Some Excerpts


Mary O'DonnellBaltic Amber
Someone said I would uncover pieces of amber
from long-dead trees on this Baltic shoreline.
Day by day, I leave the cottage, walk the sands
to a headland village.

Nobody understands
what I mean when I mention amber, their minds
engrossed by hazel branches hung
with painted eggs, catkins; or hyacinths in bowls.
The time for hyacinths is long gone, I tell them.

I am in need of something that has survived
more than winter, hardening to translucent gold,
enclosing – perhaps – one small seed,
to honour the month and the Easter I was conceived.

I have grown five decades, like aeons,
and my tears have surely become like amber,
enriched and smooth, taking tawny colours
for blood.

Next week I will be casual
about the search, will uncover nuggets
beneath tree fragments,
inhaling salt and resin as I turn freely
from eggs, catkins, those April fevers.


Mary O'DonnellForest, Snow, a Train
On the journey from Falun, farmstead roofs
pulled down the snow, their shoulders
tucking white sheets
around ledges and barn doors.

The train hissed along the forest edge.
Daily sleet slopped in headlines against the glass,
became a television from the 60s
lined with interference, sky, snow, tree,
sky, snow, tree, and the houses - yellow or red -
whooped a morse code of comfort. Once, the forest
called out to the train, stop, for heaven’s sake, stop!,
but the crystal weighted spruces were swallowed
by horizontal lines, the day’s deepening hurry.
And it would not stop.

The forest’s sharp nose was sniffing our warmth,
old bones at the edge of a clearing clicked
with the need for flesh, our blood,
a fire for the coming night.
The train pushed on, and the trees larruped
windy meltings as the carriage sheared south.

On overhead racks, wrapped gifts
of Swedish glass seemed glib,
artifacts in ice, small candles,
and berried woollen hats and gloves
for those who waited,
at home in the dark.


Galician Watch-dog
Manoli says the farmers are not sentimental.
The chained fawn dog guards the house, watches
what moves within the mists, his ears like pinnacles.
If the sun flares on a wet stone, he barks.
If the farmer’s granddaughter exclaims at new lambs,
his ears swallow her voice, he barks thrice, then stops.
She speaks to her grandfather in the mother tongue.
Manoli says that once they go to school,
they lose the words. The fawn dog watches cyclists,
children, sheep, caped men bound for Finisterre,
frustrated by those with permission to walk.
Around him, the world gulps some words, vomits others.
He knows his place. He knows he has no say.


Woman of my Dreams
Time noses mole-like, passing or ignoring
what once seemed the drama of the day.
I wonder about my fuss and battle,
would restart conversations short circuited

by my need to star-shoot with her son,
to stub her motherhood underfoot
because I was his wife. No longer
daughter-in-law to mother-in-law;

prescriptions of age, position, gender,
long met, I would meet and speak
of matters beyond our interest:
her son – my husband, our child –

her granddaughter. I would place those fetishes
of female division within a closed cell,
then throw away the key to hear her speak
of Yorkshire and the moors, girl-scouts,

Sheffield and the Blitz. I would listen
with purer hearing for her stories,
than when my ears waxed like moons in my head,
straining in her direction - the enemy -

yet caught within the cyclical need
to be the free woman of my dreams.

In mortal combat with myself, I fought with her
in silence. But the evening before she slipped

camp grounds, she did not know me, or anyone –
her eyes were fretless skies – no cloud, no heather,
no ground to fix the feet. Female fetishes long laid to rest,
I saw at last a very old woman.

And myself: those old moons on the wane,
no longer baleful, and thinking well of her.


Waiting Outside Bewleys
At that doorway how often have I glided,
smooth-hipped through crowds to see my mother wait
with glossy packages on looped string.

She never recognised me until
I was before her, but pretended. ‘I saw you,’
she proclaimed, ‘You move like a hot knife

through butter!’ And once, grandmother’s shoe-heel
snagged on the café stairs, and she fell.
We helped her up, reassembled her country dignity.

Yesterday, I lolled in soft paws of coffee air, just beside
the counter. Shoppers streamed, magazine-sellers
changed coins, the bells of Clarendon St Church

rang out, so that I, distracted, did not see
this daughter hot-knife her way along until
she pulled up short before me, skeins of hair

damp with drizzle as she smiled. Was she Grace
or Fate? What half-remembered female from
the staircase of the past now gazed from her eyes

at me? Inside, we ordered buns and coffee,
settled down to pass the fragments of our stories,
mouths generating some sweeter recognition,
not just icing.


I still wonder why I stayed.
It slid its streets around my waist,
old boy of the black pool,
whispered riddles from the cobbles,

rose to my ear till I was dazed with secrets,
The river edged the spring nights
with stinking sludge, rough braiding at low tide
when the sea rushed to consume the filth.

Buddleia sprouted high up in derelict Georgians
along the quays, wind-waving as the buses
lurched towards Half-penny Bridge.
And still it poured sweet-talk and nothings.

But my feet became Dublin feet,
tramping streets from Parnell to Molesworth
bearing banners to wave at presidents,
the heels of our boots gritty, voices

outraged, as we crossed O’Connell.
With room to breathe, I lost myself
in the peace of the crowd. It offered
gift on gift in quayside junk-shops,

plied me till I was absorbed, tricks
like a 1900s photograph album
bought for a pound beneath wavering
Christmas lights, the cover gold-scrolled,

an Edwardian family’s passage
from Westland Row*¹ to Burma.
I study them in sepia, seated beside trunks
before the boat-train to Dun Laoghaire

buttoned and hatted, their travel finery
and sturdy shoes flashed-forward to memory
for an album not yet made.
To think it was thrown out, that chronicle

of their time in high foreign fields,
women playing lacrosse in loose skirts,
or once, seated beneath the tamarinds
while tea was served, their blonde children

and unsmiling native nannies
close to hand. This Christmas, I pledge
myself a vanished family’s keeper,
protect some remnant of its men

and women, who ensured the camera
would record those steaming nights,
malarial, those tropical gins
with no ice, women bored and far

from the hum of home, the rain-glossed
Dublin trams hissing and rattling
through wistful dreams as the monsoon poured.
The place they lost still slides its streets around me,

all wiles, whispers from the cobbles,
perfumes my ear till I am dazed.
It never failed me, the old boy, though
I often wondered why I stayed.

¹ Dublin railway station now called Pearse.

All poems ©Mary O'Donnell.


Mary O'Donnellfrom “Where They Lie”(2014), Chapter 2 (Gideon’s voice).

          Gideon was bird-like. Behind his frameless spectacles his eyes seemed huge and pale, with darting black pupils that observed all. His nose was a beak, his lips thin. He kept the long black hair of his younger self. It straggled around his shoulders, over the loose cotton shirts he favoured. He would brush it impatiently behind his ears, but he never cut it short in the current style. At the sight of incipient grey hair, he had bought a bottle of colour in the chemist. Alison helped him apply it, ensuring that in middle age he retained a full head of crow-black hair which was occasionally blue-black, and as a result suspiciously oriental. Sometimes, in affection, Alison used to call him a Jew-man or an Arab, depending on the current state of Middle Eastern politics and which side she was pitching for. Comeere ye great big Jew-man! she might whisper before pressing her mouth to his and sucking on his lower lip the way she liked to. Or Throw your leg over me, ye big Arab! But she hadnt called him a Jew or an Arab in quite some time. Shed gone quiet in herself, and very proper in ways that dismayed him.

          He listened to the sounds coming from the kitchen. Groceries were being unpacked, saucepans placed firmly a note short of being banged on surfaces, presses opened and shut not quite slammed. It always amazed him how women could send disapproving messages from whatever room they happened to be in, simply by opening and shutting, lifting and lowering whatever object was to hand.

          Gideon had known Alison all his life. That was the thing that bothered him. He thought he knew her. Funny, wild, jittery-as-a-colt Alison Jebb had grown up two doors down from him on Carson Terrace. He knew her brothers but had treated them as one slightly watered-down personality, because they were identical twins and told one another everything. They even admitted as much. Most twins he knew not that he knew so many spent their lives trying to be different from one another, but not Sam and Harry – ‘the Boys, as they were known. They had lived as one, moved as one, played as one. The funny thing was, they accepted Gerda as their friend and ally in all things. She hated being away from them, and it was her main complaint, on summer holidays at their grandparentshome in Armagh, that the Boys werent mostly ever allowed to come too.

          In youth, he could not conquer their secrets, nor could he see back then with his eyes what they saw, or know how they felt about anything. He liked to thump the Boys. He did this often, usually winning the battle of fists and elbows until they were fourteen and suddenly sprouted a musculature that Gideon had not anticipated. After one good hiding from the two of them, he began to treat them with new respect.

Mary O'Donnell from Chapter 19 (Nialls voice)

          Who would want to live in such a place? Country people long ago, he supposed. The last islanders. It had been long deserted. The front door was broken in and swung uneasily on one, rusted hinge that creaked in the rising wind. It would have been a pretty house, a ginger-bread home to some isolationist who wanted to stay hidden. It could have been an eyehole to the north, the place from which to spy on passing ships with dancing lights, or the aurora borealis when cascaded up the winter sky.

          Everything about the house urged him to keep back. It had no need of humans. Nonetheless, he went in, and crumbled plaster ground beneath his boots. Okay then, come in, the house grumbled. There was no hall, and he entered a large, pink-walled room spattered with mould. The bare floorboards had fallen through in places. But people had used the place. There were broken bottles and glasses, and a cabalistic symbol was burnt into the floor. On the wall, a smudged swastika had been lopsidedly drawn. Kids, exploring the dark side, he rationalised. There were chairs and ropes too, weak and rotten. He frowned. Was it possible that the Boys had been interrogated here in some macabre pre-execution trial?

          He decided to phone Gideon rather than try to call out. He dialled feverishly, excitement welling in him. Surely he had found something relevant. But no he hissed with annoyance, as the phone gave a single bleep and went dead. There was no reception on the island. Cursing, he tucked the mobile in the pocket of his anorak.

          He grew cold to the core as he wandered through the rooms. There was a small kitchen behind the first, large room, then a steep, broken wooden stairway leading to an upstairs. It was not completely broken, so he tested the first few steps and began to climb, skipping over the broken boards, until he came to a landing. It was very dark. The ceiling had collapsed in places, allowing slivers of daylight to filter through. Up there, he became afraid. It felt as if somebody was there, at the rim of his vision all the time, slinking out of sight before his eyes reached them. He felt himself in danger. Panting, he turned and slithered quickly down the stairs again, and out the front door. It was a relief to be outside, beneath the sky.

from the award-winning short story The Space Between Louis and Me(2010, uncollected).

          In this city, women outnumber men. But young women have the chutzpah, the oestrogen-plump looks, and until recently they had the money to pick and choose, despite the imbalance.

          Weve got to do something radical, I suggested. Like what, Roza drawled cynically. Leave it with me, I said. Wicked, she replied.

          We didnt communicate for a few weeks afterwards. I think Roza had given up, that she had almost but not quite decided to live the entente cordiale that was her uninspiring marriage, to imagine some kind of passion for the sake of her art.

          Being an intensive Sunday newspaper reader turned the situation around. It takes up most of my day, whether in bed, or later in Café Lumière, near the canal bridge where the swans throng. The café door is open regardless of the weather. In winter, I muffle up inside, newspaper supplements spread, a large coffee steaming to my right. At other tables, couples and young families are out for a lazy breakfast. An Irish fry-up or waffles and honey. Outside, greedy swans close in, frothing and jostling on the trim, grassy bank, heads rising and dipping. I perused the Personals page for a few moments before zooming in on something. I spent a good few minutes reading and re-reading. It wasnt the usual smarty-pants approach (Cobalt blue eyes, bronze hair and a heart of gold, but also nerves of steel! M, 50) that tries too hard (Pineapple seeks cheese with own stick. F, 33) to impress (Reactive lady, 41, seeking generous physics man to 50).

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          I followed it up, and so did Roza. Its more difficult for her. How often can she have a new lover right there in the house with an observant, amiable husband already on her case? Going out can be awkward in her suburb where even the dogs in the street would notice something amiss and go arf-arf! in their best Cork accents.

          The people at Rel-aid, assessed our requirements. They listened on skype, they observed and they matched. I paid for both of us by credit card. Dissatisfied customers are refunded in full. I dont imagine there are too many. What arrived by Fed-ex courier more than met my wildest imaginings.