Monday, September 03, 2007

What Need of Poems in the Dark?

Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book

I’ve just enrolled on a course at Warwick, examining the influence of Dante in the poems of T.S. Eliot. That may be one reason why I kept catching echoes of both those poets in Sean O’Brien’s latest collection, The Drowned Book. His recent verse translation of Dante's Inferno provides another possible explanation to my feeling that the spirit of Dante presides over these poems, riddled as they are with references to the dead, the underworld and its rivers of darkness.

The Drowned Book is O’Brien’s seventh collection and a Poetry Book Society Choice. No stranger to such accolades, the prolific O’Brien has won the Forward Prize twice, for Ghost Train in 1995 and Downriver in 2001, and is wdely considered one of our most important living British poets. In this latest book, he certainly earns that status, his poetry skilfully written, richly layered and impressively accessible given the difficult themes and topics he tackles here.

O’Brien has, at times, the prophetic ‘tongues of flame’ and ‘knowledge like a skull inside a box’ of the ancient scholar he describes in ‘Serious Chairs’, though he often pretends otherwise, distracting us with the humility of the truly talented, most marked in his elegies for dead poets, as here in ‘Thom Gunn’ (another poet whose work at times signalled the influence of Dante):

Let those of us who longed to board but failed
Salute you in absentia, Captain Gunn,
Now attitude and argosy have sailed
Beyond the west.

Water and death seem inextricably linked in this book, as the title and suitably spooky-looking cover suggest. A glut of watery poem titles continue the theme, with ‘Water-Gardens’, The River in Prose’, ‘By Ferry’, ‘River-doors’, ‘The Mere’, ‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, and his magnificent elegy for Barry MacSweeney, ‘A Coffin-Boat’. His elegies include work dedicated to the memory of fallen comrades in contemporary poetry: Ken Smith, Julia Darling, Michael Donaghy and Barry MacSweeney (‘... let the man rest by the waters of Tyne’). Within the subterranean world of this book, O’Brien’s erudition brings a fascinating complexity to the work, his diction both eloquent and contemporary: a heady mix for any reader.

In spite of this strongly themed content, however, The Drowned Book doesn’t flag or begin to sound homogeneous as it progresses. Not content to write the same poem twice - or fifty times as a few of his contemporaries have been known to do - Sean O’Brien is happy here to switch forms and voices, experimenting within his own idiom and making each poem new.

So references to Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ and a heart-felt cry of ‘Thalassa, Thalassa’ (‘Sea, sea!’ from Xenophon’s account of fleeing Greek soldiers at last coming within sight of the sea) jostle for house room with these jaunty Skeltonesque rhyming couplets about death’s inevitability in ‘Timor Mortis’:

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.

In the same poem, O’Brien asks flatly: ‘What need of poems in the dark?’ Yet, whilst reminiscent of Marvell’s stance towards his coy mistress - ‘The grave’s a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace’ - this question is not without its ambivalence. This is evidenced elsewhere in the collection, most notably perhaps in the superb ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ - winner of the 2006 Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem - where the dead (presumably here miners) seem not only in need of such earthly pleasures but are actually still involved in them:

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.

I thought here of other subterranean worlds, of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, and the sinister Mines of Moira in The Lord of the Rings, especially following O’Brien’s marvellously described ‘thud of iron doors sealed once for all’ and the miners themselves, ‘gargling dust’, ‘their black-braided banners aloft’. But are these real human men? Are they memories of those who used to work ‘in the underground rivers/Of West Moor and Palmersville’, or are these the ghosts of fallen miners eternally patrolling the ‘tiny corridors of the immense estate’?

Although most of these poems are not obscure or difficult in themselves, I sometimes felt that a few notes might have elucidated the content or origin of a poem. Not being fully aware of the historical background to ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ was an obstacle to enjoying what is otherwise a tremendously powerful and transformative piece of writing. I did perform an internet search on James Wright which gave me some extra information, but should having to google be an expected part of reading a poem now? Some poets don’t mind providing elucidatory notes, others disagree vehemently with the need for them. Personally, I’ve always found more pleasure in collections which are annotated, even if only briefly at the back. In the groping search for understanding, misreadings and missed nuances are always a danger - and a largely unnecessary one, it seems to me.

Many individual lines in The Drowned Book will stay with me a long time, such as this complicated beauty: ‘The city runs like science fiction backwards’. Or this, at once Dickensian and as atmospheric as a Turner oil painting: ‘A boat burning out on the flats’. Echoes of Eliot too, most strongly in the short choral poem ‘Proposal for a Monument to the Third International’, where I couldn’t help thinking of the well-known sequence in Little Gidding, where the narrator is heading home after a long night (Eliot worked as a volunteer rooftop fire warden in London during the war) and meets ‘a familiar compound ghost’ in the street, rather like Dante meeting Virgil, his guide through hell. Is this now Eliot meeting O'Brien or was that not the poet's intention? Even without these inferences, the apocalyptic and other-worldly ‘dream-vision’ quality of the moment, in particular, is what struck me most on reading this:

I rode to the twenty-ninth floor
Of the Hotel Ukraina, then climbed the last steps
To the last locked room
Where a camera obscura portrayed the night sky
As Stalin might dream it himself
From one of the seven dark stars he cast
So high that the heavens themselves
Were extinguished.

I turned to descend and there by the door
Was a wizened old man, sitting smoking.
A red fire-bucket was full of his ash.
He wore two watches and between his eyes
A bullet hole.
He looked indifferently through me.
Brothers, this is all I can recall.

However, the poem which affected me most powerfully in The Drowned Book was ‘A Coffin-Boat’, his quiet-spoken elegy for the poet Barry MacSweeney; not least, perhaps, because I knew the man myself. It’s a slightly longer poem than most, and here, once again, we have to bend our heads to enter its dark landscape - or should that be ‘inscape’? - the sloping low-ceilinged passage that leads down to the underworld:

Today you must go for a walk in the dark. Go in
Where the stream by the graveyard falls
Into the tunnel and hurries off hoarse with graffiti.
You will be hauling a brass-handled narrowboat,
Mounted with twin candelabra, containing
A poet who managed to drink himself dead,
With heroic commitment, at fifty-one.
Packed up with books and manuscripts and scotch,
In his box from the Co-op, a birthright of sorts.

Later in this poem, we get again, foregrounded here, the idea that poetry stops with death. (‘What need of poems in the dark?’) Sean O’Brien makes a good case for that depressing reality - or blessed release? - here:

... down here’s the speechless
History of everything and nothing,
Poetry’s contagious opposite.

An elegant and elegiac book then, but not particularly sinister, in spite of its subject matter. O’Brien has managed to imbue his vision of death and the afterworld with terrible beauty but also a wry sense of humour which refuses to be cowed by its surroundings. To read The Drowned Book cover to cover at one sitting may be a strange and discomforting experience, but it’s one which managed to produce a certain calm inspiration in this poet at least:

On the gathering waters that slide
To the mouth of the Tyne, where the world

Is beginning and ending:
Three lighthouses wearing the weather,
In each of them a table laid

With rosemary and rue,
So that the dead may sit at peace
And watch with us tonight.


You can find The Drowned Book online at


Jane Holland said...

It's an interesting thing, but when I review books unfavourably or controversially, I get a truckload of comments underneath. But when I'm NICE to people about their poetry, nobody cares.

Not a great incentive to be generous, is it?


Ben Wilkinson said...

As someone who didn't particularly enjoy O'Brien's latest offering, and who was surprised to see him take the Forward and Eliot for it, I found this review helpful, precise, broad in scope and illuminating. I'll certainly go back to The Drowned Book in the near future for a re-read. Thanks for this, Jane.


Jane Holland said...


Thanks, Ben. It only took four months to get a comment, but I'm not complaining. Thus the blog-reader's mind.

Yes, I'm surprised at how negatively people seem to be taking this particular win. 'The Drowned Book' taking the TS Eliot prize was never entirely a fait accompli, of course, but as near as dammit. So why all the raised eyebrows?

I hope no one's that surprised when I eventually win it.