Of Ochre and Ash, by Eleanor Hooker, Dedalus Press, 96 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251904
Anyone who has ever heard Eleanor Hooker reading her work live will be brimming with anticipation at the prospect of a fresh collection from her, for this is a poet who delivers on the printed page as she does at the microphone.
It is hard to recall a working poet who brings such varied secular skills and talents to the sacred writing moment: Hooker began as a nurse in the old Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, rose to staff nurse there, trained as a midwife at Holles Street, then spent a decade and a half in England working in intensive care, returning in 2002 to Ireland and her beloved Lough Derg, where she combines motherhood, writing and helming the RNLI lifeboat that plies the Shannon waters. With such a background of compassionate experiences is it any wonder she writes with such a big heart, an ear that understands so well, and a voice that calms all fears?
Of Ochre and Ash consists of sixty-one poems, some free-standing, some linked by theme with others, and eighteen of them presented in two titled sequences, one of ten poems and one of eight. Many emerge in hushed tones, divulging secrets (sometimes awful secrets), yet manage to assuage the trepidations of life. Others take a different approach and admit that sometimes all may not turn out for the better. The latter are thankfully outnumbered by the more optimistic utterances.
It is perhaps not surprising that the writing of a poet with Eleanor Hooker’s healing background navigates a world where the four humours and the four elements (melancholy/Earth, choler/Fire, phlegm/Water, and blood/Air) are conspicuous, though while choler is generally absent in the writer’s universe of concern, it is present but ironically understated in a poem that evokes the arrival of an infant in a Magdalene asylum. Things are often buried or unearthed, or planted, or warmed. There are skies full of birds. And above all there is the ever-present lake, providing both plot and context, characters and sounds.
Of Ochre and Ashes is a book of dreams, but also a book of realities. All manner of things that seem impossible are presented as fact. The poet communes with dead grandparents in imagery that is sometimes quite cinematic, but from the lens of a Buñuel or Tarkovsky, forging a dangerous reality from ordinary things, as in “ … she whispers her alibi / into his left ear and a swarm of flies emerges from the other.” [“A Poet Steals My Grandfather’s Skull”].
Nothing escapes Eleanor Hooker’s attention. Every scrap of observation is collated, along with the reading of its runes, and applied metaphorically as required. For example in “Ossuary”, in the delirium of the mother of a stillborn baby:
You feel the mare’s breath, warm in your hair,
the rough scold of her forehead nudging
your back, insisting you turn to greet her.
Reflected in her eyes is the limit
of your curved horizon. She lowers her head,
you stand forehead to forehead, neither moving.
This is not the collection’s only poem with an obstetric aspect, hardly unexpected when the author is a highly experienced midwife. This aspect combines with her gift for encasing the reader in the actuality of the moment, as in the impassioned empathy shared in “Delivery”, her account of a baby being born and immediately confiscated from its distraught mother. The searing heartbreak and repressed anger we feel is clearly coming from someone who knows, someone who has been in such rooms at such moments.
But Hooker’s work extends far beyond the delivery room, out into wild nature and beyond it the countryside’s ancient history. In “From My Hazel Wood” there is eloquent evidence that the shade of Yeats ‑ accompanied by elements of his ever-flickering mysteries ‑ is still to be seen in this poetry very much of Ireland today:
The blue above, dowsed in pure rimed air,
frosts my lungs. Buried deep beneath my feet are our restless
famine dead, and the courtly breeze that cuts through me,
is Lady Echtge of the Tuatha dé Danann,
for who these hills are named.
Hooker is a poet of considerable complexity. Sometimes the skeins of mood and metaphor refuse to unravel and we suspect we haven’t gone all the way to a poem’s innermost core. Yet we are satisfied nonetheless, exhilarated by the journey though unsure we have reached its destination. A poet’s function can be as much to evoke as to explain.
Then there is the lake, about which so much of the writer’s present life is centred, in her home place and in her role with the lifeboat service. In “An Optimist Tips and Turns”, Hooker is mindful of the threat that climate change poses for even such a mighty flow as the Shannon’s, bearing advance witness of when the river will have evaporated, with her future self faking the experience of the lost art of sailing for her grandchildren with the aid of old rails on the dry lake bed and a railway flat-car with a dinghy on it that can turn and spin like a boat in water when its sail is offered to the wind.
The two named poem sequences in the book are devoted to the present pandemic: “Traces” tells of the experiences and sufferings the plague has wrought, and “Legion” relates the activities the poet (in the symbolic persona of a honeybee) has busied herself with while the disease ran its course. Both manage to capture the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of strangeness, characteristics not at all unknown in Eleanor Hooker’s work.
There is also the tour de force (or perhaps tour de farce) of the highly amusing “My Mother as a Cryptic Crossword”, which uses crossword clues to stitch together an acrostic poem that provides a serious biography of the poet’s mother. The clue-composition is so clever that if the writer ever tires of her multiple callings (poet, lifeboat helm, midwife, et cetera) it is clear there will always be a welcome berth for her wherever crosswords at the highest level are composed. I must confess I was wishing we had got the printed crossword grid with the clues at the beginning of the book and the solution at the end.
Éamon Mag Uidhir currently edits the quarterly poetry narrowsheet FLARE and curates the literary live event noticeboard The Perp Walk on Facebook, along with its art event companion Art Me