Angela Costi Reviews Anita Patel, Denise O’Hagan and Penelope Layland

By | 11 May 2023

Anamnesis is a strong word, one that is akin to poetry – both asking the reader to understand on various levels. This is the title of Denise O’Hagan’s second poetry book. It permeates her actions in recollecting words, gathering scenes, retrieving memories in order to work the unforgettable into poetry. In the notes on the collection, O’Hagan provides a deeper understanding of ‘anamnesis’:

…from the Ancient Greek Ἀνáμνησις…
In the Platonic epistemological tradition, recollection was understood to mean the gradual uncovering of ideas 
already known by the soul, perhaps before birth. Knowledge, therefore, was seen as being innate and located 
inwards in the immortal soul rather than in the external world.			(59)

Her poems have that inward focus to speak to our fundamentals. In ‘Love was almond shaped’, we swoon back to the child being shown a common task, which is an inner knowing of maternal love:

As she taught me how to crack them open,
Holding both my hands in one of hers,
Steadying my palm, spanning my fingers
Across the stern metal jowls of the nutcracker;
I’d squeeze and squeeze until each pitted casing
Strained and split at last, a rough unveiling,
And I, the beneficiary of sleek, sweet-tasting pods
Caught a blur of hair as she bent to scoop up splinters,
Her wedding band twinkling gold,
My whole world ringed by that balcony.				(3)

This poem doesn’t tell us whether the ‘teacher’ is the mother of the child. She may not be. The lens is on the impact of the relationship through the action, and from this we sense the cocoon of care and safety – essential elements of love.

Throughout there is a swinging back and forth; back towards that time, forth towards a knowing that springs truth. Her poem, ‘On getting my first glasses at thirteen’, is a vivid visual of that very moment when the squinting and fuzziness is overwhelmed by accuracy:

At the ragged line of pine trees, their tapestry of needles
Pinpricked by daylight, and the brown curve of cones––

But also at my erratic complexion in the mirror, and its
Cool assessment in the optician’s brooding eyes. Quickly,

I looked out again to see my father vanish round a corner,
Shadowed by the flutter of a floral skirt too close; saw

Fatigue powdered pinkly into my mother’s cheeks; and for
A moment wanted nothing more with this sharp new world	(11) 

In ‘My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller’, we enter the jewellery shop of here and now, hoping to find remnants of the old jeweller. In this poem, O’Hagan extends anamnesis to cover carrying the memories of spouses/partners – what is our role here? Do we collude with their recollection or provide a counterpoint? O’Hagan suggests a deeper connection:

So we may find ourselves
Taking on other people’s memories,
Slipping on the mantle of their lives
Until they become part of us
And walk where we walk,
Second-hand shadows						(18) 

The vicarious nature of anamnesis is also examined in ‘Rosedale, New Year’s Eve’. How a horrific bushfire, which forced families to flee to the beach, inflames memories to “burn up” and become:

Shards of childhood curl in on themselves
Huddling in corrugated contortions
And nestling between clumps of rubble
Like frightened puppies.						(49)

The medical understanding of anamnesis, according to the Oxford dictionary, is to retrieve a patient’s account of their medical history “before the onset of the condition being investigated” (Oxford Reference). This definition is unraveled to perfection in ‘Room 3’ ‘Ward 9A’, ‘If you don’t know’, between the poet’s mother and a nurse in a fulsome five stanzas – some stand out lines are:

We are forever contained by numbers.

Her broken sparrow of a body, her whiplash tongue

      the nurse, slim, trim and bangled,
                                                      She laid the questions out,
Evenly, like cutlery on the dining table

‘Now, let’s try this one, shall we?’ The slow thrum
Of nails on pad merged with the continuous bleep

As each surveyed the other,

‘Young lady,’ my mother spoke at last, ‘if you don’t know
What year it is, I’m not going to tell you.’			(29)

Together, with theme consciously infused, O’Hagan showcases a classic adherence to metre and form in many poems. Along with a Petrarchan sonnet, a terza rima sonnet and a villanelle, there is an ekphrastic poem, ‘Mother and child’, in seven tercets of mostly hendecasyllable (21). ‘The icon in Room 711’, also in seven tercets, provides a contemporary, deflated response to the enigmatic smile and ageless celebrity of the Mona Lisa. We are engaged with a memory of the poet as a young adult viewing this portrait for the first time:

And watched, watched the effect of her happen––
This Florentine housewife, Our Lady of Perpetual Mystery,
Lassoing the crowd, through bullet proof glass, with that look,

And felt my reactions slipping into the mould, cooling,
Solidifying. So this is how it happens. And later, when we
Sift away the much touted facts of her journey to France,	(12)

Another historical woman plagued with conjecture and insinuation (during and after death) is Dorothy Wordsworth. The sister of William Wordsworth – yes, he had a sister, who was described as “his secretary and amanuensis”, seen scurrying behind him while he spoke his poetics aloud as they walked the terrain of the ‘Lake District’ England (Wilson).

In Penelope Layland’s fifth poetry book, Beloved, Dorothy Wordsworth (Dorothy) is in a sense resurrected. From birth to death, 1771 to 1855, Dorothy is succinctly chronicled by way of a graphic timeline, carefully placed throughout the collection. The poems, in the voice of Dorothy, follow her life’s trajectory. At the end of her book, Layland acknowledges the challenge of capturing a renowned literary figure who was in her own right a remarkable writer, but she states, “Alas, I could not help myself” (59). This impetus to explore through poetry the life of such an enigmatic and intriguing person, is understandable. Not only was Dorothy a complex character, but she had an intense sibling bond with William that spawned considerable scholarly studies and popular articles.

Layland skillfully combines clear, unadorned language with blank verse, reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s poetry, and integrates the phrases and the focus of Dorothy’s letters and journal entries. In doing this, an evocative tone is birthed:

My hands cannot settle to busy work.
I am hot, though the panes are icy laced
and my eyes go again to the windy door––
each rattle a summons, each summons a battle
for calm.
('Pledge (1793)', 5)

Each milestone and millstone throughout Dorothy’s life is addressed including the first time she met the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

I thought him plain––
thick-lipped, hair longish
and of a rough and half-curling black.

But hear him speak and one thinks
no more of skin-deep things,
for his speaking is a river, all depths
and darkness and flashing turns
('Coleridge appears at Racedown (1796)', 11)

Coleridge, William, and Dorothy Wordsworth were, at one point, inextricably linked. Layland also covers the intertwining of thoughts, ideas, and words between Dorothy and William. In ‘The robin poem’ there is an active engagement of a collaborative nature towards the writing of what appears to be William’s published poem, ‘The Redbreast and the Butterfly’ (alternatively titled, ‘The Redbreast Chasing the Butterfly’):

A robin chased a scarlet butterfly—
quick red-breast and quicker flitting
against a mild grey sky.

In the orchard, in rising vapours,
I told William what was in my eye
and he wrote the poem
of the robin and the butterfly.

In mist and small rain I took
tea and smaller talk,
leaving him to his walking.
He met me coming back
and read me the changes
he had made to my thought.				(15)

This poem inclines towards suggesting that Dorothy was more than William’s muse or inspiration. If it were current times, we would presume Dorothy’s input into the poem would be respectfully credited. By way of revisiting significant scenes through a contemporary lens, Layland is also advocating for Dorothy’s contribution to literature. Throughout, Layland draws from Dorothy’s acclaimed published journals, particularly the Grasmere Journal 1800-1803 as well as the Alfoxden Journal 1798. This collection is not only about human relationships but about Dorothy’s relationship with nature – her exquisite sensory descriptions of the surrounding landscape, and how Layland reimagines this passionate observance:

Seasons have shifted about our heads.
From the tops of the wintering Coombes,
dressed now for the snow
in their flattened grasses,
the west road glitters like a river below.
('Alfoxden (1798)', 12)

Steering the course of Dorothy’s afflicted life, there are two climatic poems, ‘The day of his wedding’ and ‘Erasure’, about her ‘Beloved’ getting married to her dear friend, Mary Hutchinson. The final poems deal with Dorothy’s poor health, grief for William’s passing, the extraction of her teeth and her addiction to laudanum:

Mary calls it
my ‘treacherous support’.
I hear her whisper it.
What would she know of it?

Or of anything?

I know only that, without,
I am first bone-weary
then bone-numb
then ungovernable––
('Laudanum', 47)

Using dramatic monologue, lyric, and rhyme, these differing, emotionally charged poems are a loyal rendering of a fierce intellect with a compassionate heart. Layland’s meticulous research and creative affinity gifts a nuanced portrayal of the other Wordsworth, a figure many of us weren’t introduced to when studying literature.

On a final note, Recent Work Press’s cover design for all three books is thoughtfully considered. Whether it’s a portrait, digital art, or splayed family photos with old envelopes, each cover announces its individuality.

‘Anamnesis’. Oxford Reference, Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
Papertalk-Green, Charmaine. Nganajungu Yagu. Cordite Books, 2019.
Shane Strange in Conversation with Rosanna Licari | StylusLit. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
Wilson, Frances. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009.

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