2009 Winner: Mary O’Malley

On April 15, 2009, the University of St Thomas center for Irish Studies presented the thirteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Mary O’Malley in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.

For thirteen years now, the University of St Thomas has welcomed an Irish poet to our campus, our classrooms, our table, to receive the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry--an honor that remains without parallel in North America.  Building on Irish traditions at this university that go back to our founding and were crystallized by the late Eoin McKiernan, the conferrals of the award on these Spring evenings always have been blessed by the presence of our distinguished benefactor, Mr. O’Shaughnessy, and by the presence of his family, and of guests from Minnesota’s educational, cultural, and literary communities. Most of all, these evenings have been blessed by the presence of the poets, and of course, by their poems.

Mary O’Malley, our guest tonight, has for nearly two decades provided extensive service to the Irish literary world, as a teacher, a workshop leader, an arts administrator. She has bestowed on readers in Ireland and elsewhere a range of poems distinct in their craft and in their passion.  All of her work is shaped by her keen mindfulness of the poet’s responsibility as witness—which is also to say, by woman as witness. The poems in her six collections arise from this imperative confidence; in her own words, “Now let me start again and tell the truth another way.”

Born in a western Gaeltacht in the midst of a lean decade, O’Malley often gives us poems that evoke a world in which the landscape and the domestic interior are charged with myths, both Classical and Celtic. Of the Connemara mountain rage that crowded the shore, she writes

Twelve guardians watched

over my child dreams

sometimes soft as peaked cream

sometimes gods of stone

always minding, always men.

In these early lines, we can already hear O’Malley resisting the expected romance of place, and preparing us for the witness of her later work.

Though the years have brought Mary O’Malley far from home—to a long residence in Portugal, and into numerous trips abroad—Galway’s elemental presences, particularly that of the sea, are never far from her work. She told an interviewer, “I am a fisherman’s daughter and a blacksmith’s niece and was surrounded by strong shapes and deep rhythms from the time I could talk.”

Reading her poems, one senses that O’Malley reaches for a truth almost deeper than language can call to mind, for “a buried watercourse,” as one poem has it. In “The Boning Hall” the title poem of her 2002 volume, she makes explicit the notion of diving deep: “No one goes diving into coffin ships but if they did / with the desire for pearls quelled, they’d see wonders.” In that poem, in a few long and strong lines, and confronted with the reality of bone, she draws near

Not the names for things you cannot say

But the long round call of the thing itself

In “Tracings,” a poem that speaks in one breath of both her literary and her familial heritage, she links her craft as a poet to the work of her fisherman father, discovering a symbol that speaks both of the poet and the woman:

I feel the heft of a satin handled

fish knife. The poem forms,

a lobster pot turning

on a wooden wheel. The slats

are pliant and smooth. I soaked them

and peeled them bare of bark

in lessons learned under my father’s eye 

Connemara is her point of departure and the place to which she has now returned, and yet, it is vital to remember that O’Malley writes out of a different place entirely. She writes as a woman who is both a citizen of the modern world, and also as a thinking critic of that very modernity. Poetry can indeed be a knife in O’Malley’s hands; she tells us what happens when Irish eyes are scalding.

In “The Ballad of Pepsi and Wonderbra,” she takes aim at the shabbiness of consumerism; in a later poem, “Jack of Hearts,” she savages the self-absorption of modern romance. In other poems, such as “Divorce Referendum” and “Prescribing the Pill,” she casts an angry eye on the  strictures of the Irish church. Complacency is not allowed the poet-as-witness. In “Knell,” O’Malley begins with a lyric aspiration:

I want to write a simple poem

With the taste of green apple,

Clear as a high bell.

But that aspiration is immediately troubled by the call of brute fact: out in the world, “ordinary men are raping children / no older than my daughter….”

So many of O’Malley’s later and more complex poems come to us out of that space between the lyric naming and the call of news, the nightmare of present history. It taxes the heart and it costs the psyche to write so often, and so plainly, out of such a gap. But Mary O’Malley has done so with invention and clarity, with passion and precision. These are the qualities that reward out affections and our continuing attention; these are the qualities that recommend her poetry to us this night. It is now our honor to present the thirteenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Mary O’Malley.