The Divine Office, The Breviary, is a book endowed with magical powers. Take a friend of mine, watching his suitcase being turned over in the green channel at Dublin airport: ‘Terribly sorry, father’, said the official, clocking the breviary zipped into the leather covers favoured by the habitual reader, and closing the case (and this in the city that exhibits one in the National Museum of Ireland with a pistol shaped hidey-hole in its centre). Still, despite the Breviary’s effect on Eire’s customs officers, it never had much of an effect on me, despite a past life spent on my knees in houses, churches and, finally, seminary, praying to a mute god.
So, O’Donoghue’s latest collection has a special resonance, as the subject of one of the early poems, ‘Vocation’, went out ‘Each cold October morning […] and walked up and down, / like the horse-drawn seed drill quartering every inch’. O’Donoghue captures the mundanity, the sheer physical effort required to commit to a religious lifestyle that just doesn’t deliver the goods. The image of sowing seed bleakly echoes Mark’s gospel, the parable of the sower, but in Mark something always happens to the seed, even if unproductive or unfortunate. O’Donoghue’s metaphorical seed disappears into a void of futility, despite the methodical ‘quartering every inch’. There’s something ambivalent here though – we know that seed ought to germinate, so the sower must be left with the nagging suspicion that the problem is something that they have done wrong. The imagery of the poem is cold and bleak, but it ends with the subject ‘staring for inspiration / at the golden, unresponsive tabernacle’. It’s a hypnotic experience, sitting, or even lying on the floor, of a church, possibly in the wee small hours, watching the dull red coal of the tabernacle lamp in near darkness and waiting.
Farmers Cross explores, amongst other things, journeys, and it’s typically gentle and non-judgemental of Donoghue to leave this one in progress, despite the destination that his imagery points to.