In these days of howling sunshine
when in the grove the aspens fret and pull
like maddened horses now silver now grey
in the curdling light, when the leaves of the cherry
are first all hands and then all birds
that point the way they cannot travel with you,
what then is to be done?
– from “Poem in German”
Every time I sit down to write about a book of poems, I am confronted with a wave of insecurity. Is it possible to write about poetry without the requisite vocabulary and knowledge to adequately assess the collection at hand? I have long argued that “ordinary” readers should be encouraged to read and engage with poetry, free from concerns about doing it “right.” After all, what does it mean to be “right” in one’s reading of any piece of literature? Even in the course of a single lifetime we never come to the same work in the same way, or as the same person. And yet, I am increasingly inclined to read poetry without any thought to whether I will or will not write about it because sometimes, no matter how much I enjoy a collection, I can find myself hopelessly at a loss when it comes to imagining how I might express my feelings.
Embark is the eleventh collection from well-known—albeit previously unknown to me—British poet Sean O’Brien. I ordered this book inspired by a couple of selections shared by someone on Twitter which is, I confess, one of my primary resources for finding poetry. Something about the pensive, gloomy tone of O’Brien’s poems caught my attention. Now, having read and reread this slender volume, I wanted to reflect on what strikes me in his work.
O’Brien’s publisher describes him as “‘Auden’s true inheritor,’ and one of our wisest poetic chronographers” and this, for a start, signals a return, for me, to a manner of poetry that has commanded less of my attention in recent years as I’ve read more inventive contemporary poetry and more in translation. I almost feel embarrassed to confess that his attention to metrical form, occasionally rhyming, and his use of popular or colloquial language, with a strong sense of place, feel familiar and welcome. His use of historical, literary and cultural references fall within a comfortable realm, at least in my reading. I was not left wondering what obscure references I might be missing.
Though poems should not mean but be,
all information tends to entropy:
What was the Word is emptied of itself
and speechless water rises through the stacks,
engulfing like a continental shelf,
implacable as death or income tax.
– from “Waterworks”
Of course, one of my key points of reference is simply one of age. O’Brien just turned seventy and, even if I’m eight years younger, the perspective that comes with living, looking back over the decades, colours the concerns, moods and tones that I recognize in his poetry. The ghosts of old towns, the crumbling decay and industrial detritus traced in the soil, water and stones, and the shadows of memory surface that again and again. His landscapes are charged with life, but his verses reflect an awareness of mortality and the absences that increasingly haunt us over time. This is the work of a mature poet, in age and in his confidence with language. But it is also very much of the present—climate change, disturbing political trends and the reality of the pandemic are all apparent here.
Rain is falling on the metal tables
piled with chairs, and gleaming
as it floods the blue brick gutters,
perfect and anonymous and beautiful.
Be careful what you wish for now
the very air has somewhere else to be.
The city has a headache
but it dare not speak its name –
the bitter patience that till yesterday
we learned from middle age –
and now the plague is blown
as lightly as a kiss across the street.
– from “A Last Turn”
There is a pensive, even bleak quality to many of these poems, but his imagery, his turn of phrase catches me in the moment, causes me to pause. But then there is this hint of guilt I feel when reading poems in English. As much as I love and believe in the importance of reading poetry in translation, aware of the challenges and decisions involved in translating verse (and O’Brien himself is a translator, having translated the poems of Kazakh national poet Abai Kunanbayuli), there is a special joy that comes from reading poetry in my native language that, oddly, I might never have considered before I became so passionate about reading in translation. Of course, O’Brien’s poems have also been widely translated into other languages, but all I can say for now is that I am glad I took a chance on this fine collection.
Embark by Sean O’Brien is published by Picador Poetry.