‘After my Dad died, I wrote the dreams of him out of my system as poems’

Eleanor Hooker on her parents and Lough Derg, inspirations for Of Ochre and Ash

Eleanor Hooker: I think if we opened me up we’d find Lough Derg and beside it our home on a woodland of rowan, oak and yew.

Eleanor Hooker: I think if we opened me up we’d find Lough Derg and beside it our home on a woodland of rowan, oak and yew.

 

In my teens Dad started digging holes. At some point he did provide an explanation, but after a while none of us could remember what it was. We decided that if our Dad wanted to dig holes in his own patch of ground, it was entirely his affair. It wasn’t as if he left sink-holes all over the place; he did refill them.

I found that one of the best times to chat to Dad was when he was digging. I would sit on the edge of the pit and Dad would stand inside the earth. Once, as one of the holes he was digging filled with rain, he said “this is a landscape forfeited to rain and rage”. He asked what I was willing to forfeit for a life as a writer. When I answered “my whole self”, he warned that that might not be the best plan. He said it was important to hold some vital part of myself safe, private.

Entrust your melody to strangers, never your song.
from A Landscape Forfeited to Snow

September 16th was the seventh anniversary of my father’s death. After he died I dreamt about him all the time. I wrote the dreams out of my system as poems. Of Ochre and Ash, the title of my third poetry collection with the Dedalus Press, is from a line in my poem When you Dream of the Dead. This is a poem about my father.

When my mother was sorting out Dad’s things, she asked what we should do with the manuscript of his novel. That was the first I knew that Dad had written a book. Mom said that when they were first married, Dad would tap away every night on his typewriter, and this book, a Western, was the product. My brothers, sisters and I haven’t read it, and I’m not sure any of us are ready to do that yet. My mother returned the manuscript to the chest of drawers where it lay for a half century. It made me sad to think my Dad had to forfeit his writing ambition to the demands of raising and educating a large family.

Of Ochre and Ash represents five years of work. When I started writing poems for this collection, I could never have imagined the havoc the pandemic would bring to our lives. Rather than being a fallow period, the uncertainties and the existential dread the lockdowns caused, became a massively productive time for me. I wrote two sequences, the first deals with the plague itself, and the second a counterpoint to that with the honeybee as theme and metaphor.

Startle empty corners with song.
There is a name for every type of pain, but also
for every fragrant flower, elect your nomenclature.
from Interview with Honeybee as Poet

I’ve dedicated Of Ochre and Ash to my mother, an incredible and inspiring woman. During the lockdowns I lived outside the range of her “bubble”. Being unable to see one another tested all our resilience, but the fortitude Mom displayed when beloved family members died during that time was truly humbling.

II vestige
Nearing the edge
with neither hex nor hymn
to guard you,
he sprints past,
ghost boy,
there are night birds too,
and when the wind builds a lullaby,
his shadow stops
suddenly to take your hand,
oh gentle child,
to guide you through.
from traces, a sequence of plague poems

My mother completes her newspaper cryptic crosswords every day, and has done so for as long as I can remember. When he was alive, she and Dad would finish them together. I loved to hear them calling clues to one another across the kitchen table, and the inevitable debates about the right answer. Repeating the clue, my Mother would often ask my opinion, and we laughed as nothing but tumbleweed rolled across my mind.

Waves put the hair
ROLLERS pitching and rolling on the high oak-deck of your youth
Fish uncooked in the middle
TRAWL through storybook days to find you, baking a home, signing love poems
from My Mother as a Cryptic Crossword

In my three collections I have written and dedicated poems to my husband Peter, and our sons George and William. They and my big extended family are central to everything I do, they provide me with safe mooring, especially in stormy weather.

In the opening scenes of her film The Beaches of Agnès, Agnès Vardes says “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches”. I think if we opened me up we’d find Lough Derg and beside it our home on a woodland of rowan, oak and yew. Every poem in the collection, whether about illness, birth, despair, hope, joy and love, is inflected with the colours, sounds and textures of that landscape.

I have sown a rowan inside me,
nourished it in my woodland bones
for two hundred years, its berries
bud at my fingertips, red blistered.
from The Quicken Tree: for Margaret Griffin

When arranging the poems for Of Ochre and Ash, I worried that in being so honest I might be giving away some vital part of myself, but on reflection, I think not, I’m quite safe.

Author Donal Ryan is introducing Eleanor’s collection Of Ochre and Ash at a local launch at Lough Derg Yacht Club on October 8th. Due to Covid guidelines the number of attendees is strictly limited, however, a link to a recording of the launch will follow. eleanorhooker.com

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