March 2024

Back to Issue 15


By Denise O’Hagan

Recent Work Press 2022

Reviewed by Alison Clifton

Fiction is fantasy – or, at least, popular fiction is preoccupied with the fantastical. Wish fulfilment. A life less ordinary. Some sort of magic to free us from the prison of the mundane. A shape-shifting wizard/cat with markings mimicking her spectacles. The announcement of a new and exciting identity for the first-person hero – I, me, myself – a being somehow cognate with the reader who experiences life vicariously through the authorial magic trick of vivifying a fictitious character. Hey, presto: “You’re a wizard, Harry!”

Fiction is easy to define. Poetry is more elusive. As long as there have been poets brave enough to share their poems, there have been critics inclined to read, analyse, and critique the poems. No two critics agree as to what poetry should do, say, and be. The contemporary British critic Terry Eagleton gave decades of thought to the concept of poetry before writing, in How to Read a Poem, “A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end. This dreary-sounding definition, unpoetic to a fault, may well turn out to be the best we can do.” Eagleton’s “dreary-sounding definition” of a “poem” does the job. But it is not a definition of “poetry” and nor does it capture the purpose of writing or reading poetry.

Why read poetry when one can digest fiction so much more easily? Popular fiction rarely taxes our minds, or so say proponents of literature. But it is more perceptive to observe that popular fiction does not tax our emotions. In the easy reading of popular fiction, in the predictable cliché of the plot – boy-meets-girl, maid-marries-prince; hero-fights-evil, bad-guys’-bullets-always-miss – our happiness is assured. There may be suffering, but we know that it will end and that the characters will all live happily ever after – except for those who deserve to live unhappily.

In reality, suffering is inextricable from the ultimate mystery of death. We do not know the when, the how, or the why of our death, but we know that our death is inevitable, so we inevitably distract ourselves – except when we read or write poetry. In poetry, as in other art forms, we face our mortality and scream or weep or laugh. But rarely are we still and silent. 

So, what is poetry? O’Hagan’s masterwork, Anamnesis (2022), provides an answer. Poetry is paying attention. It is witness. It is empathy. If we attend to minute details, we come to a better understanding of our tangible world: our reality. Through striving to understand the comprehensible, we may find consolation for human suffering despite our inability to understand the incomprehensible. Simply pay attention and you may discern.

It’s a similar premise to the “Serenity Prayer” popularised by the mid-century newspaper media in the U.S. and pamphlets published subsequently by Alcoholics Anonymous. An early appearance of this prayer is in the 1940 writings of Winnifred Crane Wygal, who attributed the “Serenity Prayer” to Reinhold Niebuhr, her colleague at the Y.W.C.A. Wygal wrote: “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” The “Serenity Prayer” calls for acceptance, courage, and wisdom and promises peace. There is something of the sacred in poetry: as with religion, art offers us ways to reckon with and reconcile with death and the unknown. Faith and poetry each proffer paths to a better life along which we may pursue tranquillity. The journey becomes the purpose rather than the destination, which is certain, and the journey to death varies wildly for each of us. What will we sense and experience along the way? O’Hagan reminds us to remain alert.

Rather than search the heavens for meaning in the manner of a prophet or a cosmologist, O’Hagan fixes not only her gaze, but all of her senses, on the present: the “here and now.” Her mind then meanders to the past: the “there and then.” Most of us recognise that the only way we can contend with the past is through memory, a mental faculty, but sometimes we may fool ourselves into believing that we experience the present directly through the senses and not through a mental filter. However, in Anamnesis, O’Hagan never lets us forget that the mental faculty of remembering is at work not only when we recall sensory data gathered years ago, in the realm of the long-term memory, but also when we take in sensory data in the present moment. We can only concentrate on input from one sense at a time. This means that we can only compare or contrast a sight with a sound if we retain the sight in our short-term memory. 

Thus, O’Hagan can wonder “why it seems / Everyone is going somewhere else” through comparing “The muted rumble of passing traffic” with the sight of its physical effects as it “Shudders the see-through salon door” in the poem “Split ends and faded hopes” (16-17). The poet imagines that the hours spent in a hair salon are a “brief bubble of suspended time” as she and the other clients “pick up, with magpie alertness, / The covert state of our mirror selves, / Stripped of artifice, their hopes and dreams / Spot-lit and framed by mock light-bulbs.” Here, O’Hagan describes the sensory input that she processes, reflects on her reflection, and examines the ways in which we examine ourselves: the minute details of the human condition. Yet, O’Hagan also frames the line about the “framed” self with two sets of hyphenated descriptors: the detailed labour of the poet’s art.

Such attention to the particulars of human experience elevates certain lines of O’Hagan’s poetry so that they emulate the kōan of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. In O’Hagan’s work, the humdrum act of sitting in a hairdresser’s chair and gazing at one’s reflection becomes the first step down the path to Enlightenment. Through acute observation of the Not-self – that which we perceive through the senses, including mirror images of our own faces – we might come to an Uncanny realisation that the Self and the Not-self are one and the same. According to Zen thought, when duality breaks down, all that is left is nothing. If, however, all that is left were everything, we would encounter unendurable chaos. The Self would crumble under the hellish pressure. Therefore, the Enlightenment sought by practitioners of Zen is a conscious, peaceful acceptance of nothingness, of the emptiness at the core of our being, rather than the unbearable tumult of a pure consciousness without cognition, which would be sensory overload. O’Hagan’s poetic practise of paying close attention to the sights, sounds, scents, sensations, and savourings of daily life is a kind of kōan with a dual meaning: “Nothing brings peace.” Both contradictory meanings of the phrase are held to be true at once: “no thing brings peace,” implying that peace is unattainable through things, or objective reality; “nothingness brings peace,” suggesting that peace is attainable if only we can reach the Enlightened state of emptiness, non-entity, or a cypher. There are zero ways to find peace; becoming zero is the way to find peace. 

And, yet, in Anamnesis, O’Hagan cries out in fierce resistance. She both rages against the dying of the light and mourns for the lights that have died. In “On getting my first glasses at thirteen” (10-11), myopia is cured without a miracle. When the short-sighted girl peers through corrective lenses, she observes with dismay her “erratic complexion in the mirror” and the optician’s “brooding eyes” with their “Cool assessment” of her adolescent awkwardness. She looks away, only to see her father pass the shop with his mistress, not knowing that his wife and daughter are inside. In that instant, she “wanted nothing more with this sharp new world // Of clear-cut edges and definitions.” Thus, O’Hagan recounts the moment when the cognitive processing of sensory input turns a girl, unwilling but not unwitting, into a woman. The poem concludes: “I folded up // My brand-new glasses, laid them in their brand-new case, / Like a child’s body in a casket, and stood up to leave.” She may leave the shop, but she cannot leave her own maturing body with its acne and acute awareness of sexual being. The end of childhood is simultaneously the death of innocence and the advent of agonising acuity. This poem takes up the common thread of perception that trails through this collection in the form of optical illusion, disillusion, and delusion. Optical instruments, eyes, and glass shine in several forms: opaque or transparent; reflective or deflecting; whole or shattered into sparkling shards; gleaming with joy or glistening with tears.

“You’ve got his eyes” (20) takes up the theme of generational and genetic connection. When the speaker was a young child, her mother remarked to her of a relative that “You’ve got his eyes.” Reluctant to give her sons the impression that they were “a cast of traits” rather than unique individuals, she refrained from saying the same thing to them. Then, one day, leafing through a family photo album, her youngest son stares at a photo of her uncle and says, “Mum, / You’ve got his eyes.” She recalls that her mother would “pick up” the “echoes and reverberations” in “things and people / That others didn’t see.” The speaker concludes: “And my son, he had her mind.” How can the speaker observe that her son has an eye for the sort of details that others do not perceive, yet remain unaware of her own perspicacity? Perhaps she is loath to tend towards self-praise, but a person so observant of the minutiae of the mundane must surely be able to turn her perceptive gaze inwards.

If enlightened Nirvana is the culmination of reconciling opposites through becoming nothing under the onslaught of everything, then what is O’Hagan’s vision of Hell? In “The winds of our own desire” (46-47), the shade of Francesca da Rimini encounters Dante in the second circle of Hell. Damned for acting on her love for her husband’s brother, she observes that the lovers are “joined forever, yet have no life.” As they are united in death, it is no punishment: “What exquisite irony that we’ll not tire / Of being lashed by the winds of our own desire.” Union, then, may be the answer to human suffering.

Thus, in final poem of the collection, “Worrying about the lorikeets” (58), a loving relationship is shown to last the distance despite, or perhaps because of, superficial differences between a man and a woman. The poem begins: “It’ll never last, they said, with more / Than a hint of the oracular.” Faced with the evidence of their differing musical and culinary tastes and a lack of shared interests and pressed to answer why they were still together, “she would / Have shrugged, unsure of what to say,” but for the realisation of their shared empathy for a dead bird:

She saw in his upturned eyes the weight

Of its dumb pain–then it was that she

Remembered what she’d always known.

Here is the union of opposites; the reconciling of binary oppositions. We must pay attention to the finer details, but not sweat the small stuff – this, then, is the message of O’Hagan’s magnificent Anamnesis.