Cork poet Leanne O’Sullivan has always had personal themes in her work. So it isn’t surprising that her husband’s recovery from a life-threatening coma has made its way into her latest collection, writes Colette Sheridan.
In 2013, poet and UCC lecturer in creative writing Leanne O’Sullivan had every reason to believe she had lost her husband, Andrew.
He was struck down with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain.)
“It was a cold sore virus that travelled into his brain,” says O’Sullivan.
“There is a two-in-a-million chance of that happening. Andrew was in a coma for three weeks at Cork University Hospital. The doctors weren’t sure he would survive.
"They said if he did live, the brain damage was likely to be catastrophic. He did wake up, but everything was kind of gone in the first couple of weeks.”
The title of the Beara Peninsula-reared poet’s newly published collection, A Quarter of an Hour , was prompted by the duration of Andrew’s short-term memory.
“It literally lasted for 15 minutes at one point. He said he felt something like a bad wave coming in over what
It took nearly a year for O’Sullivan to resume writing after her husband’s illness, which saw him hospitalised for three months, followed by two months in the National Rehabilitation Centre and subsequent care at home.
Andrew was out of work for two years from UCC’s School of English where he has resumed working, specialising in
Renaissance and medieval English.
“He has made an almost full recovery,” says O’Sullivan, praising the care he received in hospital and the encouragement he got from his colleagues at UCC.
O’Sullivan’s latest collection, like her previous three books, draws on her personal experience. “But this one happens to find its inspiration in my husband’s recovery.
I read poets like Matthew Sweeney and Billy Collins, and envy the quality of their imagination. I don’t have that. I look at my life and find myself distracted or obsessed by certain people or places or moments, and then I want to write them down.”
Despite the deeply personal nature of her writing, O’Sullivan believes that poetry isn’t memoir. “It isn’t fact or fiction. It’s a particular kind of grammar or way to explain particular human truths. We’ve all had people in our lives and experiences where we don’t know what has just happened but it has been incredibly profound.”
Surrounded by other anxious people in the hospital waiting room, O’Sullivan had to remind herself that her suffering and that of Andrew wasn’t particularly unique.
“There were so many families, wives, and mothers waiting for their loved ones to wake up in intensive care. My book is obviously personal but I didn’t want it to be just about our experience. I like to ask myself when I’m writing, what quality of imagination can I bring to bear on what has happened?”
O’Sullivan found herself looking at the state of planet Earth. While writing about the way that “fires burned in Andrew’s brain, I thought about the ways in which the planet is heating up and how we’re losing species and plants and animals that we’re never going to be able to remember and will never be able to put back together again.
So the first part of the book is about us and the other part is linking into how precious all of life is.”
In the slow process of coming back to himself, Andrew used to “see” animals which, O’Sullivan discovered, is not unusual.
While reciting some of the poems from her new book at readings over the last couple of years, she came across people who had family members that suffered strokes or some form of brain injury.
“They all said that these people saw animals while they were recovering. One day, we were chatting in the hospital ward. Everything seemed pretty normal. Andrew just started talking about these animals he said he was seeing, like foxes and cats. I said to him that if a doctor comes round to him, he was not to say anything about animals. I just wanted him home.
“But Andrew didn’t even know he was in hospital. Then the animals just stayed and hung around. I noticed he would talk about them when he was anxious or distressed. He said he was seeing them from the corner of his eye. I thought that if Andrew was in his own world, I would have to meet him halfway so I kind of let the animals stay. It took over a year for them to disappear.”
It was a while before Andrew recognised Leanne. He asked her if she was his mother and then if she was his sister — even though he doesn’t have a sister and his mother is deceased.
“I didn’t want to tell him who I was because I thought he’d be anxious if he realised he didn’t remember he got married. One day, he said to me: ‘I’m very sorry. I don’t know who you are but the feeling is very strong.’ It was moments like this one when you think that memory lives through the body. There is more than just the up-and-at-it functioning, consuming world.”
O’Sullivan says that writing about Andrew’s illness and recovery is an expression of what she loves to do. “It’s putting language around something that seemed to be inarticulate in the first place.”
Looking at how women poets in general are regarded, in light of the recent publication of The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, edited by Gerald Dawe, O’Sullivan was disappointing that so many women writers were excluded from that edition. Out of 30 essays, each devoted to one poet, only four women poets are written about.
“It’s an ongoing problem. There also has to come a time when more women are invited to curate these major anthologies — not to produce a female-orientated book, but to provide a fresh and balanced perspective, eyes wide open and holding a space.”
Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection will be launched at Nano Nagle Place on February 13 as part of the Cork International Poetry Festival. www.corkpoetryfest.net.