Denise O’Hagan, The Beating Heart (Ginninderra Press 2020)
The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)
Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.
The back cover tells us:
Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.
Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:
That these milestones of our lives (Laboriously recounted, photographed, Or documented in countless other forms) Are glued together by such details We scarcely realise until later When they emerge with doubled force From the backrooms of our memory
There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:
For we editors are tailors (Seamstresses of old Working in the back rooms of history Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly), We cut and paste and nip and tuck, Sewing it all together Until the point is clear
There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.
Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.
Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart 'A poem can be way to making friend,' my friend wrote years ago, not something only for painstaking exegesis, judgement – no, instead an open invitation: read, let's have a conversation – silences, yours and mine, word by word, line by line, meet, we listen to each other. When lost nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, each has seen a thing or two. Dear sister, brother, semblable or not, you write, I read, together smile, together bleed.
The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.