Denise O’Hagan

All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer.’

-- Samuel Beckett

I never bent my head to tread the short
flight of stone steps down, carefully, or
noticed that they were damply uneven,

dipping in the middle. The silence and
cool never closed their clammy arms
around me, nor did my eyes adapt slowly

to take in the gloom. The single light-bulb,
wire-looped from the peeling ceiling, and
suspended in front of her raised portrait,

never swayed before me. Yet technology
proves an efficient conduit: I enlarge the photo
little by little, notice more. On the low-slung

vaulted ceiling, mould nests in the cracks;
behind the plaster, the dull gleam of ancient
limestone; variegated tiles line the floor,

cracked, crooked. This is no heritage-listed,
tourist-trodden city crypt, titillating visitors
with hidden tombs of unnamed saints; even the

altar chair had lost its seat. And yet, and yet—
reader, I could write this poem differently, seeing
this rank, dank place of poverty as begging the

biggest question of all, and furnishing an answer
in a different kind of language. I could see in the
punctilious cleanliness of the icon’s plastic casing,

not incongruity, but the distillation of infinity;
in the burning of the light-bulb, the stubborn
glow of that which defies description, and lies

beyond the daily realm of all we see and hear
and touch and taste, and symbolism’s poor
cousin, the known landscape of words.


Note: Based on a photograph taken by my father of a small crypt in a church in the south of Italy, c. 1980.

A crypt, from the Latin crypta (vault) is a stone chamber under the floor in a church which often contains coffins or other religious relics. It may also contain an altarino, or little altar.

First published in Anamnesis, D O’Hagan (Recent Work Press, 2022)


Denise O’Hagan is a Sydney-based editor and poet, born in Italy, and former poetry editor with The Blue Nib. Her poetry collection Anamnesis (Recent Work Press) was a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Award (USA) and the Eyelands Book Award (Greece) and shortlisted in the Rubery Book Award (UK).