In the week of the EU Referendum it seemed appropriate to review a beautiful little chapbook by one of the UK’s most prominent poets, Sean O’Brien. Appropriate because it is a book exploring both personal and national identity, issues of migration and how new lives are begun in a new country. In particular it is a work always aware of the need for – and the difficulty of – pragmatism, honesty and truth in both personal and political worlds. Whether it is our own or our nation’s past or future, the idealism or fundamentalism of the simplistically pure, clear and incontrovertible is a false god. Worship at such an altar is the old fearful yearning for security in a world that simply is both contingent and mysterious and can only possibly be faced with a sense of compromise, processes of negotiation.
Beside a photograph of his own 1952 birth certificate, Sean O’Brien’s foreword to Hammersmith (Hercules Editions, 2016) ponders other people’s interest in their family histories. Perhaps our ancestors “underwrite” our lives in a way we cannot do for ourselves – in ways religion might once have done. But O’Brien assures us the two cantos (of what seems to be a longer sequence of poems yet to appear) are more the “work of the imagination” than anything narrowly documentary. He alludes to Robert Lowell’s dictum – “why not say what happened?” – only to dismiss it, suggesting Hammersmith aspires more to the condition of a dream or reverie.
If this is teasing, then it continues into the poem. With a neat circuitousness, O’Brien’s rhyming alter ego, Ryan, wanders the streets of Hammersmith recalling his parents early days and places (days and places shared with O’Brien’s own mother and father), yet his search is an endless deferral, not arriving at any clear goal, a sense of not belonging which (the Foreword has already told us) is precisely O’Brien’s experience of London: “I never feel entirely present there”. So the irresolvable uncertainty about one’s true self is re-evoked here along with a scepticism about how far delving into ancestry can really help with it and this narrative set-up allows O’Brien to pursue the dream-like interweaving of reality and imagination which has become more familiar in his work since The Drowned Book (2007). It goes without saying that this fantasmagoric journey also takes the poet back to that post-war era that so fascinates him: “a place forever on the cusp of realising the welfare state” (from Ben Wilkinson’s Guardian review of The Beautiful Librarians).
Mixing the personal, the historical and the political, most of the optimism of that earlier time has gone. Canto 1 opens dismissively: “England is finished”. Initially this seems about to be cast as an epic/tragic moment as a rower in the University Boat Race catches a crab and, amidst allusions to the “fields of Hades”, is compared to Palinurus, Aeneas’ drowned steersman from Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6. But within a few lines, the oarsman recovers and the incident ends only in petty recriminations and unsportsmanlike appeals to umpires – more comedy than tragedy, more satire than epic. The narrative voice concludes: “I’m losing my faith in this annual fiction”. Like Aintree and Wembley, those great sporting occasions that at least gave the impression of a nation united, a clearer sense of self-identity and “name”, the Boat Race too loses its power to inspire a faith in a certain type of Englishness, “a special and definitive order of reality” (Foreword).
Perhaps it’s not wholly clear if this “order of reality” ever had any real existence and was lost, or whether the narrator lived the delusion of it briefly that was then corrected by his growing understanding of the significance of “class, the major stench of things”. And perhaps this is why the poem swings from imagined images of the 1940s and 1950s Hammersmith to the wanderings of Ryan/O’Brien in more contemporary settings (another photo in the chapbook is clearly O’Brien taking a selfie reflected in an underpass mirror). Canto 1 now more securely pursues the past, describing a young woman (the future mother) as nurse, teacher, doing the “pallais glide”. Such remembrance is labelled the “trap of elegy” at one moment. Ryan is caught in it and “Nor am I out of it” says another voice (O’Brien?) echoing Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, that moment when he reveals the omnipresence of Hell.
What develops is a passage of a more documentary type (though no doubt the details are largely imagined) with an Irish ancestor stepping off the train at Euston, finding a room to rent: “Oh loneliness, your name is Hammersmith”. But canto 1 ends with an outbreak of irregular rhyming (the poem is written in triplets throughout) which holds together, as if in successful solution, references to Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps, the ill-fated groundnut scheme of the late 1940s, Caliban and Ariel and a (more personal sounding) naïve, nursery-rhyme passage about “the boy with the curly brown hair”, who is perhaps the future father-to-be.
Canto 2 opens (having caught the habit of rhyme from the end of the preceding Canto) with another vision of the transience of London life, especially for migrants: “no fixed abode, where is no stay, / Not known at this address, / Or never known, or went away, // Gone where the post eventually goes”. This is both the contemporary figure’s fruitless search for an ancestral past as well as the post-war migrant’s experience where the world the nation fought for “admits / No Blacks and no dogs and no Irish”. There are passages here out of Dante, out of Yeats in which spectral figures go dancing through London streets “into Ravenscourt Park” and beyond the District Line. Once again, Ryan/O’Brien re-surfaces with a fierce thirst for Guinness which might “re-enchant / A world that is always and only prose”.
The earlier allusion (“where is no stay”) to Robert Frost’s comment that poetry can act as a “momentary stay against confusion” is repeated again in the context of what looks like suicidal thoughts, a personal as well as political history: “Here there is nowhere. Here is no stay”. It turns out the Ryan character has an engagement to read poems to an audience but the tone here is angrily dismissive (“Who gives a fuck?”) and heckled abuse from an audience is deemed appropriate somehow, the only thing to make sense “of a dying art”. O’Brien’s casting doubt on the efficacy – the very purpose – of poetry in the context of an ambitious poetic project like this might seem perverse but is perhaps just another de-stabilising element in the whole where past and present, political idealism and cynicism and failure battle it out across the fluid fields of the poet’s observation, memory and imagination (and anyway, if this is the opening of a long poem, this may not be the last word on the subject).
The poet’s heart seems most passionately engaged in passages concerning the mother figure, but Canto 2 ends, as did Canto 1, with allusions to the father. Like the son, he too seems to have looked always “for a sign”, for meaning in the bewildering flood and flow of the city’s life. What seems to be O’Brien’s pessimism again re-surfaces: “You will fail / Like your father before you”. The failure will be to “name” the waters (this leaves me thinking of Keats’ epitaph: one whose name was writ on water). The father’s ambition apparently yielded nothing more than a “suitcase – / Poems and politics, no fixed address” and later “Madness lay in wait”. Yet the narrative voice offers up the idea of witness, even if this does not lead to reassuring certainty: “You will lower your face to the water, // And through it, and open your eyes.” This is reminiscent of O’Brien’s poem ‘Cousin Coat’ with its self-urging to “Be memory, be conscience, will and rage” and to remain “cold and honest”, though since those lines were written in 1987 O’Brien’s range has continued to widen so that honesty in terms of documentary/historical evidence now also has to face new challenges, new types of honesty with regard to the imagination, in part those in-filling processes of personal memory, the making-up of our own past which many of us hope “underwrites” the people we have become.