‘The Beating Heart’ Denise O’Hagan -reviewed by Phillip Hall.

Reviewed ByPhillip Hall
The Beating Heart by Denise O'Hagan

‘The Beating Heart’ 

Denise O’Hagan

Ginninderra Press

ISBN 978-1-760-419-288

$22.50

If contemporary confessional poetry lacks the taboo busting drama of its mid-twentieth century origins, at its best, such as in The Beating Heart, it still has all the delicate lyricism, nuanced imagism and existential vulnerability of a Plath, Sexton or Bishop. O’Hagan reflects on her poetics in several poems in this book. In ‘The passing of things’ she concludes: 

‘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

Was

Now.’

O’Hagan’s poetics is conventional in its appearance on the page, but this should not detract from her obviously obsessive commitment to craft. O’Hagan lives first, and the poetry comes in response, as a footnote to navigating a way through this thorny life: the dislocation resulting from emigration, parenting a child with a serious medical condition, the complexities of maintaining loving and nurturing adult partnerships. But I don’t want to give the impression that all of O’Hagan’s poetry comes out of turmoil and strife, for as she concludes in ‘Be-mused’:

‘It’s not the clink of crystal

At the cocktail party

Nor the silken conversation

Between black suits or pearled dresses,

It’s in the ensuing fold of stillness

Where poetry

Arises.’

It is easy to underestimate the importance of such mindfulness, of prioritising aesthetic over material values, but O’Hagan manages these tensions adroitly. For poetry should be about more than peacock cleverness. O’Hagan ends ‘In defence of the slimmest of events’:

‘I waver, succumb a moment, then arouse myself.

No, I will not be lured by others’ expectations

Tailoring my subject, adjusting my style

To humour those whom I don’t know

And court the nod of the establishment

With its attendant prizes for verses

Weighed down by literary conceit

Laden with allusions and laced with Latin.

Must we prop up our lines like this

Lending legitimacy to our writing

Give evidence of our wider reading

And strut our credentials?

We need, first and last,

Quite simply,

To feel.’

This could be an understated manifesto for contemporary confessionalism, a style that is probably the dominant strand in poetry today, and O’Hagan has made a significant contribution to this movement.

Plath, Sexton and Bishop all wrote major poems of place to complement their better remembered poetry. O’Hagan also writes memorably of place, and like her “mentors”, she often uses a journey through geographical place to explore psychological wounds. ‘The Beating Heart’concludes with the award-winning, ‘In the shadows’, a major poem of place that uses geography in just this way. This poem begins:

‘Crossing the park this morning

The world is still and silent and waiting.

Mist lies over the grass, the trees, the everything

As lightly as a suggestion.

I tread the curving path into the bush

With something between awe and trepidation.

A slim brown snake shudders its way across the ground,

Gone in a blink, leaving me wondering

If I had only dreamed it.’

The poem’s journey continues along a creek to ‘the ashen underbelly of the bridge’ before picking a path through thick and ‘darkening…foliage’ when the persona begins to understand:

‘Righting myself, a scratching sound tears at my thin composure

But it’s only a bulbous-bodied, spindly-necked bush turkey

Picking its way up the hill. I too will rise,

Negotiate my way through the mesh of undergrowth and my life,

Catching my thoughts on brambles, tripping on memories, as

Still heavy’d by longing after all these years,

I cut between great slabs of rock, polished lustrous 

And emerge, at last, panting, on a high flat path

Streaked by sunlight and dappled in hope.’

This poem so cleverly balances the priorities of ecopoetics to respect the earth and non-human life, with an urgency – even in this place of scenic beauty – to document mental health decline before the bold conclusion: ‘Vindicated, triumphant. /I have, once again, negotiated the thickets of my mind’. Tragedy and crises are inevitable, so building resiliency and mindfulness are essential. O’Hagan’s book is a major contribution to contemporary confessional poetry because, while not shying away from breakdown and personal tragedy, it is not overawed by despair. O’Hagan can see redemption in ‘little things’ like ‘rainwater…running off the street/pooling in ridges between pavers/making glistening cushions of glass’. In praising the ‘bulbous-bodied, spindly-necked bush turkey’ she learns to also honour herself, the meaning centred in familial relationships, her renewed strength to overcome adversity and, if not thrive, to certainly find contentment and unity. 

For O’Hagan, though, a well-adjusted adulthood has come at considerable cost as she witnessed the struggles of those close to her. ‘A gift for the taking’ and ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ are rich in their allusions and finely crafted imagism. But, perhaps, the real centre of this book is located in the series of poems O’Hagan has written for her son. There is nothing clichéd in these love poems which are so full of surprise and wonder. Until she met her baby son in the maternity ward she had ‘not realised/Hands and fingers could be so small/So pink and crinkly, nails and all’. But, this world of love and wholeness is soon disrupted by a ‘complicated diagnosis’ of Ebstein’s Anomaly where the ‘beating heart’ is found to have ‘distorted chambers’, to be an ‘imperfect structure’. Love now becomes a ‘waiting room’ where ‘we bite our nails’; and ‘It’s a case of wait and see’. One of the finest poems in this book is ‘Vermeer in Boston’. This is not only a major poem of ekphrasis, but is a heartbreaking lament, of anxious waiting as ‘a team of specialists/Pored over our son/Whose opened chest/Was spread like a canvas/For the surgeons to splatter and daub/And create another version/Of his deformed and failing heart:/Their masterpiece’. This poem brilliantly relocates a mother’s fears and concerns for her son’s ‘beating heart’ with a distracting examination of the Dutch Baroque painter; transference is one way ahead.

This ‘reverential’ appreciation of life, of unexpected moments of transcendence, is another feature of this book:

‘I dip my toast in coffee, smile

And, fortified, swallow away nostalgia

And am, for now, grateful for what was.’

This is a collection that brilliantly holds in balance an experience of living with trauma and its associated fractious mental health with ‘Feeling privileged to witness/This heady scene’. If this collection is an important contribution to contemporary confessionalism, it is also finely attuned to a generous and respectful experience of place. As Sydney poet, Anne Casey writes in her foreword: ‘There is an urgent stillness to much of this work, drawing the reader in with its tenderness towards every aspect of the experience of living…Each detail, every moment, no matter how small, is interwoven with meaning, with reverence often bordering the sacramental’. ‘The Beating Heart’is a stellar debut collection. 

Phillip Hall

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), Borroloola Class (IPSI, 2018), Fume (UWAP, 2018) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press, 2015). He also publishes the e-journal Burrow: https://oldwaterratpublishing.com.

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