SEAN O’BRIEN, The Drowned Book, London, Picador, 2007, pp. 81, £8.99.
Sean O’Brien is probably fed up with reviews that begin by pointing out that he comes from the city where Philip Larkin worked for so long as university librarian. However, there is no doubt that the connection is a natural one to make, particularly since O’Brien seems to have specialised in a genre that one could say Larkin invented: the railway poem. Hardly a single volume of his is without a poem in some way connected with trains; his fourth book was actually entitled Ghost Train. This last one, The Drowned Book (his sixth, not including his Selected Poems and his Dante translation), has a whole section of “Railway Poems”, five in all, and another poem, immediately afterwards, entitled “Railway Hotel”, which can’t fail to recall Larkin’s “Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel”. Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” is said to have brought a whole new English landscape into poetry, as he depicted the view from a train travelling from Hull to London, with glimpses of Odeons and cooling-towers and “acres of dismantled cars”; the poem ends with a mysterious but mainly optimistic image of an “arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”; Larkin revealed in an interview that the image derived from the Olivier film of Henry V. O’Brien is an equally observant describer of English landscapes, but in general they seem much grimmer, less hopeful places: he depicts the grimy spoilt landscapes of industrial decay, with derelict factories and polluted canals. There is often a sense of claustrophobic stasis, as he dwells upon the wrong paths that have been taken, the opportunities that have been missed.
This last volume bears a title that gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect. One is surprised that the book is not actually clammy to the touch; almost every poem in it drips with imagery of water—seawater, riverwater, canalwater, sewer-water, rainwater… This is not the healthy cleansing stuff of Larkin’s poem “Water”, “[a] furious devout drench”. It is more typically a gooey ooze, bringing with it disease and pollution.
The title of the book derives from a section in his previous book (which also had a watery title, Downriver); the section was entitled The Underwater Songbook, and contained a subsection, Songs from the Drowned Book. As O’Brien said in a note to the book, the songs were part of a project “in which poets, novelists and visual artists collaborated in an alternative history of the North.” The intention seemed to be to invent a new creation myth for the North, based on the premise that everything originally was under water. The myth allowed him to come up with a number of melancholy and haunting songs, full of dreamlike imagery of retreating tides and flowing rivers. This imagery has spilled over—or perhaps flooded over—into the new book, leaving little room for other sensations.
Between Downriver and The Drowned Book O’Brien worked on a translation of Dante’s Inferno, which met with some (but not universal) acclaim. The blurb on The Drowned Book suggests that many of the poems in the collection “take their emotional tenor and imaginative cue” from this translation and there is no doubt that at their best the poems have a visionary intensity, which persuades us that the poet is not simply describing local scenes but painting a landscape of the soul.
As in earlier collections there are poems in which O’Brien recalls his 1950s and 1960s childhood in Hull. These are not Wordsworthian recollections of a time when the world seemed “apparell’d in celestial light”; O’Brien looks back to the open drains where he and his friends used to go fishing: “The water, if you glimpsed it, looked as thick / As jelly from a tin of Sunday ham.” The simile captures both the glutinous quality of the water and the restricted eating-habits of working-class families at the time, and so manages to be both visually effective and historically evocative. Later, in the same poem he recalls the drought of 1959 when the drains were reduced to “polio-rivers, street-long / Inch-deep stinks with one black fish…” The series of compressed compound-words helps to create the impression of the foul water thick with disease-laden germs.
The best poems in the collection have this disturbing visionary force; there is often something dreamlike in the watery landscapes he depicts but at the same time he manages paradoxically to convince us that he is telling us something real about the North of England, both its present state and its past. He has a genuine feel for history and for place. One of his poems is dedicated to “[t]he northern master Grimshaw” and there is a clear analogy between this Victorian painter and the poet. Atkinson Grimshaw followed in the wake of the Pre-Raphaelite painters but mainly depicted urban landscapes, often in rainy or misty atmospheres that have a visionary quality. In fact, it seems surprising that the publishers didn’t choose a Grimshaw painting for the cover; his two previous collections, Downriver and Ghost Train, bore striking paintings by Eric Ravilious; for this book Grimshaw would perhaps have been more effective than the rather obscure underwater photograph adopted by the publishers.
There is also a strong elegiac tone to the book, in the most literal sense. Five poems are headed “In memory of…”, all dedicated to fellow-writers and artists. In addition to these, a sonnet is devoted to the great Anglo-American poet, Thom Gunn; this sonnet makes a refreshing break from the overwhelming sense of dampness and gloom, as he celebrates the “ ‘hot, wasteful’ force” of Gunn’s poetry, mustered in an assault on the “annihilating sun”.
I have to confess that I do not always understand O’Brien’s poems. There are a number of narratives in this volume that baffle me. In particular, the series of “Railway Poems” leave me intrigued but in the end rather frustrated. The series begins with a poem that quotes (well, actually misquotes) from a poem by Walter de la Mare; O’Brien takes the rather mysterious figures that de la Mare invented in his poem (“the bow-legged groom, / The parson in black, the widow and son, / The sailor with his cage, the gaunt / Gamekeeper with his gun…”) and introduces some extra elements of Victorian melodrama (“The grim-faced keeper with his gun / Patrols the madhouse walls, / The drooling curate’s shut within…”) but to what purpose I find it hard to say. The temptation as a critic is just to nod sagely and mutter a series of adjectives like “surreal” or “haunting” and leave it at that, but if I must be frank I find the impression of a deliberately withheld mystery rather irritating.
However, there are some very direct and hard-hitting poems in the tradition of his famous polemical poem Cousin Coat (which gave the title to his recent volume of Selected Poems). O’Brien is one of our finest political polemicists and this collection has two such pieces, both written in vigorous formal verse. One poem, Habeas Corpus, attacks the anti-terrorist legislation brought in by Blair’s government, with its restrictions on civil liberties; it ends with an compelling chorus:
Burn out our brains,
Lock us in chains
To prove to us we’re free –
There’s none so blind,
We think you’ll find,
As one who cannot see.
Even more polemical is the poem devoted to Margaret Thatcher; this piece, entitled Valedictory, is what one might call an anticipatory elegy—but certainly not a eulogy. Sean O’Brien makes it quite clear that he is not going to accept the recent tendency to consider her as raised to the level of a great stateswoman. He has not forgotten the 1980s. To those who object to “speaking evil of the dead”, he asks: “Might her conspicuous contempt / For weakness make her exempt / From pity?” The poem ends, however, on a muted and more affirmative note, as he says: “The task is always to rebuild / Our city.”
On the whole the collection is an impressive one and the reader can have no doubt of O’Brien’s skills. My only hope is that his next book will be a little less puzzling—and a great deal drier.
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