Harpic and Gravy: a review of Sean O’Brien’s ‘Europa’

Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.

 

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You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.

Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:

 

I chose not to mention this

Because it was too obvious or literary,

Like making something out of nothing

 

For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.

 

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But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.

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Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.

O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).

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As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:

 

Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.

Good luck, my friends, my enemies,

And those of you to whom in all these years

I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,

Abandoning my desk, my books

And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails

Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

On which the fate of everything

(To whit, this institution) hangs

 

The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.  Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.

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Drowned Shelley’s melodramatic memorial at University College, Oxford

Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.

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Forward First Collections: Some Early Results 2015/2014

The 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for Best First Collection (with its £5000 cheque) will be awarded finally on 28th September. I have been reviewing the shortlisted books this summer as follows:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Who will win?  I can give you what blog-mathematics tells me and I can give you my own modest opinion and I can give you a prediction of who I think might be picked by the judges who are A L Kennedy (Chair), Colette Bryce, Carrie Etter, Emma Harding & Warsan Shire.

  1. Judging merely by hits on the reviews on this blog (statistically wholly unreliable) the winner will be Andrew McMillan – agreed this might just reflect the fact that he and his supports are more social media savvy than others but I suspect it reveals an real interest in his work out there. (And for completists among you, the remaining rank order was then Arshi, Howe, Siegel, McCarthy Woolf).
  2. Who do I think should win? All five books have been hung on topic-hooks by their publishers (illness, ancestry, cultural difference, sexuality, miscarriage) though only Howe and McMillan really justify this as complete volumes. It’s a sign of the need to market a book these days and I’m sure this trend will grow more powerful though I don’t think it’s a great idea for either writer or reader (is it an appeal to the ‘general’ reader?). But the ground being broken by McMillan has been thoroughly ploughed by his (acknowledged) hero Thom Gunn and Howe’s cross-cultural explorations and formal experiments I find interesting but not necessarily volume-coherent. My favoured book was actually the American one, Blood Work by Matthew Siegel which I thought was a wonderfully coherent, moving, funny and achieved collection (despite being a first book). So he’s my pick – and I’ll be wrong on the night!
  3. Who will the judges choose? McMillan – that combination of (sufficient) controversy and accessibility.

Whoever it is in the end, congratulations to them and to all the shortlisted poets.  It’s been a feast and thanks to those who have been following my travels through these books.

As a final footnote, in October last year (somewhat after the event, I confess), I reviewed Liz Berry’s winning first collection and as a bit of context I’ll post that again below. For the record, I think her book is better than any of this year’s five.

Liz Berry, Black Country (Chatto Poetry, 2014)

If a reputation can be earned through the writing of half a dozen poems of real worth then Liz Berry has probably already written them, earning her place in the landscape of early 21st century British poetry. Her debut collection (containing 14 poems from the earlier chapbook The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (tall-lighthouse, 2010) has charm, accessibility and a humour that belies the serious ways in which she exerts pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception. Berry is a teacher by profession and will, no doubt, have equivocal feelings about her work appearing in classrooms – but it will rapidly and rightfully find a place there.

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We resist what tries to define and suffocate us in part by declaring who we are. Berry’s confident, natural, even uninhibited use of her own Black Country dialect is one of the most superficially striking things about this book. Against “hours of elocution”, she opts for “vowels ferrous as nails, consonants // you could lick the coal from” (‘Homing’). Variously her grandmother and mother influence her in this and, in ‘The Sea of Talk’, her father also urges her never to forget the place of her birth with “its babble never caught by ink or book”. The definition of a community against the pull of a conventional linguistic centre is explicit here. Her grandmother is a frequent role model and the growing girl studies “her careful craft”. “Right bostin fittle”, the older woman declares (ie. great food – brains, trotters, groaty pudding) and the budding poet willingly touches her “lips to the hide of the past” to inherit the authentic gift.

Other poems, making it clear that locality is as much a component of who we are, record and celebrate the Black Country as “a wingless Pegasus” composed of scrub, derelict factories, disused coal shafts, yet still a “gift from the underworld” whose nature and fate is enough literally to make grown men weep (‘Black Country’). Berry takes huge pleasure in enumerating the details of her locale. “Come wi’ me, bab, wum Tipton-on-Cut” invites one poem which then takes a tour of waterways, allotments, parks, mosques, steelworks and canals (‘Tipton-On-Cut’). Similarly, ‘Christmas Eve’ seems to improvise from the great concluding paragraphs of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, using the ubiquitous fall of snow to lead the reader across the landscape of Beacon Hill, Bilston and Molineux.

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We elude being imposed on and defined by others by changing. This, for me, is the more profound aspect of Berry’s work; so many poems unfold as processes of self-transformation. A mark of the book’s self-confidence can be found in ‘Bird’ which announces this motif of liberation: “When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me”. Here, it is the mother’s voice urging, “Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter”. In keeping with this, the poems display a formal variety – free verse, short-lined quatrains, couplets, tercets, ballad forms, punctuation comes and goes. This is further reinforced by Berry’s bold, category-dissolving imagination which instinctively reaches for metamorphic possibilities. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ the escapee is a bird again, “jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting”; people become dogs, trees, pigs, fade to mere echoes, girls become boys. The donning of a pair of red shoes invigorates, eroticises: “rubies that glistened up a dress, / flushed thighs with fever” (‘The Red Shoes’).

Sexuality features so prominently in Black Country in part because of its potential for transgressive energy. I’m sure ‘Sow’ is anthology-bound with its “farmyardy sweet” female narrator, rejecting external definitions (“I’ve stopped denying meself”), accepting her true nature as a “guzzler, gilt. / Trollopy an’ canting”. This is a real tour de force of dialect, imaginative transformation and downright feminist self-realisation that “the sow I am / was squailin an’ biting to gerrout”, even daring the reader to “Root yer tongue beneath / me frock an’ gulp the brute stench of the sty”. Berry’s power of imaginative transformation is so powerful that the book creates mythic figures at will: the sow girl, the Black Country pegasus, the patron saint of school girls, Carmella the hairdresser, the Black Delph bride, the last lady ratcatcher. ‘Fishwife’ presents another of these figures like something from a quasi-pornographic Grimm’s tales. Attending a 17 year old girl’s wedding, she brings the gift of oysters, erotic energy, transgressive flirtation, power and ultimately pleasure:

                                            I slipped
from my bare skin
alive oh alive         all tail           all fin
how the tide tossed
until alive ohhh alive
the waves flung my shining body        upon the rock

She kisses the bride with “her tongue a plump trout” and other poems also resist categories to the extent of a sensation of gender-bending, or more accurately gender neutrality. I’ve already mentioned the girl who becomes a boy. ‘Trucker’s Mate’ reads like a homosexual “romance” and ‘In the Steam Room’ positively drips with sexuality – but of an explicitly “sexless” kind in which “any body / might give you pleasure”. ‘The Silver Birch’ achieves the extraordinary feat of evoking “sex [. . .] before sex” (eroticism before gender), “when I was neither girl or boy [. . .] a sheaf / of unwritten-upon paper”.

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With so much dissolution of the normative, Berry dallies with the surreal and there can be dangers if the work does not also bear a weight of darkness. A poet like Tomaz Salamun writes in the tradition of Rimbaud’s systematic disorganisation of the senses, but combines, as Ed Hirsch suggests, “exuberant whimsy and fierce rebellion” to resist too easy a relationship with the pressures of the real. Happily, Black Country encompasses some richly productive tensions between the real and imagined, home and away, past and future, conformity and rebellion, sex and death. The latter rises to the surface through the middle of the book in poems like ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’, ‘Echo’ and the murder ballad ‘The Black Delph Bride’, acknowledging that the traffic between real and imagined contains plenty of irresolvable grit, impossible to wish away in any facile manner.

The collection concludes in more plainly autobiographical terms with the approach of the birth of a child and perhaps there is less imaginative pressure here, a risk of sentiment, “waiting [. . .] for the little creature that grew inside me”. Nevertheless, in reviewing first collections it’s traditional to look forward to achievements to come but this is inappropriate with Black Country simply because there is so much confidence, focus, shapeliness, already achieved uniqueness. Rather, this is a poet whose work presently demands our admiration. Oh yes . . . and what about those half dozen or so poems of real worth? I’d suggest ‘Bird’, ‘Bostin Fittle’, ‘Black Country’, ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘Sow’, ‘Fishwife’. You’ll hear more of these in years to come.

Forward First Collections Reviewed – #1 Mona Arshi

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

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Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) Mona Arshi’s webpage

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Despite the ironic lack of capaciousness implied by its title, Small Hands is a brimming miscellany of poems. Many of them suggest interesting growing points for the future, but Sathnam Sanghera’s claim that Arshi is “Britain’s most promising writer” and Moniza Alvi’s talk of “genius” is premature and liable to drag the reputation of blurb-writing even deeper into the mire. A trying-on of various recognisable styles or voices is expected of any first book, compiled as they usually are over years awaiting a publisher’s call, but Arshi’s arrival at a full collection has been swift. Publicity suggests she only turned from a profession in law to poetry around 2008. It’s for this reason that her influences (Alvi, Petit and Khalvati most obviously, perhaps Emily Berry) are so clear.

Two early poems in the book allude to the idea of catastrophe. ‘Practising Your Skills’ faces an accusation about a “tendency to catastrophise everything” and this also emerges in ‘Bad Day in the Office’ where the narrator is trying not to regard rainfall as “catastrophic”. These instances may be ‘character’ points but such a ramping or ratchetting up of the ordinary is often evident elsewhere in the book and tends to caricature, a dramatic arc-lighting, unexpected (literally cata-stropic) links between disparate ideas or images and hence a love of listing: in other words, forms of surrealism. This is something Arshi has spoken about, regarding and admiring poetry as a discourse utterly counter to the kind of language-use she once employed in the law. So ‘The Lion’ is out of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber via Pascale Petit and evokes a strange relationship between a woman and an older man. It’s a powerfully disturbing poem because the male figure is accorded such power, language, sensuality, wisdom and a sort of droit de seigneur over the female narrator who seems disinclined to question the set up. As with several of the quasi-pornographic pieces by Sam Riviere, the critical question here is where lies the irony? Hard to tell, especially as this is the book’s opener.

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Arshi’s somewhat whimsical surrealism is better seen in her portraits of female figures alone. ‘Cousin Migrant’ is a visitant “from the skies” as well as a paradox (“her arms are thin as margins yet she can lift my children / with ease”). The Cousin’s transgressive – or more accurately, indefinable qualities – are conveyed clearly, humourously, the narrator, in contrast, is nothing more than “a storm in a tea-cup”. The confines or otherwise of female lives are treated in more conventional poetic form in the object and memory piece, ‘The Gold Bangles’, evoked as a cultural inheritance of value though the narrator prefers to think of their owner’s wrists before the gift, “still unadorned and naked”. As here, there are several other poems that draw on Arshi’s background, born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London. ‘Jesus Saves’ is also a more conventional poem of childhood memory, on this occasion hearing a racist speaker in 1979, on Hounslow High Street, “long after Enoch”. But elsewhere, Arshi prefers to construct enigmatic poems, hovering just beyond the edge of anything one might regard as a clear and present body of evidence. This is especially so in what seem to be ‘relationship’ poems like ‘Entomological Specimens’, ‘Practising Your Skills’ or ‘Insomniac’ which cryptically advises: “Never marry an insomniac. You will have / to mind yourself”.

At the centre of the book are several poems about the tragic loss of Arshi’s brother, Deepak, at the age of 41. These poems are moving and suggest contrasting aspects of her work: deep levels of tact and restraint. Moving through the experiences of learning of his death and the family’s adjustment to his loss in slant poems about a phone call, practical details of the mourning process, officialdom, the family garden, the urn, the loss still feels raw and unresolved and there will be more poems to come on this topic I’m sure.

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The other prominent and enjoyable aspect of Arshi’s work is its sensuality and awareness of the body; this is a collection full of hands, feet, mouths, lips, eyes, wrists, hair and, ubiquitously, skin. In ‘Lost Poem’ she talks of “taking in language / through my skin” and there is a clear project developing here in that, at their best, these poems unfold through a language of the senses rather than the intellect. Elsewhere, Arshi writes of wanting to “sequester” and “foreignate” words, de-familiarising them, wresting them away from conventional denotation. I first heard her read aloud when she won the Magma Poetry Competition in 2011 with the ghazal-like poem, ‘Hummingbird’, here tucked away at the back of the book. I now read that poem against ‘The Lion’ and this is the one I prefer for its originality. The narrative voice (undefined) addresses the ‘you’ which is mostly the hummingbird itself, though as with ‘The Lion’ the creature is also interchangeably / metaphorically human. The tender, persuasive imperatives almost immediately carry an erotic charge, though where the “fingers” probe and slip is mostly into “spaces”, lacunae. But the hummingbird figure has none of the over-bearing masculinity of the lion; we are told it is capable of “curing”, dissolving, even pronouncing the speaker. But the speaker here is not as passive and compliant as in the earlier poem. Though she will allow him/her to open the “bone-zip of my spine”, the insistence of her voice gives her an active role in the relationship. The hummingbird is invited to “anoint” the speaker, a significant contrast to the shallowness of the lion’s crude “undressing”. (Arshi discusses this poem on the Magma website here)

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George Szirtes’ rather more restrained blurb observations suggest that he reads in Arshi’s work an “erotics of the spirit”. Without doubt, ‘The Hummingbird’ is a sexy, enigmatic, yet precisely expressed poem that is going to repay our re-reading of it. And if that is not the case with many other poems in Small Hands we should not be surprised. Arshi combines a liking for obliqueness, sometimes even coolness, with a desire to push what language can do and a willingness to experiment with form. Her cultural background is relatively unexplored here, yet promises much if that is the way she wishes to go. Not a winner of the 2015 Forward First Book award for me, but an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences.