There’s something almost apologetic about As if the Hare, the third-last poem in this latest collection from Whitbread-winner Bernard O’Donoghue. “But if I always seem to be returning,” he writes, “to those few fields, few years of long ago/as if there’d been nothing in the interim, /this only happened yesterday.”
It’s a twinkly, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that, yes, after decades of teaching at Oxford and travelling all over the world, the poet is still largely concerned with his formative experiences in the village of Cullen, Co. Cork. And although he sets this particular poem up as a rare attempt to reflect on a recent event, it soon transpires that even his day-old encounter with a haughty hare is really about the past – “in no great hurry, he loped into the field /through the gap we’d made there in the ‘fifties.”
O’Donoghue’s fascination with the Cullen of his youth is understandable – the place has changed dramatically. In Robbing the Orchard, for example, he revisits the garden where he used to scrump apples, and discovers the trees are now “stunted/and choked by wintergrass” – not to mention that what used to be the school has been reduced to “a single wall/marked by ivy patterns”. There’s a sense that if the poet doesn’t record the place as it once was, it will soon vanish. Indeed, his memories are already fading. Waiting For The Horses begins: “So wistful is the recognition now/of all the places that I hardly noted:/places I know I saw once or twice,/their occasions unrecallable”.
However, it’s the stories of Cullen that the poet seems most determined to preserve – snippets of local folklore, often elegiac in tone. In The Din Beags, he recalls three childless sisters and their younger brother, whose beloved horse faces a brutal burial at the hands of a gravedigger who doesn’t see any need to accord dignity to a dead animal; in Sawdust it’s the tale of the circus strong man who may or may not have met a sticky end when one of his stunts went wrong. Cruelty is mostly presented as a given.