A review of Anamnesis by Denise O’Hagan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by Denise O’Hagan
Recent Work Press
October 2022, Paperback, 78 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0645180886

The word “Anamnesis” comes from the Greek, and means ‘remembrance’, but perhaps more specifically a recollection of something from a previous existence, like the experience of biting into Proust’s Madeleines. It’s an old-fashioned word, and perhaps it could be said that the use of it is a kind of Anamnesis itself. This is a fitting title for Denise O’Hagan’s latest poetry collection, which engages deeply with notions of memory in all sorts of ways: direct recollection, reviving something by virtue of a scent or image, or even transformation as in metempsychosis or transmigration.  Anamnesis is a kind of proof that something remains, even in absentia, even after a long period of time. The remnants of our lives and the marks we leave are permanent and can be revived. Anamnesis moves through a catalogue of memories, sometimes painful, and sometimes joyous, but always sensual, using traces as a route back. These vignettes are like photographs full of detail: the taste of a watermelon slice, the crack of fresh almonds, or the click-clack of heels on stone in an old villa. 

O’Hagan manages a delicate balance between immediacy and nostalgia with a light hand that feels natural, inviting the reader into the moment to share in the meaning making. There are layers of desire pervading the work, time and space condensing, folding into itself in sudden revelations that come into a quiet scene with the force of empathy:

You’d say, and off I’d run; what would I give
To turn back now to you. I no longer wonder
What happened to their legs or why their
Eyes are blank, but fancy I can still feel—
As I watch a lizard slowly cross Psyche’s
Polished thigh—in among the ruins, love. (“In among the ruins, love”)

The work is quiet and assured and the imagery is tender, using the lens of distance to tease out complexities of time and space against grief:

When she told me, I don’t know. There was
A waft of fingertips at my hair, a kiss perhaps,
Her words, dredged up from the bog of the past—
  I lost a baby
Two years before you were born. It was the word
Lost that stuck like Friday night’s fishbone in my
Six-year-old throat. Surely my mother hadn’t mis-
Placed my sibling-to-be within the safe shore
Of her own body?

As with many of the poems in the collection, there are multiple layers. The child is grown, remembering a moment when she found out about a sibling who died in the womb. This sibling is not nonexistent but rather an “echo reverberating”, and her absence exerts a gravity over the scene, even from a distance of time. The speaker’s present tense, combined with the multiple timeframes and points of view, creates an evocative and recursive poem. There is the mother’s own memory, “dredged up from the bog of the past”. There is the ‘lost’ baby, the loss of a sibling, the confusion of a child in the face of this loss that continues to exist alongside that same adult’s understanding of what it means to have a stillborn or miscarriage and to use the language of loss that way. Perhaps too, the mother is now gone and therefore also ‘lost’ and so there are multiple types of longing here pivoting around death but offset beautifully by the visual image of the mother caressing the child: “A waft of fingertips at my hair”. So much work is done in the brief space of the poem, and this is indicative of O’Hagan’s work.

Throughout the book there are many moments like this – artefacts giving rise to something that had been forgotten but which emerges via stimulus: the garlicky, buttery taste of escargot (combined with the snail’s own ability to feel pleasure), a first pair of glasses, discovering Mona Lisa in the Louvre, finding a cache of old letters, visiting the preserved room of an artist, serving up Brussels Sprouts, a hair cut at the salon, a photo of a decaying crypt, a photo of a grandmother who died young of tuberculosis, a news program, or looking through a photo album. The artefacts become openings, not only to something rediscovered, but something created – new words for an old feeling: 

Now all I want, as I feel the shining weight of space and time,
Is to learn another form of love, and return to you the words
That you once offered me: ‘I’ll always be in your world.’ (“Stages of Wanting”)

There is humour threaded carefully through the book, from a dying mother’s sharp retort to a nurse about not knowing what day it is to anthropomorphic poems that give voice to objects and animals, as in “Goldfish in a Pandemic”, where a goldfish muses on the nature of humans during the pandemic:

Beached, they are, these big humans,
Flailing around their lounge as they
Check for updates, make another coffee
(they’ve given up giving sugar up), and
Feed me a little more;

In spite of the humour, grief pervades the work. There is a ecological sensibility that mourns the loss of homes by bushfires, vulnerable species like the Powerful Owl, depleted wildlife corridors, soldiers long gone, and an array of parents, grandparents and relatives who ghost their way through the pages, making their presence known: 

That it was all over twenty years ago
Matters not at all; in the double-take of time,
It could be yesterday that we drew up outside
Hospital doors yawning their acceptance
Of people such as us. In looking down
The deepening corridor of years, I see
The space he left is still not emptied, but
Chafes against the string of incremental actions
And the littleness of life. (“In Limbo”)

The poems in Anamnesis are moving, but beyond the moments of recollection, there is a sense that this is also a book about the power of language and the way words can conjure and connect, transcending the moment. There is a meta-poetic quality to this book which explores the nature of language and its ability to stimulate resurrection and transformation even in the face of the worst kind of loss.  Anamnesis is a beautiful collection, evocative, funny, and complex.