The Drowned Book
,  Sean O'Brien [86pp, £8.95, Picador]
Reality Check,
Dennis O'Driscoll [80pp, £7.95, Anvil]

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 equation.
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
            a blue 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