Sean O'Brien's latest collection has a consistent theme of
bitter political disenchantment coupled with a sense of nostalgia, not so
much for time and place but for social ethos.
Whilst superficially O'Brien
laments the loss of The Beautiful Librarians, sophisticated beings that
seemed beyond the reach of a gauche student (although personally I don't
recall librarians ever being very glamorous...), this is actually a lament
for the loss of libraries and the educational and social principles which
enabled them. Whilst some might take the view that the world moves on,
resources evolve, O'Brien leaves no doubt where he stands.
The finger is pointed at the Thatcher years and the greed intrinsic to that
period, and this is broadened to a dislike of the South and the materialism
and lack of social empathy that O'Brien believes lies below the North South
For example in 'Another Country' he writes:
You stand for everything
there was to loathe about the South,
The avarice, the
snobbery, the ever sneering mouth,
The lack of any
solidarity with any cause but me,
The certainty that what
you were was what the world should be.
However he is not without humour and in 'Oysterity' gives us a clever
condemnation of himself (and of others who behave similarly) talking about
austerity while gorging on shellfish. The author ends up appallingly sick and
believes 'I'd got what I deserved...'.
There is much to admire in the writing here; there's a depth that demands the
reader work hard. In a few of the 40 poems the reader is left with the
feeling that there are keys pieces of information he doesn't possess and
which are needed to unlock the puzzle - for example in 'Immortals' where less
sympathetic readers may wonder if it's worth the effort...
And in that regard it reminds of Eliot. Indeed there is a sense of three
poets present here: Eliot, Auden and Larkin. Eliot for some of the denser
imagery and that requirement for more information; Auden because O'Brien
plays with different forms whilst carrying strong socio-political messages;
and Larkin because there is an overarching bleakness.
In 'Protocols of the Superfluous Immortal' O'Brien says:
The day extends towards
It extends towards,
forever, and the god
applies himself once more
to thirteen down,
The only word
that rhymes with breath. But it's no good
which, like other poems here, has a Larkinesque slant. Larkin is perhaps more
skilled with (or slavish to?) form, but that's not to detract from O'Brien's
This is a well written collection with a strong message - although not
delivered at the expense of beauty in the language, despite its occasionally
obtuseness. However it does feel retrospective not only in its message but
because the writing itself feels linked to an earlier time.
And this isn't helped
by capitalizing the start of every line - which now feels rather dated and
out of fashion.