US-based Irish poet Mary O’Donoghue on the background to her villanelle, My Daughter in Winter Costume, included in the 2017 Dedalus Press anthology The Deep Heart’s Core (eds. Pat Boran & Eugene O’Connell)
I saw the sculpture ‘My Daughter in Winter Costume’ (1922) at the Boston Athenaeum Library in 2010, in the exhibition John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist. This daughter had a stoutness that delightedly flouted modernism’s lean, rawboned lines. This daughter was robust, and in that she seemed safe, even though she stood quite alone on a plinth in the centre of a large room.
Her endearing rotundity — the confusion of where she began and ended — led me to the villanelle. I admire this form because though it mandates nineteen lines the return of those repeated lines means you might, if so moved, outrun the nineteen lines and never come back. It makes sense that the form has its possible origins in dance: the virelai, a category of French chanson depending, like the rondeau, on the tight whirl of rhyme and reprise. (I might also suggest the villanelle’s relationship to ‘Lanigan’s Ball’, where line steps out and line steps in again.)
The poem was written before I met my stepdaughter, Niamh. But a poem can, I suppose, lie in wait for its return. I caught up with it, and it with me, one morning when zipping Niamh into a sleeveless quilted jacket. This jacket, deeply red and flocked with pink flowers, belonged to another child. Her name is written in forbidding felt tip pen inside the collar: Lily. That the jacket was so fat, and that it had looked after the child of a dear friend, seemed as heartening as that chubby sculptural form on the plinth in Boston.
That jacket was much-loved and is now outgrown. The villanelle form is perhaps a net: all those lines shuttling back and forth in repetition, still trying for the same thing as the poem — which is to say, safety.
My Daughter in Winter Costume
after John Storr’s sculpture (1922)
She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak.
Her face is flushed fruit under the hood.
She’s already moving away. I want to call her back.
At nine in the morning the sky is blue-black.
I think of hard falls, split lips, her blood.
But she’s sealed like a bomb in her anorak,
and shouting to friends on the tarmac,
a yardful of children, a tide, a flood
already moving away. I want to call her back,
I’m faint, suddenly starved with the lack
of her, and determined that she should
know, all sealed like a bomb in her anorak.
Grip the wheel. Radio on. The yakety-yak
of today’s talking heads on How to Be Good.
The morning is moving away. I want to call her back.
This is what it’s like to be left slack,
the cord frayed like I knew it would.
She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak,
already moved away, and I can’t call her back.