I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A Solo Dancer

Fióna Bolger

Dancing with Memory, by Rachael Hegarty, Salmon Poetry, 114 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1915022011

Recall with joy my long and wondrous life.
Let me dance my way into the long night.
“No Last Dance”

Rachael Hegarty’s words took off in Flight Paths over Finglas (Salmon Poetry, 2017), swooped into history to bring us May Day 1974 (Salmon Poetry, 2020) and now present a murmuration in her newest book, Dancing with Memory. These poems form a “memory key”, a USB stick to retrieve a long and well-lived life. In her latest collection from Salmon, she records, in all its shades, the life of her mother, Bernadette, who died in 2020 after living with frontal lobe dementia for many years.

At a lull in the rosary, she’d yank
the invisible string and raise the dead.
(“Laying Out the Dead”)

These and other lines resurrect a lively woman who danced and laughed and moved through her life with honesty and love. From the “bum-bum shaking” in Henrietta Street to “a hotel room, just beyond Clifden”, we are given treasured intimate moments.

Learned the best thing about babies is love.
Hold them up to the air. Move them around
And round, a small circling dance. Then kiss
their pudgy, little bellies into bliss.

And we move around and around with the lyrical lines of memories, invited to enter that bliss. However, the poet resists the temptation to present only brightness or best choices to bring us the moments of darkness and struggle with addiction. “Meetings” becomes a medley of rhyming phrases, a different voice from a “meeting” signalling the dullness and lack of rhythm her mother felt in these times.

                            Your sobriety must
take your priority. Don’t let poor me
become pour me a drink.

In her deep loving honesty and attention to the details of her mother’s life, Hegarty allows each of us to find our loved ones here. How does something so personal and specific become a map for the journey into memory each of us must make alone? I think the answer to this may be in the use of form. The choice of poetry over prose, the choice of a poem per page and space around each piece allowing us to breathe, to grasp our own memories and to dance with them. Paula Meehan comments:

Traditional forms, contraptions of memory themselves, have the accumulated power of centuries behind them, and in Rachael Hegarty’s deft hands are fit noble vehicles for witness.

Her sonnet super power, which she demonstrated in May Day 1974, is again on display here. The fourteen lines take on different shapes as the poet moves through the stages and dance steps of her mother’s life. Until finally the sonnet breaks down into fragments of itself, as Bernadette loses her husband and later succumbs to the confusion and memory loss of dementia. The “Dance Partner”, after her husband’s death, is a sonnet compressed to capture the loss. The voice feels like it is barely capable of speech and these words are all the more powerful for the silences which hang from the lines.

Dance Partner
Him and me
always together
even when
someone cut-in
we’d go
back to
each other.
Until this
bad headeache,
the hospital,
skeleton staff
and an aneurysm
robbed your Da.

            Made me a solo dancer.

The compressed lines leave space for an imagined sob, intake of breath, flow of powerful emotion. And the final line moving alone across the page mirrors the title in the saddest possible way.

“Dance Narrative: Beginning, middle and end! is the section dealing with the gradual slide of the voice we have come to know and trust into confusion and dementia. The first two poems “Plaque” and “Tangle”, in their titles point towards the onset of the illness. The sonnet shape is now broken, lines staggered across the page, although they are full lines again. Life has found meaning after the loss but not the fullness of the life Bernadette and her husband shared.

That Christmas without him was just woeful.
No, I mean it love, I was full of woe.

There is the heaviness of her sorrow and loss but all the time the reaching out of her love for her family. These indented lines allow the sadness to rest on the page, even as the love radiates. The use of form, of a traditional form, in this innovative way, is an example of Rachael’s craft at work.

In the final movement of this ballet, the poems are named after each of the symptoms, “Poor Judgement and Social Withdrawal”, “Wandering – Confusion with Time and Place”, “Trouble with Language” and so on. Even as her mother disappears behind these aspects of the illness, the poet skilfully captures the deeply personal impact of the generalised medical descriptions.

In these poems Rachael Hegarty uses the villanelle form. The twirling of the lines and the form’s origin in an Italian harvest song lend it a swirling musical quality. The repetition of lines allows the poet to capture the frustrations and accumulating sadnesses of a loved one’s increasing confusion. However the rigidity of the form, with its repeating of lines and rhyming scheme, does not prevent the poet from bringing in her mother’s proud heritage and also the sad story of a less fortunate woman in “Wandering – Confusion with Time and Place”. Here, her mother has left home alone in a blizzard.

In Ballymun a woman froze, Just showed
how Ma got lucky but another died.
I was so freaked. I was fit to explode.

A red weather warning and out Ma strode,
untethered, like the walking people’s pride.
A blizzard and Ma was found on the road.
I was so freaked. I was fit to explode.

In “Changes in Personality ‑ Agitation and Aggression”, the family find themselves in A&E and her mother becomes angry and upset during the seven-hour wait. Again, while communicating the change in her mother (“Ma says she’ll shoot the nurse, dead in the head”), she also manages to poke fun and make the serious point that our health services are failing the most vulnerable.

By the time the security’s called, we’ve fled.
Prescription in hand and we’re on the run.
Ma says she’ll shoot the nurse, dead in the head.
I shout, ‘shove your trolley, Ma needs a bed.’

And the words have danced us, first mother’s voice leading and then daughter’s voice taking more of a role in this final section, until we reach “Complete Impairment”, written in 2020. This title signals not just the dementia but also the lockdown. The pleading voice of the first stanza is that of so many over the past years. The poet demonstrates the power of speaking from her experience in a way that resonates with so many, the ultimate poet super power.

They locked down all the nursing homes today.
The sign says Covid 19, No Access.
Ma, please, please, tell me it won’t end this way.

In the final sonnet, “No Last Dance”, poet/daughter gives her mother’s voice a powerful solo to end the ballet.

You know I’m back to meself and dancing,
your Da’s singing and we’re still romancing.
No sickness here, just the salve of release.
Recall with joy my long and wondrous life.
Let me dance my way into the long night.

In writing a collection of dance poems, Rachael Hegarty finds herself in the illustrious company of Rita Dove, whose American Smooth was published to great acclaim in 2004. American Smooth emerged from the experience of the poet and her husband taking up dance classes and winning competitions. The voice is a different one, the perspective from another angle gazing on the world; however, as is the way with poetry, there are moments these two collections meet one another at a common core, with the love of body and movement and life, captured in words.

I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?) ‑ achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.

Her mother’s memories proved to be in safe hands, with a poem for every year of her life. And each poem jazzing and jiving or slowly moving through the warm closeness of intimacy as required. This collection is a gift in its craft and precision, the poet at work. However these poems are also powerful records of love and it is in this role they will reach many and offer support and comfort. Pick up this book, open it, move gently to its rhythms and allow the warmth of Rachael and Bernadette Hegarty into your life.


Fióna Bolger has lived in Ireland and India. Her first full collection was published in 2019 by Yoda Press, Delhi, A Compound of Words. Her grimoire, The Geometry of Love Between the Elements, was published by PB Press in 2013. She facilitates workshops on various aspects of poetry for all ages and stages. Her next collection is due out from Salmon Poetry in June 2022, Love in the Original Language. www.fionabolgerpoetry.com



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