Poetry International Poetry International

Michelle O\'Sullivan

Michelle O\'Sullivan

Michelle O\'Sullivan

(United States of America, 1972)
Michelle O’Sullivan was born in Chicago in 1972 and grew up in County Sligo. She earned a BA and MA from the University of Hertfordshire and worked in England as a primary teacher. She has also lived in Greece and the US. She now lives in County Mayo.  Her first collection, The Blue End of Stars, was published in 2012, was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize and won the Shine/Strong Award. Her subsequent collection, The Flower and the Frozen Sea, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was published in 2015.
In a world of relentless utterance, Michelle O’ Sullivan’s work is striking in its reticence, in its cultivation of stillness as essential to careful reading. Acutely observant of landscapes, and of the presence of humans within them, her poems use the precise rendering of sensory experience to investigate subjectivity and its temporal constraints. Though alert to the stimulus of the physical world – to the warmth ‘as when sunlight’s passed’, or to the feel of new grass on the skin – O’Sullivan’s poetry is in fact preoccupied by distance, and the perspective this offers on all our relationships. To watch another person intently is to become aware of the singularity of human experience, even as close contemplation enacts an implicit connection: ‘you seem blind to my gaze’, says the speaker in ‘Medium Wave’, ‘yet I sense that I have your attention’. Though such extended moments of reflection are outwardly tranquil, they register the inevitability of change. Entropy always increases with time, so that traumatic events can only temporarily be held at bay: ‘I don’t think anything terrible/is going to happen yet’, concludes ‘Watching for Signs’. Indirectly too, intense scrutiny of the world yields insight into mutability and loss – the boundaries between entities become unstable, such as when earth meets water or smoke drifts into air. Liminal states demand concentration from the reader; these are the moments when unexpected realisations emerge.

Michelle O’Sullivan was born in Chicago and lived in Britain, Greece and the United States before settling in the west of Ireland, where she had spent her childhood years. The Mayo landscape that dominates her poetry is at once familiar and strange to readers – established literary ground that is transformed here into a space of uncertainty. As Patricia Haberstroh has observed, O’Sullivan’s work ‘moves far beyond the nature poem’; here landscape shapes existential enquiry and turns the process of reflection inward. These are not poems of personal disclosure, however, but meditations on emotional ambiguity, and the attendant challenges to meaningful human connection: though many of her subjects have hands outstretched, they rarely experience the reassurance of reciprocal touch. In her first collection, The Blue End of Stars (Gallery Press, 2012), grief is the predominant emotion, but the intensity of loss is modulated by the passage of time, when ‘grief/lets us go/and we move from this place’ (‘The Orchard’). Movement unfolds in this measured way, as the slow and deliberate use of language deepens the process of thought, and contributes to the release of emotion. Yet in spite of this dynamic, the prospect of emptiness is always at hand. Interior spaces in these poems are often shadowy and uncertain, requiring adjustment from both speaker and reader before a process of interpretation can begin: ‘Minutes pass/before a reflection is visible.//[…] My hand rests in that dark’ - Blue for a Wonder.

This practice of delay is the key to O’Sullivan’s art – it is by slowing the passage of time that she deepens and individuates her thoughts. She continues to test aesthetic boundaries too: her second collection, The Flower and the Frozen Sea (Gallery Press, 2015), is more formally versatile than the first, and more varied in its treatment of transitional states. The paired stanzas of ‘From Moyview’ mark the expansion and contraction of language to accommodate this poem’s temporal shifts, as well as the more ambitious scope of the newer work. In spite of this, containment remains the hallmark of her poems, and the crossing of boundaries is always to be questioned:

I tell myself that something was said.
That someone was heard.
I tell myself these things
knowing words couldn’t cross this threshold.

The aphoristic quality of the work heightens its philosophical aspect, but reminds us too that meaning may lie beyond even the power of language. The words of Rilke, quoted in ‘Sketches for Vincent’ are apt for O’Sullivan’s own readers: ‘The work of your eyes is done. Go, and do the heart-work’.

© Dr. Lucy Collins
The Blue End of Stars, Oldcastle, Co. Meath: Gallery Press, 2012
The Flower and the Frozen Sea, Oldcastle, Co. Meath: Gallery Press, 2015
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