A Quarter of an Hour, by Leanne O’Sullivan, Bloodaxe Books, 64 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978 1780372228
Inspired to a great extent by her husband’s grave illness a few years ago, Leanne O’Sullivan’s fourth collection, A Quarter of an Hour, takes the reader on a moving and surprisingly life-affirming journey, with slow-burning poems that stay with us long after the book is closed.
The starting point of the volume is a dark and difficult one. In 2013, the poet’s husband suffered from a severe brain infection that saw him spend three weeks in a coma. When he finally woke up, his long-term memory had been almost completely wiped out. Gone were most of the details that are central to one’s sense of personal identity. As we learn from the back cover, “he didn’t even know his wife”.
A Quarter of an Hour, whose title hints at the very limits of short-term memory, traces the poet’s and her husband’s journey in three sections from the sudden onset of the infection, through to recovery and to their new life together. Some of the poems focusing on the illness haunt the reader for a long time, notably those written from the carer’s perspective and evoking the terrifying moment when a loved one becomes gravely ill, the long hours at the hospital hoping for a positive outcome, and the arduous process of accompanying someone on their journey back to health. “Ghost” for instance powerfully conveys the silent work that the carer accomplishes and their continuous presence that at the same time seeks to be invisible:
I saw then.
In your own sickness I had become
my own ghost, half sensed in the light
that draped beneath the curtains;
obliterated softly on the landing
when you passed by.
Still, the water glass on the table filling itself,
over and over.
Plates and cups cleared away.
Elsewhere in the volume, “Tracheotomy”, “Prayer” and “Leaving Early”, all set in the hospital ward, beautifully evoke the poet’s helplessness as her husband fights for life. Like many others in A Quarter of an Hour, the poems are addressed to the latter, like hushed attempts to keep the lines of communication open and to keep him alive while he cannot respond.
However, despite this narratorial focus, the collection is much more varied and surprisingly not as dark as might be expected for such a difficult topic. Often, the world of the illness is only a starting point from which the imagination takes flight. “My Love, / tonight Fionnuala is your nurse”, O’Sullivan writes in “Leaving Early”, “You’ll hear her voice sing-song around the ward / lifting a wing at the shore of your darkness.” The poem then proceeds to develop the association with the Children of Lir, turning the night nurse into a mythical creature. A Quarter of an Hour is brimming with such figures. The Cailleach, who had already inspired the poet’s second collection in 2009, resurfaces in dramatic monologues. Odysseus and characters from The Fairie Queene too make an appearance. The volume is also populated with wildlife and depictions of local nature. O’Sullivan’s husband, during his recovery, believed he could see animals, and those visions inspire many poems celebrating nature and its diversity. Foxes, larks, and swallows are regular presences, like totemic figures protecting the couple throughout their ordeal. In their recurrence, they function as guides for the reader and poet on their journeys, and bring the collection together.
What makes reading A Quarter of an Hour so enjoyable is indeed hearing all the connections in and between poems, with each re-reading revealing new internal and external echoes. O’Sullivan cleverly plays with Irish poetry, notably in her use of classical material. “Morning Poem” and “Byzantium” cannot but bring to mind William Butler Yeats. “Lightning”, where the speaker, upon seeing her husband in a coma, thinks of “Odysseus safe beneath / his quilt of leaves”, recalls Michael Longley’s “Homecoming” and Derek Mahon’s “Ithaca”, both of which rewrite the same passage of Homer’s epic. Other poems, such as “The Watchman” and “Love where are we now?”, discreetly evoke Seamus Heaney’s work, respectively for its shared interest with “Mycenae Lookout” in a neglected character in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and for its use of Book Six of the Aeneid. But it is the internal echoes that prove most memorable. Each re-reading reveals how carefully the collection has been put together, with the exception of a few unrelated poems. Placed at the very beginning, “The Fox”, narrating a seemingly anecdotal animal rescue on the side of the road, retrospectively foretells what is to come:
And what happened next?
Did the great pain come?
You forget. When we came back
the next morning she was gone.
No sign or scent, no brightness
in the trails, no memory bearing down.
She had already
become part of this story.
The poems in the collection are similarly accessible, and yet multi-layered. To reach this degree of apparent simplicity while also rewarding the attentive reader with subtle echoes and variations is remarkable. So is the delicate balance between emotional tension and restraint that the poems achieve. A Quarter of an Hour is a rich, nuanced, and powerful volume, which confirms Leanne O’Sullivan’s mastery of her art.
Florence Impens works at the University of Manchester. She writes about contemporary British and Irish poetry, classical reception and translation studies.