Reviews

Fred Johnston reviews The Hollow Woman on the Island

Whoever penned the jacket blurb unfortunately employed Pentagon-speak with the phrase ‘existential threat’ to describe O’Mahony’s latest collection. I’ve never been sure what the phrase means, politically or otherwise. The threat here arises from O’Mahony’s brush with ovarian cancer and how this experience raised questions about womanhood and ‘female identity’. I suppose for those of us who’ve had prostate cancer, similar male issues ought arise. Do they? Perhaps not quite to the same extent. But one must concede that the ‘hollow woman’ of the title might diagnose a psychological point of view relevant to women, which men do not experience.

Unsurprisingly, the second section, which treats of the medical experience, reflects some of what I tackle in my own collection, Rogue States. I do not mention my collection gratuitously, but to emphasise the conditional unity of such experiences. Images of imprisonment, a cell-like mental environment, couple with the ‘prisoner’s’ fear of a door opening to admit a torturer. This is the nature of illness – to trap, to intimidate, to hint at further misfortune. In such a condition, language assumes sinister import; terms once foreign become familiar. The word ‘rogue’ creeps in, not as in ‘loveable rogue’ but the rogue of treacherous cells. O’Mahony manages to capture in four poems a world of personal metamorphoses. Outside of these, she utilises the language of woman-ness in resonant and often startling ways.

For my money she  – with her precise and musical sense of language and her concern to, well, get it right – is one of our better poets. I think it is fair to say that her vigilance interrogates subjects that are genderless and equal. Oh that more male poets would, or could, speak honestly of their vulnerabilities.

(Fred Johnsont, In: Verse, Books Ireland, November/December 2019)

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