The Woman with an Owl Tattoo
by Anne Walsh Donnelly
Paperback -– US retail: $8.99
Kindle — US retail $5.21
Publisher: Fly on the Wall Poetry (May 30, 2019)
You should buy and read this important first book by Ireland’s most talented new poet. Period. Move along; nothing more need be read here.
Let me go further, though, for those not so taken-in by the hard sell.
I have been a fan of Anne Walsh Donnelly since first reading her winning poetry in The Blue Nib Chapbook Volume 2 (The Blue Nib, July 2018). Since then, I have been an avid follower of Anne’s on social media. I was very excited when she announced the publication of her first chapbook of poetry, The Woman with an Owl Tattoo. I’m so happy my excitement was more than deserved. Once you read this book, you’ll be changed much for the better. Such a bold claim can validly be made of a handful of books from new poets in the last sixty or so years. I feel here this claim is 100% merited.
Donnelly is a very candid poet. There is little to nothing coy in her writing; if there were, her writing could not be her own. Donnelley is not a brash poet, though; she is open and honest. Understanding that is key to enjoying her first chapbook The Woman with an Owl Tattoo. To read this chapbook is to enter Anne’s life, her mind, her experiences, and her imagination.
In revealing so very much of herself and episodes in her life, Anne lays herself bare, just as she lays naked in several of the poems in The Woman with an Owl Tattoo. Can one ever see a person the same way once they are seen naked?
This is no negative criticism of the poems; it’s a caveat. If passages such as those in the poem “Friesian” give you pause, this book may not be your ideal choice:
The new vet’s perfume
cut through the shite in the shed.
She pulled on shoulder-length gloves,
reached inside my best dairy cow
up through the birth canal.
The animal roared like a chainsaw
until in a whoosh of blood,
a Friesian calf slipped out.
After the calf had suckled
I asked the new vet in for tea,
released my copper-highlighted hair
from its ponytail while she washed.
The first time we made love
her hands delivered me from my labour days.
Like my Friesian calf, I landed
on sweet-smelling straw.
As I wrote: Little to nothing coy here. Nor should there be.
In Friesian we have the blatant: the smell of the vet’s perfume, the smell of cow dung. We have the events themselves: the birthing of the calf, the tea and washing up, the later love-making. We have Anne herself, for what would the real use be of turning this into a second or third-person account? And we have amazing metaphors in this piece. The entire poem is a metaphor for Anne’s life and the poem’s last stanza could be a self-contained one, too, with a few different words. This is no easy trick and a less-deft poet would have given readers a rendering of reality, reportage, not artistry. Should “Friesian” be a poem about a real event in Ms. Donnelly’s life, what a wonderful way to share it with the world. Should the poem be a fiction, what an amazing allegory
Imagine a person you love romantically. Imagine them decked-out in a sexy outfit, lights down low, soft romantic (or erotic) music on, a lighted fireplace and an expensive bottle of wine to share. Big night, right? Imagine that same person crawling into bed after a typical Thursday, having taken off their work clothes and pulling on comfy PJs. Typical night. Yet which is the sign of a lasting love and which a blazing memory? These are not incompatible aspects of a relationship, nor, do I hope, phases.
A poem like Friesian and several others in The Woman with an Owl Tattoo offer us both the fire of attraction and the warmth of affection. The tea-sharing in “Friesian” is more than just reporting, more than just an accounting of time: it signifies the start of domesticity between the two women. Sharing a drink, sharing water or wine would be more hospitality or sexuality. Tea is the most civil and domestic of drinks and it leads to a relationship like alcohol or other drinks might not. Anne may be sharing the truth with us here — tea may indeed have been served. Yet in her writing, consciously or not on her part, the tea serves as an important symbol.
Other important symbols come out in the poems, such as a tattoo, not of an owl, but of a dragon in a hot air balloon, a hamster on a wheel, a tawny owl outside a bedroom window, a mythic Irish hero, and more. Even cheeses serve as potent symbols in Ms. Donnelly’s very able writing.
These symbols are not subtle, for, again, coyness, quietude, does not serve these poems well. That’s not to say Anne’s writing is brash or obvious. Instead it is open and honest like a painting by Edward Hopper. A glance is enough to show you what’s going on. Reflection helps you go deeper into meaning. So it is with the poetry of Anne Walsh Donnelly.
Of special note in The Woman with an Owl Tattoo is the cycle of “coming out” poems wherein Anne comes to realize and then share with people her homosexuality. These poems are vignettes that offer readers insight on growth and acceptance. Change is always fraught with risk. Anne shares the powerful changes she has gone through with candor, wit, and beauty.
I am confident Anne Walsh Donnelley’s writing will be widely-read, for hers is an important voice in literature. This is homosexual literature. It is feminist, it is Irish, it is modern and it is vibrant. More than all those important qualities, it is open literature. Most importantly, it is superb literature.
(Friesian is reprinted with permission from Anne Walsh Donnelly and her publisher, Fly on the Wall Poetry.)