A change of pace for me, with – of all things! – a book of poetry. I was going to say modern poetry, but that has fogeyish hints of modern art, doesn’t it, with an implication of chastisement for anyone daring to try to drive cultural achievement onward when everybody knows that nobody alive can write/paint/video-install as well as anyone dead. Anyway, my extremely limited experience of m…- contemporary poetry tends toward the down-to-earth, the accessible, partly for want of schooling in the damn art, and partly for a woeful lack of ambition. This means I do have experience of Sean O’Brien, mainly through his earlier collection Ghost Train, which ranged from subversive homage to MacNeice’s Autumn Journal in ‘Somebody Else,’ (“You live here on the city’s edge / Among back lanes and stable blocks / From which you glimpse the allegations / Of the gardening bourgeoisie that all is well”) to a sensitive, sharp portrayal of football (a subject in which I thought I had no interest) in ‘Autumn Begins at St James’s Park, Newcastle.’
Ghost Train won the Forward Poetry Prize in 1995 when it was published; his next collection, Downriver (2001) repeated the feat; and in a hat-trick the “Toon Army tsunami” would be proud of, his latest The Drowned Book (2007) took both the Forward Prize and, this week, the T.S. Eliot prize. Pretty soon, when the presses crank up for a new O’Brien collection, all the other poets in the land will keep their powder dry till next year.
The T.S. Eliot prize panel called The Drowned Book “fierce, funny and deeply melancholy,” and the Forward judges described it as “a sustained elegy for lost friends, landscapes and a decaying culture.” Well, one of the people featured I am pretty sure O’Brien would not consider a lost friend. In ‘Valedictory’, words like Orgreave and Belgrano might just ring a few bells; or if not, how about this?
Branch libraries and playing fields
Deliver rather lower yields
Than asset-stripping mountebanks
Can rake in flogging dope and tanks:
Strange: no one nowadays admits
To voting in the gang of shits
Who staffed her army of the night:
Our history, it seems, is quite
And if digs at Margaret Thatcher seem twenty years late (and toward the end of the book, there’s a doubly painful account of Dupuytren’s contracture, the hand condition which O’Brien seems to share with Baroness T), the ‘fierce and witty’ destructive elements are balanced by a melancholy but defiant urge: as the legacy of the 1980s lives on, O’Brien ends the poem by declaring that “The task is always to rebuild / Our city.”
So this is political poetry, and the essences of what the country has lost since Thatcherism came to town is revisited in ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright,’ which O’Brien takes the case of the coal miners and gives “an elegy for the pitmen, but also a celebration of their life and labour.” (“The singing of the dead inside the earth / Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush / Of water into newly opened darkness.”) He also brings us up to date, with present government policy on terrorism laws, in ‘Song: Habeas Corpus’:
Forget about due process,
The evidence, the court:
The evil I’ve committed
Is as secretive as thought.
Just think, if I’m not found in time,
Then I might perpetrate
An absolutely novel crime
Known only to the state –
An act more terrible because
It hasn’t happened yet –
For in our time the future tense
Will be the major threat.
Ditties like this may tread a line between simple and simplistic, but O’Brien is capable of more complex things. The theme of water drives through the book, as rivers, drains and sewers illustrate the forgotten past and the unwelcome present, from police and politicians “whose only energy / Is fear” to lost friends (“The River Road”):
For afterlife, only beginning, beginning,
Wide, dark waters that grow in the telling,
Where the river road carries us now.
Toward the end, the moving waterways are brought overground and replaced by railways – a manmade development which O’Brien can endorse – and the feeling is carefully optimistic; allowing, of course, for the odd journey to hell. This is done both with artful solemnity (“Arcadia”) and playfully, where “Timor Mortis” finds O’Brien at his funniest on the indivisibility of humankind when it comes to condemnation:
The wonks who work the cutting edge,
Immanuel Kant and Percy Sledge,
With Peter Pan, the Golden Horde,
All travellers not yet on board
Plus those who think it don’t apply,
Who witter, witter, “I’m, like, why?”
Join Zeno, Zog and Baudelaire
As conscripts of le grand nowhere –
Some on ice and some on fire,
Some with slow piano wire,
Screaming, weeping, brave as fuck
And absolutely out of luck.
Chin up, Sean, even if you do join “Captain Nemo, Guildenstern / And suchlike planks booked in to burn,” at least you’ve cleaned up at the poetry awards. And it’s not just through luck either.