UGLY HELL GAPE NOT
The Drowned Book, Sean O'Brien [86pp, £8.95, Picador]
Dennis O'Driscoll [80pp,
What is there
in Sean O'Brien's poems that make them so award-winning? It would not appear
to be accessibility, a quality so often admired and recommended by reviewers.
The poems here are densely textured and do not offer up treasures readily.
This does not of course mean one shouldn't put in effort. But though I have
now read The Drowned Book four times, I have to confess I'm still wondering what sort of
experience it ultimately wants to afford its readers and to what degree the
effort in my own case has been rewarded. Eliot suggested that genuine poetry
can communicate before it is understood...which posits an initial experience
of reader assent, which, once expanded by later understanding, takes on
depths in which 'genuineness' is realised. Eliot is not saying if it doesn't
grab you immediately you have every reason to put it aside. He's saying you
should be able to spot the real thing early on and then find ways of
deepening the experience. He is not saying understanding isn't part of the
But what do the poems in The Drowned Book communicate? Complexity of thought
certainly; an obsession with darkness and murky waters, a general glumness
yes; certain political attitudes and a leaning towards the elegiac for sure.
They also offer a range of admirable technical skills. But first reading for
me did not secure immediate assent: the experience was one of entering on a
dark and dismal wandering without knowing where I was going, and further
readings got me only so far. The blurb on the back of the book says that many
of the poems 'take their emotional tenor and imaginative cue from his
acclaimed translation of Dante's Inferno, and occupy a dark, flooded
subterranean world, as dramatically compelling as it is disquieting.'
'Acclaimed' is a bit strong and 'as dramatically compelling' puts
O'Brien on the same top shelf as Dante. Really?
The phrase 'to hell and back' occurs to me and I can't help feeling that
O'Brien hasn't really quite come back or, if he has, he's in the daze of
Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Dante had a guide not only to show him the
sights of hell but to give account of their significance. But perhaps it's
not so much hell as the darkness of the grave that is on offer here. 'What
need of poems in the dark/?' O'Brien asks at the end of Timor Mortis. It feels like despair. Does the title
The Drowned Book imply
O'Brien as Prospero is abjuring the magic of poetry? Or does it mean that the
experience of reading involves a necessary drowning?
There is no
problem with immediate assent to the Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll's eighth
collection, Reality Check. O'Driscoll is alive to the world around him, a keen observer
and recorder, even when (especially when) that means asking us to face
questions raised by desperate illness in the remarkable set of poems that
gives the book its title. Undergoing an operation is a matter of
After the endoscopic tests and x-rays,
the guilty verdict is pronounced.
Handcuffed to a metal intravenous stand,
you are escorted to the central operations room.
Your defence team briefs you on the nature
of the charges, your complete lack of immunity.
The futility of appeals. The special precautions
to be taken. In the event of. Just in case.
O'Driscoll has a penchant for punning. We know from Shakespeare this can been
a very serious business. 'Guilty verdict' here puts the speaker on trial; the
operating theatre is a court of law; the verdict condemns him but it is
itself guilty. In these grim circumstances the poet is playing with the
language and in the process celebrating being alive, alive-o.
It is the way his mind works. He takes what is at first sight a clichˇ,
truism or well-worn phrase and turns them inside out, and, by carefully
positioning them, gives them back energy. This way he may be said to renewing
and revitalising the language. It is a form of creative ambivalence. And it
is so omnipresent as to make quoting difficult. Randomly then: in a terrific
poem about rain falling on Ireland, we have
Rain, bombarding windows, pours out its feelings to a room where
screen-saver flickers like a gas flame and a youth revises
for the Garda exam. It throws cold water on a bridal photo shoot.
[from 'All Over Ireland']
or take the opening line of The Call:
When we call on God, we always find him out
or from Intercession
in which we are told God
...casts His pearly gates before a chosen few.
Before the rest, He raises hell.
There isn't a dud poem in this book. They all afford pleasure from the way we
experience the language as playfully alive. They make us see the world which
we tend to take for granted differently - both its woes and joys - sometimes
highly entertainingly, sometimes with profound gravitas. Nowhere more so than
in the wonderful sequence called Skywriting that occupies the second half of the
collection, which is a spirited and uplifting meditation on how 'The sky
leaves every possibility wide open' and how, for instance,
The sun throws light
on this morning's light,
as if a weight of clouds
had lifted from the day
or someone's tripped a switch:
even the last flaky scrap
rusting in the ditch breaks
into a captivating shine.
© Matt Simpson 2007