Last words

Gethsemane Day

Dorothy Molloy <em>Faber & Faber, 49pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 057122976X

I was taken aback to find Dorothy Molloy described as a "subtle" poet in the blurb for Hare Soup, her first and - almost - last collection. She struck me, rather, as someone who sought to buck every trend, zipping and zutting her way through establishments both political and poetical. Established poetic forms, for Molloy, are an oppressive force to be countered by a rout of female voices adopting the attitudes of sexual liberation, comic wit and violence.

The posthumous Gethsemane Day, by contrast, is a quieter collection. It is less preoccupied with thrills and agendas, and more concerned with the inner life and impending death of the poet. It is not clear how much involvement, if any, Molloy had with the planning of the book - certain features, such as the frequent use of first lines as titles, suggest that some of the poems were still unfinished at the time of her death. And there are a few weak pieces that, given the time to siphon, she might not have chosen to include. But there is certainly a very different atmosphere, and for readers who were drawn in by some of the less bristlingly "important" flourishes of Hare Soup, the more personal focus of the new collection will be welcome.

Under the circumstances, it can only sound peculiar to talk about the poetry having matured, but, stylistically and formally, there is greater mastery at work here. "Pedicure", with its lusciously seductive vowel sounds ("soft-boned feet", "pumice-stone" and "mercuro-chrome"), shows a new-found feeling for the possibilities inherent in a softer approach to language.

Molloy has also reconsidered her combative approach to form. Although the jagged line breaks of Hare Soup still feature, Gethsemane Day shows the poet giving traditional structures more of a chance. The collection showcases haikus and a villanelle, the latter of which, "Bones", is a haunting meditation on the growing sense of defamiliarisation from one's own body. Surrealism is still alive and well here, but, coupled with situations such as the experience of undergoing radiotherapy, it is less superficially per-formative, and the more striking for it. This is less the Technicolor Dorothy of Hare Soup, clicking her heels to whirlwind effect, than an altogether more sober creator of landscapes, one whose abilities to see beyond the dulling outlines of habit remain unmatched.

However, if Gethsemane Day is less determinedly challenging than its pre-decessor, its frequent evocations of the physical stasis imposed by illness are a sad reminder of the energy Molloy had to offer - her love of travel and the strange sounds and words encountered elsewhere, and the perpetual activity of her voice. Towards the end of the collection, sickness has forced her to "swap the Mediterranean for a gleaming white/ bath", and a poem that opens with even this small action has body and voice becoming progressively stilled. But that doesn't stop her mind travelling - which is what poetry is all about, as the final poem, "Mid-Winter", quietly testifies:

dark green leaves and darker stems,
take me where the dark earth bends
its darkened forehead to the east,
where Lucy lights the candles
for her feast.