Merman opens with the obliquely powerful titular poem (an Arvon International Poetry Award winner 2010), justifiably described by the Poet Laureate as “wonderful”. Indeed, it is the outstanding poem in this excellent, multi-layered collection – O’Brien’s fourth. The cover representation of her post-Arvon collaboration with visual artist, Ray Murphy, weights that single poem still more. Yet it is the sole poem on that theme. No matter; there is much to be explored and only one other poem stands out strangely from this well-edited collection, and for very different reasons which I will come to it later.
If there is nothing mythological in the wake of “Merman”, there is certainly Catholicism; its take on the underworld receives a witty slap in “Hell Reinstated”, “The Pope he knows he’s got the inside track”, whilst “Keeping Shtum” has a humourous childhood take on remembered Easter rites.
No memories waiting to ambush
and snare her back[…] (“Clear Water”)
That’s not quite true and also taken out of context. O’Brien casts memory very well – “the smell of summer/potted in a jar –” (“Summer Preserved”). Those evocative, visual (if sometimes incomprehensibly punctuated) pieces work: “[…] outside Greengages/ slowly ripen” and sits more easily alongside her lyrical recollections of the natural world in poems like “Rowing” and “Snow Ciphers”, where “Lambs hurtle like tossed snowballs”.
However, when it comes to close family memories O’Brien really excels; from her Grandmother, almost hauntingly to “My Mother Ate Electricity”, which is as remarkable, fine and disturbing as the title suggests. Its sister poem “Euphemisms” paradoxically speaks great truths. Nor does the poet shrink from the graphic nature of her own serious illnesses, and while loss and losing are strong waters, her hand is equally strong at the tiller of hope and happiness – “She is ghosting her way here in flickering lines” (“Attachment”) tells the love story of her daughter’s adoption across continents. Later, in “Clear Water”
How free she is. Does she know
how to grasp it, land it like a salmon
Swim we call to her breathlessly.
If O’Brien works most powerfully with those closest, she also includes a wide array of characters and influences. Anne Frank, William Carlos Williams, Rene Magritte, Adrienne Rich and more feature, and perhaps most surprisingly given that illustrious company, the daft Father Dougal in a salute to his unforgettable and unlearnable lesson (Small Cow, Far Away Cow Perspective).
Wide-ranging indeed. O’Brien can slip into a sestina or a sonnet, turn shape poems, reference the Bible and popular television programmes, yet one poem, on page 19, sticks out like a thorn.There may well be moments in the private study of any contemporary Irish poet when that island’s extraordinarily rich poetic heritage cast as much shadow as light. “Brown trout”, “Lamping”, “Fossil Fuel”, poems of childhood, of Catholic tradition, death, water, foxes, weather, landscape …well, perhaps in the poet’s thoughts anything Irish really. O’Brien does have some reason to fear that someone might have been there already.
Images of drowned faces upturned
like supplicants trapped [..]
However, if any poet feels inclined to indulge in versified shillelagh rattling at major names and at their supposed hinterland, then the poem fashioned for that purpose must be an incredibly fine piece of blackthorn.
She should take heart. As far as I know, Seamus Heaney never wrote of the rising of the Arab Spring in Tunisia (“Nesting Democracies”), and I’m certain he never framed the very true and funny
I’m Irish, we keep our clothes on
most of the time. (“Skinny Dipping”)
And Paul Muldoon possibly never laughed at Father Ted, but then nor did he write the brave “Fragments”.
Jean O’Brien did and she should be proud. Next time, just leave out “Dear Reader Seamus Heaney Doesn’t Own Them”. We know.