The White Hydrangeas
by Lawrence O’Brien
64 poems, 110 pages
ISBN 13: 978 – 0615920603
Publisher: Aldrich Press, 2013
To order: Amazon.co.uk or Amazon
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past, a desire to return to an earlier time in life. This may take the form of a longing to go back to one's home, home town, or homeland or a reminiscence of childhood or younger years. In ‘The White Hydrangeas’ Lawrence O’Brien, a former teacher of English at Agawam High School in Agawam, Massachusetts, states that ‘nostalgia / is a chronic condition / if you happen to still live / as I do, in the town / where you grew up.’ There are reminders everywhere he goes of the past that lives within him.
Nostalgia motivates us to remember our past. Crucially, it helps to unite us to what has gone before, to remind us of who we have been and who we want to be in the future. It provides us with a sense of continuity and can give us a new perspective on life’s journey. Far from being seen as some kind of sickness or retreat from the business of living in the present moment, O’Brien’s brand of nostalgia is joyful and life-affirming. O’Brien is a story-teller, a poet of places, people and happenings that come alive on the page through his powers of memory and his detailed description of events.
The title poem stands alone and acts as a preface to the four untitled parts that make up this volume. Even here, there are hints of the sea and the closing years of a gilded era that pervade the rest of the collection. The second word of the poem, which is ‘notice’ underscores O’Brien’s own ability to observe things that others might not see and to turn it into something that becomes both memorable and lasting:
You notice them first while getting the mail,
in the airless heat of an August noon,
blooming from the parched yard of a neighbor.
Their name means vessels of water,
but, today, they seem more like sailing vessels,
their tiny spinnakers billowing,
tacking away from the currents of summer.
In the language of flowers, hydrangeas represent gratitude, grace and beauty. They also radiate abundance because of the lavish number of their flowers and their generous round shapes. Their colours symbolise love, harmony and peace. White hydrangeas are a symbol of purity, grace and abundance. Unlike pink and blue hydrangeas, most white varieties do not change colour in accordance with the pH of the soil. Like memories, they stay true to their colours.
The first section, which concentrates mainly on childhood and family memories, opens with an intriguing poem called ‘Walking Distance’ where O’Brien goes back in time and sees the old, vacant high school where his parents first met when, four years before he is born, he is just in time ‘to see them leaving school / on this cool, October afternoon, my mother / in her saddle shoes and Hollywood / lipstick, my father in his sweater vest / and baggy pants, walking hand in hand…’ The poem takes its title from episode five of the American TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ where Martin Sloan, a business executive, feeling the need to escape the pressures of his work, slips back thirty years into his own childhood.
Another poem from this section, ‘Rotogravure’ takes O’Brien back a couple of generations when he sees an elderly widow searching for her cash, card or coupons, in front of him in the queue in the express lane at the supermarket. He speculates on the ‘brown, tinged snapshot of a young recruit, / wearing a garrison cap / vintage World War Two,’ that is in her worn wallet and tantalises us in the process with so many questions that inevitably remain unanswered.
The second section of this collection explores the relationship between music and memory. At the time of writing this review, a song that reached number three in the UK Hit Parade in the 1980s is now at number one. Nearly forty years’ later, Kate Bush is still ‘Running Up That Hill’. Abba are also back (digitally speaking). It seems that whenever we go through periods of economic depression and hardship, nostalgia comes to the fore. It is a form of comfort that we take refuge in.
For O’Brien, the relationship between music and memory is powerful. It has the ability to bring back what psychologists call ‘implicit memories’, in other words, our unconscious and automatic memories, and it can trigger a deeply nostalgic emotional experience. ‘Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent’, a poem I particularly enjoyed from this section, begins like this with the first line running straight on from the title:
were not dry-cleaned like Ricky Nelson
and Pat Boone,. They were not teen idols
with swooning, blue eyes and feathery lashes.
Their voices lacked the soothing,
relaxed texture of cardigan sweaters,
the softness of white buck shoes…
Their black leather voices and hard guitars
in C’mon Everybody and Be-Bop-A-Lula
bullied us into temporary insurrection.
In these lines, O’Brien sets the scene in terms of their personality and image by mentioning their names, giving us some detail about their clothing and describing the sound that they produced. The generational change between the music of his parents’ era and that of his own is well-marked and documented to good effect. We are left in no doubt that music at that time was undergoing a sea-change.
Several poems in the third part of the collection explore the relationship between the cinema and memory. Specific actors and actresses are mentioned such as George Sanders, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. Film titles are also mentioned such as ‘Dead Reckoning’ and ‘Double Indemnity’. These appellations help to place the poems into their specific timeframes. They are one more example of O’Brien’s use of detail which helps to give an air of authenticity to everything that he writes about. He plays upon the powerful effect that films can have on us because of the combination of images, music, dialogue, lighting, sound and special effects. Like the films, O’Brien’s lines elicit deep feelings in us and help us to reflect on our own lives. In the opening stanzas of ‘Shadows’ he celebrates the American actress Lizabeth Scott, known for her husky voice and for being ‘the most beautiful face of film noir during the 1940s and 1950s:
Film Noir can still lure me down
its rain mirrored streets and roughed
up alleys, populated by trench coated
gunsels and hypnotic, femmes fatale,
like Lizabeth Scott, with her glossy,
erotic lips and smoldering voice,
wearing the jasmine perfume I could
almost smell in Dead Reckoning…
Other poems in this section celebrate the natural world. Here, too, O’Brien, by naming the places he is writing about, puts each poem into its specific context: a ‘summer on Nantucket’, ‘North Adams / in the farthest recess / of the Berkshire mountains’, a Hancock Shaker village, ‘Paradise Pond’ in Northampton, Massachusetts. He seems to be particularly attracted to lakes and other wide expanses of water. In ‘Swimming in Lakes’ he is ‘happy / and weightless in the heavy caress / of rhythms, currents and chilling / springs’.
The poems in the final section cover events that are beyond our control: terminal illness, tsunamis, tornadoes, maelstroms, miracles. There is a deepening sense of the spiritual, too. In O’Brien’s hands, these poems often take on a different ‘spin’ from the norm. This is what makes them poetic as opposed to what may be deemed as merely prosaic. In ‘By Any Other Name’ O’Brien takes his cue from Karl Shapiro’s line ‘and cancer, simple as a flower, blooms’ to write:
were tulips or roses,
daisies or marigolds,
would it make a difference
to be told, You have
an orchid blossoming
in your lung. I’m
sorry to say there are
in your throat, or
Your breast is full
Ultimately, this is a book of poems about family, intimacy, and loss. The past is brought back to life and seen through the lens of experience. O’Brien’s poems may be tinged with nostalgia but they are also framed in a contemporary context and often surprise us with their subtle choice of words.