of the poems in this enchanting and enchanted first collection are set in the early light of morning, the half-light of evening or the firelight of a damp day. Many occur by water’s edge — quayside, shore or riverbank – and abound in memorable images: the storm unfolding its rope of cloud, a speaker catching ‘the minnow of your reflection’. By conjuring seasons and landscape — and, in particular, expanses of the West of Ireland — Michelle O’Sullivan becomes a meteorologist of emotional states. Grief is a place to be departed from. Threats are at bay: ‘and I don’t think anything terrible / is going to happen yet’.
At the core of The Blue End of Stars lies ‘Sketches for Vincent’, based on the life and letters of Van Gogh. ‘If only,’ she writes, ‘if only I had that kind of fever’, and in the stillness of these poems is a series of cries and attempts to find ‘a form of utterance’. Michelle O’Sullivan puts an ear to the ground to hear it ‘loosening, / spilling its beautiful cargo’. In a world of clamour her poems are triumphs of contemplation. This shy, tentative, sparsely populated art explores and fixes insights into a private life.
The Blue End of Stars is one of those successful collections where, by the third page, you automatically start to read the poems aloud. O’Sullivan’s Irish landscapes, much like van Gogh’s, are colorful, wild, and mysterious as we hear them “speak.”
— New Hibernia Review
Seán Lysaght’s speech from the launch of The Blue End of Stars at Ballina Arts Centre on 17 July 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a privilege to be here this evening to present Michelle O’Sullivan’s debut collection of poems, The Blue End of Stars. There is always a special focus of attention when a new writer appears in book form for the first time; this is all the more the case when the book in question carries the Gallery Press imprint. The Gallery Press has been in existence now for over forty years and has established itself as the premier publisher of poetry on this island. When I got the news a few months ago that I would soon have a Gallery neighbour in Ballina, I looked through some poetry journals to find examples of Michelle O’ Sullivan’s work; in a back issue of the Poetry Ireland Review I found two poems beside her name, and I read the following line:
the sea thrives on a wick of desire
and immediately I was struck by a particular energy and insight. This line still works for me as a key to the new volume: we have the great world of natural elements; set against them we have the figure of the poet, querying, questioning, trying to find a crack in all that sheer space where poetry can set a peg to hang a line on.
Soon after the news of my new neighbour I got to know Michelle herself over several cups of coffee — too much coffee! — and I was intrigued to meet a writer who shared my interest in the world of natural elements, weather, landscape, and in how the world of the self can measure up to that moving target. The landscape I came across in these poems (I had the book by now) was a landscape I recognised from my own experience; not the West of Ireland of folklore, not the West of Ireland of victimhood, not the picturesque West.
Instead, this landscape was the theatre of an entirely modern sensibility. I know from the conversations I have had with her that these poems are set within a field of influence that stretches from North America to Britain and beyond — and it’s no slight to any author’s achievement to say that she has picked up some notes here and there for her own melody. I’m thinking of pieces such as ‘Ambit’, ‘Cargo’, ‘A Body’s Language’, ‘Latitudes’, ‘The Blue End of Stars’. These spare, tentative poems are deceptively light; they are weighted with surprising formulations and unusual insights: In ‘Throttled’, the scene is wintry: ‘The hoarfrost weeps at fires I’ve tried to lay down.’ The river in ‘Loss’ ‘has burned its course, leaving nothing in its wake but its own dry refusal.’ In ‘Leaving the House Empty’, the wind drones ‘like the pull of a dark drawer.’ In ‘A Body’s Language’, the only poem I can find that owes much to the archaeology of the west, the human figure is like one of the old giants that people imagined in the shapes of hills and megalithic tombs, ‘the edge of her profile’ is ‘like a dark heart.
In several of these poems, the drama is mainly between the poet and the world around her, but this is only one aspect of her work. The first poem in the book announces the theme of feeling, and sets out a claim to the territory of the heart. In English we speak of currents of feeling, and in The Blue End of Stars it is often the element of water that embodies feeling. I’m still haunted by the idea that ‘the sea thrives on a wick of desire’. In ‘Cargo’, the speaker of the poem looks at a river that’s ‘sleepwalking’, as she puts it, and ends with a resplendent question:
If I put my ear to the ground
will I hear it loosening,
spilling its beautiful cargo?
This is rich, evocative language, and it reminds us that poetry in a landscape can deliver effects that are redolent of human feeling: from this encounter with a river, the poet sets up an unusually sensual drama.
In poetry, in any poem, even the shortest, there is a drama, between the poet and the readers, between the poet and herself, or between the poet and another person. As a poet matures in the craft, he or she discovers that this is a drama to be managed and used for different effects. Michelle O’Sullivan’s work gives us many examples of this drama. At times she speaks to herself; at times she is in dialogue with another person; at other times, what we imagine to be another person turns out to be the poet herself; at other times, the poet reports on a conversation with another. All these apparently simple structures are part of the potential of a lyric poem; they add interest and variety, and we find them here in abundance. I think that part of this writer’s strength is the variety she uses in this way; as a reader, I had to prepare myself for a new way of reading, a new drama in microcosm, every time I moved to the next piece.
As well as drama within poems, there’s also a kind of drama across poems, where one kind of writing contrasts with another. This is apparent here in the contrast between the shorter pieces and the long, central sequence about the painter Van Gogh. Michelle engages beautifully with the world of Van Gogh’s paintings; the sequence uses the language of colour as expertly as a painter uses different oils on his palette. After the careful, muted colour of her Irish landscapes, she turns to the south of France with great energy; there’s a different speaker in this sequence, and here she liberates herself from the restraint observed by most of the short poems (but I would say, even here, that there are some shocks and surprises to be found, as in ‘An Unknown Blue’). I was delighted by the virtuosity of Michelle’s writing in this section on Van Gogh, as well as her impressive ability to turn erudition to good use, as she mines Van Gogh’s letters.
In the second section, she quotes Van Gogh as follows:
The work of your eyes is done. Go, and do the heart-work.
The way this is delivered is a hint at how much this writer is in command of her art. In this part of the world, unless we are unusually busy, we have a long time to be looking out windows, staring at skies and landscapes, and we can be mistaken in thinking that we can make an art out of that. But as well as the work of the eye, there is also the work of the heart to be accomplished. I think, ladies and gentlemen, you will find that this book shows an author that has done the heart-work as well.
It is my great pleasure to introduce Michelle O’Sullivan.
— Seán Lysaght
Year Published: 2012
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 536 4
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 537 1
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 570 8