A battle of words between memory and amnesia
Poetry: Leanne O’Sullivan’s new collection is shaped by a devastating illness suffered by her husband; Geraldine Mitchell finds sustenance in even the bleakest landscapes
Leanne O’Sullivan: capably invokes tricky mythological material in A Quarter of an Hour. Photograph: Donal O’Sullivan
In each of her four books, Leanne O’Sullivan has managed the balancing act of fashioning striking individual poems while developing a book-length project. Skilful and soulful, her achievements as a writer are as clear as ever in her powerful new book, A Quarter of an Hour (Bloodaxe, £9.95).
Preoccupied with mortality and loss, the book is shaped by a severe illness her husband suffered in 2013, a brain infection which led to a coma and, devastatingly, the almost total loss of his memory.
His stricken body is at the centre of the poems, “a face smooth like wax paper” in Lightning, “the wound pulled wide/ by the cannula, its dark weeping undulations” in Tracheotomy, a poem in which O’Sullivan’s fascinated engagement with the trauma is framed in original, resonantly alliterative lines:
the vocal reeds, filmy white, beams on a footbridge, fascia,
muscle, isthmus, your domain of secrets,
of rained-on tributaries, rooted and grafted
onto the machines
And O’Sullivan is conscious of her art’s complicit but fruitful relation to such material: “I felt like the woman who gazed and gazed into/ the mouth of the little god. I saw everything.”
The book’s imaginative power is also due to O’Sullivan’s capable invocation of tricky mythological material. The figure of the Cailleach, who was at the heart of her second book, returns, while the husband’s coma and disappearance from the poet’s life is recast, slantwise, through the stories of Oisín and that of Eurydice and Orpheus, who is, in Meteor Shower, “still terrified/ of the truth and trailing after her”.
O’Sullivan considers her own allusive method, quite brilliantly, by allusion to two obscure figures from The Faerie Queene, figures Edmund Spenser had used to think about memory. Reflecting on her husband’s slow recovery of language and memory, these poems also ask questions about why we value poetry.
Eumnestes imagines the writer as a place’s memory, a sort of librarian-historian taking down “everything I could remember/ – the big bang,/ the years of Nestor, the great disasters/ and disturbances of the weather, world ending/ and world beginning”, a written record which enables augury, foresight and the predictive powers of divination.
Anamnestes is written in the voice of Eumnestes’s servant, “memory’s helper”, who is less scholarly, less in thrall to history, and who uses the written word to discover “a world I saw I could live in/ and in it become anyone”. When Anamnestes escapes the library, he finds, “out of the words you wrote mine were borrowed/ but followed their own meandering course.” Renewing his/her attention to the physical, external world, “I put my ear to the machinery of the deep earth/ and listened. I came to understand it myself.”
The “machinery of the deep earth” is elsewhere represented by animals, especially birds and foxes. The impenetrable existence of these other creatures is patiently explored, almost as a counterpart to the way the poems attend to the silent, ill lover. Morning Poem describes the struggle to find or re-learn the right sounds and words for these creatures:
Somewhere near him a stone unsettles itself
And a beast in the blue light turns over.
What sound do you make to find that?
What symbol means nothing at all?
One of the book’s foxes is known by “its exploded eye/ that held a shape you could not recognise,/ the name of the river folding back along/ the river” (The Fox), but another poem offers a more hopeful, chancy kind of encounter. A beautiful, measured lyric, in what is an involving, marvellously expansive book, it observes a fox appearing “out of the perishing hedgerows”:
What is she doing? He thought. She said,
I am waiting to see what you will do next.
That’s funny, he said, beginning to follow,
I am doing the very same thing.
And that was the way they went, morning
after morning, the hedgerows turning
their infinite colours, the body with its one fire.
It is sometimes said that you “can’t eat the scenery”, but Geraldine Mitchell does turn her Mayo base to good use in the poems of Mountains for Breakfast (Arlen House, €12). These landscapes, even when bleak, are somehow sustaining, in the ways they allow her to read and understand her situation. In Go, there is jangling menace in lines such as:
Wind tangles in rivers of air, catches
on trees, carries sheep bleat, dog bark
– lets them drop.
I am strung round with sounds
Just out of meaning,
A chance to think
The more narrative thread of the collection recounts the descent of Alzheimer’s on a loved one, so that Swarm sees “Bees from a hive, words/ brim your parted lips” while loss is savagely registered in Wanting, “mottled feathers/ behind the blue hydrangea” are “all that remain/ when the merlin/ has emptied the garden/ of song.”
The insistence of Mitchell’s observations is nicely offset in a diary-like sequence, bearing the awkward title Discredited Form, Discredited Subject Matter (after Charles Wright), where the natural images are linked to particular dates as well as moods, and mixed in with news items, dreams and a more comical note, as when the discovery of a perfect adjective – “braided” – leads to a more critically self-conscious thought about her own craft: “The road runs with/ braided water. I lie/ thinking about verbs,/ Annie Proulx, her/ strong use of.”
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.