Naomi Foyle finds Donaldson's poetic voice 'honed and highly relevant'
Born in Newtownards in 1956, and educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, Moyra Donaldson has matured into one of the country’s most distinctive and accomplished writers.
Her pamphlet Kissing Ghosts, published by Lapwing in 1995, made many readers aware of her particular talent for conveying the complexity of human relationships in a spare yet intimate voice.
Themes of domestic life, erotic attraction, loss and the passage of time have since proved Donaldson’s natural terrain. Her imagination, sustained by myth and a deeply felt spirituality, also offers the reader tantalising glimpses of an individual straining for a transcendence she is not altogether sure she can reach.
In 1998 Donaldson’s first full collection Snakeskin Stilettos appeared from Lagan Press. Its first poem ‘Exile’ illustrates the poet’s efforts to situate herself between or beyond the ‘bogs and gantries’ of ancient and contemporary Northern Ireland.
Distancing herself from her grandfather, whose self-certainty expressed itself in religious evangelism and a ‘flinty faith’, the speaker instead searches for a magical way of connecting herself with a landscape she ultimately identifies as a desert. From this position of almost shamanistic retreat and constraint, the poet is able, as the collection develops, to draw on exacting powers of observation to describe not only the natural world, but also the intricacies of family relationships.
Sensual and electric, the poems in Snakeskin Stilettos are particularly alive to the nuances of the mother-child relationship, the title poem addressing a daughter’s discovery of one of her mother’s secret possessions:
Sneak in, creak open the door,
lift the lid and let them out,
untissue the fear.
Run your fingers
against the fissley scales,
press the fangs of heels
into your palm.
you’ve never felt before.
These shoes are live and dangerous.
The collection also contains a moving sequence of poems about an elderly mother stricken with memory loss, ‘Mother Who Has Been’:
my broken bowl my holy grail
my long silence my spoken truth
my tiny bound feet my seven league boots
my never quite my every first prize
Poems such as ‘After the Argument’ and ‘Out of the Ordinary’ give evidence of Donaldson’s warm ability to convey the ‘steadfastness’ and ‘little considerations’ of domestic life. Dry-eyed poems such as ‘Flirtation’ and ‘Infidelities’ take a different slant on things, however, and in ‘Poisoned Glen’, the speaker maintains:
It is a kind of courage
to hear only what is said
¯ I love you ¯
balanced on liquid tension
like a pond skater.
Donaldson, however, is not a writer to get bogged down in the confessional. Titles such as ‘Kali’, ‘Leda’, ‘Raven’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Rapunzel’ give a flavour of her fascination with folklore and archetype. Interwoven with images that spring from the ordinary world, Snakeskin Stilettos transforms both reality and poetic convention.
Donaldson’s second collection Beneath the Ice (Lagan Press 2001) develops themes from Snakeskin Stilettos and demonstrates her widening formal range. Always a formally flexible poet, in Beneath the Ice Donaldson often splinters verses and lines, creating jagged edges that reflect her concern with psychic pain. The haunting ‘Riddle’, for example, reads:
speaks to mountain and sea to sea
I hear you
and you are the voice of my loneliness
I see you
and you are a mirror held to my emptiness
I touch you
and you are the absence of love
who are you?
The image of the mirror runs through the collection as the poet attempts to catch a reassuring glimpse of herself – or the mist of another’s breath – in its surface. But human identity is proved, always vulnerable, elusive.
In the poem ‘I Am’, with its list of metaphors for the self, identity is questioned by juxtaposing the sorrow of the speaker, who sees herself as ‘a salmon exhausted’, with a sense of possibility as she imagines herself in the future as ‘a running hare’. These poetic flights are themselves, however, balanced in the final verse by a list of scientific facts that generate their own sense of impulse and momentum:
I am seratonin, adrendaline,
hippocampus, synapse, nerve,
progesterone and oestrogen,
meat and juice, bone and dust.
Aficionados of Donaldson’s sly and often humorous take on male-female relationships will not be let down by Breaking the Ice, which contains such gems as ‘Notice of Eviction’, in which the speaker changes the locks on her dreams, and ‘Bitten’, in which:
Working on the principle of homeopathy and hangovers
¯ treat like with like/hair of the dog ¯
she pours herself a drink
and wonders if he’d agree
to be prescribed for her cure …
And in the superbly vengeful ‘Bad Magic’, the speaker makes her way through a moonlit garden to a well, carrying:
… the severed finger he cut
from his right hand and left
under my pillow …
A dark collection, much concerned with absence and entrapment, Beneath the Ice nevertheless contains poems of hope and consolation, including the tender ‘Blue’, an invocation of the ‘holiest, calmest of colours’, and ‘If I Asked You To’, a celebration of the healing power of sexual passion.
Moyra Donaldson’s poetry, short fiction and playwriting have garnered many prizes and much critical acclaim. Snakeskin Stilettos was reprinted in America in 2002 by CavanKerry, bringing her poetry to the attention of an international audience.
A poet who weaves ancient lore into the fabric of contemporary life, her work hearkens back, as fellow poet Mebdh McGuckian notes in the foreword to the CavanKerry edition, to the sensual spirituality of Yeats, while simultaneously looking clearly and wryly at everyday experience.
In the much ploughed field of ‘Irish’ poetry, Donaldson’s is a honed and highly relevant voice.