Nessa O’Mahony on the inspiration for her latest collection of poems.
Another year, another waiting room. This time in St. Vincent’s Hospital, with about seven other nervous-looking woman, lined up against the wall and wondering what the next few hours might bring. We’d all been warned that it was a long process, that biopsies might be required and that there was no way to speed things up. Most of us, already familiar with the slow-crawl of hospital appointment-time, sighed and dived into our books, our magazines, our phones: whatever it took to distract us from the anxiety of what might be.
I thought about the last time I’d sat in a waiting room, in the private consulting rooms of a Mater Hospital oncologist two years ago, waiting to hear if the latest test results were favourable or not. I’d spent the previous Spring and summer undergoing a spate of tests and procedures and had sat in various waiting rooms in various states of acute anxiety. Surgery had been suggested, the sort that separates the women from the girls in a fairly definitive way. I wasn’t ready for that.
And, as always when existential crises beckoned, I’d turned to poetry to sort out my confusions and night-terrors. I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing, at first. I became obsessed with certain shapes; a daily walk through our local park would see me stopping and staring at chopped-down trees where a sawed-off branch might reveal an ovoid scar. A beach walk took double the time because I kept pausing to pick up stones that were egg-shaped or oblong. I began to keep lists of words that revolved around sculpting or hollowing out. Those words found their way into poems, as did the image of a Hollow Woman, a woman attempting to continue with life whilst more and more of her was being removed.
The Hollow Woman on the Island
The hollow woman sits in her car
watching the sea lick its lips
at the edge of the pier.
till the sides of the car disappear
and the windscreen dissolves
into waves and grey crests
drawing her into depths
she has dreamed of nightly.
She does not float ,
(despite the vacuum inside her)
Edges rounded off
by the water’s oscillation
till she’s smooth, buffed
into ovoid shape,
tide-tossed onto damp sand
to be plucked up,
pocketed, placed with care
on a mantlepiece, a grave-top.
The Hollow Woman stood in for me, as so many of my persona in poetry do, and allowed me to explore my darkest imaginings, my deepest fears. If in real life I didn’t dare articulate them, my poetic persona could do so, speaking out for all my fearfulness, my anger, my sense of powerlessness in the face of a medical system that seemed somewhat cavalier about its proposed treatment regime.
That’s how poetry works for me. It is a completely immersive life experience that sometimes I literally explore, at other times more associatively, in my poems.
Many of the pieces included in my new collection, The Hollow Woman on the Island (Salmon Poetry 2019), connect in some way with the over-arching theme. When I began work in putting the collection together, I’d thought that given it was 20 years since the first book had been published, it might be time to put a New and Selected together, formed from the first four books of poetry. But as I worked through the poems, I realised that my feverish writing over the past few years had produced more than enough for a stand alone collection, so that’s what I put together.
And in the end, it all turned out alright. The last meeting with my oncologist was brief; the tests were all clear, there was no need to see me again. I skipped out of that waiting room as fast as my legs could carry me. And the most recent set of tests at St. Vincent’s were equally positive. The Hollow Woman, it would seem, will fight to live another day.
The Hollow Woman Waits
The soon to be hollow woman waits
in a room with four doors, all closed,
whose opening stops the heart, restarts
It is the day for a-words;
soon she will grapple a new one –
tossed by the man with the screen
turned towards him, eyes turned out
at her like lasers he won’t be using
if it comes to the cut.
She still prays it won’t
but now her body is against her,
learning the script of what she’s read
on websites, with illustrations –
Each twinge another knot
in the noose she’s weaving herself.
She looks at the pile of glossies
from two years ago and picks one up;
old news is better
than new news
when you have to wait
in a room with four doors,
none of them open, yet.
One word, three syllables:
It is pronounced cautiously
by the white-coat uncertain
if the patient response
will be a stereotype
– gasp, sob, stagger.
though that life-line
seems suddenly shorter
than it did 30 minutes ago.
He mentions further consults.
She nods and tries to banish the thought
of balding men swapping slides
over glasses of port,
white coats well-laundered
of blood spots.
Once home, bravado returned,
the urge to google is ignored
till the eleventh hour has struck.
(c) Nessa O’Mahony
About The Hollow Woman on the Island:
Nessa O’Mahony’s fifth volume of poetry explores many of her signature themes developed over a 20-year period. She writes with renewed urgency about life and love, continues her preoccupation with history (the hidden and overt), questions cultural identity and demonstrates her keen affinity with nature and landscape as well as exploring the liminal areas between loss and gain. At the heart of this new collection is a central sequence, the Hollow Woman poems, that explore O’Mahony’s recent scrape with ovarian cancer, an experience that provoked profound questions about the essence of womanhood and female identity when faced with existential threat. But more than this is O’Mahony’s enduring exploration of the human condition in a poetic voice that is quiet, subtle and occasionally devastating.
Order your copy online here.