Sean O’Brien: The Drowned Book

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.

Sean O'Brien: The Drowned Book

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:
Great Britain!

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.


  1. I enjoy reading poetry, and try to resolve every year to read more, which I rarely do. However I don’t find much poetry that I actually like. Most I read only to conclude that its the sort I don’t like. Sadly, I don’t think I like the sound of O’Brien either – the water stuff is appealing while the political is offputting. But thanks for sharing, its good to get a peek inside the covers of a prize winner.

  2. Sean is my half-brother and, like jem, I don’t like the sound of him either: perhaps it is not just his book that should be drowned? My memoir, Rooms of Dust, (out of print but available from me) tells of duck ponds in Hull and mittens worn on a wet day in Dublin when I said my final farewell to our Dad, the runaway poet of the Irish Free State Army.

    Thank you for opportunity to comment. it is not so freely available as one might like to think.

    Sarah Pat

    1. Hi

      I am just reading your book Rooms of Dust and really enjoying it. My father Michael Grimes comes from Rathmines and lived in Mount Pleasant Buildings. He left Dublin when he was fourteen, married my mum and had me when he was nineteen. He often talks of his childhood in the bulildings. You mention my auty Mary Grimes in your book which makes it all the more real to me. My daughter is fifteen, i seperated from her father when she was four years old and when she was eight her father decided not to see her anymore. He has a new family now. Your story is very poignant to me but also written with great wit and warmth . I recognise the yearning for your father and hope my daughter will read your book.

  3. I absolutely loved your book Sarah it teased out memories of my emotions, I felt would drown me, when I was a child and I was bitterly disappointed you did not manage to bring a comforting and satisfying conclusion to your heartache. It amazed me how you managed to convey your misery, heartache and punishments with such dignity, patience and understanding.
    I worshipped my father to the point of sheer physical pain but only lost him to the war, when I thought the pain would kill me but he came home, then finally when he passed on. I felt your pain, I cried your tears and could not put your book down. Thank you for sharing your experiences of ‘quite dark’ times. I am Engish and deeply ashamed of what my country did to Ireland then.

  4. I’ve just finished reading your book Sarah, – it might be out of print, but it’s still available at my local Library. I found it an absolutely riveting read, – & found this Link purely by chance when I was ‘Googling’ to see if you’ve written any others.
    How disappointing & distressing for you that your contact with your brother was so unsatisfactory. I thought that poets were supposed to be sensitive souls!
    Are you planning to write a follow up to ‘Rooms of Dust’? If so, I look forward to reading it.

    1. Just finished your “Rooms of Dust”
      Thank you Sarah what memory’s of our family’s time in MPB 1945 to 1959

  5. Thank you all for your kind comments. I will try to make contact again on Dublin Forums. X

  6. just finished rooms of dust. wonderful! i couldn’t put it down. how sad that sean didn’t get back to you. its his loss though that is no consolation to you. are you writing a follow up?

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