2011 Winner: Leanne O’Sullivan
Citation read at the presentation of The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leanne O’Sullivan, April 12, 2011
The University of St. Thomas’s Center for Irish Studies and its many friends gather tonight, on a fresh spring evening, to welcome the Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan to our campus, as we have welcomed such poets as Thomas McCarthy and Dennis O’Driscoll in the past. As she sits among us ready to receive North America’s most significant award for Irish poetry, our gathering celebrates not only the achievement of her art, but also the humane traditions of Ireland’s literary culture and, beyond that, the assurance and potency of poetry itself.
Looking back at the accomplishments of the fourteen O’Shaughnessy honorees, we note the many traits that their art shares with Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry. Her poems, like those of Eavan Boland, Moya Cannon, Kerry Hardie, and Mary O’Malley, possess notable thematic invention, sureness of expression, and, above all, a generosity of spirit.
Astonishingly, our guest’s precocious first book, Waiting for My Clothes, appeared from a major British publisher, Bloodaxe, when she was only twenty-one. The province of adolescence is inwardness and individuality—which can also be said to be the province of the lyric poem. O’Sullivan’s Waiting for My Clothes vividly displays those traits. Very much a book of adolescence, it charts a young woman’s awkwardness with her body, her sense of strangeness in this world, and her descent into the trials of an eating disorder—followed, thankfully, by healing and recovery. These poems are not carried along solely by a confessional pulse. These are poems, not recovery narratives. What commands our attention, even in O’Sullivan’s earliest work, is the sheer point and power of her phrase making—her gift for naming unspoken fears.
In “Perfect Disorder,” for instance, she melds Ireland’s history of hunger with a history of anorexia:
There is a disease spreading across this island
The fields are already dark and vacant,
Foodstuffs lie rotting by the gates.
I come with my brittle candle and faded map.
I have no cure but need…
Waiting for My Clothes leads us into disturbing places and themes, exploring what O’Sullivan has called the “famine of the 90s.” More important, and more cheeringly, it also leads us out. As the collection closes, we find her hopefully turning to the comfort of ordinariness: the turning point of asking her mother for a piece of toast, presented with “a slab of butter / that looks more like a doorstep”; a schoolgirl’s silly solemnity in “First Boyfriend”; and moving elegies that record the transformation worked by the passing of a beloved grandmother.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, the poetry world is strewn with accomplished first books that led to nothing. In 2009, however, Leanne O’Sullivan published Cailleach: The Hag of Beara and put to rest any doubts about the staying power of her imagination and art. In Cailleach, O’Sullivan makes something wholly fresh out of the myths of the Old Woman of Beare. Scholars of Old Irish know the Hag from a ninth-century poem. Mythographers know her as one of the titular goddesses of the Celtic landscape. O’Sullivan knows her as the embodiment of the landscape in which she was raised, the Beara Peninsula, way out in West Cork. In Irish story, the Old Woman’s life begins in stone, as in O’Sullivan’s poem “Birth”:
Now comes November,
My birth time, and the white ribs of tide
Uproot the silence of the bay.
Today I break from stone into sand,
Motherless, my mother a stone
Bedding the earth and dreaming my image.
O’Sullivan’s Beare is elemental—a place of deep-rooted things. Instead of the pastoral Ireland of the travel brochures, O’Sullivan offers a wilder place of water, tides, mountains, and the indigenous stories that attend them all. Her Beare is a place of Gaelic duende, a place where the Cailleach can say to the river:
You were the first thought the world had
when it dipped its palms and made rivers,
the grass banks sweetened and sealed
with dew, wells of healing, uneven
chanting of stones, let be, let come.
The Hag to whom O’Sullivan gives poetic voice in these love poems—for they are that, too—is a real woman who knows sorrows—birth and loss—who takes a fisherman as a lover and loses him to the sea. Given simple words pared down to their passion, the Hag speaks to him with unabashed desire:
Roses I found growing around the bridge
I lay on your pillow, though time and love
go round like dancers, in time I won’t be able
to tell your name from mine, to separate
your voice from the voice within this house.
My love I am at the table, waiting.
When you come home my hands shake
like rain breaking on the knotted waves.
For the confidence of her young voice; for her re-shaping of Irish myth; and for her craft and her courage, we have pleasure now in presenting the fifteenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leanne O’Sullivan.