“Anamnesis” Denise O’Hagan (Recent Work Press) – book review

Denise O’Hagan Anamnesis book cover

“Anamnesis” is an explorative, thoughtful collection of memory, not just as things remembered, but how understanding of what’s remembered changes within the context of hindsight and more detailed probing of things half-remembered or that were skimmed over without thought at the time. “Subtext” explains this better in looking at how flawed objects and things left under or behind heavier furniture create,

“The subtext of our nights and days. We need to
Work backwards, build on the fretwork of fact
To feel the passion in a pressed flower falling
From the leaves of a novel, the heavy pull of
Domesticity in a torn-off shopping-list, touch
Grief folded into a curl of hair in an envelope.”

Perfectly intact, polished things don’t hold memories. It’s the cracks, chips, something tucked into a book or filed away for later that become aide-memoires. A shopping list tells us what items were felt necessary and becomes a block from which a narrative of a household can be built. A flower is only pressed if someone needed to preserve it and keep the memory it represents alive. Hair is usually discarded and swept away so a kept hair in an envelope means the hair was purposely saved and brings to mind a mourning brooch or locket, keeping the memory of someone alive.

“The almost-child” questions if you grieve for someone you never met. A daughter is told by her mother that there was a “lost baby” before the daughter was born. A six-year-old puzzles over the word “lost”, then reasons,

“She’d had a heartbeat, then; she’d begun
Existing once, for a little while. She was a
Sliver of cells, a tadpole of budding organs,
Pressing towards definition. And then, something
Happened—a slip into oblivion, unfathomable and
Inexplicable. She never even had a name. She was
A shadow briefly cast, an echo reverberating, a
Ripple in time. She was an almost-child.”

A miscarriage, cause unknown as is often the case, but a loss before the baby was named. A sister that never was. Even so the daughter still feels a sense of grief for what might have been, picking up on her mother’s emotions. The dominant sense is curiosity for what was lost and what happened which comes from the reassurance of being told by her mother rather than a relative unintentionally mentioning the loss before checking the daughter knew or it was fine to mention it. The daughter gains her mother’s memories of loss.

This idea of “Taking on other people’s memories/ Slipping on the mantle of their lives/ Until they become part of us” is probed in “My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller”, with a visit to the shop,

“Amid gemstones on cushions of velvet,
And in my husband’s eyes
A kind of desperation
Until I saw him see, off to the right,
The curl of the old wrought-iron staircase
Up to what used to be the working area
Where repairs used to be carried out—
How many used to be’s—where
My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller,
Used to work.”

Similarly to the earlier poem “Subtext”, it’s not the polished jewellery that triggers memories, but the working area where jewellery was made. The shop floor’s glittering displays are unfamiliar but it’s the old staircase leading to the place where jewellery was repaired that holds memories of the grandfather. Those memories now shared with the grandson’s wife, who is now seeing the shop not as something impersonal or transactional but as part of the collective memory of the family she married into.

In “Waiting”, an adult daughter carefully brushes an elderly, ailing mother’s hair,

……………………………………..…………………My hands are the latest in a
long line of hands that have tended that hair, and here in this final
frame I recall what I never knew, the soft movement of a small
hairbrush over a baby’s head.”

The delicacy of pale, thin hair over fragile skin brings to mind brushing a baby’s hair, even though the adult daughter has never done this. Is it a memory of her mother attending her when both were much younger, but with the roles reversed?

The daughter becomes, “aware of something else emerging; I know that in tending my/ mother I am tending her spirit. She is neat, patient, waiting. I/ wait with her.” This is closer to the sense of anamnesis, something known within the soul.

The collection broadens out from family connections and remembrances. A family pet observes the family during lockdown, “Goldfish in a pandemic,” with the fish seeing,

“Amy’s eyelashes are wet as she watches me
Watching her; we have an understanding.
The others are trying: her mother, in a latent
Artistic impulse, took to painting me—
On a T-shirt of all things! But the rest
May as well hold up a mirror as stare
At me; for behind this new attentiveness
In the mosaic of their shrunken lives,
I know they see themselves in me!”

“I walk on seashells” is set in the late nineteenth century and gives voice to a woman’s escape from domestic violence,

“I gather my skirts, hold my head up high:
He bruised my body but not my mind,
My penurious family turned a blind eye,
Pray tell me, on whom could I rely?
My husband is seen as wealthy and kind—
But I’d rather the boarding house nearby!”

Divorce was not an option and it was a brave decision to leave with nothing, knowing destitution was the only way out. Her family disown her, not just because she’s a mouth they can’t afford to feed, but the stigma and disgrace attached to her. The title is a play on the idea of walking on eggshells, stepping cautiously around someone for fear of provoking a temper and uncertainty around someone’s reaction.

“Worrying about the lorikeets” appears to be about another unsuitable marriage between two people who are polar opposites, “He opts for Def Leppard to her Bach,” when they come across a dead bird,

“She saw in his upturned eyes the weight
Of its dumb pain—then it was that she
Remembered what she’d always known.”

His sorrow for the bird reminds his wife why she married him.

“Anamnesis” is a subtle, thought-provoking collection that explores memory both in terms of what’s remembered but also inherited memories and how memories accumulate. The poems are gentle but multi-layered, inviting readers to return and re-read. Available from Recent Work Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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