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.
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.