By Josephine Carson
Diana O’Hehir is the author of five books of poetry. The most recent—Spells for Not Dying Again—was published in 1996 by Eastern Washington University Press. She is also author of two novels—I Wish This War Were Over and The Bride Who Ran Away, both published by Atheneum in the 1980s.
Her honors, which are legion, include a Guggenheim Award in fiction, an NEA fiction award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Di Castagnola Award for Home Free, her third collection of poetry.
Her PhD is from Johns Hopkins University, where she taught briefly in the 1940s. Much later, having moved to Berkeley, Diana established, in 1961, the first creative writing courses at Mills, where she taught for 32 years as head of the English department and the creative writing program, retiring in 1990, though continuing to teach part-time for two more years.
However, lists of these achievements, and there have been many others, don’t define the radical, exciting, and thoroughly American life of this essentially 20th century woman.
Living in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area during World War II, Diana slowly evolved the radical political consciousness that led her to work in the labor movement. The women friends she made who interested her most were all leftists, intellectually alive. She kept exciting company. It was in the CIO, (Congress of Industrial Organizations), that she met at last her fate—in the form of Melvin Fiske, who, following his return from duty with the Marines in the South Pacific in World War II, had begun writing for The Daily Worker. In 1947, they married and began a politically committed life together. This was during the McCarthy era in the United States, with its purges and trials, threats, and violence.
Diana became pregnant with her first child, Michael, during this period, never ceasing, nor did Mel, to work for the unions through the CIO. But within a few years the political tensions that led to the McCarthy inquisitions began and intensified. With the birth of their first child, these became intolerable. Ultimately, fearing they might be in danger of violence or arrest, or their child taken from them, Diana and Mel separated. Diana moved out of the Washington area, taking their son with her. Finally they were divorced. Mel Fiske always lamented his helplessness to protect them.
Later both of them remarried and left the East Coast. Diana settled with her new husband, Brendan O’Hehir, in Berkeley. Ultimately, Mel made Los Angeles his new home. Each of them had children in these new marriages. Although they shared custody of Michael, they saw one another only once over a 30-year period. Diana continued to write and publish her work in a variety of periodicals, and from 1976 through 1996, her five books of poetry were published.
Before the publication of her first book of poems, in 1962, Diana began her long tenure at Mills. For 32 years she lived in the Bay Area, raised her sons, and gave birth to an astonishing amount of work, ultimately, in the 1980s, writing her first novel—I Wish This War Were Over—which was published in 1984, and brought her great acclaim. This is a war novel, conjuring up much of what Diana had lived with Mel in Washington.
Mel read it. It moved and deeply impressed him. He had separated from his second wife not long before that. He was struck again with Diana’s originality and her poetic gifts. He wrote her a congratulatory letter that began a new correspondence between them. Diana had also separated from her spouse around that time, though never ceasing her creative work or her teaching.
Mel came to visit her. They knew what they knew within hours of his arrival. His presence at a faculty dinner on the Mills campus that first week was radiant with this helpless knowledge between them that their lives were inseparably linked. Diana defined it as idyllic, even too much so.
Mel moved to the Bay Area and soon they bought a house in Bolinas. Diana had begun her second novel, The Bride Who Ran Away. Its protagonist is a young American woman who escapes a romantic affair. Diana claims that though it doesn’t define their lives together or apart, still it might not have been written if they hadn’t found one another again.
Friends find themselves grinning with delight even now, at the thought and the sight of these two. Even more dramatic, perhaps, is the fact that much of Diana’s work published in the past decade has been dedicated to or in lament for Brendan O’Hehir, who died soon after their separation. To enter as a reader the complex labyrinth of her poetry, that of the ’90s especially, is to glimpse in wonder at the immense range and depth of her imaginative experience as well as the originality of chosen metaphor. This is especially impressive in Spells For Not Dying Again, the latest of her books of poetry. Inspired by a visit to the British Museum’s Egyptian printed material, and subsequently by reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead, she chose, intuitively, the voices of soul and body, living within death, over against it, lamenting, pleading, passing through, rising at last and anticipating the end with “Recovery Spells: The Ordinary Run of Things”
And finally ending with a “Dialogue Between Body and Soul”
These are only touches of this wonderful poetry, meant to entice. Find Diana in all her work and let her spells anoint you.
Josephine Carson has taught creative writing at Mills, Bennington College, and the University of California, Berkeley. Her writings include a recent collection of short stories, Dog Star (Santa Barbara Review Press), three novels, including Where You Goin, Girlie? (Dial Press), poetry, and nonfiction.
Poems in this article are reprinted from Spells For Not Dying Again, © 1997 by Eastern Washington University Press, 705 W. 1st Ave., Spokane, WA 99201. Phone: (800) 508-9095 Fax: (509) 623-4283. http://ewupress.ewu.edu.