Sean O’Brien
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In November (2011), his seventh book of poems, Sean O’Brien translated Rimbaud’s ‘Le bateau ivre’. It is a revealing, indicative exercise. His translation follows (loosely) the original rhyme scheme: ‘bores’/’belvederes’; ‘crepuscule’ / ‘real’. Inevitably, the rhyme scheme, as usual, enforces little shifts and liberties. Sometimes, though, the alterations arrive for no particular reason: for example, Rimbaud’s neutral ‘Porteur de blés flamands ou de cottons anglais’ becomes ‘Weighed down with Flanders wheat and English cotton’. That added heaviness is thoughtful, even imaginative, but it creates a problem nine lines later, when the boat is ‘lighter than a cork’ (‘Plus léger qu’un bouchon’). But O’Brien is generally hospitable to the problematic, the little clog, that will detain the reader behind his lines. The lines are the hard lines of my title, picket lines – deliberately difficult to cross.

For example, in ‘Wedding Breakfast’ (The Beautiful Librarians, 2015) a concierge sits ‘in the stench of her simmering bones’ and it is not immediately obvious that this refers not to her physical presence but to the smell of her cooking as she makes a stock. ‘Immortals’ (TBL) gives us a rancid take on privilege as exemplified by a Lodge near Aviemore:

Beneath the photographs of OTCs [Officer Training Corps]
And smoke-shadowed portraits of womenfolk,
Shrivelled and crazed since they joined the firm

Perhaps ‘Shrivelled’ could legitimately refer to the portraits, but ‘crazed’, unless it means a network of cracks, can only apply to the women themselves, you would think. The next line, therefore, is problematic: ‘All they have left are the hooks on their backs.’ Syntactically, it qualifies the women. The resolution, therefore, when it comes, isn’t quite a resolution: primarily O’Brien means the picture hooks on the back of the portraits. But think: the picture hooks must be in the wall behind the portraits. Or, more likely, up on the picture rail. And even if we grant some latitude – grant the portraits those hooks – what does it mean to say that that is ‘all they have left’? What else have they lost? Everything, presumably, except their pictorial representation. I think here and in ‘Wedding Breakfast’ O’Brien wants both – the surreal and the real – and that this ambiguous shimmer, this candid slippage, this instability is what constitutes poetry for him.

‘Immortals’ compares snow to the ‘American gray’ of ‘inbred Appalachian riflemen’. Why ‘inbred’? The Scottish Lodge preserves the memory of an exclusive society, a society of privilege, analogous (we are implicitly asked to believe) to the Southern states of America, which wanted to secede from the Union and embrace slavery. It is a poem about status, about feeling excluded, about feeling angry and vengeful – not untypically for O’Brien. (In ‘Another Country’, TBL, O’Brien ends with a threat: ‘Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War, / That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.’ The authentic voice of imminent reprisals.)

What is the status of O’Brien’s metaphor? That comparison of Highland snow to the ‘gray’ uniform of the confederate soldiers, lying where they fell? It isn’t exact. It is forced. It is tendentious – more of a moral comparison than the visual comparison it obscurely gestures towards. O’Brien needs it to indict a society nearer to hand. And its function, as a controlling thematic metaphor, is imposed but undisclosed. At the literal level it barely works.

To return to ‘Le bateau ivre’, Rimbaud’s poem ends with an image of great lyrical beauty. Having adventured, having voyaged, having deranged ‘tous les sens’, Rimbaud experiences an acute nostalgia for lost innocence, for childhood. The poem is saved from sentimentality by the evoked twilight chill:

Si je désire une eau d’Europe, c’est la flache
Noir et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.

‘Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai’ is an incomparable final image, perfect with risk, hedged about with qualifying cold, the black puddle, the ache of sadness in the squatting child – and it is nowhere to be found in O’Brien’s version:

If I long for European waters, it is for that pool,
Pitch-black and freezing, where at scented twilight
A child will come and crouch, brimful
With sorrows, and send out his fragile boat.

O’Brien obviously intends the future tense and the rejection of Rimbaud’s nostalgia. But the image of the butterfly has gone and it is a disaster. Part of the reason it has gone is that O’Brien has no gift for imagery. Rather a modest, intermittent, clumsy competence. Remember that confederate snow? Snow like an inbred Appalachian soldier, to be imprecise?

A small anthology of O’Brien images. ‘When met with the fact of his rage like a bucket of lava’ (‘A Coffin-Boat’ in The Drowned Book 2007). Wordy and again imprecise. What is ‘bucket’ doing here? ‘In New Holland harbour the jellyfish / Hang in the murk at the jetty / Like plastic rain-hoods – / A race of drowned aunties / Come back to chastise us / For something we don’t know we’ve done yet.’ The initial comparison between two transparencies with tendrils is OK – though the panna cotta shudder of the jellyfish sits uneasily with the pleated flimsiness of the pack-a-mac hood – but it is the extrapolation into the aunties that is fatally garrulous. ‘A Little Place They Know’ offers us the sea ‘In its washed-out blue engineer’s jacket’ – an image explaining itself nervously. You can hear the conjuror’s patter as the poet forces the pre-determined card on his reader.

O’Brien’s chosen poetic milieu is the anti-world of sticky pubs (‘the velcro’d floor’ in ‘Old Lads at the Ramshill Hotel’ TBL). He evokes a deprived existence at the geographical margins – of sidings, of edgelands, thick with dock leaves and Himalayan balsam, tow-paths, linked fencing, damp tunnels, canals. There are a lot of canals in O’Brien: ‘as thick as glue’ (‘Bruges-la-Morte’, November), ‘Marmite pools’ (‘Railway Lands’, N), ‘The water, if you glimpsed it, looked as thick /As jelly from a tin of Sunday ham’ (‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, The Drowned Book 2007) The best of these comparisons – the jelly around tinned ham – is a little padded (‘if you glimpsed it’) and goes on to squander its charge with further, unnecessary qualification:

A brick would shake it slowly
While the shawl of sputum-algae
Gathered up its threads again
And went on rotting from within.

Nothing is gained by the exaggeration – brick-resistant water – or the further comparison with phlegm. Or by the metaphor of the green shawl surface re-constituting itself after the difficult passage of the brick. The writing is all fuss, a flurry of second thoughts and third thoughts.

This elaboration is of a piece with O’Brien’s inability to resist literary references, as if to demonstrate his reading. The intention is playful, but it comes across as ponderous: ‘Flute-playing psychopaths all must / Like cats and poets come to dust’ (‘Leavetaking’, N). Compare Auden’s ‘Who’s Who’ with O’Brien’s ‘Jeudi Prochain’ (N). Auden: ‘answered some / Of his long marvelous letters but kept none.’ O’Brien: ‘The Muse, your ex, Miss Jeudi Prochain, / Keeps all your pleading letters but reads none.’ O’Brien’s ‘Serious Chairs’: ‘Always there is someone missing.’ Berryman’s Dream Song, ‘There sat down once a thing on Henry’s heart’: ‘Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. /Nobody is ever missing.’ O’Brien’s ‘Lock-In’ (TBL): ‘When she let fall her pleasant guise, her thin array.’ Wyatt here, of course, but the end of the poem works a workmanlike variant on Baudelaire’s ‘Hypocrite lecteur!’: ‘Hypocrite buveurs!’ ‘Old Lads at the Ramshill Hotel’ dutifully name-checks Barkis from David Copperfield: ‘more willing than Barkis.’ In ‘Cahiers du Cinema’ (N) and ‘Thirteen O’Clocks’ (TBL) Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’ twice makes itself heard: ‘Farewell, supreme foyer where it was always afternoon’; ‘Therefore they concentrate on sex, / Where it is always afternoon’. Tennyson: ‘In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon.’ In ‘The Beautiful Librarians’ we have Keats’s ‘realms of gold’. In ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, Shelley’s Ozymandias makes his presence felt: ‘his voice of cold command.’ After a bit, it feels a bit reflex, a tic, OCD.

Cognate with these allusions, echoes, variants is the facetious wordplay: ‘imbibing the milk of amnesia’ (‘A Coffin-Boat’, TDB); ‘It is magnificent / But is it literature’ (‘Wedding Breakfast’). Or the variant on the second number in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!: ‘the surrey [a four-wheeled carriage] with the fringe on top’ becomes an institutional meal: ‘If the slurry served at dinner seems to have a fringe on top’ (‘Residential Brownjohnesque’, TBL). Cue for indulgent groans at the candid contrivance.

O’Brien isn’t an easy poet to read. But his political views are never in doubt. This poetry votes labour, it is the work of a class-war warrior. (See ‘Sunk Island’ in November for a chilly class confrontation and cold hatred.) The poetry stands uncompromisingly with Arthur Scargill, pugnacious and quick to take offence. Very occasionally there are complications of sympathy. For instance, the title poem, ‘The Beautiful Librarians’ is a nostalgic period piece, looking back to a time before public libraries were threatened with closure:

Book after book I kept my word
Elsewhere, long after they were gone
And all the brilliant stock was sold.

No surprises in this finale. O’Brien has kept the faith. What makes the poem more interesting than his earlier attack on Michael Gove (‘Pedagogy’: 2 The Seer’) is O’Brien’s accurate sense of the librarians’ quiddity (‘With cardigans across their shoulders’, they smoke in the staffroom) and their different politics:

‘I still see the blue Minis they would drive
Back to their flats around the park,
To Blossom Dearie and red wine
Left over from a party I would never

Be a member of.’

It is a significant qualification of his idealised regard. (His sexual interest in them is presented, pusillanimously, as ‘adoration’. They are ‘ice-queens’ made safe, rendered anodyne and acceptable. ‘Never to even brush in passing.’) He can see their politics are conservative. The worry here is the iambic sixteener stretched across the stanza break like an artist who’s run out of paper and gone over the edge. It sounds inept, scuola di Thribb. ‘Left over from a party I would never / Be a member of.’ Whoops. Ran out of line. Sorry about that. O’Brien can be a very very clumsy poet.

‘The Lost of England’ is an ambitious long poem, which effectively closes The Beautiful Librarians, though it is followed by two short poems. In 2006, Sean O’Brien published his translation of Dante’s Inferno. ‘The Lost of England’ is a visionary poem in intention, rather like the terza rima, the Dantean pastiche of Heaney’s ‘Station Island’ sequence. O’Brien’s work on The Inferno has left a mark, created a template. The title, of course, nods to Ford Madox Brown’s great painting of immigrants on their way to Australia, The Last of England. O’Brien’s vision describes an inner diaspora. He is travelling by train across England, a route we all know is against the grain, counter to speed and efficiency. He is grading papers. He falls asleep and encounters his double – who encounters lost England, the edgelands, the provincial, the obscure, the unregarded, ‘the lost of England’:

Then rather witness while you can this small infinity –
Its signal boxes, sidings deep in dock and campion,
Brick station houses shuttered in the pressing heat…

It is a literary experience: you can hear Tennyson’s ‘Close-latticed to the brooding heat’ from ‘Mariana in the South’. It is a mystical experience: ‘you hear unseasonable fireworks’, unseasonable because it isn’t November but ‘rainy summer heat’. You watch evening come ‘along a street that you have glimpsed and lost’. A moment, then, of nympholepsy. What is expressed finally is love for the unregarded people of England. This is O’Brien’s double speaking: ‘”you come to witness / What they love and are, and reach for what cannot be touched / Or owned, and learn to love the lost of England”.’ A mystical experience, then, but portentous and sentimental compared to the economy and detail of Larkin’s ‘Show Saturday’ – an eloquent, surprising poem of national celebration, of Englishness, of sudden uplift and transfigured ordinariness. ‘The Lost of England’ is curiously bled of the particulars it instructs us to treasure. The people commended to us are ‘running / In back lanes’, riding bikes and looking at the night sky. Spectacular non-events, assertively drab, whereas Larkin sets before us ‘mug-faced, middle-aged wives glaring at jellies’. O’Brien wouldn’t risk humour in this context. It would be politically incorrect. Here the people are anonymous – which is O’Brien’s intention, his political shtick – but anonymous nevertheless, an idea, a concept you can’t put a face to. The poem is a declaration of class solidarity.

You were wondering, of course you were, about those exam papers on ‘the boundary between 2.1 and First’. The class system in little. The poem belongs in a cosy, self-congratulatory moral locus: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Arthur Miller’s insistence in Death of a Salesman that ‘attention must be paid’, Chaplin’s indestructible tramp. In the end, ‘The Lost of England’ is more of a political tract, more rhetoric than a poem. It strikes an attitude, without realising a single telling detail or convincing circumstance. With one exception – the horses tied to railway sleepers – a specific touch that only highlights the ambient poverty elsewhere.

O’Brien is attracted to doubles. In his ‘Elegy’ (N) to his teacher mother, he imagines another life for her and encounters her quasi-double on a bus to Hammersmith. The argument of the poem is that his mother’s hopes for a different, more cultured, more leisurely life in the South, with a view of the Thames from Hammersmith, came to nothing. She taught [in Hull] and never wrote the book she felt she had in her. Instead, her poet son has fulfilled this promise. The elegy celebrates her toughness and her unsentimental resignation, her lack of self-pity: ‘Get on with it, I hear you say. We’ve got no choice.’ Her imperatives are reported in italics: ‘To make the best of things. Not to give up.’ The poem ends with this injunction: ‘We haven’t come this far to give up now.’ Part of the problem seems to have been O’Brien père who was evidently subject to fits of mad delusion. But this isn’t set before us with any clarity: ‘The violence and sorrow of the facts / As my mad father sometimes dreamed they were.’ Oblique light is possibly shed by lines describing his mother as ‘the counselor of others when / Their husbands died or beat them.’

Again, the problem with the poem is the lack of specifics. O’Brien’s mother is a noble blur, indomitable but indistinct. She reads detective and crime novels. (Gollanz and green-backed Penguins: more individualised than his mother.) She ‘taught the children of the poor for forty years / Because it was the decent thing to do.’ (Only the poor? Does O’Brien mean she taught in the state system rather than the private sector? Are there schools where the comfortably off are refused admission?) At the end of her life, she suffers dementia: ‘Here in your flat your boxed-up books and ornaments / Forget themselves, as you did in the end.’ Has Alzheimer’s ever been conjured up so decorously?

The nearest approach to truth is inadvertent, in O’Brien’s account of the distance between him and his mother. He knows nothing about her, or nothing he is prepared to disclose: ‘your life was yours, / Mysterious and prized, a yard, a universe away.’ Actually, it is not uncommon for children to be at a significant existential distance from their parents – to be close without intimacy. The asymmetry of love between parent and child is a fact of most people’s lives. Generally, we love our children more than they love us. Nothing remarkable about that, but it explains the infallible piercing power of King David’s cry, Absalom, O my son, Absalom. Quite how the balance sits between O’Brien and his mother isn’t up for discussion in this dutiful poem. O’Brien’s mother is an exemplary figure here and his portrait of her is damaged by its discretion. The only real thing in this respectable honorific is the way she bookmarks her place with her folded spectacles:

Just round a corner of the afternoon,
Your novel there beside you on the bed,
Your spectacles to mark your place, the sea
Just so before the tide falls back,
Your face will still be stern with sleep

As though the sea itself must satisfy
A final test before the long detention ends
And you can let the backwash take you out.

This is how the poem opens, typically for O’Brien, with those four-square iambics and fugitive sense. There are two metaphors toiling together here. Her tide is at the full but is about to ebb. Because she is a teacher, her illness is a form of detention for the sea, for the sea of her self. The slippage and muddle, the oneiric syntax, are hallmarks of the O’Brien style, which is itself a form of detention. ‘Just so’: normally this means something like ‘neat and tidy’. Here it means ‘exactly like’. The glitch is welcomed by O’Brien. But it’s a mistake to confuse confusion with profundity, as I believe O’Brien too often does.

A fellow poet once described J H Prynne to me as ‘the Jeremy Corbyn of English poetry’ – meaning, I think, an ineradicable strain of high-minded, unpopular extremism. Prynne has a set of dedicated, doctrinaire disciples, entryists with an agenda, emmets tirelessly, self-sacrificingly advancing the cause. I sometimes think of them as suicide bombers. At Cambridge, many post-graduates, their judgment already subdued by the Practical Criticism paper, are encouraged by the faculty to work on Prynne. In this year’s TLS Books of the Year, there was the baffling spectacle of John Kerrigan, a Cambridge don with Early Modern interests, praising Prynne’s poetry as ‘refractory and astonishingly lucid’. (A suitably deconstructed rave. The lucid bits are the thes and the ands.) As a tactic it is not unlike Peter McDonald, the Christ Church don, lauding Geoffrey Hill’s lucidity. In both cases, the lucidity is about as visible as Lord Lucan. Prynne, Hill, O’Brien: three prized poets with imperfect ears at the service of impenetrable poetry.







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