Denise O’Hagan- New Poetry

A Stain the Shape of Italy

It’s when I least expect it
Stilled in a queue, perhaps,
Or stalled at traffic lights,
That the fingers of my memory
Pick at the past
Loosening the scabs of memory:
It’s irresistible.
One little prod
And the present flakes away
As I’m clutching my mother’s hand again
Down the cobble-stoned short-cut side street
Softened by the tread of centuries
To where her dressmaker lived;
Or recoiling at the garish wallpaper
In a rented room in a house for foreign students
With swirls and whorls on green and cream
And a stain the shape of Italy
Which made me homesick;
Or wincing at the bulge of vein in my father’s temple
As suited and tied and elegant one last time
He strains up the sloping steps of St Canice’s
To see his grandson, his own father’s namesake,
Live to be baptised.
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
Where, pasted in by the years,
They had lain dormant, waiting
For a moment such as this.



 The silence
Between us
Thickens and grows
And flows around us
Like a third presence
Waiting, malevolently,
For one of us to break it.
How did we
Get to this point?
Is there a line running
From the quickened heartbeat
The clutched hand
Of youth
And easy collusion
Of middle age
To this?
Was the end
Implicit in the beginning?
Or did we
Take a wrong turn
Creating a fault line
Damaging ourselves
And dislocating the ‘us’?
My thoughts are heavy, clunky
And going nowhere.
Years of misalignment
Have made us wary
Suspicion lies coiled
Between us, serpent-like,
So we take refuge in routine,
Imbibing the evening news
With our chamomile tea
And the other rituals
Of stale, safe domesticity.
But all the while
Nuggets of resentment
Weigh down any deeper disclosure
And neither of us
Wants to admit
To boredom.

For My Cousin in Faenza

The hollow of time
That hangs between Christmas and New Year
Found the four of us
Bound (was it really on a whim?)
For Faenza,
That city of arches, mist and gloom
And, of course, ceramics,
So startlingly and exquisitely colourful
They hardly seemed to fit in at all.
Those days
Indistinct, hazy, blurring at the edges
Form part of the landscape of my mind
Its contours indistinguishable
From my remembered version of it:
The muted beauty
Of roads dotted by the tips of cypresses
Walks through Renaissance colonnades
And furtive late-night liquors
Sipped while the city slumbered
And we fed on laughter and conversation.
How to understand
What we felt then?
(surely the city merits its own line)
Or Faventia, as the ancient Romans knew it
With its Etruscan, even Celtic origins,
Was elegant, contained and onomatopoeic.
You could not hurry in winter in Faenza
Time was slowed to a point of utter stillness
And transposed to this foggy alternative reality
We could, at last, breathe free.
I realise now, though I didn’t then,
That we were all escaping something
If only a certain disjointedness in our normalcy
A lack of pieces fitting snugly together
Even me, sensing as only the young can do
That primitive, universal lunge towards
We were always going to return.
Our journey by train as nebulous as the fog itself,
Yet we were fortified, buttressed against what lay ahead
And something had, to a degree,

The Passing of Things

I slip off my shoes and sit down
With a good five minutes to spare,
My eyes on the hands of the clock
As they drag their slow way round.
The minutes are heavy.
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
Whereas in fact
The transition from
Now to then is indefinable
In the very act of grasping it
It is already gone
If it ever existed at all.
Perhaps this is why
I am drawn
To memories
Recordings, reminiscing
And all manner of traces
Like my photograph album
Obsessively arranged
As if in that arranging
I could superimpose
An order
Or clarity
Perhaps even a meaning
That may never
Have been there
When then


The Flick of a Lizard’s Tail

Salmon-coloured, two-storied villa
Like a giant terracotta pot
Burnt in the sun:
This was my first school.
But memory is a fickle beast.
It’s not our teachers’ faces,
Far less their lessons, that linger
But the flick of a lizard’s tail at recess
In the shell-encrusted flower pot
Behind grand columns of ivy
On crazy paving.
Or the dark bruise of foliage
At the end of the playground
Into which we’d dash
At the ringing of the bell
To play the games all children play
And hide our own confusions.
Or the impatient crunch of gravel underfoot
As we waited for the bus to take us home
Past those familiar ancient paving stones
Straight as the ruler we used in maths
Brushed by grass, shadowed by pines
And heavily layered in history
but which, to me, was simply
the place I found
my pet snail.


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