Jacqueline Saphra’s most recent collection with The Emma Press is the result of an inspiring and eye-catching collaboration between the author and award-winning visual artist, Mark Andrew Webber. The successful pair have won the 2015 Saboteur awards for best collaboration and also share the award with composer Benjamin Tassie, who created a soundscape for the poems to produce what Saphra describes as ‘haunting miniatures.’ Grant-funded live performances are underway. Together with the book’s use of the prose poem form (and Saphra is still one of the rare author’s in the UK to use the form exclusively in a collection), this book is travelling and transcending boundaries, gathering increasing recognition in its path.
‘Haunting miniatures’ is exactly how I would describe Saphra’s prose poems – their box-like shapes containing the unnerving recollections of a child’s upbringing, told from a child’s perspective, but using a language that moves with eerie fluidity between adult and child. Webber’s linocut of a female figure in a womb-like position on the front cover, a red moon in the background, gets to the heart of the book’s point of view with its clearly lit explorations of power and vulnerability; namely blurred boundaries between the roles of parent and child. The prose poems and accompanying images unfurl like scenes in a play, the author’s background in writing plays for stage and screen apparent here. The atmosphere of the poems is further created by the tension between the tight justified margins of the prose poem’s form and the extremely carefully chosen handful of words to describe the chaos and mess derived naturally from being brought up by a series of parents and step-parents. Their eccentricities are perhaps harmless in public, but less so at home for a child, particularly when home is consistently sacrificed for work:
‘…. Our house was filled
with cookers, stethoscopes, fridges, small
hammers and secretaries taking dictation.
I sat quietly on an ink blotter while
Mother plaited my hair and father
listened to my heart.
The author is perfectly disciplined in her rendition of this hectic and at times disturbing childhood and at no point allows that experience to rattle or over-emotionalise her prose. Humour is also evident, but used wisely and the measured tone of the narrator’s voice and unfussy density of her style (in keeping with the prose poem) is brilliantly pitched against the meetings and clashes between disorder and control throughout her upbringing.
The book is full of strangely tender moments between parent and child, all of which are presented with an almost objective clarity and unemotional distance. Saphra manages to balance the narrative consistently between poignancy and hindsight, most effectively through the choreography of objects and people; their dance is a finely tuned masterpiece of her following them and they being led by her. The objects are used artfully as mouthpieces for what isn’t said:
‘My mother began to throw pots. The
walls of the kitchen were studded with small scraps of clay
… The pots would not shape up… Pouring water at mealtimes
From one of my mother’s jugs became a daily trial of nerve.’
The slips between who is adult and who is child are paramount, particularly when it comes to language; at a dinner party, this betrayal of trust and language is pointedly recalled:
My second stepmother understood about
words. She liked some of mine so much
She often kept the best ones for herself.
Once I caught her pulling a whole string
of them out of her sleeve at a dinner party
but I didn’t let on.
Saphra cuts tirelessly to the quick and the book is full of surprising and unusual examples of such sliding and absent boundaries: a stepmother wanders carpetless corridors during the winter in only gloves and slippers, forgetting herself and answering the door to the postman. In another, her father uses his stethoscope to listen to her mother’s nervous heart and brain, placing the instrument in hot water and telling her ‘to think, think hard.’ In another, the examples become memorably surreal: ‘My mother shrank to the size of a small potted plant….There were no buttons left on our shirts. Dust lay in drifts on the skirting boards; my mother was too small to keep up with the housework.’
Our interest in reading about the language and actions of adults through the experience and point of view of a child is timeless. To have this communicated to us through Saphra’s witty eye for detail and skilled and economical use and understanding of the prose poem’s call for density, clarity and ordinary surrealism is a privilege. To have this further communicated to us through illustration and music is a celebration; poetry is here, healthily talking not only to other poets, but to other disciplines and making the most of them all.
If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women by Jacqueline Saphra (Emma Press, 2014) is available here
Going through Healing Waters Floating Lamps, a selection of poems by Kiriti Sengupta made me remember few lines of Tocqueville (1835):
“In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some belles-lettres are engaged in professions that only allow them to taste occasionally and by stealth the pleasures of the mind. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, poets require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject.”
Why have I entertained these sentences is because the poet is a doctor by profession and going through his poems there is a feeling of well balanced liberation from the clutches of the laws of poetry. What emerges are encounters with the self, prodding the self to respond and contemplate.
This sleek volume with small poems are double-layered. First there is the observation with the five senses, the reality, we are comfortable with and then a second reading leads to another reality beyond words and sounds, smell and touch, where the ‘I’ withers to be at one with all.
The first poem in the volume “Beyond The Eyes” (mark the title) prepares the reader for other words, other lines on next pages of the book. It prepares us for an unknown universe, a space of different representations where the smell of infinity lingers.
I reach the sky
While I draw a circle in the water
Looking at the image
I take a dip
These lines invite the reader to take a dip in the water to create a world of their own. Water flows and so each pattern is replaced by another circle or oblong. In fact, transient. So is our material world.
As the poems progress the feeling of awareness snowballs into an all pervasive consciousness, an inner knowledge, attaining harmony with the outer world. Kiriti pushes us, prods us in each of his poems to listen, observe and be attentive to ourselves. The poet believes in living here and now in enjoying the world that encircles us and participating in the experience of the present. This is very much reflected in his poem titled “Celluloid.”
…I was hesitant, you know,
I never said goodbye
Signs are private, and I keep my eyes open.
Round the clock.
As the collection winds its way down the path of aloneness, a journey with the self, a certain certitude emerge – like putting faith in ordinary things and not accepting old mental program and rejecting external manipulation.
…The word “denser” does not
Necessarily mean thicker… (“Secure A River”)
Also in “Color Code”:
They said you were black
They knew they were white
And I said
This has been the Nelson Mandela patch.
The poems in Healing Waters Floating Lamps are to be read slowly, to ponder and think. Take for instance the poem on Varanasi. The title is the key. Here the poet does not name the poem Evening in Varanasi. He writes “Evening Varanasi”. As if Varanasi is a being, a symbol of spirituality. The mystic soul of India. Its body the meditating ground for those in search of oneness.
Have you seen the floating lamps in the river?
Water here is not the fire-extinguisher, but
The flames ascend through water
Prayers reach the meditating Lord
Both Bhagirath and Prometheus bought down river Ganga and Fire, respectively, from the heavens to bless mankind. So they are both images of life and all that is divine in the human. They are life-givers and mind-openers. The floating lamps are a reminder of this ephemeral world, which is floating and changing. Only mindfulness is real and that opens the door of super consciousness or God (Prayers reach the meditating Lord).
Again the poet very subtly plays with the theme of eternity in his poem “Memorandum Of Understanding”. Age is a human perception and we cannot bottle air in ancient and medieval, modern and post-modern bottles.
Air and age are linked
Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient. These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and give them form through words without frills. The poems are short and deeply suggestive, unlocking hidden areas of the self and not simply illustrating an object or an event. What is interesting that there are many ways of reading his poems. They are not restricted. They are like one long abstract painting, inviting the readers to come up with their own meaning, thereby making them participate in the poem. So as readers they are also writing. Perhaps, after reading Kiriti’s poetry the reader would turn to love and compassion in these days of online shopping, virtual friends and emotions in the shapes of smilies.
Sharmila Ray went to Presidency College and Calcutta University where she majored in History, did her Ph.D. on Durga and governance and subsequently joined City College, Kolkata under Calcutta University where she is now an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of History. She writes in English and has authored six books of poetry, most recently With Salt And Brine (Yeti Publishers, Calicut 2013). She has experimented her poems with Sarod (Indian string instrument) and the result is a CD— Journey Through Poetry And Music. Her poems are available in a CD- Hello. Her poems, short stories and non fictional essays have appeared in various national and international magazines and journals.
Note: this review first appeared in print and online in the Lost Coast Review, published by Avignon Press, California: http://www.lostcoastreview.com/healing-waters-floating-lampsRead More
Marc Woodward is a musician, which is tangible in A Fright of Jays. With controlled rhythm and sense of pacing, many of the pieces here carry you along with them. There are stories of moonlight and wildlife in the strange, small wildernesses of the South West. In its strongest passages, the relationship with the landscape is both brutal and beautiful – hints of the sublime and the realistic one finds in Jack Clemo or Ted Hughes. The proliferation of foxes, owls and rabbits clearly marks a sympathy with the latter, as does the unflinching description of finishing off a life in ‘Eel Catching’.
The convincingness of the stories is greatest when they are simplest. The myth of ‘The Bowman’s Lament’ is full of memorable images – ‘The air stepped sideways, / shivering at the brush of fletching as the shaft / flew past and rush on up to the white moon’. The sustained, precise gentleness of ‘Revival’, about saving a lizard ‘stunned to stupor by the late March chill’ is remarkable. It’s also no coincidence that these poems are the most formally controlled (both sonnets), avoiding the occasional bagginess of some longer pieces.
‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’, for example, is spooky and physical, capturing the chill of being stranded in deep countryside at night. So easily lost ‘on these shapeless acres’, the night encloses you, soft and inescapable: ‘You hear the weight of condensation / on a vast ocean of bending blades’. The beautiful sensory wash of the poem is undercut a little by its more overtly dramatic gestures, which reach for bigger effects than the poem needs; restraint produces the more genuine images. Contrast, in ‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’, the stretch of ‘Here there is nothing to save you. / If you lie down now, this wet ditch / may be your decomposing place’ in this poem with the tenderness of the ending of ‘Revival’: ‘I felt her move, / faintly, as she responded to the heat’.
My favourites in this collection make the poet palpably ‘present’, speaking quietly and directly. The most effective is ‘The Nightshades at the Church House Inn’, which opens with a group of musicians grabbing a smoke between sets – ‘I’m here not for the nicotine / but the camaraderie. / The cupped hands, click of lighters, / the lighting off from one another:’ This is the least rhythmically orderly poem – the musician taking a break? – but is also unselfconscious and full of details. Like all these poems, it’s great to read aloud, but here we get closest to the poet’s natural voice, it seems. The final lines highlight the best parts of the collection. They most clearly reveal the poet as quietly contrarian observer, letting the weight of the exact word do the work: ‘I pick up my mandolin – a warm brown shade: / ‘Cremona’ if it was a fiddle. ‘Tobacco’ mandolinists say.’
Mike Rose-Steel is editor for Spindlebox press, and founded the Exegesis writing collective. He researches on Wittgenstein and poetics. Recent poetry collections include Paraphernalium and Drawing Over is Drawing Under.
Order your copy of Marc Woodward’s chapbook A Fright of Jays, published Maquette Press, hereRead More
NJ Hynes’ debut collection won the inaugural Live Canon First Collection Prize and was published in 2014. Full disclosure: I too have been in Live Canon anthologies and contributed to their installation Health Tips For The Year Ahead in 2012, but have not met her personally.
She writes poems that are in turns regular and free, dipping in and out of form with assured ease. At the heart of this collection are the six eponymous sonnets: written mostly in iambic pentameters, each numbered and progressing into increasingly tighter rhyme schemes as the narrative circles from a chillingly dispassionate third-person:
‘Her first appointment is at half past four.’ (TDoEP 1)
into first person immediacy and dismay:
‘Why did I let him? How could I be blind
to his intention, the treatment’s steady creep
along my pillow, eating away at you?’ (TDoEP 6)
The six-poem cycle is the poetic equivalent of The Matrix meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, implying a futuristic technology that induces a virtual reality preferable to your current real one. Sometimes there is a glitch in the system, as in TDoEP 3:
‘wait, when did that stout man arrive?
The simulation didn’t mention him:
… Someone selected Touch
the Holy Face of Him and our orders crossed.
Now they have my ants and I their god.’
In String Theory for Emily Dickinson, she riffs on Dickinson’s distinctive style (and particularly the subject matter of Because I Could Not Stop For Death) in an impressively accurate way, neatly incorporating subatomic theoretical physics into three perfectly controlled stanzas:
‘I’ll fill my bait box with dark matter,
Cast small nets to sea –
I’ll know if strings are stronger when
We meet infinity.’
There is simplicity to be found in some of her less obviously structured poems. For instance, Offshore Liquidity shimmers with internal rhymes and deft use of alliteration. If one were to bandy the term ‘sonnet’ about with ease, one might call it a sonnet. There are certainly fourteen lines, ending with a rhyming couplet. But this is a wholly modern take on the form, and I reserve a reader’s right to enjoy the playful imagery without worrying about the kind of dry analysis that put us all off poetry at school. It may be that this collection wears its considerable learning very lightly indeed, to magical effect.
‘Some days I prefer the gentle
lap lapping of the sea,
not the one hand clapping
of a stream over a boulder
but the precise dipping
of a cat’s tidy tongue,
a sipping so melodic
and consistent you forget
that something so insistent
easily gets out of hand, and
don’t notice as the water curls
around your striped canvas chair,
lifting it up – the only dry land
now a distant line of silent sand.’
A couple of poems explore music. A Multiple Bar Rest meditates on how unplayed, wrapped up instruments might feel, who ‘can’t remember their initials or family names’, but ends confessing ‘how nice it is, really, not to have an audience.’ In Recital, there is almost a synesthete’s imagination of how music might manifest itself: ‘the notes … form ice crystals / that will surely melt at my touch / if they stop spinning long enough.’
Subjects jump. The vast scale of a world is a few pages away from a poem observing a single orange. Ode to a Flat Earth fires up with the provocative ‘I’m bored by infinity.’ Twelve lines later, Hynes has conjured dragons, waterfalls, day-trippers and pilgrims, ending with a fierce yearning for definition: ‘ … I might see the finite edge of things, / a life held to a world that refuses to curve.’ On Shaftesbury Avenue compresses our gaze onto an orange and its charmed, temporary survival on a busy road: ‘ … for a moment / the world rolled over it without harm – / the longer it lasted, the more I believed.’
The Department of Emotional Projections is, refreshingly, a collection rather than a book of linked poems which seems in vogue today, and probably easier to sell. You can dip into a collection: most of the poems are independent beings that can answer your mood. I love its variety and scope, and the feeling of being well-travelled by the end. An impressive debut indeed.
Isabel Rogers’ work has been published in various places including Poetry Wales, Mslexia and Under the Radar. She won the 2014 Cardiff International Poetry Competition.
Order your copy of NJ Hynes’ The Department of Emotional Projections here
Writers of reviews often know more about an author than can be adduced directly from the book. This is often due to the author’s known oevre and career, or to previous discussions that have taken place in the literary arena. But sometimes one’s knowledge has been less widely shared. Discussing a book in relation to its author has been epitomised dismissively as “what the artist had for breakfast,” but certainly most reading will benefit from some additional knowledge about the circumstances surrounding a book.
Abiding Chemistry for me comes into this category. I, and many others (though not the poetry establishment), know a good deal about the background to these poems. We remember the author as the first woman Professor of English Literature at Glasgow University, as the poet of her first poetry book The Candlewoman’s Trade (2003). We recognise her as a scholar of Southern American literature who has travelled the world as professor, examiner, speaker, and as an American lady who has very much settled in England and Europe.
It is from her poems that we know of her Louisiana childhood, her extraordinary and at times traumatic family (here shown compactly in a few poems on pages 13-20), and in them that we read through these expertly sequenced poems, her memorial and tribute to her husband, who died unexpectedly at their newly acquired Sussex country home, less than three years after their relationship began.
This story too is already in the public (though not literary) domain. In an amazingly open, intense and moving blog, The News on the Street, followed by many people all over the world, Susan Castillo Street wrote of the crisis when her husband fell in their home and suffered a head injury, and of the weeks of uncertainty while he remained in a coma. That blog came to its end and Susan writes a new blog now, but it is all still available.
Abiding Chemistry is a book about recovery. The voice of these poems is independent, charting a deep and important relationship and looking round to the world of family and place, before and after these events.
The poems are not limited by national traditions. They are not in either the current English or American style. Though she now lives in the south of England and has made contact with poetry groups there, and the author seems to regard Sussex as her home, her previous academic stint in Glasgow brought her into contact with Philip Hobsbaum and major Scottish poets. Where does an international writer fit in?
The voice is intellectual and often catches parable-like conclusions. In the first and title poem:
Perhaps love is its other name,
this abiding chemistry
that binds the fragments close.
and in Question:
I point up at the sky.
“The Big Dipper” I tell my child.
“A question mark,” she says.
There is droll humour elsewhere:
the rope gravediggers use
south of the Mason-Dixon line
is springy bungee cord.
up the shadows burst once more
in showers of dark soil
You always used to steal the duvet.
One day when we lie together
deep in Sussex soil, you’ll be up
to your old tricks.
and daring in some:
They say that at the moment an atomic bomb explodes
outlines shimmer, colours radiate out
shadows of what was imprinted on the walls
time slows, stops, crystallised
in all its fractures.
Moving from an awareness of her early family at the start of the book, to closeness with her granddaughter in the last poem, the poet places the three year love affair in the context of her adventurous life with success and dignity, in a clear poetry that smiles out from every line.
The actual publication is American in style, and the project has been completed with alacrity and practicality, presenting as it does an essentially memorial volume, while also being worthy of an academic and a poet.
Order your copy of Abiding Chemistry by Susan Castillo Street, published by Aldrich Press here
In Letting Go, Angela Topping writes about loss, she writes about love, she writes about parents and children. She holds family relationships up to the light as if she was a jeweller examining a diamond. And on every turn, she sees something fresh, and writes something wonderful. There is a thorough examination of links forged and links broken here, an analysis of the shifting tenses of the family unit.
Angela has ten other poetry pamphlets and collections on her CV, she is what I think of as a proven poet. When I read her work I am not analysing it in the way that, thanks to years of studying, I do with some poetry, I am sitting back and enjoying the gift. I am being given something beautiful to handle and enjoy, something tactile and familiar. There’s a sense of confidence and patience within the poems, a feeling of safety, a feeling that here is a poet who absolutely knows what she is doing and she is getting it right in every poem.
Poets are drawn to writing about loss. It has to be, in one form or another, the most written about topic. So it’s refreshing to read poems that do not talk about death and longing in great crashing waves of grief. Angela’s scalpel is far more delicate, she exhibits a real skill in writing such subtle, but incredibly moving poetry. As a reader, I don’t want to be shown huge emotions that are difficult to touch, I want that huge emotion folded into something real, something I recognise, and Angela does that. She writes about what it feels like to sit on your dad’s knee, how it feels to let go of that, forever, she writes about dead goldfish, and the natural reaction to the physicality of death, she writes honestly, truthfully about life. I was reminded a little of Sharon Old’s truthful and unvarnished style when I read some of these poems.
Having said all that, I may be doing Angela a massive disservice by talking so much about the death theme in this collection. These poems cover a greater sense of scope than that, they are about severance in relationships and the inevitable letting go that one must go through with children, having done your job. You don’t get to keep them. Family is an evolving dynamic in this collection, it is not static, and people separate and move away whatever you do.
That inevitability, the helplessness is a key theme. Poems like Father’s Bronchitis, with its final lines:
He sits by the open door,
gasping like a landed carp.
There’s nothing I can do except
brew up the way he likes, put away
elicit the sort of emotional response that poetry should – the connection – we have all been helpless for someone we love at one time or another and all watched, offering small comforts while the wall of the inevitable pain creeps towards us like a glacier. These poems are about a shared knowledge of humanity; loss is part of the journey.
This is a collection that is difficult to describe in few words. It is about more than loss. It’s a reminiscence, it’s a photo album of emotions that make up this network of being, it is a quiet intensity. There is a complicated machine beneath the skin of motherhood, parenthood and childhood. It has connections that we feel, but find difficult to identify. The title poem; so simple, so elegant, sums it up so well, the journey and all the complicated emotional pathways beneath the practical and physical. A wheel turning towards the inevitable:
But they learn to walk away
like any other guest.
Letting Go is published by Mother’s Milk Books at £8.99 in the Uk and is available from: mothersmilkbooks.comRead More
O’Brien’s debut collection War Reporter recently won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for best first collection. It deals with his relationship with the Pulitzer prize winning war photographer Paul Watson, exploring what drives him to take his camera into war zones, into areas of extreme poverty, famine and disease, into a world of suffering. It also examines the developing complex relationship between the poet and the photographer. It is also the mirror piece to an award winning play, The Body of An American by O’Brien. This is undoubtedly a rich and intricate collection yet I have chosen to discuss his follow up collection called Scarsdale as for me this opens up an opportunity to scrutinise what makes a life story and poetry work or sink into that special abyss kept for poems that earn the label of yet another domestic mother/father poem. Even this week I noted one judge of a national poetry competition referring to a seemingly endless arrival of poor poems about mothers. So what sort of a poem manages to side step the domestic or banal yet still tackles the family as its subject.
I have not called this piece a review because that word always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable because I am not a reviewer. I write about work that I have learnt from or have loved and I want to share it with those who care to give of their time to reading this, so clearly I am biased. That’s my cards on the table before we start.
In Scarsdale O’Brien explores his own childhood and family ties and that can be a huge minefield for any poet. Memory makes a rich stew of truth, lies, reality and illusion; from each retrieved moment we construct a world that we fight to make sense of. If a collection such as this is to avoid sentimentality, eschew a hackneyed feel of the confessional or not be threaded through with darkness in order to achieve some spurious sense of poetic gravitas it has to use the quality of the writing to hold it all together and give it true coherence for the reader. Scarsdale is a master class in how to engage with memory and make of it something honest, an individual story yet also something universal. If you want to write about your family and struggle with the complexity of memory then it would be worth reading this collection. The collection is a triptych , childhood memories in Scarsdale, his time abroad as a graduate especially in Ireland and his return and his family seen through the eyes of someone who is already moving away, pulling back and changing perspective. Scarsdale is an affluent predominantly white neighbourhood in the northern suburbs of New York City and O’Brien’s family were an Irish American culturally working class family with six children. There was already something of a misfit, a friction that seemed to give the family a sense of alienation from what surrounded them before O’Brien was even born. The dice of place and character had already been thrown, as a child he entered a stage where the backdrop, the furniture had already been placed and the back story of characters had already begun to play out.
The first poem My Handwriting opens as a preface to the whole narrative arc and very much sets the tone for the collection. It ends on a quest
… Or did I dwindle myself down
to this thread on the page
so my mother would find me
and ask, What’s this?
You have to earn a question mark, using it for quick effect undercuts its power if you are unable to subsequently convey to the reader an honesty in searching for an answer to that question. I think O’Brien earns his right to it.
In the first section there are poems which draw the reader into a claustrophobic world of a dysfunctional family although there is a grim sense that the family has developed its own way of surviving and adapting to its own history littered as it is with alcoholism, mental illness and the conjuring of secret absence where a child should be. Others have already commented on the theme of ghosts that seem to walk the corridors of O’Brien’s writing both in War Reporter and Scarsdale. The sense I have in this collection is almost a visual one, a striving to create ‘negative space’, writing the space to form the subject, in this way each poem begins to shape the sense of what family is. Even the use of the white page , the poem layout and length, free verse form and enjambment adds almost subliminally to this creation of the space and thus the object.
The House in Scarsdale is the last poem in the first section, it is a two page solid edifice in the voice of O’Brien’s mother. It is an attempt to answer from her perspective the question of why? A wealthy father, an alcoholic mother, an elder brother sent to an institution ‘Calvary’ because of some unknown special need and never spoken of again, a brother who attempts to burn their house down, all this is what she has inherited, and to her mind explains what has been handed down. It ends
……which is why we had to
elope, which is why we have so little
money now. Or not much anyway.
Because eventually my father took pity
on us all, and bought us this house in Scarsdale
so our children at least would not suffer.
The middle section has lighter touches, although that is not to say that the collection as a whole does not have humour or wit, from The Limerick Station:
The patois of young men
like a clamour
of silverware spilled out
across the marble floor. All knives
and forks and spoons; and nothing
to eat yet…….
The third section has more memories but this time they seem to come from another place as if the I has somehow been extracted from the we/us and there is less use of the filmic ‘you’ as if the distance that pronoun gives when watching yourself was no longer so necessary. The poem Truro is the one that uses the we in this section to etch an image of the family together at the beach but even then the father remains aloof
…. Our father never swam, he stood
rotund and pale atop a low dune………
If I am reading this poem correctly the you here becomes the brother who struggles with depression, the one who the father describes to O’Brien in these terms ‘your brother will never marry’. After the brother arrives at the beach the poem ends with what is almost a perfect two line eulogy for him and for the whole family
at the end of the day, the step from sand to pavement
was enough to break your hearts
Estrangement between his family and O’Brien was almost inevitable, although not a consequence of this collection, and he has in interviews and at readings made no secret of that. There are enough secrets already warping the timbers of this family ship. When a child is cut loose, set adrift from the family sometimes they sink but sometimes it is the ship that flounders and the child is able to find their own land, make their own small ship with timbers not out of true. In Truro O’Brien describes himself as always preferring to look out to sea.
This collection is dark, it feels almost voyeuristic at times glimpsing into the fractured heart of a family that survives on secrets. It is certainly not to be taken as a straight factual memoir in poetry, poetry can do so much more than that. It is almost alchemic in its mix of memory, emotional truth and mythic construct, at times it has some elements of magic realism. Almost everything of emotional importance that O’Brien tries to interrogate becomes like one of the wounded raccoons being clubbed to death by his father before the family next door wakes up and is never to be spoken of. It is no wonder that O’Brien writes of an early memory of his mother hearing mice scuttling in the walls and waiting up with her with bats and brooms but falling asleep and thus ‘failing’ her. Perhaps the power of this collection lies in the sense that we are those mice running in the walls of the house watching and listening. It takes courage and craft to write about your family, being totally honest to your experiences and yet steering this side of exhibitionistic self-revelation. O’Brien I think achieves this level of courage and craft.
Scarsdale by Dan O’Brien is published by CB Editions. Order your copy here
Andrea Porter‘s most recent collection, House of the Deaf Man, a collaboration with the contemporary artist Tom de Freston about Goya’s ‘black paintings’ was published in 2012 by Gatehouse Press