Review: Karen J. McDonnell – This Little World

This Little World, Doire Press, pp64, ISBN: 978-1-907682-51-3

McDonnell is a previous winner of the 2014 WOW Poetry Award, runner up in the 2015 Wild Atlantic Words and the 2015 Baffle poetry competitions, and shortlisted for the 2017 Poems for Patience Award. Such accolades means this book, her debut, arrives after much anticipation.

McDonnell excels in detailing the specifics: when mentioning orange juice, it’s a particular brand; we don’t just get flowers, but “montbretia and meadowsweet”. She drops place names that Lieutenant Yolland and Máire would revel in. It’s poetry just as your creative writing tutor told you, stripped on adverbs, abstracts and adjective, allowing the facts and images to speak for themselves. McDonnell has fun with this: Birthing recognises inspiration as hard work, “Forceping dactyls. | Similes I’ll never like. | Elusive adjectives.” A Bad Dose sees the poet being rushed to a hospital “completely overrun by adverbs” to be treated for a pulmonary embolism re-imagined as writer’s block. Elsewhere, Causeway hints at a possible child abduction attempt, only showing an “old man in a dark coat”, letting the sinisterness fester without comment.

There are a few bum notes scattered throughout. At Sea is a clumsy recollection of a search-and-rescue operation without any sense of jeopardy. The Sun Danced is perhaps given in antidote to the death and bereavement elsewhere, celebrating the birth of a child with uninspired comments on darkness and light. The Painted Box details the history and inheriting of a trinket box, which ultimately gives no reason for the reader to care about the story. McDonnell is stronger where it is darker, as in Real Feel, with a great unexpected turn, almost menacing, remind us that great poetry should be surprising and that death is never far away. Turlough also sees a sharp turn from pastoral ideal to chaos, as does Spring Cleaning. McDonnell enjoys leading us down one path, before abruptly showing us another. Lightstorming again threatens to disrupt the pastoral:

+++Connemara is Prussian Blue
+++faded, and all edges softened
+++as if Turner got at them
+++with spit and a dirty cloth.

Similarly, we have a morning sky cast as a “cloudy Tyrannosaurus Rex”, or “A bee is solitary | in the cliff field” portraying a windless scene. It’s evident McDonnell is a romantic when it comes to nature, although not so much when it comes to humanity. Glory O! captures a never-changing decade of sectarian tension and conflict, a protest trapping a family inside a car “like cigarettes in a vending machine”, a wonderfully inventive image. Contrast this to the smallness of humanity’s presence in People This Little World, reduced to only “faces”. Sleepless In Armagh laments over the sheer abundance of people at nighttime, cursing boy racers, and injecting some seriously black humour that well matches issues met elsewhere in the book:

+++This was once the most militarised zone
+++in Europe. Where are the police?
+++Could we not have a bit of the tough stuff back?
+++Would a few well-addressed rubber bullets be excessive?

The collection deals with family, childhood, death, landscape, conflict and travelogue, all routine themes on the surface. However, it is in the parallel between McDonnell’s own childhood touched by death and the fraught day-to-day existence in Syria, that the writing really comes to fruition. Postcards from Syria in 2007 juggles the beauty of environment and openness of community with ‘fire and war’, tying together every common theme. The sequence reverberates back to earlier poems in the collection: lines from Swansong could equally be relevant to the people of the Middle East:

+++…the north wind
+++hard pressed

+++to get a rise out of us
+++in this month of the dead.
+++
+++We wait for higher tides

+++to show how the separated
+++meet again

The ‘higher tides’ reminds us that water is a persistent motif throughout the work. The opening poem evokes Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In Hamlet, when Gertrude announces Ophelia’s death, she comments that “our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them”. McDonnell hears that call, and has responded with a collection that is mournful yet defiant, reminding us that despite the ubiquity and inevitability of death, there is still much to rally for in this little world of ours.

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