By Jane Downs, MA ’96
There is a saying that one retires from a profession, but never from an art. Diana O’Hehir, who died in 2021 at age 99, embodied the phrase.
In 1992, after 32 years, she retired from Mills, where she founded the Creative Writing Department and taught literature. In 2012, the year she turned 90, she published Walk Me To Schenectady, her seventh book of poetry. Diana wrote five novels and published her work in numerous literary journals, including FIELD, The Paris Review, Poetry, and Shenandoah. She was the recipient of awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Devins Award for Poetry, the Helen Bullis Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. Her novel I Wish This War Were Over was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize, and her book Spells for Not Dying Again received a Northern California Book Award for poetry in 1997.
I first encountered her in 1992 in an English class where she’d been invited by our instructor to read several poems. Diana had the look of the quintessential English professor—tall, thin, white-haired, dignified. I was struck by the beauty and power of her poetry and the delight she took in reading her work. Beneath her intelligence, there was a puckish quality, a sparkle.
The next semester, I met Diana as her student in a James Joyce seminar where I learned what an exceptional teacher she was. She led 12 of us through Joyce’s work, including the formidable Ulysses, and she was the ultimate professional while making her students feel that she truly cared about what they wrote and what they said. We loved her. When she handed back my final paper, she said, “I am sure we will meet again.” Although I assumed this was a common expression of hers, I took it to heart, expecting that our paths would cross.
And they did: I began writing poetry. We had writer friends in common. I studied poetry with Diana in independent workshops where her encouragement drew out more from her students than anyone else. She taught me to really listen to the poems that each student read aloud. The way she responded to the work of others taught me to see new things in my own writing. When I left each session, I was excited, ready to write another poem to bring the following week.
But the way I grew to know Diana best was through reading her poetry, where she transformed her life, tragedy, and loss into art. In the title poem “Home Free,” she turned her father’s death into an act of freedom when she describes a bird being released from its cage.
In “Climbing,” the first poem in Spells for Not Dying Again, The Soul climbs a ladder to The Sky Goddess as a man on an airplane “remembers his first car.” The ineffable coexists alongside the knowable concrete world.
Walk Me To Schenectady is about the loss of her husband, Mel Fiske. Diana and Mel were married twice, with 30 years of separation between their two unions. The cover photograph shows a young couple on their wedding day. They are framed in bright yellow—not the color of mourning, but of life. In the poem “Darling,” she writes incorrectly that she
Diana was the real thing. An artist whose teaching and poetry touched and inspired us to keep searching for just the right words. She is dearly missed.
Exactly 20 years ago, former Mills professor Josephine Carson wrote an appreciation of Diana O’Hehir’s work in the fall 2002 Quarterly. Read that piece at quarterly.mills.edu.
Jane Downs, MA ’96, earned her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University before coming to Mills to study the liberal arts. She is the author of poetry and fiction that has appeared in publications such as Borderlands, Field, and the Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine. Her novella The Sleeping Wall was a finalist in the 2010 Chiasmus Press book contest. With book artist Marie Dern, she cofounded the independent press Red Berry Editions, which closed in 2017. She lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.