Here is my review of Maeve O’Sullivan’s Elsewhere, as published in Presence last year.
The world is a vast and diverse place. From the mountains of Peru to the coasts of Spain, from the beaches of San Diego to the shrines of Sri Lanka, a multitude of sights await. A careful observer, with an artistic eye, will see the poetry around her - crafting verse that matches the essence of the place.
Maeve O’Sullivan’s excellent Elsewhere uses a variety of poetic forms to capture her experiences travelling the world. Eschewing the practice of most haiku collections, which typically feature a smallish number of three-line poems, O’Sullivan has penned a wide, sprawling book of poetry that is as diverse in form as the localities of her travels. Alongside haiku, she has included haibun, free verse, blank verse, sonnets, and even a villanelle.
The opening section of Elsewhere is called “Home”. Set in her native Ireland, “Home” is where O’Sullivan copes with the deaths of family members that preceded her world travels. Observing the manners in which once familiar roles change, O’Sullivan gently describes the decline of her mother. From the poem “Manicure”:
now it’s my turn to try and mother
you, my role to heal and cure.
Likewise, in a haiku from the haibun “Closure”, O’Sullivan touches on her mother’s frailty that has come with old age:
her boney back
against my palm -
Yet even in loss and endings, there are opportunities for people to gather, respect and appreciate the times and love they had. The sale of O’Sullivan’s parents’ house leads to a “‘house-cooling’ party”, which is “a celebration rather than a mourning”. In a similar vein, the following haiku:
Sandymount Strand -
birds that haven’t flown south
metaphorically demonstrates the manner in which those who are left behind will gather and take solace in each other, their love and shared experiences.
Despite the gravity of “Home”, O’Sullivan is not without humour and a keen eye for the unexpected. Indeed, her wit and observations create many funny moments here and throughout Elsewhere. Even at a funeral she notices:
aunt’s funeral Mass -
a monk reaches inside his robes
to silence his phone
The majority of Elsewhere, in sections called “West” and “East”, contain the poems from O’Sullivan’s travels through “thirteen countries across four continents.” Here, O’Sullivan details the places she has seen and her experiences within their natural environments. She describes the majesty of the sites she visits:
the mist finally lifts
revealing its grandeur -
But she also exhibits playfulness, especially with the small creatures she encounters:
mine’s a slow Camino ...
your’s is even slower
However, O’Sullivan is not a naive vacationer. While she is open to the beauty of the countries she visits, she is honest enough to recognize their shortcomings and, in some cases, poverty. In tempering the joy of travel with the harsher realities she encounters, O’Sullivan provides a richer picture of the world than had she simply written a travel log. Consider:
new year the peacock struts through a junkyard
And, from “Buddhas of Asia”, her observation of how religion can be hawked, like any other ware:
... bigBuddhas mean big business -
everyone wants a piece of His calm.
O’Sullivan’s candour endears her to the reader and increases trust. The world she depicts is far more believable than that which is encountered in advertisements or travel brochures.
Similar in variety to the locales she visited is O’Sullivan’s encounters with the people she met. The haibun “A Slice of Autumn”, is about meeting “an elderly gent named Paul” and their decision to “do some sight-seeing together” in Japan. Likewise, the haibun “Resettled” recalls her reunion with her cousin in Melbourne, Australia. “Resettled” is a family focused poem, recounting not only the details of their meeting but the character of their family and its history. A particularly poignant moment came in one of its haiku:
growing wild here
both our mothers’ favourite -
Not all of O’Sullivan’s interactions were so easy. In Peru, she discovered the awkwardness and uncertainty of being an outsider in another land. “A Morning InYacango” describes her experience attending Mass alone amongst a group of Peruvian citizens. She speaks of feeling “conspicuous as the only gringa, and a little disrespectful in shorts.” O’Sullivan’s self-consciousness resonates. Shuttered off through language and uncertain of her attire, she captures the alienation of one immersed and alone in a foreign culture.
“West” and “East” also contain many poems that show how O’Sullivan’s expectations conflicted with the reality she discovered. Many haiku explore the interruption of moments of serenity by technology:
ten miles to go birdsong eclipsed by jet engines
On the other hand, there are instances where the experience of technology is enjoyed more than the setting.
boat tour of the port -
a drone generates
the most excitement
Her observations here are not limited to other people. In a good natured manner, she examines her own relationship with her phone:
no iPhone to count my steps -
And, of course, in the day and age of widespread social media, a vacation is not complete without a selfie:
Plaza de Armas
under the jacaranda -
The final section of Elsewhere, “Envoi: Back Home”, is short and, unlike the rest of the book, composed exclusively of haiku. Most of the haiku here are humorous. O’Sullivan is witty in reflecting upon her return from her journey and how certain things never seem to change:
after this world trip
my aunt cautions me
crossing her road
Elsewhere is an excellent poetic account of Maeve O’Sullivan’s “life-changing world trip”. Diverse in both theme and poetic form, honest and humorous, and vast as the expanse of her travels, Elsewhere is a book to be enjoyed by readers of haiku and poetry alike.