Sean O’ Brien
Picador Poetry, paperback
64 pages, £7.99, 978-1447287513
Early on in his excellent new collection of poetry, The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O’Brien repurposes L.P. Hartley’s famous dictum about the past: ‘The North? Another country.’ ‘The North’ is the closest the book comes to a theme, and O’Brien conjures a unique vision of the place, grafting the drab parochial towns familiar from Philip Larkin’s poetry onto W.H. Auden’s grander, saga-shadowed landscape. More often than not, though, the North is less a geographical location than a state of mind. The poems summon a cast of marginalised oddballs: park bench idlers, the exiled Ovid, a retired God, a jilted lover all belong- spiritually at least- to this weird land of abandoned beer bottles and mist. His admirers will hardly need telling that these landscapes and characters are conjured in verse that is often brilliantly funny and always characterised by an astonishing technical fluency. Poetry seems to come to Sean O’Brien the way Keats said it should- as easily as leaves to a tree.
This ease is most evident in O’Brien’s comic poems. In ‘Protocols of the Superfluous Immortal’, his verse relaxes into the desultory rhythms of the life of a god retired from Mount Olympus to the South coast:
An egg please, and The Telegraph.
His constitutional, the bandstand,
Out along the pier; the wintry courtesies
Even this comfy seaside town has a touch of the North: anyone familiar with the rundown coastal resorts of the Northwest will recognise the bandstand and the pier which serve here as fitting emblems of the forgotten and marginal. O’Brien’s god is a bufferish figure who spends his long days of retirement rereading Hornblower in bed and tutting at his barometer. O’Brien imbues these rather clichéd images of a certain type of retirement with an affectionate warmth: he is a poet in sympathy with slackers. In ‘Jardin des Plantes’ he wittily parodies a slow Tennysonian gravitas to describe a pair of friends wasting time ogling women and talking rubbish in a Parisian park. He has not forgotten Philip Larkin’s lesson about the potential of the well deployed expletive:
We are the disease that has no cure
Or visible employment. You, sir,
Call this contemplation: I call you
Perhaps the funniest poem in the collection is ‘Residential Brownjohnesque’, a homage to the poet Alan Brownjohn, which describes the nutcases and unsavoury sorts who sign up for residential poetry courses (participants include ‘Clive Overbite’ and ‘Norman Shouty’). The poem is a cheeringly brave move considering how much modern poetry depends on the creative writing industry- when I saw O’Brien read, this poem visibly ruffled the feathers of some audience members.
Though he is a magnificent comic poet, O’Brien’s serious work is his best. The title poem of the collection, ‘The Beautiful Librarians’ is an account of the young poet’s fascination with the mysterious female staff of his local library (‘Francoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters’) that ends with a moving if ambivalent panegyric to reading and writing:
It passes time that passes anyway.
Book after book I kept my word
Elsewhere, long after they were gone
And all the brilliant stock was sold.
This is O’Brien’s closest recapitulation of Larkin’s formula of panning out from a local observation into the long perspective. This poem hardly achieves the Yeatsian sublimity of ‘High Windows’ for example, but that takes a special sort of poetic talent. The deployment of ‘brilliant’ in its slightly archaic poetic sense (to mean ‘bright’, rather than merely ‘great’) in the final line contributes to the understated poignancy of a man who suddenly discovers himself out of step with the times. The reference to the coalition government’s cuts to the public library service in the last line is the most successful of O’Brien’s political interventions. His more extended musings on the subject in the poem ‘Oysterity’ feel rather bien pensant and forced- it is one of the few places in the collection where the reader does not feel that his thoughts have crystallised naturally into verse. The Tory cuts to arts funding are terrible. However, the poem- a tale of friends sat in a restaurant discussing Cameron’s big society- cannot help but feel somewhat pooterish in its ambitions compared to the great political poetry of the previous century- Auden’s ‘Spain’ for example, or Tony Harrison’s V.
Perhaps the best thing in the collection is ‘Always’, an improbably successful marriage of the Mediterranean spirit of Lawrence Durrell to the impersonal tone of W.H. Auden: proof of O’Brien’s often virtuosic skill at managing his influences. The result is a mesmeric account of a sleepy fishing village somewhere in southern Europe:
The noonday girl’s asleep, her bitter breath
Distressing to the bitter clerk who lies
Beside her in the sunstruck heat, his cock
Shrunk back in white surrender.
This is another place that belongs spiritually to the North. It has much in common with the seaside town of ‘Protocols of the Superfluous Immortal’, albeit with a rather grander abandonment. Its residents are leaving left right and centre: ‘Venetians, Turks and all the rest/ Are dead and gone … The enemy has sailed away’, later a ‘ferry turns, is leaving’. Only ‘the surf/ Returns, returns along the shore.’ The poem’s dreamy drifts in perspective and chronology are successfully structured around these recurring habits of phrase and image which, paradoxically, make it the most satisfyingly unified piece in the collection.
I would hesitate to say that even this poem is enough to earn O’Brien a place in the very front rank of modern poetry (with, for example, our Geoffrey Hills and Tony Harrisons) but this collection is a testament to a very great talent. It is a talent that grows with every new collection too. I can’t imagine that a single reader of The Beautiful Librarians isn’t looking forward to the O’Brien’s next book.