September 2021

Back to Issue 10

The Beating Heart

By Denise O'Hagan

Ginninderra Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit

In her debut collection, The Beating Heart, Denise O’Hagan takes Father Time as her muse. Timelessness, timeliness, and time-signatures abound in a collection that features O’Hagan’s trademarked musicality. Her poetry is rhythmical and melodic, with rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance her favoured forms of wordplay. O’Hagan has an ear for words that work together to trip off the tongue in pleasing patterns. At times the words waltz across the page; at others, the text clings close to the left-hand margin. Although Father Time may be O’Hagan’s main muse, other family members and their time on Earth – equal to the duration of The Beating Heart of the title – are also focal points of the poems. Mother, grandmother, and infant son are the subjects of several sequences in this engaging collection.

Time and memory trace their way through this work like the moonlight-coloured trail that might be left behind the “pet snail” in her poem “The flick of a lizard’s tail” (14). And yet, never does nostalgia creep into the poetry. There is no sense of an aching longing to return to the places of the past. Rather, in “The passing of things” (67-68), the poet observes that then is now, and now is then. The past is only ever accessible through the present. The past remains, then, a source of interest but never a desired destination. O’Hagan writes:

          I have always been

          Fascinated with time,

          This notion

          That we can partition up

          And measure

          The passing of things

          Put a line like a child’s ruler

          Between past and future… (67)

These short, enjambed lines tick tock down the page. So much meaning rests on the assonance and alliteration of the simile: “Put a line like a child’s ruler.” O’Hagan maintains that “The transition from / Now to then is indefinable” (67), so that memories may work to “superimpose” a meaning

          That may never

          Have been there

          When then


          Now. (68)

In this poem, the preponderance of words such as “perhaps” and “may” portray the nature of Time as a perpetual unfolding of possibility.

This theme is taken up in other poems. “And the nuns wore lipstick” (15-16) evokes memories of the poet’s childhood in Italy. O’Hagan recalls taking occasional family trips to “small towns” in the northern part of the country and sometimes even as far as Switzerland. The run-down, ruined Rome of her birth – marred by political corruption and economic recession – gives way “To Switzerland, which / To my childish eyes/ Glistened, gleamed, and looked so prosperous” (15). Again, we encounter the glittering alliteration that is a hallmark of O’Hagan’s work. In Switzerland,

          All was new and neat and tidy

          Even the leaves seemed to fall tidily

          From boxes of optimistic flowers

          Beneath the windowsills. (16)

The country appears paradisiacal to the eyes of the child and through the clouded lens of memory. O’Hagan recalls how, in the touristed towns, “Everything was accounted for, / No loose ends, no unclaimed parts, / Cuckoo clocks and countless watches ran to time” (16). The exotic-seeming trappings of the foreign country evoke the idiom “as regular as clockwork” and the sorts of stereotypes likely to be ascribed to by tourists. The trains always run on time in Switzerland – or so the saying goes. The alliterated “cuckoo clocks and countless watches,” the “hot chocolate,” “pretty cafés,” and “chairlifts” (16) that lure the vacationers lull them into a sense of security.

Yet, the child’s mind – or is it the remembering adult’s mind? – cannot help but juxtapose the realities of Rome with the chocolate box charm of Switzerland’s façade as savoured by the sojourners. O’Hagan inserts parentheses in the middle of her picturesque description to draw attention to the reasons why her parents longed for escapism, or even just escape. In Switzerland, they can see “(No bomb scares, no gypsies, no beggars)” (15). The anaphora combined with the commas in quick succession drive home her point, which is neatly fenced off in one line and penned in with brackets, implying that such disruptions to the daily schedule can be conveniently shut out by a country’s border. However, the lack of a full stop at the end of the line subtly implies that the borders between us and them, Italy and Switzerland, and now and then may be more porous than we would like to think. The poem concludes with O’Hagan’s memory of her father’s “quiet horror” voiced at the sight of Swiss nuns “wearing lipstick” – a tone which stayed with her “long after / The other images receded like slides, / And took up their ordered places / As memories of a distant time” (16). Order is restored – and the speaker succumbs to the temptation to compartmentalise the past. It is done, we often tell ourselves, overlooking the idea of the past as something which may come back to haunt us. O’Hagan writes of this notion of time as revenant in other poems in this collection, some of which concern social stigma, others social activism.

The poem “My tapestry” (76) continues the theme of this all-too-human propensity to tidy up and tie off, build fence and mend walls. In this short poem, pruned to near-perfection, O’Hagan outlines the joys of her job as an editor. She is one who relishes “Trimming away the frills,” removing “shreds of ambiguity folded into phrases” and “Stretching sentences until they’re taut with meaning” (76). A good editor will find their rhythm as they redact – a process emulated in the alliterative “s” and “t” sounds of that last quoted line. As I have noted, O’Hagan is a playful poet, relishing the lilting effect of repeated sounds: anaphora, epistrophe, alliteration, assonance, and the occasional rhyme.

There is more to recommend this collection. The brevity of each of O’Hagan’s poems is welcome. Each is like a vignette or a microfiction – or perhaps “micromemoir” might be more apt. Each tells a tale, conjures a memory, or captures a moment with flashbulb-like precision. The strobe flashes: we are in Rome. The light pulses again: we are in a bedsit in London. A fleeting burst of darkness and we are in the hospital where O’Hagan’s newborn son lies in an incubator.

In “Matters of the heart” (41-42), O’Hagan addresses her son:

          I’d never heard of Ebstein’s Anomaly

          Just wanted to hold you with my eyes

          Through the plastic pod of the incubator

          Moving so the reflections didn’t take away

          A single little part of you. (41)

To me, these lines are “Complete, perfect” (41) to borrow O’Hagan’s words. In this exceptional poem, she examines the dichotomy of perfection and imperfection. With one devastating line, O’Hagan rejects the commonplace notion that each baby is born perfect: “A little tiny human being / Complete, perfect / except that you were not” (41). She reveals that her son was born with a rare heart disease, so she faces the agony of “a chain of days / Of waiting and seeing and waiting yet again” (42). The baby must stay in the incubator, far from his mother’s touch, until the “distorted chambers” of his “small heart / Like a microcosm of all imperfect structures / … adapt their function to the outside world” (42). This is the standout poem in The Beating Heart.

O’Hagan is a poet to watch. Her craft has been honed over many years of travelling, writing, editing and, quite simply, living. She pours her lived experience into this collection – a generous glass of life-sustaining liquid. This is poetry as the milk of human kindness. Free of sentimentality, free of nostalgia, but full of joie de vivre, The Beating Heart is, as its title suggests, alive with possibility.