On the Great Liquid Train of Memory
Kirsten Kearney reviews Moyra Donaldson's The Horse's Nest
After a spawn of Blackbird-themed poetry on the poetry scene recently, it comes as some relief to discover Moyra Donaldson’s latest collection The Horse’s Nest.
The book cleverly leaves the poem with the potential explanation for the curious title, until the last page. And then doesn’t quite reveal its secret.
This is becoming key to Donaldson’s work. Poetry is not an easy read, and this collection of 38 poems is no exception. But The Horse’s Nest is a journey, through the layers that feature so frequently in the poems, into perceived, remembered or re-visualised reality. A reality that is often both painful and poignant, confused or confusing.
Tracey Emin remarked recently that calling her work confessional simply meant that she says things that others are not comfortable with. In many of these poems, Donaldson reclaims this positive meaning of confessional poetry by bringing the reader on a journey into the realities of real loss and grieving, real people, real names.
From Donaldson’s mother, whose descent or ascent towards death is so accurately chronicled, to the stark fragile poems for Belfast poet and friend Maírtín Crawford, Donaldson’s words are those of a woman who makes truth out of the world around her, who shapes her poetry from sources as diverse as the spider’s web, a bamboo cane, a headstone.
The collection ranges widely, in theme, style and occasionally, depth, between short thought poems which spur the reader towards endurance, and poems to love, marriage, loss of love, loss of self. Perennial themes perhaps, but Donaldson proves herself as a poet able to take the universal and reform it into an image striking in its immediacy and long-lasting in its depth.
The poem that creates a luminous image which captures the core of the book is not the aforementioned ‘Nest’ of the collection’s title, but rather the poem sequence ‘The Hummingbird Case’.
Written across six poems, several centuries and multiple narrators, the image of the 500 hummingbirds caught in suspended animation inside the 19th century display case comes to symbolise the attempt to freeze life, to capture the essence of what makes us alive and to question what lies beyond what we can see. In the poem Donaldson’s questions:
What is art but the ability to capture life,
pin it down to be admired and wondered at.
Donaldson’s words are, like TS Eliot’s, formulated, sprawling on a pin, precise, favoured and targeted. Her writing is fine, stark and pointed, stripping poems, images and life back to their possible essentials.
It is poetry as taxidermy. Running through the book, this unsettling theme is present in the opening poem 'Stubbs at Horkstow':
It is a long journey
into the body of a horse,
into the structure of reality.
and continues until the final poem ‘Nest’ where ‘in wind tossed waves of leaves, / I build my horse’s nest, my ship of bones.’
As the found poem from 'Junko' indicates, this collection reflects ‘a difficult time of loosing’; the collision of letting go and losing encapsulating both the desire to hold and the need to release and ending in the need to create at least the appearance of flight.
This collection feels like Donaldson’s coming of age. At 50, with a pamphlet, a screenplay and two full length collections on her shelf, she is no stranger to poetry, but offers in this collection a poetry of what remains - what remains once the dross is stripped away, once the difficult questions and absences are allowed to hang in the air. Once the poet has perfected her voice and can risk revisiting the ‘great liquid train / of memory.’
Nest by Moyra Donaldson
I wake beneath a chestnut tree,
back against bark,
legs stretched out through grass.
Long fingered leaves drip light
and shade haphazardly: the air
is warm. In front of me, a lake
lies like a mirror, and I break
its surface, wash my face
in its salty, ice cold water.
My horse is waiting, shaded and patient,
his skin is comfort, his breath green
as he carries me on his back
to the flat stone altar at the forest’s heart.
Being dead, I lay myself down on it
thankfully, and the black bird comes,
lifts me to her round high nest.
Inside the egg,
I am a cell,
dividing and dividing,
shell filtered light
warm on my lidless eyes
until time comes
and the shell cracks.
My horse is waiting,
bright and patient:
his skin is sunlight
and his breath air.
Amongst the moss
are white and dry.
In my beak, I lift
his great rib hull,
his long leg bones,
the instrument of his skull,
and in the highest branches
of the tallest tree
in wind tossed waves of leaves,
I build my horse’s nest, my ship of bones.