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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Two-Headed Calf: Review of Jacob Polley’s ‘Jackself’

Of those people I spoke to, many poetry readers were surprised and delighted that Jacob Polley’s Jackself recently won the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize against competition from the likes of Capildeo, Duhig, Oswald and Riley among others. Caught between a desire that prizes go only to the very best work and a wish that poetry’s few rewards be more equitably distributed, I was also delighted as this is a book which is bold and inventive, against the grain and successfully ambitious. (Apologies for some loss of formatting of any quotes that follow).

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The book’s novelistic aspects have been noted in reviews – they are easier to discuss than its poetic achievements. Jackself is a boy growing up in the rural north of England, befriended by Jeremy Wren who, within a few years, commits suicide, leaving Jackself to deal with the grief. As ‘novel’ material, both the opening and close of the book refuse to provide what a reader might be looking for but as poetry it delivers what Heaney characterised as the “superfluity of language’s own resources. It’s a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry” (Giving Their Word, 2002). Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up.

It’s best to begin with Jackself’s birth poem, ‘Every Creeping Thing’, the second in the collection (I’ll return to the first, ‘The House that Jack Built’ later). The natural world is important to the boy and this book and his arrival “at the door / of the door of the door” is also a journey “by water mite / by the snail on its slick of light”. There’s a Hughesian feel to some of the poems (Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-door’ here?) but Jackself enters a childhood freshly and vividly caught in its exploration by mouth and “curatorial spit”, cat-watching, one-piece suits and sleep that ends by “mak[ing] / the world over again” (‘Jack Sprat’). All seems good and safe though by the sixth birthday party with its “six / goody candles” there is a noting of absence: “no wishing it wouldn’t be / or wasn’t or would better be / no wondering how so hard it hurts” (‘The Goodies’). This seems proleptic of darker questions to come and is also a good example of Polley’s vigorously colloquial style, full of dynamic sound patterning.

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It’s never easy to determine Jackself’s age in the book (occasionally I felt he was older than his responses suggested). I think Rimbaud suggests the detachment of self-consciousness kicks in around 7 years old so it’s perhaps at that age that Jackself is “afraid like snow he’ll wane or drift / before he can hold /  the road out front” (‘Jackself’s Quality’). He also explores “the lovely lofts / of Lamanby” – his house – showing a reflective, curiosity which is notably not catered for at school. ‘Lessons’ is great poem about the failures of education (I write as a teacher) with Jackself taken away to a corner, impelled to worship, to eat shit school dinners, to be humiliated before his parents. The thumbnail sketch of the Headmaster, Mr Workbench is worthy of Dickens as he “solemnly inclines / his one-thought- / at-a-time head”. Polley captures Jackself’s alternative headspace beautifully:

 

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

[. . . ]

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

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Where Jackself is at home is in the natural world. ‘Applejack’ has strong echoes of Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ with its instinctual, open-minded, pre-language, exploratory movement:

 

by hedgehog path

and badger path, Jackself

happens with the clouds

into sunlight

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The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. The pair strike up a double act – they both respond powerfully to the natural world and their dialogues are both funny and poignant. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, getting drunk on “white cider and Malibu”, Jackself let’s slip for the first time an interest in poetry: “A POEM! Wren roars / you’re creepy as a two-headed calf”. This is also one of the early moments when we see Wren’s troubled side – his father beats him. The jigsaw pieces of the boy’s troubles are carefully placed by Polley. He and Jackself meet in a goose shed, as if both on the run from something; ‘It’ asks “tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren”; in ‘Snow Dad’ Wren insists they make a replacement father snow-man but also recalls when he climbed into a chest freezer. He hangs himself in ‘Pact’. He “hangs thinking fuck I’ve left / no note until he’s fucking dead”. Maitreyabandhu has written of not dissimilar events in his sequence ‘Stephen’ in The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013).

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Jackself now becomes a study in teenage grief. ‘The Hole’ has Jackself contemplating Wren’s grave (this is one of the poems where the language seems less comfortably matched with the likely age of the boy). One way he tries to deal with the loss is by writing. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is a deconstructed – or as they say of websites, still in construction – ballad with Jackself trying, then rejecting, lines in a fashion that is both humorous and touching (“no           again . . .  no          again”).

Polley’s achievement is to find a form and voice which can encompass all this . . . stuff. Long and short lines are scattered across the pages, poems often start in media res, often lack an explicit subject, dialogue is unmarked and the reader must sort things out. But this all adds urgency to the telling and a fluidity to the narrative perspectives. Polley’s Jackself often reminded me of David Jones’ protagonist, Private John Ball, from In Parenthesis (1937). The two share a mythic quality, representative but individualised. In ‘The Misery’ Jackself becomes/sees himself as a heroic dragon-slayer and the dragon he wishes to kill is his grief at the death of Wren. The disturbed psychological perspective implied by this is a result of his depression over the suicide of his friend – but the poem manages a marvellous mock-heroic tone:

 

from his weapon chest,

the sheath knife, Eglantine                      from his wardrobe,

his denim jacket, torch, tool belt, tin camping cup,

rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate

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What he kills in the end is just a rabbit but the ritualistic/symbolic nature of his action has an effect. It takes a while, during which he continues his (often hilarious) dialogues with the dead Wren and finds solace in the natural world but ‘Tithe’ indicates through its page lay-out, its vast white spaces, that Wren vanishes eventually, Jackself moves on.

Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure (though I thought we’d all grown out of that). This is in contrast to the opening poem of the book, ‘The House that Jack Built’, which I found powerful in its own right as a historical survey of the region in which Jackself’s brief story takes place. Polley writes of the trees being felled and used, re-growing through history, interactions with burgeoning human society, the Industrial Revolution, canal building, eventually to the construction of Lamanby itself. Critics will want to debate its relevance to the sequence of personal biography that follows it and concludes with no explicit ‘picking up’ of the opening poem’s themes. It is a problem; but the depth of history this opening poem implies, its focus on the natural world, its foregrounding of (for want of a better word) folk culture surely gains Polley permission for the way in which he tells Jackself’s tale, for it as a poem. Like Jones’ use of mythic, folkloric and Shakespearean materials in In Parenthesis, Polley raises the small-scale biographical to a type without losing anything of the minute particulars which enable its readers to read Jack as themselves.

Michael Donaghy – 10 Years On

With the South Bank in London about to stage a celebration of Michael Donaghy’s work (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/michael-donaghy-a-celebratio-85980) and several new publications forthcoming, I remember reading with him around 1990 at that same venue. I’m sure the event was recorded but I’ve never heard it since. He was reading from Shibboleth (1988) and I must have been reading from Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). I reviewed his posthumous book Safest (2005) for Poetry London (I think) and thought it might be appropriate to post it here unchanged. My intention was to review his work as a whole as well as commenting on the short collection that Picador had then produced.

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Michael Donaghy’s death in 2004 is rightly regarded as a great loss to English poetry. With the publication of Safest – poems he had been preparing for a fourth collection – we can see his work over 30 years forming a tragically curtailed, but significant whole. I wonder if he tired of the early ‘metaphysical’ label, so easily applied to a poem like ‘Machines’ which opened his first book and remarkable in 1988 for its elegance of form and delicate wit. What is really distinctive in the first two books is his pursuit of the dramatic lyric. Donaghy is a terrific storyteller and a key part of his success is the irresistable address of his narrators. This is usually combined with astonishingly fluid transitions from colloquialism to the complexly erudite (the metaphysical bit). Drama lies in Donaghy’s precision of voice, the accessibility of character and narrative and his superb, often comic, sense of timing. His deployment of these various devices results in the other distinctive property of a Donaghy poem – the sheer distance it can travel from start to finish and the surprises on the way. Particularly for those who saw him perform, these are the elements he triumphantly combined in feast-like poems such as ‘Smith’, ‘Letter’, ‘Cadenza’, ‘Liverpool’, ‘The Hunter’s Purse’ and ‘Erratum’.

In retrospect, the traditional nature of his subjects is clear: love, art, death, time. Perhaps the absence of politics will come to be seen as a bar to real greatness, though the opening 20 pages of Shibboleth and the first two sections of Errata are very powerful evidence in his favour. Perhaps all his concerns are subsumed in his continual meditation on the temporal – how identity is composed of past events, how the past can seem more real than the present, how “the past falls open anywhere” (‘Black Ice and Rain’ from Conjure). Always restless, Donaghy’s third book seemed significantly darker in tone and contained fewer stories. What the blurb referred to as his most “vulnerable” work is a series of heart-broken love lyrics and a number of poems on his relationship with his dead father. Of the latter, ‘Caliban’s Books’ is outstanding and need give no quarter to Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ in the evocation of parent/child relationships and Donaghy’s poem is full of tenderness and astringent nostalgia for the lost man and his Irish childhood.

Now Safest gives us 24 new poems – barely half a full collection – and one can only wonder at what might have been. Maddy Paxman’s note on the contents suggests these were the pieces Donaghy had approved for publication, but even so the repetition of a brief passage in two quite different poems (page 21 and 27) suggests an inevitable lack of finish. The book seems to have been shaping up more to resemble Conjure than the early work. Vintage Donaghy can be found in poems like ‘A Darkoom’, an imagined/remembered portrait of Klein, a holocaust survivor and photographer, visited in the garrulous narrator’s youth but whose memories of the man are at risk of being forgotten. The opening poem’s image of a Claude Glass (an 18th century device for creating picturesque images of landscapes that lie at the viewer’s back) is a perfect vehicle to articulate Donaghy’s retrospective habit of  “squinting to recall some fading pleasure, / or [being] blinded by some private scrim of tears” (‘Upon a Claude Glass’).

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‘From the Safe House’ is another narrative tour de force, blurring the boundaries of memory and imagination, compacting time to an eternal instant in writing a letter from Reagan-era Chicago to send in the present day to a friend who has just died prematurely but imagining him a happily married father in Vera Cruz! Against all the odds this works – and is deeply moving. This is an almost baroque extension of earlier modes, but Donaghy’s bold re-writing of the original in ‘Akhmatova Variations’ looks like a new direction. As does ‘The Moko’, which reads as a hypnotic paean to some whale-like creature: “Muscles of silence are rolling miles offshore at night”. Such environmental concerns are new in Donaghy’s work and his lyricism invests these creatures with grace and nobility:

They knew the stars and steered by singing them

and when the stars were dark, by wind,

and when the winds died, by wave swell,

bird flight, swirled shoals of luminous algae,

by phosphorescence a fathom under the outrigger.

The fact that the moko turns out to be a Polynesian mythical beast of the sea only adds to the poem’s intrigue.

Donaghy’s art – as far as it was allowed to develop – owes its success to contradictory impulses. It thrives on tensions between fluid and formal, colloquial and erudite, humour and seriousness, personal and impersonal. It strikes me there was a movement over the years from the first of each of these contrasts towards the second – whether a permanent sea change or mere local turbulence we will never know. Of course, hindsight tempts us to see the darkening as prophetic but, as I have said, this was under way in his third book. Safest has its preponderance of troubled and troubling lyrics, less love-torn this time, more concerned with the dissolution of self. ‘Midriver’ is a bold language experiment in which the lyric voice is almost wholly stripped of its personal pronoun and identity seems lost in a swirl of the temporal and spatial: “so stops halfway and, neither there nor there, / but cold and rained on and intransitive”. Even more explicitly in ‘Exile’s End’ and ‘Disquietude’, it is death that lowers and Donaghy writes not with Larkin’s horror, nor Thomas’ raging, but from an intrigued distance: “No recording devices are allowed in this hall. / The lights dim . . . / for the next movement / which features no one and is silent”. (‘Disquietude’).