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The Smell of Purple

by on 4 May 2020

Through the Gates of the Senses

The Smell of Purple

by Dónall Dempsey

Review by Heather Moulson

The latest collection from vibrant and prolific poet, Dónall Dempsey, gives us a hundred pages of insight into an emotional wallet of fatherhood. Yet it goes further than that, as we live our experiences through Tilly, the small child at the centre of this book’s core, and the poet’s ‘makeshift’ fatherhood. The sheer love for this magical child comes through strongly, but it’s never overtly sentimental. We are simply presented with human nature. These words are emotional Polaroids, with all their faded colours. Dónall sets off a daisy-chain of haiku’s growing organically into poems and vice versa.


Nothing gets away unscathed and no stone is left unturned, with dolls being repaired, a father shaving, crayoned houses, an ice cube melting. Things we’ve tended to ignore or forget rise up and greet us again. For instance, the line of a rag doll weeping in Sticks makes uncomfortable but not unwelcome reading. The memory of being scared of a Jack-in-the-box makes us face our own childhood bêtes noires. It’s these references that turn this collection of poems into the strong and vivid picture it is.

We go on a detailed journey from Becoming Tilly, sharing the wonder of this child coming into the world, to real life. In tangible love in And the Sun Always Shines Magenta, Dónall takes on so many elements of nature, yet never once does this overshadow his devotion to Tilly. Being Adam in the Garden of Eden gives us such loving detail of animals and the magic of a farm.

Many Children Ago makes one misty-eyed sharing the sadness of a broken forgotten doll, while in Many Remembers Ago we are with Tilly from the child to a young woman – “her hand fallen from mine” would resound with the most hardened observers.

Makeshift Daddy cleverly unravels Tilly’s story. And we are swept along with the simplicity of As Above So Below, explaining the stars and moon to a child. The Rain’s Language makes slick reading, with a fascinating footnote. The witty haiku Weather Forecast, and the sheer painfulness of trying to dress a small child in Girl Squirrel resonate more than we’d like.


More Tea with Aunt Mabel borders on sitting room farce, and Granny gets involved too with Being Little, one of the elements that make these recollections far from insular.
There are poignant moments in Cuddle, taking Tilly to see her real Dad’s gravestone. And her interpretation of the father she will never know.

Tilly’s relationship with the cat – talking about cat things (Girl Talk) and that “Cats is people too!” (En Lakech!) – is warming, along with the intimacy of Ponds cream and contact lenses, that a family captures in Mummy Dyes Her Eyes.

Being Tilly opens such a picture of childhood, but it is not painted as idyllic. Despite wording these things so succinctly, our feet are kept on the ground. Word Bags and the Smell of Light are astonishingly vivid. These are things that seem obvious, and yet they’re not. And the wonderfully titled Stew of Déjà-vu was a stunning highlight.


A Fairy Tale of Rain is an image of soaked little girls metamorphosing into disdainful and embarrassed teenagers. Box of Memories – the grown girl now young woman who weeps over Tilly’s memories box. The observer wants to comfort her too.

If Paradise is Half as Nice is the sheer realisation that the little girl has actually grown up – a gradual dawning for most parents.

The last poem, Now I Hold You, travels from holding the newborn to comforting the heartbroken teenager. This cleverly comes full circle.

Such an insight into a father’s deep love. Thank you Dónall for taking us through these gates.

Heather Moulson
May 2020

The Smell of Purple
by Donall Dempsey
VOLE Books, £10, 107 pp
ISBN 978-1-913329-07-5

Photography by Dempsey Windle, Neal Obstat and David Kanigan

From → Poems

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