Dorothy Molloy: Swapping Turquoise for Silver
Summer 2021, I fell in love with Dorothy Molloy's work. Sometimes, you read something that just pours colour off the page and for me Hare Soup did just that. It blows my mind that at the time I was attending UCD to study English, I was unknowingly attending lectures by Molloy's husband Prof. Andrew Carpenter at the very time she was likely finalising this first collection. So I felt compelled to write about her collected works. It is not a review, more a strange essay/response hybrid. I just want to put it out there in the world so here it is :)
Dorothy Molloy: Swapping Turquoise for Silver
“The one essential thing is for my voice to ring out in the cosmos and to use, to this end, every available second...This is being in love with life.”
These words, taken from the notebook where Dorothy Molloy wrote her last poems, are presented as a Credo at the beginning of The Poems of Dorothy Molloy, published by Faber and Faber in 2019. They flame with the same energy and intensity that emanates from her poetry, an offering to the stars from a writer who will face down death with the defiance of her words. This collection brings together Molloy’s three posthumously published works: Hare Soup (2004), Gethsemane Day (2006) and Long Distance Swimmer (2009) as well as a number of unpublished/in-progress poems found in her papers.
Discussions about Molloy’s work tend to be dominated by the tragic fact that she passed away in 2004, just before the publication of her lauded debut Hare Soup. While there is an undeniable sense of loss, Molloy’s work should be celebrated in the context of her well-travelled life, formidable intellect, and her skilful capacity to mould language with apparent ease. Born in Ballina, Co. Mayo, in 1942, Molloy studied languages in University College Dublin and lived in Spain from the mid-sixties to the late seventies. The influence of Spain, its history and her travels across the Mediterranean region are woven throughout her collections. Having worked as an archivist and prize-winning visual artist in Spain, Molloy continued her involvement with the artistic scene in Dublin on her return to Ireland and was part of the Thornfield Poetry Group.
A Daring Debut: Hare Soup
The painterly eye of Molloy contributes hugely to the vibrancy of her first collection, Hare Soup (2004). The images she creates are saturated with colour: the polished tin of the Northern Lights, the blackberry and meringue of piano keys, shocking pink lipsticks and ruby hearts. Above all, there is red, in all its forms – it flares in skirts, pours onto shoes, oozes from the ceremonial dress of the Child of Prague. The most astonishing image from the collection is from the titular poem Hare Soup where the narrator uses a canif (penknife) to stab at the mouth of her would-be attacker, watching rose petals of scarlet, purple and vermilion fall onto her lap as a result.
Molloy tackles themes such as the influence of the Catholic Church, domestic abuse and the sexualisation of the female body with startling surrealist imagery. Many of the poems are like walking through a Leonora Carrington painting. Mr Swan the anaesthetist looms menacingly over the author’s supine body, a sadistic presence similar to Carrington’s Dr Morales. Ventriloquist’s Dummy reflects the burlesque grotesquery of Carrington’s Down Below. The otherness is eerie and hypnotic all at once. Reality is distorted into broken bodies and fractured masks, violence and degradation leering through the darkness, waiting to strike.
Gethsemane Day and Long Distance Swimmer
Due to her untimely death, there is a sense that Molloy comes out of nowhere. She brandishes her canif, drawing blood from the reader with her incisiveness, gives it a twist and is gone as quickly as she came. Her second collection, Gethsemane Day was published in 2006 and is an uncomfortable read. These poems are grounded in the pathology of the failing body, the certainty of approaching death written in bones, blood, and tissue. Her technical skill is so effortless, that one hardly notices it. The amalgamation of rhyme is contrasted with metres that switch from jagged to smooth. Everything is at odds: the fight to live, the acceptance of death, pathos, withering humour, hopelessness, love and a savage, animalistic defiance against the medicalisation of the body.
If Gethsemane Day is like stumbling into ice water, leaving the reader gasping for air, Long Distance Swimmer (2009) is a dive into more tranquil waters. These are the waves that will lull you, sooth you and rock you gently into an eternal sleep. It has been lovingly put together and is like walking through an exhibition of found objects/ objéts d’art. We swim from the kitchen, through Wales, England, Spain and the Pyrenees, circling saints, sinners and Emily Dickenson along the way.
Undoubtedly this collection (and the unpublished poems) lacks the sharpness of the first two collections. Molloy describes writing as going deeper, burning, cutting and burning away again. There is a sense that if she had the chance, she would have pared these poems back further and honed the blade into something more precise.
If all writing is a thumbing of the nose against death, then Molloy in particular, infuses part of her soul in the poems that she left us with. Molloy passed away in the same week that copies of her debut were sent home from the printers. There are no interviews or explanations of her work as a result. She leaves us with her words and her words alone to interpret them as we will. Michael Longley’s The Holly Bush, written in memory of Molloy, describes the dunes wearing a fiery fringe. To me, that is where you will find Dorothy Molly, she is a force of nature, blazing through the sand. Her work is carried on the Tramontana, that mountain wind that rattles shutters and doors, leaving an everlasting mark on the people that encounter it.
1. Molloy, Dorothy. (2019). The Poems of Dorothy Molloy. London: Faber and Faber.
2. Molloy, Dorothy (2009) Long-distance Swimmer. Clare: Salmon Poetry.
3. Molloy, Dorothy. (2004) Hare Soup. London: Faber and Faber.
4. González-Arias, Luz Mar. (2018) Penelope in Three Movements: A Reading of Dorothy Molloy’s ‘Waiting for Julio. Available at: View of Penelope in Three Movements: A Reading of Dorothy Molloy’s ‘Waiting for Julio’ (imageandnarrative.be)
5. Longley, Michael. (2012). A Hundred Doors. New York: Random House.