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This review is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Cover of The Seasons of Cullen Church
MaitreyabandhuBuns for the Elephants
Bernard O’Donoghue
The Seasons of Cullen Church
(Faber & Faber, 2016) £12.99
RANDALL JARRELL REMARKED of Robert Frost’s poems how little they seem ‘performances’, and how much they were instead ‘things made of lives and the world that the lives inhabit’. I felt the same about Bernard O’Donoghue’s new collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church. When so much modern poetry seems like a performance, or else the latest instalment from the School of Nice Feelings, O’Donoghue’s poems are an object lesson in how to write poetry that matters. The new collection confirms him as one of the most lyrical, amused, tragic and serious poets currently writing in English.

On first reading, the poems seem almost studiedly commonplace, as if the writer is hardly writing poetry at all. They have the immediacy of a story told over a Guinness, a joke heard on a train. And yet each poem keeps you on your toes just enough: not enough to cause strain, but enough to keep you alert to syntax that mimics everyday speech but heightens it, ever so slightly, into poetry. Syntax and word choice stay just the right side of surprising, without drawing attention to the poet’s scrupulousness. Like Seamus Heaney, O’Donoghue has a ‘reluctance to be grand’; unlike Heaney, he is never even quietly flashy.  

An Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, where he taught medieval English, it’s hardly surprising that O’Donoghue’s poems reach out to Pindar and Ovid, Dante and the Gawain poet. What is surprising is that he does so without them feeling self-consciously literary. In ‘Procne’, for instance, we visit Queen Gunnhild and a matchmaking ...
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