The Goose Tree

Moyra Donaldson takes stock of a life in letters and finds solace in nature

Since her debut collection, Snakeskin Stilettos, was published in 1998, Bangor-based poet Moyra Donaldson has steadily been producing high quality volumes of her poetry every five years or so.

Her Selected Poems in 2014 was a reminder of her output as one of Northern Ireland’s finest contemporary poets. Now with her new volume, The Goose Tree, Donaldson continues to expand on her legacy, albeit in a different direction.

So, gone are the ‘carnivalesque chimera’ of man-bears, pig-faced women and museum oddities redolent of her 2010 collection, Miracle Fruit. Instead, we find the poet tapping a more personal, direct vein; almost all the poems in the volume deal with ‘I’, or at least the ‘we’ of family, friends and loved ones.

In ‘No Domestic Godness’, Donaldson confesses to having 'no desire to make chutney / or learn how to crochet / or veil myself to keep bees', perhaps a veiled jest itself to the beekeeper found in Miracle Fruit. The language is less the dreamscape of ‘Beekeeper’, here firmly rooted in the everyday, immediate world around us.

The backwards reflection continues in ‘My Retirement’, in which Donaldson writes: 'Shoot all the horses; / be rid for good an’ all', a self-mocking nod to ‘Girls and horses’ and ‘Nest’ from 2006’s The Horse’s Nest.

Compared with the tongue-in-cheek of ‘When I am old’ from that collection, this is a retirement of dismissal almost, the speaker declaring 'I won’t care anymore', yet still appreciative of the horses’ wonder. ‘The Flayed Horse’ continues that deconstructivism, whilst remaining tender to the subject.

Similarly in ‘Exorcism’, we get instructions for how one might move into a sort of retirement, the poem encouraging us to:

Tear up photographs, burn letters, notes
towards poems, scribblings, diaries, dreams.

Brush away the dust of you that skins the place
loose the thread and break the bowl:
only then can you lie down in your long bed and rest.

Yet, even in the midst of decay, Donaldson still finds plenty of beauty to celebrate, in cemeteries in Movilla and Greyabbey, in Gweedore, 'knowing that all days turn to darkness', and even in the lack of whales at Roaringwater Bay. Elsewhere, we find rivers, summer storms, seals, eels, apple trees and daisies.

In ‘Some of the Things I Have Planted’ and ‘Nature Study’, there are lists that would make Heaney, Longley and Bleakney salivate. We have a poet that is drawing closer to nature, still concerned with the human condition, but finding it wrapped up in petals, leaves, grass and branches.

The poems here are succinct but sharp, only three of them extending to a second page. With decay comes reduction, how human life may grow old, yet the bounty of countryside and wildlife thrives parallel to us. The volume’s opening poem, ‘A Winter’s Gift’, starts off with the line: 'How much further you can see / when the trees are bare.'

In The Goose Tree, we find a poet stripping away the forestry of imagination to display an open, honest stocktaking of a life that yet still believes in magic 'running its course, ordinary through the marrow of your life'.

The Goose Tree is out now, published by Liberties Press.