Her Father's Daughter
Page Count: 78
Publication Date: Monday, September 15, 2014
Cover Artwork: The collection of Keith Haynes and the McCann family
About this Book
Some things are eternal, for instance the ties that bind fathers and daughters and which cannot be dissolved by time or distance or loss. In Nessa O’Mahony’s third poetry collection, she examines the nature of those bonds through poems that combine the autobiographical with the historical as she explores poetically two very contrasting father-daughter relationships from two very contrasting periods of Irish history. Nessa’s grandfather, Michael McCann, was a quintessential Irish nationalist of the early part of the 20th century. He fought for the British in World War I, then fought against the British in the Irish War of Independence and finally fought his fellow countrymen in an Irish Civil War. In this collection, Nessa presents a parallel sequence of poems, one relating to her relationship with her own father, whose decline and death she charts with painful honesty, the second exploring the life of her grandfather, a more mysterious figure whose story slowly emerges through her mother’s memories, and her own research. The result is a meditation on love and losing and on what is retained through narrative and memory.
Nessa O’Mahony was born in Dublin and lives in Rathfarnham where she works as a freelance teacher and writer. Her poetry has appeared in a number of Irish, UK, and North American periodicals and has been translated into several European languages. She won the National Women’s Poetry Competition in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and Hennessy Literature Awards. She was awarded an Arts Council of Ireland literature bursary in 2004 and 2011, a Simba Gill Fellowship in 2005 and an artists’ bursary from South Dublin County Council in 2007. She has published two previous poetry collections, Bar Talk (Italics Press, 1999) and Trapping a Ghost (Bluechrome, 2005) as well as a verse novel, In Sight of Home, Salmon Poetry (2009).
Read a sample from this book
History doesn’t record
how you decided it:
of a thrupenny bit,
a card, a straw,
in an unnamed pub
in the English midlands.
You’d never mistake
those grey tufts
I doubt a white feather
was behind it;
more like you’d caught
the American liner stub
still in your pocket.
History does record
the outward journey
(SS Baltic, from Queenstown
27th June, 1913)
you may have swum back
just in time
to have a pint
with the brother
and decide who’d go,
to farm and family.
I try to picture the pair:
two young broths,
at the bar,
a tolerant English hand
(it would become
a life-long devotion)
pale blue eyes
weighing the future up.
Family lore is mute
on where or when you got yourself
kitted out as the pride
of the Munster Fusiliers
omits the Royal –
did your tongue elide it?)
Like a child
from a dress-up box
with your wide belt
and your peaked cap,
though the shaved head
is a clue to the war game
Your right hand holds a cane,
as if the photographer guessed
the future legacy.
Family legend is mute
on when you sent it.
I’m picturing it in slow-motion,
an envelope spiralling down
like a chicken’s feather,
a scurry from the back
to gather it up.
Did it have pride of place
on a mantelpiece?
Did your mother
turn a leaf
of the family bible,
position you face down
on the Book of Joshua?
An honest thing:
ash shaft, plain,
no gentleman’s cane
of silver or amethyst tip,
Crafted to bear weight,
the tonnage of trench-foot,
splintered bones, toe lost
in the ambush at Glore
the same cost).
Shoved to the side,
or brandished as threat
for the boys’ divilment;
they used bullets as toys,
did you silently smile
as they echoed you?
Needed more each year,
then daily once another war,
our Emergency, broke out
and you drilled the boys
from the town to defend the realm
against farmers’ sons.
Decommissioned once again
into night-watchman jobs
in Coventry, in Cricklewood.
You still looked tough, the stick
found a hook in boarding houses;
you’d only take it out after hours.
It came to our house when you died,
spent decades under the stairs
till you daughter needed it,
trimmed it down to size.
A match for mine. I heft it up:
it still bears its weight.
It has kept us waiting: branches bare,
tiny buds compact with withheld promise
as we huddle in winter-gear, look sunward
for the green on frosted hills.
Birds probe soil with sceptical bills;
claws tap worm-morse; little stirs.
Sunlight oblique through windows,
catches dust of jobs still to be done,
catches the corner of a wedding photograph
not yet six months old. The couple smiling
in their Autumn-best, lisianthus grasped
in remembrance of the decades missed,
trusting that seasons shift,
that movement is always forward.
Copyright © Nessa O'Mahony 2014
Review: Her Father's Daughter reviewed by S.J. Hollaway for Orbis (2015)
It Still Bears Its Weight
Nessa O’Mahony formerly Book Reviews Editor of Orbis, in this third collection follows a similar theme to her verse novel, In Sight of Home, exploring disconnected families trying to rediscover ties. Though this is more intensely personal, featuring two father-daughter relationships, the poems expand beyond the private sphere to address how we have ‘reasserted your / grip of space / […] / sprawl now like you own / the joint’ (‘The Long Goodbye’), or more specifically, how we all must do so. This need to grip, seems key: the intriguing ‘Harbinger’, and its metaphor of boats, ends with ‘Another, anchored / unseen overnight, / circles on its moorings / as the wind shifts.’
If one were feeling churlish, the book may seem to sag a little in the middle. No, that’s unfair. The first reading could give this impression is perhaps due to the emotional power of the opening and closing sections, rather than a perceived lessening of impetus in between. It’s not about a father’s death, but movement. ‘Each year a yard more / […] / the steady upward creep’ (‘Natural Selection’) refers to more than the passing of seasons, years or loved ones. There’s a sense here of (hoped for) progression, mourning, the preparation for it being a necessary part of what she explores in ‘Late Spring’ as ‘trusting that season, / that movement is always forward.’
That this reader at first missed the point, so to speak, of the work’s communication, is a reflection on the powerful emotive content of some pieces. At times, I had to step away to clear my head, affected by the poet’s gentle voice. The skill with which she elicits this is ocassionally understated and carefully crafted so that it may go unnoticed; the caesura in ‘Waiting Room’, for example, made even more powerful by the absence of a determiner in its title, makes the white space, and the reader, do half the work:
But this is not a ‘sad’ book. It confronts death, yes, but similarly confronts life and its contradictions: in ‘Visitor’, a garden mouse is a ‘word hovering / out of reach’ ; in ‘Feast of the Epiphany’ the snow outside a window is ‘a whiter screen / that might just erase / all sins, all memories.’ Don’t be fooled by the crunching, beautiful sadness of a father’s death, O’Mahony seems to say. There is more, she reflects: in ‘Doorways’, where, inevitably, ‘the old sock would find / the old shoe // eventually.’ This fine, fine collection is filled with the grace of motion towards, and movement beyond.
Review: Her Father's Daughter reviewed by John O'Donnell for Poetry Ireland Review (Issue 117, December 2015)
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:
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.’ … 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.
Review: Her Father's Daughter reviewed by John McAuliffe for the Irish Times (Saturday 23rd 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:
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?”
Launch Introduction by Damian Smyth, at the Belfast launch of Her Father's Daughter, No Alibis Bookshop, November 2014
A few years back, Nessa O'Mahony hurriedly slipped a volume of poems into my hand in the National Library in Dublin while we were jointly labouring for the arts at an event there. Equally hurriedly, because as usual in Dublin or anywhere I was making a beeline for the train at an inopportune hour and with slim chance of making it, she had inscribed it simply for me.
Now you should understand that I first met Nessa away back in the mid 1990s when neither of us, I think, had come to any real terms with poetry but we were both, even then, at work with it at a remove, both bizarrely in PR, me with the Arts Council in Belfast and she with An Chomhairle Ealaion.
There were poems or rumours of poems. And much activity I think in the years between. Activity which I have to confess was already smart and cute, in the best sense, and digital and contemporary in a way, 15 years ago, most of my generation would not, could not, have recognised. There was the steady accretion of a reputation on her part; the National Women's a Poetry Competition in 1997, short listings in the Kavanagh and Hennessy prizes; a volume of poems, Bar Talk, from Italics Press, in 1999; the sense I would say of a fugitive imagination, unexpected, charged unusually with an inner frankness amid formal poise and the opposite of ostentation and self-regard; the respect of emerging writers testified to time and again in bulletins from creative writing zones and masterclasses. That generous artefact which is the Electric Acorn, surely one of if not the first genuinely digital literary magazine in Ireland, which she edited. And in individual poems themselves, the sound of skills being gathered in.
Then in 2009, she published a book I encountered directly on my own accord. In Sight of Home is a verse-novel; it is also an epistolary narrative; it is also a work of excavation and recovery; of leaving and returning, with gains and losses; and also - and also - a work which introduces the reader to a kind of Nessa doppelgänger.
Our spirit guide in the novel-poem is a young Dublin writer who uncovers an archive of letters and re-narrates their exchanges in her own terms in our own day. It is one of those works which is truly appalling in its originality: making things happen to the reader on a variety of unexpected platforms, none of them conventional or predictable.
It is, frankly, an intimidating book in its framing, the techniques on show, its imaginative range. But it represented what you could call 'a run at' themes and contexts for which, I think we can see now, the earlier experimentation, the daring, the risk-taking of her digital and fugitive imagination, was quietly preparing her.
On the train back to Belfast, I read the volume of poems she had given me, twice at one sitting. First, as usual from back to front - it's an OCD thing - and again in its intended sequence. Trapping A Ghost was and is, as they say, an eye-opener. Published in 2005, it sits on the other side of In Sight of Home as her new collection - the one we are gathered this evening to celebrate - sits on the near side of that book.
Look. There is so much slabber about poems and poetry. There is a thing called a writer's career. It is not a nebulous term. What happens is, first poems and then a pamphlet or collection, set up a kind of community of common conviction. Conversations between poems from, as it were, different eras of a life; first poems find their most appropriate readers and often their sternest critics among the cluster of later poems; it is a stern moment when later poems, even the most recent and most proud, find themselves under the scrutiny of earlier works. Nonetheless, the conversations are irresistible, inevitable; always - always - fruitful; and always, weirdly, utterly anonymous. Poems don't give a damn whose they are; just that they are and are, in a peculiarly vain way, still valid, still loved. Later poems reassure them they are still beautiful.
Anonymity is the key. That is what happens when a body of work, a corpus, gathers itself over time. It is irresistible in its action. This may seem fanciful, or some manner of whimsy. But as with most things, it is when the action gets interfered with that the truth of the observation is visible. Hence the sensation currently underway regarding Derek Mahon's revisions of his own famous earlier poems in more recent editions of selected and collected poems. In that instance, the poet still believes his or her authorship supersedes the aesthetic rights of the poems to live and flourish in their own tongue. It is a rough lesson but the poet will surely find, once he or she has passed out of the moral reckoning, that the poems reassert their rights and the appropriate versions will endure.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Trapping A Ghost, which is a collection of poems about family and history and context and Ireland and loss and love, sustained and enervating lyrics which are bereft and difficult, disturbed by absence and bothered too by the excitement of an adventurous future, is itself augmented and nuanced and challenged and blown open by In Sight of Home - who knew? More than any other artform - I believe this as an article of faith - poetry when it is good pushes through the intensity of the personal and private into the anonymous world dragging the intensity with it but exposing it to the commonwealth of all our experience. It is why poetry makes us feel a thing as if it were our own; we are not the spectator at events affecting others, but are ourselves made players.
So this is what I am here to say about this poet and this collection. Both her previous mature courageous artistic ventures now, I think, find another cadence, another variety of utterance, another interlocutor which is challenging and robust, both fixed and unfixed, concerned intimately both with history and its opposite - not forgetfulness, but, in fact, love.
Her Father's Daughter is an impressive volume.
There is so much tempting about family and historical matters and their intersection, especially when there is an obvious deeper cultural seam which will be disturbed as a matter of course once the writing begins, but it is extremely difficult to get at the actual living core of that interface. One might think one is getting there, simply by naming and ‘uttering’, and that does have a validity of its own; but to move comfortably and with assurance within that deeper material is a challenge. It’s the sort of thing that only becomes apparent when one is lured into the imaginative recreation poem by poem, in the experience of reading, and as one discovers the point of origin shifting, the perspectives altering. All of that occurs with Her Father’s Daughter, ‘resurrections of a kind’.
The other side is to render personal tribute and recollection in the appropriately intense way without those becoming simply ciphers for ‘bigger’ themes. Again, this is managed so well in the book. Much of that is down to the ethical structure arrived at early on in the process, I think, whereby the historical elements survived in their melancholy aspect – which they always have, being past – and where the blending of more recent, personal matters – loss, love – rise against that backdrop of history ‘still being made’.
In short, it works both lyrically and as narrative, if that makes any sense. I won’t dwell on how good many of the poems are – because they register quality in so many ways (‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘Visitor’, ‘Accident & Emergency’, ‘Walking Stick’, ‘Casting Lots’, ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’) and because singling any out – as I’ve just done – gives precedence to those when in fact all the poems are working their passage with more or less intensity and with more or less lyricism. Not all poems need have a drum roll at the end to be poems.
This book is a cohesive thing, more in the character of a ‘long poem’ than Nessa’s other books and that brings another note to the work as a whole. The cumulative meditation across poems is a wonderful thing and it is present here and should be acknowledged and I hope we will hear some of that accumulation this evening.
Maturity, confidence, an achieved voice, dexterity among the debris (historical, emotional), bringing to the long dead and persistently silent all the freshness of contemporary loss and love. The old cautious punctiliousness of poetry is never more exhilarating than this. What a wonderful thing to have put on record.