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Entering The Mare

Katie Donovan

In this, her second collection, after 1993’s debut Watermelon Man, Katie Donovan continues to stake out her territory, which is, according to Carol Rumens, ‘the womanly erotic’. The book is divided into two parts, ‘Hunger’ and ‘Totem’, and the enabling myth of the title poem, which begins the second section and informs everything else here, is drawn from the inauguration of an Irish chieftain, as observed by Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in the 12th century. A white mare, symbolising the Goddess (is she also, as would please Robert Graves, white?) is ritually raped by him, and then he swims in the ‘soup of her flesh’, and eats her meat. He must enter, slay and swallow her, then take a ceremonial bath in her remains, as his initiation. This destruction of the female principle is pointedly contrasted with the procedure in the last poem of the first section, ‘Muse’, where the muse for a change is male, and is welcomed by the female poet as her enters her, and she finds ‘the lost music/of my throat/in the piping/of his melodies’. She wants to be entered by the muse, so that she can create, her surrender gives her power, while the Chieftain wants to enter the Goddess only to destroy, his dominance based on subjugation. Images of hunger, literal and figurative, pervade the collection, as do attempts to satisfy these longings, through bread, meat, travel, sex, even love. We are reminded incidentally in ‘Workhorse’, for example, that ‘butcher shops/sell equine steaks/on Paris streets’, while ‘Strike’ deals with hunger strikes as an ancient form of protest in Ireland, and ‘Hunger at Doolough’ with an actual episode from the Great Famine.

‘Yearn On’, ‘Sweet Woman’ and ‘Warm Hand, Cold Heart’ are spiky love poems, the ending of the first particularly effective, as the poet realises the source of her maledictions on her former lover is the distance that ‘...leaves me weeping,/and storming,/and bereft.’ ‘Making Shapes’ maintains the fallacy that all heterosexual men are suckers for big breasts, dealing as it does with the ill-effects of silicone implants. While it is commendable to see a younger female poet dealing with some of the larger issues, this poem will appeal only to those women (and men) who imagine that all men haven’t yet realised that sometimes less is more. (Personally, I’m intrigued by the variety and even, occasionally, by to whom these wonderful appendages are attached.) ‘Macha’s Curse’ and ‘Horse Sense’ are more or less straight narratives, the latter contrasting good sex and bad sex in the horsy world, its last two lines suggesting that maybe the mare, and by implication the Goddess, existed before God. ‘A Vision of Hell’ quite subtly and sexily hints at the affinities between the poet and her cat. ‘Out of Her Clay’, ‘Display’ and ‘She Whale’ show ecological concerns and are good ideas, but suffer because of their flat, prosy execution. There are also a number of family remembrances, including ‘New York City, 1947’, ‘Magic Brushes’, ‘Tenterhooks’, ‘Stitching’, ‘Grooming’ and ‘Totem’.

Only by the loosest understanding of the word could Donovan’s work here be described as lyrical, and one does tire eventually of so many poems written in short, staccato line bursts. And even within this tight frame, she has a tendency sometimes to use more words than are strictly necessary, as ‘Yearn On’ ’s ‘...dull, and pointless,/and very, very aggravating;’ and ‘inanity and ugliness’ show, while the obviousness and didacticism of ‘Out of Her Clay’ ’s ‘How long will it take/before her inevitable/spitting back’ itself borders on the inane and ugly. Carol Rumens describes Donovan’s work as characterised by ‘Terseness, sharp observation and a nice sense of cadence’, and while an admirable directness of statement and simplicity of thought is evident, it is odd that at a time when many novelists are trying to imbue their work with the qualities and effects of language which are traditionally thought of as ‘poetic’, many poets seem to be striving for what are usually considered the more pejorative properties and limitations of ‘mere prose’. Because of their ease of comprehension and colloquial repetition, one suspects that many of these pieces have more force in performance than they do on the page.

There is at times an annoying earnestness about Donovan’s poetry, as though the poet, or more correctly, the poetic voice, is that of a nice woman deliberately seeking out particular experiences (usually erotic), because she thinks it is her duty, or because she wants to write about them. But even this trait is parodied nicely in ‘Sweet Woman’. However, although she is hardly likely to become Ireland’s answer to Fiona Pith-Kethly, the more than usually revealing back-cover photo may have been ill-advised.

Finally, what is this thing with chicks and horses? Patti Smith, Katie Donovan, and now Sarah Corbett, to name only a few. Of course, Edwin Muir - a man - had a poem called ‘The Horses’ in One Foot in Eden, his final collection, an apocalyptic vision of war and destruction and of the primal grace and endurance of horses and their necessary relationship to humankind. But it’s the girls who really seem to love their ponies. Are they trying to tell us something here? Maybe we should listen to them.

First published in Books Ireland


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