The Flower and the Frozen Sea


Michelle O’Sullivan


On the river’s far side
dim haystacks have begun to disappear;
there are silver needles darning stars.


The Flower and the Frozen Sea follows Michelle O’Sullivan’s auspicious debut and builds on the promise of that prizewinning collection. In what is already a recognisable style — short, intense lyrics, often comprising brief lines — her senses focus on the natural world before they detonate surprising realisations.

She returns to trees, birds, hills, islands and the river Moy. Colours abound in the painterly quality of her art — in the still life of ‘Between Words’ and in muted landscapes with figures.

From the risked simplicity of ‘Mervyn’s Sheep’ (‘We hear them before we see them’) and the title poem’s ‘a bullock dissolves / in half-hearted mist’ the book ranges to lines that pulse with meaning — ‘And the fires needed to be lit. / The heart of the house had to be wound, set ticking’ — and hint at ‘a different story’.

Exactly observed, these resonant poems occur frequently in the first or last hours of day in whose distinctive light their lessons are earned before being carried to us.

If, reading the lines: “three grey herons wedged by blue, / stalking the low tide”, we think we are in all-too familiar country, Michelle O’Sullivan forces us to think again. For while the landscape of The Flower and the Frozen Sea is recognizably that of an established tradition of Irish narratives and visions, O’Sullivan renews our sense of it with a poetic style that is at once intimate and distanced, carefully observant, but also touched with a sense of wonder at even the most mundane-seeming features of her given terrain. Yet what is most effective in this marvellous collection is the way in which its author makes silence work for her. Indeed, nowhere in recent poetry has silence been so beautifully invoked, whether implicitly or directly. “Words never came. Only silence, exact / and searching with that black-eyed stare” says the speaker of ‘Lines’ at the poem’s opening, setting the reader up for a quiet unpicking of the heart in its closing lines:

I tell myself that something was said.
That something was heard.
I tell myself these things
Knowing words couldn’t cross this threshold.

The Flower and the Frozen Sea is a book about the unsaid and the unheard, the way “the stiff heart / turns on a question”, but this silence can take many forms, from stalled emotions to pregnant hesitancy to the environmental damage that can arise when “hired men who don’t know the land” are brought in as cheap labour: “It’s all business. Up one end and down the other. / No melody comes from man or meadow.” The world O’Sullivan creates is very still, almost but not quite silent (we can hear the questions and half-responses forming in the quiet), but its salient features are beautifully illumined and it is always and entirely her own.

Poetry Book Society Citation

Contemporary Irish Poetry Impresses in Inventive Mode

In January 1916, Thomas MacDonagh finished writing Literature in Modern Ireland, one of Ireland’s most significant works of literary criticism, in which MacDonagh proposed an “Irish mode”. Readers might have expected a vision that was conservative and backward-looking (as Daniel Corkery would later imagine), but MacDonagh’s argument was anything but narrow or prescriptive. Because of the complex developments of the English language in Ireland, he argued, Irish writers could access different traditions and were instinctively open to exploring the possibilities of poetry to create new rhythms and ideas.

MacDonagh’s emphasis on new material and new sounds in poetry sets the bar high for an art that, in Ireland as elsewhere, has always moved between mastering existing forms and making new ones.

Michelle O’Sullivan’s second collectionThe Flower and the Frozen Sea (Gallery, €11.95 pb, €18.50 hb) occupies a landscape with which readers are already familiar: western, sparsely populated, an arena for light and shadow, it could be the setting for a poem by one of MacDonagh’s contemporaries, but O’Sullivan works hard to set this material in motion on her own terms. The first poem’s first lines make clear what is at stake: “Waking, not to you / but the wind making summer / though the trees, pink shadows / gold through the green” (Partial).

Her skill with line and rhythm, her ability to dodge predictable harmonics, is notable in poems like Partial and the trochees and spondees of A Sound Box, “Down, unequal weight on his haunches / and the rain driving his shirt sideways”, begins her character study. “One said he disappeared – as if he fell headlong/into the horizon. Another said it wasn’t a boy, / but a hart. Next to nothing left where Evans / was found, but there was a sound box, / some thing in which his soul made itself felt.”

O’Sullivan strikes notes we don’t expect – the heart, the soul, the “sound box” which might be a coffin or this poem we hear, notes which distinguish her work from the many other tillers of Mayo fields.

— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times


Poetry Book Society Recommendation ‘The world O’Sullivan creates is very still, almost but not quite silent (we can hear the questions and half-responses forming in the quiet), but its salient features are beautifully illumined and it is always and entirely her own.’ — Poetry Book Society Citation

Published: 2015
Details: 72pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 651 4
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 652 1