Nessa O'Mahony's Trapping a Ghost
Is it worth the trouble to review a poetry book from overseas when there are SO many poets to review in my own backyard?
Poetry cannot be defined by geography. When I learned that Nessa O'Mahony, the Irish poet and editor of the online literary magazine The Electric Acorn had published a new book of poetry, I immediately ordered a copy... and I was right to listen to my instincts.
Trapping a Ghost (bluechrome press 2005) is a three-part collection that represents the best of contemporary Irish poetry. O'Mahony successfully summons and traps the ghosts of memory through cinematic imagery, clarity, and a well-timed sense of irony.
The first section of Ghost - also titled by the same name introduces the reader to the fragility of memory, specifically in relation to loved ones. A woman’s ideal memory of her father is shaken by a chance encounter, as explored in "Still Life:"
"Your face in repose
the lines smoothed out,
the Stewart Grainger
hairline still intact,
hair still pepper and salt
despite your 77 years.
Your open mouth,
a perfect crescent moon,
And in that instant,
it's my heart that stops."
"Still Life" cleverly and succinctly reminds one not only of how ephemeral memory is, but how the internal image one carries of a parental figure can be easily shattered.
A scrap of paper that can symbolize variegated meanings is illustrated in the poem "Love Tokens," a narrative about a daughter's recollections of the times her father spent playing the ponies. Here, a betting slip is introduced as something almost inconsequential:
"They are rectangular strips, flimsy from a week's wear,
Your handwriting clear, that familiar neatness..."
And then transformed into a symbol at the pivotal moment:
"...I'd watch you
rocking back and forth
in your invisible saddle,
momentum building with every length,
tension coiled, waiting to spring
with joy, or a feck me pink of torn slips-
much like the ones I'm holding now."
In the end, the slip is regarded as an almost priceless artifact:
"My father's daughter,
I'll retrace your steps to Dover Street
and redeem them,
knowing the girl at the desk
will tot them up and never guess their value."
The second and most compelling section of Ghost, "The Writing Slope" is a series of poems and lyrical prose (in the guise of correspondence) that tell the story of an old woman's hidden memoirs.
What is revealed is the modest, tragic love story of Anne, a young woman who fell in love with William Flynn, an "Irregular" (one of a group of guerilla soldiers who fought against the partition of Ireland that eventually led to civil war after the British started to withdraw their troops in the early 1920's).
After Flynn emigrates to America to escape the authorities, Anne is left behind to struggle through loneliness, abandonment, the shame of being a "marked woman" in a small backward town, the tentative courtship by a local police officer, and the growing suspicions of Flynn's infidelity, as deftly illustrated in the poem, "Between the Lines":
"A harmless postcard
waiting for me on the hall table.
There's someone new,
would he tell me to wait?
Now I must stay
in the shade,
behind the counter,
listening to Maire drone,
watching the rust corrode
the bars on the windows,
wipe off the dust
only to see it reappear,
day after day.
Knowing I was his
kept me safe,
from the women of the town.
Now they'll measure me up,
as I cut their cloth."
In "Anniversary," Anne reflects on her decision to marry another man, and how her choice transformed her into a wife and mother with a passel of children, an unemployed husband, and few prospects. The tone of these pieces is that of a woman who is wistful; who in the privacy of her mind relives those happy times of romance with Flynn. The poem, "Returned Yank," reintroduces Flynn as a lonely bachelor who is grateful for Anne's friendship at the midpoint of their lives, because he has no other family. The final poem, "Afterward," shows that although Anne's love for Flynn was hidden, it never ceased to burn:
"A photo of you and him -
your faces radiant
as life offered up
The final section, "Travels and Translations," contains slice-of-life vignettes inspired by a variety of European settings that read like nothing more than a lovely travelogue. And this is almost a letdown until one encounters the gem "24 rue de Cotte," which quietly leads the reader into those deeply buried memories of childhood where the desire to recapture a simpler time in the lost intimacy with a loved one is examined:
"You depart in a whirl
of last minute reminders
of what to do
and where to put myself..."
I'm still slipping,
and though you're not here
to pick me up
I feel you in the mint walls;
the four roses drooping
after a night on the town;
the champagne stockpiled;
the sibilant hiss of
TFS jazz radio."
Note the following: I was first introduced to this poem by the alleged plagiarist Amari Hamadene (for more information on this "flapdoodle," read the following www.redbridgereview.co.uk/html/hamadene.html ). In 2003-04 Hamadene became the darling of the global poetry community when he made a name for himself on the web and in print. While his alleged version (entitled "Paris Follies") was published several times, it has done nothing to damage the delicacy of O'Mahony's work, or detract from the beauty of this particular piece.
Nessa O'Mahony's Trapping a Ghost revels in the desire to recapture the ghost of a memory; to escape, to hold onto a bit of happiness, or to search for answers in the quest for identity.
Trapping a Ghost, Nessa O’Mahoney, copyright 2005, bluechrome publishing (www.bluechrome.co.uk), 84 pages, ISBN: 1-904781-70-5, £7.99