To Travel Is To Return | Poetry Review: Maeve O’Sullivan Elsewhere

In the preface to her most recent publication, Elsewhere, Dublin-born poet Maeve O’Sullivan emphasizes the “overall theme of home-travel-home” in the work. The collection, which combines prose poetry, haiku and sonnets among other forms traverses the world, inspired by O’Sullivan’s travels throughout 2016 and 2017. Divided into three sections, “Home”, “East”, and “West”, Elsewhere presents a wide-range of poems which highlight the joy of travel, return, and the constant presence of home.

The personal poems of “Home”, which describe her mother’s illness, days spent in Dublin and the process of selling the family home, give way to the more imagistic travel poems of “East” and “West.” This division is, however, somewhat confusing as poems from the “West” section jump from Spain to North America with “East” describing India, Barcelona and Monserrat. The final envoi sees the speaker return home, only to travel again echoing the collection’s epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets that to travel is to return “and know the place for the first time”.

O’Sullivan’s interest in form is evident throughout the collection which consists mainly of haikus and haibun, a hybrid form which mixes prose and haiku. “A Morning in Yacango” describes in prose the fifth day of the speaker’s Peruvian road trip and, in particular, the Cerro Baùl mountain which “bears a striking resemblance to Ben Bulben, which towers over the town of Sligo back home in Ireland”.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The haikus interrupt this narrative as the speaker is reminded of her grandfather climbing Ben Bulben, concluding “old habits / sign of the cross / die hard”[/perfectpullquote]

. A founding member of Haiku Ireland, O’Sullivan seeks with Elsewhere to establish a space for the haiku in the wider world of poetry. Yet, Elsewhere also contains longer poems as O’Sullivan works with the Shakespearian sonnet, deconstructs the villanelle and uses concrete poetry to great effect in “Buddhas of Asia”, which describes her visits to various Buddha statues across Asia from the largest to the smallest with increasingly shortened lines.

On the whole, the haikus are the collection’s strongest poems. O’Sullivan crafts evocative images which demonstrate her talent as an observer of unfamiliar places. (She mentions in the preface that most of the locations in the poem were new to her). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series of haikus written about Japan are among the most astute in Elsewhere:

Shinobazu Pond –
even these withered lotuses
can lift my heart

The series of images captured in “Santiago de Compostela” also speak to O’Sullivan’s perceptive eye:

Plaza Quintana
glass rosary beads glinting
in the afternoon sun

statue of St. James
a pilgrim’s arms appear

to give him a hug

Workers’ Square
his steel drum reverberates
to the opposite corner

Indeed, Elsewhere’s appeal lies in those poems which capture the vast and varied experiences of a world tour through a myriad of images, feelings, and moments. In particular, O’Sullivan deftly captures the oddities that one encounters on such a trip and several of the poems demonstrate her knowing sense of humour. She describes her aunt’s funeral mass where “a monk reaches inside his robes / to silence his phone”, the excitement that drones incite during a boat tour of a port, and “the place where Mount Fiji / is supposed to be” as a group of tourists stand expectantly looking at nothing through the dark.

In the collection’s less accomplished moments, O’Sullivan drifts towards clunky rhyme and clichéd phrases; the “house-cooling” party the speaker holds to say goodbye to the family home is “a celebration rather than a mourning”, reading as a stock platitude intended to relieve an acquaintance’s grief. In “Peregina” she writes:

At Arùza the rosary’s said
while on the street I drink latte
and later on some wine and bread
I share with new friends quiet, chatty.

Or of the fires of Tibetan New Year, in “New Year at Rumtek Monastery”:

Because of this auspicious conflagration,
we’re free net year from every obscuration.

Elsewhere, the liberal use of ellipsis and end dashes throughout the collection’s haikus seems to add little to an already transitory form.

arrival in Kyoto …
I buy flowers for myself
flowers for the Buddha (from “Japan)

laughter …
under his bushy beard
a dimple (from “Barcelona)

Given that the connecting of separate images and ideas in a constrained form is central to the haiku, the dashes and ellipsis which signal a change of direction or drifting mind seem somewhat redundant, or at least to the extent at which they appear in Elsewhere.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nonetheless, the collection succeeds in replicating the experience of a long-time traveller and reminds the reader of the closeness of home regardless of the speaker’s location[/perfectpullquote]

From hearing a fiddle play “Danny Boy” on the Camino to looking at her grandfather’s 1911 census signature with her cousin in Sydney, the home which frames Elsewhere’s central sections is evidently present throughout the collection.

Finally, Elsewhere manages to challenge the very concept of being “elsewhere” as O’Sullivan demonstrates the interconnectedness of the modern world: taking photos to share online, the culture and poetry that connects us, the power of travel to forge new connections, and, less optimistically, the national and national disasters which make international headlines. Elsewhere’s perhaps finest poem is “Leaving Vigo”, which was nominated by Revival Literary Journal for a Forward Prize for best Single Poem in 2014.

Dedicated to those who died in the train derailment outside Santiago de Compostela in July 2013, it powerfully captures the complex emotions of travellers using the rail line in the following days. The arresting opening lines unfurl to reveal the subdued mourning and anxiety of the passages aboard. It encompasses what is best about the collection: O’Sullivan’s ability to transport the reader to the locations she visits with skilled detail, the enduring attraction of travel, and the desire to connect with people across the world.

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