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Guest review: Parmar On O'Mahony

Sandeep Parmar reviews
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’Mahony

It 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, which I hope to review this autumn.

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