Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry collection A Quarter of an Hour uses imagery of animals and the natural world to create a bridge between illness and health, showing how understanding and acceptance can be as indispensable in recovery as any other part of treatment, says Alba de Juan.
When I was a fox
I could see the fires
spreading across the valley
and I set out to find him.
With these verses, Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan (2018a, 9) opens her collection A Quarter of an Hour, inspired by the journey from illness to recovery experienced by her husband, Andrew, and her accompanying role through the challenging process of regaining health. A Quarter of an Hour becomes a cartographic asset, guiding the reader from the early stages of Andrew’s encephalitis diagnosis, through the coma he fell into and the slow but steady steps he and O’Sullivan took together towards recovery. The collection offers a unique, insightful, and soul-stirring vision of how it is to experience illness through the eyes of a loved one and the expansive emotional outreach of sickness. O’Sullivan does not only accomplish the arduous task of reflecting the struggle of indirectly encountering illness but also points out the key role that empathy, understanding and individual care play in the healing process.
The fox and the woman: shapeshifting in the realm of illness
The first verses of O’Sullivan’s collection open the door to an entirely different plane. Loaded with symbolism reflecting some of the symptoms her husband experienced — high fever and animal visions— the beginning of A Quarter of an Hour is both extremely specific and widely universal. O’Sullivan, inspired by the hallucinations her husband had after he woke up from the coma caused by his encephalitis, resorts to the primordial language of nature and animal imagery to transport the reader into Andrew’s experience. These first verses denote a sense of purpose and mission, a temporary state she embraces and actively seeks when she realises illness has created a barrier between her and her husband that she can only overcome by looking beyond it, symbolically and literally. By becoming the figure of the fox and diving into the realm her husband’s visions have constructed she creates a link, a rope of words that eventually brings him back to her.
Illness shakes the core of language. There is an inherent difficulty in defining pain and shaping it into comprehensible words and sentences, as ache blurs everything around it, limiting the ill person’s vision to the narrow focus created by those dire bodily sensations. For this reason, it is not surprising that O’Sullivan embraces the figure of the fox together with the companionship of other animals to navigate the illness plane: the animals’ lack of language as we traditionally envision it allows her to overpower those limitations and reach a deeper level of understanding of her husband’s illness.
In “His Vision”, O’Sullivan (2018a, 30) encapsulates the primordial role these animals play during her husband’s recovery. She narrates how he talks “about his journey / about the wild animals he saw / and the birds of time […] he said their voices / wakened back to him a certain knowledge / what he should become and how to return / a way he could not really touch with words”, referring to the hallucinations her husband had of animals in moments of stress and severe pain. This links closely not only to the impossibility of language to convey the depths and complexities of pain but also to the way O’Sullivan visions her role as a companion through the recovery process.
“Some other kind of intelligence… was… at work in his body”
In an interview granted to the University of Oviedo carried out by Dr González-Arias, O’Sullivan (2018b) states that she “[…] decided to meet him [her husband] somewhere in the middle”. After the brain damage caused by her partner’s high fever and his consequent memory loss, O’Sullivan actively decided to reshape the role of the caretaker. Rather than discouraging visions caused by his temperature, she realised the soothing effect they had on him and how they “wakened back to him a certain knowledge” (O’Sullivan 2018a, 30). In the interview, O’Sullivan (2018b) points out how she realised that those “animals were important, they were almost totemic […] they were grounding him in some way [and] they were absolutely real to him” and how harmful it would have been to his recovery process to envision those animals as mere hallucinations rather than “some other kind of intelligence that was […] at work in his body”. Thus, by becoming the figure of the fox, she enters and dives into this realm, emphasising the importance of empathy and understanding, a role the caretaker must accept so as not to hinder the recovery process. It is by becoming one with the environment and the universe created by her husband’s visions that she reaches him, ‘bringing him back’ to health and recovery as a result.
The figure of the fox, then, becomes a linking element between health and sickness, real and imaginary, and ill-person and companion. In the poem ‘Fox’ (O’Sullivan 2018a, 41), which could be interpreted as being written from Andrew’s point of view, the fox becomes a messenger between the realms of health and ailment. Lines such as “Is the fox you see on your evening walk […] the same who sits beside me in the garden when I cannot sleep” and “What I want to say is that the fox is here […] Then not a fox, but a woman where she once / had been, sitting beside me on the grass / speaking gently and with a woman’s voice” convey the circularity and connection of the figure of the fox as a recurrent element in Andrew’s recovery. Even if unaware at the early stages of his healing of the key role the poet is taking throughout this process, the figure of the fox is ever-present and comforting for him. The animal soothes him and offers comfort during sleepless nights and, as his health improves, the animal figure begins to dissolve back into one of a woman who offers that same sense of solace even if he cannot truly grasp why yet.
Illness as a language: the importance of empathy and understanding
He thought tree was wife,
returning to the field […]
and for weeks now field
was not the same as home […]
it was not the tree
he missed, but the sound
for tree and the fox,
illuminated, as it slipped past.
These verses from “When Words” (O’Sullivan 2018a, 37) enclose the connections built between the lyric I and the ill person’s universe throughout the recovery process. O’Sullivan encapsulates the way encephalitis dilutes her husband’s memories by blending his hallucinations with the reality of his past life. However, it is in the importance O’Sullivan gives to those underlying feelings of safety she provides to him (symbolised in the figure of the fox) where the strength of the poem lies. As a caretaker, O’Sullivan creates a bridge between her husband’s illness and health. When she questions: “When does pond become sky? / […] brain where everything / crawls into detail, / bare and particular / and known completely” she links her husband’s brain processes to his new construction of reality and closely intertwines it with the key role of language throughout this stage. The poem shows a deep understanding, acceptance and empathy towards that new world and language created by her partner; a world she wants to inhabit rather than dismantle and that will, eventually, help him find his way back as shown in the last verses of the poem “Re-member like that. / It’s never as lost as you think”.
A Quarter of an Hour denotes the importance of empathy and compassion when accompanying someone towards recovery. The poems included in this collection, arranged to emulate a journey through an entirely different realm, point out the importance of understanding that illness – physical or psychological – is unique for each individual: not diminishing the way someone experiences it can have a key role in their recovery. O’Sullivan’s collection shows something beyond traditional care and companionship; it creates a bridge between illness and health, between two realities equally valid and important, by showing how sometimes understanding and acceptance can be as indispensable in recovery as any other part of the treatment. The collection does not abate the arduous and overwhelming emotions caused by seeing a loved one suffer. The reality behind the fear of losing someone is not hidden but reshaped into the universal images of nature and animals; two poetic resources so universally known and understood that they make the journey she describes universal and crystalline, offering shelter to anyone undergoing similar recovery processes, either as companions or as a patient, the same way she offered that safety to her husband.
About the author
Alba de Juan is a first year PhD student at the University of Oviedo. She is currently working on how transgenerational trauma is depicted in contemporary Irish poetry written by women. Her fields of interest are contemporary poetry, psychology, queer literature and Medical and Environmental Humanities. She is on Twitter @redbreezes.
O’Sullivan, Leanne. 2018a. A Quarter of an Hour. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.
O’Sullivan, Leanne. 2018b. “In Conversation with Leanne O’Sullivan.” Interview by Luz Mar González-Arias. Health, Environment, Arts and Literature, University of Oviedo, November 29, 2018. Audio. https://www.unioviedo.es/heal/in-conversation-with/.