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Ink Pantry review of Her Father’s Daughter

Natalie Denny of Ink Pantry has reviewed Her Father’s Daughter for the Poetry Drawer section of the website.

‘My page has been empty for months. Forgive me for filling it.’

Nessa O’Mahony’s ‘My Father’s Daughter’ explores the nature of the imperishable and pronounced bonds between fathers and daughters. We embark upon a poetical journey, combining the autobiographical with the historical through two father-daughter relationships spanning two different periods of Irish history.

Nessa’s poetry is a raw and at times a painfully honest depiction of her family life, especially those memories surrounding her father and grandfather. The finished article is a commentary on love and loss including the reconstructive and subjective power of memory.

From ‘His Master’s Voice’ that looks at life through the eyes of the family pet to the powerful ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ which is a personal invite to observing a dying man, Nessa holds little back in creating her images and exhuming her past.

The poem I identified most with was ‘Those Of Us Left’ which comments on the turbulent aftermath proceeding the death of a loved one. It resonates as it accurately portrays the confusion and stark anger which is very typical of grief but not as often spoken about. The gritty realism in the words leave you uncomfortable but enlightened.

The collection is split into five sections, each focusing on a different area. There is a whole part which utilises nature, weaving rich imagery and juxtaposition to refresh how we perceive sentient beings. There’s a particular reference used to different birds of prey which compares relationships with nature, providing interesting contrasts.

Nessa explores the idea of her own immortality in ‘Walking Stick’ when she details adopting the walking aid that was previously her father’s.The cyclical process of life is a running theme, particularly the role reversal of child to an adult in a parent’s latter stages of life. This is a experience many people have with their elderly parents which Nessa captures beautifully.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ explores illness in ‘Waiting Room’ and the failing of mind and body while exploring the impact on relationships. It is a body of work that can transcend the ages and has something within that would resonate with many.

Overall the collection is a heartfelt, vivid and moving tribute.

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Reviews, Uncategorized

John O’Donnell reviews Her Father’s Daughter

Extract from ‘Postcards from the Edge’ by John O’Donnell, Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 117, December 2015

The heart of Nessa O’Mahony’s collection, Her Father’s Daughter, is a poignant and affecting series of reflections on the death of her own father. The book opens with ‘Giving Me Away’, an uneasy father and daughter road-trip which O’Mahony views initially as a sort of atonement by her father – ‘Because you had never walked me down the aisle / you sit 330 miles in the passenger seat, / watching the speed-dial, / miming brakes’ – as they head towards her ‘new start’ in Britain. However the tell-tale signs O’Mahony observes along the way reveal her father’s decline: ‘I know you’ve already /left me on this trip, / at Holyhead, at Dublin Port / before the ship embarked.’ Later we are shown the agony – for relatives – of the slow death of a loved one: ‘It has been a year / since you left / the hospital whites, / and were swalled up / by your own chair’ (‘The Long Goodbye’). Elsewhere O’Mahony looks further back; in ‘Walking Stick’ the story of her grandfather’s life is told by reference to his stick: ‘An honest thing: / ash shaft, plain, / crook smooth’ which has been ‘Crafted to bear weight, / the tonnage of trench-foot’, before being ‘Decommissioned once again / into night-watchman jobs / in Coventry, in Cricklewood.’ A case is visible on the striking cover of the same grandfather ‘kitted out as the pride / of the Munster Fusiliers’ (‘Casting Lots’), in which poem O’Mahony also hints intriguingly at the choice facing her grandfather and his brother: ‘who’d go, / who’d return / to farm and family.’ At times O’Mahony feels guilty writing about the illnesses and deaths of loved ones. In ‘Her Master’s Voice’, dedicated to the late James Simmons, she considers Simmons’s elderly dog Charlie on the day his master’s coffin is carried out: ‘He can’t know that a stranger / will come soon, tidying, / sweeping up, thieving a poem / like a starving cur grabs a bone / where she finds it.’

 

‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is really a portrait of the arist writing about her father’s illness: ‘I trawl for metaphors, / imagine corollaries / for the fluid filling your lungs’, before acknowledging the perceived impropriety of so doing:

 

My page
has been empty
for months.
Forgive me
for filling it.

 

O’Mahony should not reproach herself: Graham Greene’s famous insight that there is ‘a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’ came to him in hospital, as he listened to and watched from a nearby bed the tears and cries of a mother whose son had just died, thinking: ‘This is something which one day I might need.’ A writer does need a good editor, howerver, and there are a couple of curious glitches in an otherwise attractive presentation. A more ruthless editor might also have advised against the inclusion of one or two less successful pieces. At its best, though, O’Mahony’s forthright, heartfelt style is affecting, and further exploration of her family hinterland will no doubt yield up other secrets.

Grandad_2
Reviews

Review of Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon Poetry 2014)

Grandad_2

 

Extract from “Past Masters: elegies and the reconstruction of lost worlds”, John McAuliffe, The Irish Times, 22nd November 2014

In Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon, €12) Nessa O’Mahony describes a family history set off by her talent for finishing poems with a surprising turn. The domestic scene of ‘After Noon’ moves from concrete description to a more suggestive note:
And I watch the sky
cloudless for once
in this Irish summer,
and think that
for the first time in a while,
I know how this could be
even more
perfect.
O’Mahony is sure-footed too in a longer narrative sequence about her grandfather, even if its closing motif, of a walking stick being handed down from one generation to another, seems to elide some of the more difficult aspects of family inheritances.
Like [Kerry] Hardie, she can be suspicious of her own facility, and ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is usefully self-conscious: ‘My words were cool, disapproving: / those tidy coal-strokes of the dead. // Now what else can I do / as I sit and watch you sleep / one of your countless / dress rehearsals?”

Reviews

Reviews of Trapping A Ghost (Bluechrome 2005)

From New Hope International, edited by Gerald England

Nessa O’Mahony is a prize winning poet and TRAPPING A GHOST is her second collection. The poems here revolve around family, including THE WRITING SLOPE a sequence of poems about the poet’s grandmother and her life in 1920s Ireland. These poems are conversational in tone, historically interesting and full of detail. However, sometimes they are almost too conversational in tone, prompting the reader almost to wonder what was gained in transferring these letters and journal entries into poetry, rather than publishing them in their original format.
Elsewhere, however, O’Mahony has a fine ear for the sounds of language, as here in the last stanza of VISITING SILVIA:
My eyes keep straying to surrounding hills,
the snow’s retreat at boundary walls
as if heat of any sort were to be found there.

She also has an ability to express things in interesting ways that make the reader stop and think. An example from YORK CHILD:

and when she sniffs the air,
she thinks she can smell
the opposite of hunger.

Her other strength is in beautiful, perceptive observations, as in FOOLS GOLD IN NORFOLK that describes how pebbles collected at the beach lose their glistening fascination and become:
pockets full
of sullen geology.

and here at the end of BALCONY AT ROSIE’S:

The cat seems sure, kissing
the path with delicate pads,
holding you in her almond gaze,
teasing you with the answer.

This is a collection of unpretentious poetry of particular appeal to those interested in 20th century Irish history
Juliet Wilson

 

From Marie Lecrivain in Poetic Diversity

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,
upturned.
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,
why else
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
its riches.”

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

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Reviews

Reviews of In Sight of Home (Salmon Poetry 1999)

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From Eyewear Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Guest review: Parmar On O’Mahony

Sandeep Parmar reviews
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’MahonyIt would be too simple to evaluate Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent work, In Sight of Home, on the basis of whether or not it succeeds as a ‘verse-novel’. And yet with the current surge of interest in the form (to the great excitement of ever-present forefinger-wagging genreists) each verse-novel sets itself a near impossible task: balancing the presence of often tedious narrative (see Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems) with the exploration of character through lyric. The trouble, in the case of Padel’s book, is the spectre of Charles Darwin, transmuted through the poet-biographer, whose voice clangs over epistolary prose. O’Mahony could have operated via a similar procedure: we know that some of her book is based on what appears to be twenty-two letters from Margaret Butler, a nineteenth-century Irish emigrant to Australia, but thankfully O’Mahony departs from the day-to-day recounting of domestic life to make an implicit inquiry into the nature of the archive and the relationship between the reader/scholar and the historical subject. She inserts a figure of herself, the author—in the form of a twenty-first-century Irish woman, Fiona Sheehan—as discoverer, hoarder, and voyeur of a woman’s ‘failed’ life.In Sight of Home brings together three narrative strains: Margaret’s departure from Kilkenny with her brothers and sisters and their subsequent life in Australia; Lizzie, another young Irish emigrant who finds herself in service of the Butler family; and Fiona, a poet who is seduced into writing Margaret’s story by letters she receives from a Butler descendant. Fiona has her own self-exile to contend with—she moves to North Wales to sever family commitments, only to find herself identifying heavily with Margaret’s life as a spinster, overburdened by a woman’s responsibility to her kin. Contemplating leaving her life in Ireland behind, Fiona is drawn to the letters:I picked up the pack of letters
I’d been flicking through
for the past few days.
Although the writing was faint,
the slanting scrawl near illegible
I could still glean some of their meaning.

And one can see what this ‘meaning’ is. Margaret’s life is entirely wound up by the living and dying of her relatives; her own fears, at least for herself, are harder to articulate:

Dead heat
damp clothes
dead weight
breath
caught
in my ribs
no shift
in sails
Must we stay
in this wood
tomb
yet I dread
the jolt
that takes
us further
nearer
what

O’Mahony has inserted Fiona’s thoughts whilst reading these suffocated, tight-lipped letters (and trying to shape them into poems) in the right margin: ‘Exile is easier now. / An hour in a car queue, / two hours bounced / in a tin-plate catamaran, / a day-trip to a new life.’

The pull towards archetypal femininity is evidenced by Fiona’s superimposed romantic indecision; she resists settling down and moving in with her lover, preferring instead her crumbling quarters, her stacks of dusty books, which are all there to evoke her obstinate grip on individuality. After a pregnancy scare, Fiona finds mixed comfort in the return of her menstrual flow:

Drought over,

so why
no smile
today?

O’Mahony’s book is compulsively readable, especially for those who are attracted to the possibilities of archival research. To those who feel somehow cheated by the actual existence of Margaret Butler’s letters or who are wary of their fictionalisation, I would say that O’Mahony never makes claims to factualness and the result is far more beguiling and intelligent than verse-biography—that supposedly unbiased, murky sentimental mask-wearing. In Sight of Home veers between wry cynicism (on the part of the ‘biographer’ Fiona, who becomes increasingly possessive over Margaret) and genuine beauty, observed off-handedly:

On the sand-bar
shadows search for pickings,
fill their bags, move on.

Closer to shore clockwork
oyster-catchers bob, then take to air
as a radio pips noon.

A black-backed gull
pulls at something
long-tailed.

A car kerb-crawls
for a spot on the sea-front,
fails, resumes the circuit.

I watch a man walk his dog, pause,
read the sing he has seen
every day for a lifetime.

O’Mahony success is that she doesn’t naively enter into her project. In fact she purposefully changes one basic premise to her story: the letters of Margaret Butler aren’t in the possession of a (self-proclaimed) unrecognised writer, they are in a library. By setting them in a private, unauthorised and highly subjective setting, O’Mahony indulges in a scholarly sin. But better that than pretend that the formation of ‘lives’ hangs from cornices of truth. The poet’s genre-bending isn’t a lack of skill or a flagrant misapprehension, it is what brings the story to life.

Dr. Sandeep Parmar is a leading American-British poet of her generation, and an expert on Mina Loy and Hope Mirlees. She makes her home between (in) London and New York. Her poetry appears in the new anthology from Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century.

 

Review of “In Sight of Home” by Bill Greenwell on his Bill Posters blogNessa O’Mahony’s In Sight Of Home (like yesterday, from Salmon Poetry, an Irish press) breaks new ground, both in its choice of form and in its choice of genre. It will be filed, because of its publisher, under poetry, I guess, but it could equally find a home in fiction and biography. It’s a bold writer who composes a verse novel – Pushkin, Nabokov, Vikram Seth are the big names – or a verse biography (Ruth Padel has worked in this field). But this isn’t either of them. It mixes prose and poetry, and it freely mixes known fact, in the shape of a cache of letters written in the mid-nineteenth century by Margaret Butler, from Kilkenny, from Australia, with a fictional writer from the early twenty-first century, Fiona Sheehan, who is conducting her own journey, away from Dublin to  North Wales, and who is working on the letters and turning them into her own poems.

This is a really complicated echo-chamber – after all, we don’t know if Nessa O’Mahony is in any way, shape or form the alter ego of Sheehan; we don’t know (and O’Mahony isn’t telling) which of the Butler letters are made up, and which are original; we have to see if we can skip between the two journeys of (self-)exploration; and, just to keep the mixture rich, we are even given occasional notes by Sheehan about the defects in her poetry, poetry, of course, with which O’Mahony has provided her. And one can easily add to this sense that everything is a bit odd – after all, Ireland, 1850s, potato famine, isn’t it? O’Mahony is having none of this. She presents us with an altogether other kind of historical fact, that of fairly prosperous Irish families going to make a new life. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a verse novel? None of the above.

What really works is the cutting between one genre and another, one time and another, and (best of all) the way that minor characters start working their way into the foreground. Chief amongst these is Lizzie Murphy, an almost extraneous figure at first, an orphan Irish girl who finds her way to Australia and into service with the Butler family, before marrying into it. Lizzie’s narrative seems so clearly distinct from Margaret’s and Fiona’s that it almost a shock to find, much later, that she is Fiona’s creation.

In some ways, I think it is the situations more than the characters which grab the reader – the various culture shocks which are encountered, the way in which the main figures are separated from what they know, the way they become entangled with what was and what is, the way they become mixed up (so it is the structure, too, of In Sight Of Home that engages the reader, the ambition of asking the reader to consider on the one hand a rather hapless encounter between a fizzing present day media woman with a chaotic Welsh academic; and on the other hand, the doubly parallel universe – in time and space – of the women in Australia).

This is a really challenging read. Narrative free verse is incredibly hard to do (arguably the hardest of all genres), and also the hardest to sustain. Mixing in the letters keeps the readers on their mettle. One moment you’re with Fiona’s aspiration to have a cat and feed it Whiskas, the next you’re in the outback, writing very proper letters to a cousin. Complexity can be a curse. Not here. You have to go back and read it a second time, a third. I thought it was astonishing.

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