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Sean O’Brien
The Drowned Book
Picador £8.99


Sean O’Brien’s latest collection has tapped into something, or rather somewhere. The aptly named ‘Drowned Book’ is bloated with stagnant, subterranean water, the pages part to make way for O’Brien’s black rivers and ‘dark, peopled water’. This poetry indeed has the pervading quality of its main subject, and swims with the same jellied, cold blooded things as those subreal estuaries.
The drowned world has been crafted to communicate an almost bodily misery through O’Brien’s images of stagnation ‘The water, if you glimpsed it, looked as thick/As jelly from a tin of Sunday ham’ this simile exemplifying the visceral texture of stagnating life. In his poetry O’ Brien observes the rotting of the mundane world while capturing and holding the dark magic in it; poems such as ‘Three Lighthouses’ and ‘River-doors’ tip at the point where the dreaming world begins to crack into the deteriorated ‘real’, ending with all the tension of a poet waiting for something monstrous to show.
It is this dreamlike quality that perhaps makes The Drowned Book so unnerving to read; O’ Brien’s poetry reads like accounts of resurfaced subconscious memories, not just artistically dark abstractions of the waking world. Take ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ for example, where ‘There are guttering cap-lamps bound up in the roots/Where the coal is beginning again’ these ideas of embowering and encroaching rot are strong motifs in The Drowned Book, which feels consequently internal, womblike. O’ Brien’s drains and dark canals express something of the mind and its darkest circles, a frightening concept that has been at most times eloquently plumbed.
There are some who may criticize The Drowned Book for over using this water theme and imagery, but Sean O’Brien’s usual subjects of the North of England, trains, oppression and war require absolute drenching in order to encompass all things in the ebb and flow of eternal waters. In reading this piece it does well to remember that too much of a good thing is not always so bad. The Drowned Book however, does eventually begin to breath, a redeeming feature for those unsettled by having their heads held firmly under literary water for fifty five pages. Half way through his latest collection Sean O’Brien’s tone does not lighten, but it in a way resurfaces into cool daylight (a near seamless move due to the poet maintaining an air of hopelessness and oppression throughout)
While this new collection is impressive in its concept (all things coming from and leading ineluctably to water) it lames itself with overconfidence; ‘Lost songs of the Apparatus’ looses its coherence and direction as a journey through railway station as it is sliced through with complex and often irrelevant notes, and ‘Song: Habeas Corpus’ forces itself along with an ungainly meter and painful clichéd simplicity too reminiscent of inexperienced poets for a writer of O’Brien’s reputation – ‘Oh lock me in the deepest jail/And throw away the key/The nation’s desperate to be saved/From ‘elements’ like me.’ Such inclusions in this collection bring to question whether O’Brien’s second Forward Prize was thoroughly deserved or not, the answer perhaps being ‘not entirely, but this dark river is at least something to be appreciated’.


Catherine Woodward



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