Sean O’Brien’s sixth full collection, The Beautiful Librarians, may be seen as large in comparison to its range of overplayed political themes. Opening with the poem “Audiology”, the speaker describes hearing the “unfracked oil of Lancashire”, which may not be termed a tired poetic subject yet, but certainly the rhetoric has the potential to become so. More significantly and perhaps quite arrogantly, he hears “what you’re thinking”. “There goes your silent count to ten” as we the reader are instructed to lose our temper. The danger here is that, as readers, we may lose our temper as we may not all agree with his political ideology. The use of direct “You” could easily irritate us rather than rouse us. Eventually we are told “But this is not about you”. O’Brien certainly evokes anger with his instructional tone and his imagery of beasts such as “the bull, the bear” (referring also, of course, to the markets), but it is not the poem’s objective which leaves us enraged. In the last two lines that hark back to the title – “ Audiology” – he is doomed “to wear an aid and act my age to hear the world/ behind this world and not to crave amnesia”. These bring a comforting roundness to the poem but his imagery of hearing unintentionally may just fall on deaf ears.
As a university review, it would be a crime to overlook “Residential Brownjohnesque”. The speaker’s direct second person address gives a sense of inclusion. The reader is imagined into a dark attic room with a bed which “you realise eventually is coffin shaped”. There is a credible sense of lifelessness and banality in a scene that is enhanced by the repetition of “deja-vu”. The speaker reads a list of ridiculous names in a mocking fashion …“Flanerie O’Anaconda, Delphine Stain,/ Euphemia Bandersnatch, Clive Overbite” and more. S/he asks the rhetorical question in a cursing, Larkin-esque style – “How many of the bastards are there?” Open your ears, Literature students. This poem mocks the very concept of teaching literature and creative writing; nothing but a bore to the point of death. But I’m afraid you are the Flanerie O’Anaconda’s and the Clive Overbites who are “waiting with their pens, their grudges and their daggers, eagerly”. As some notorious cases in the media demonstrate O’Brien is, of course, far from alone in being salaried in that very teaching role despite his particular swipe. Whether this is the poem or the poet speaking, we cannot know. But that sneering tone is at odds with other pieces here, like “Oysterity” attempting to speak for a working class crushed by Cameron and Cable. For some readers, especially in his presumption of readers’ complicity, the only mockery O’Brien has made is of the collection itself.
The cover describes O’Brien writing with a “refined sense of tone […] without any sacrifice of either lyric force or feeling”. Certainly, he does not temper any feelings; in a collection that contains both the political and polemical, this may be to the detriment of the aesthetic. That poetic political crusades sometimes presume to speak for all is itself problematic. All O’Brien’s collections have won awards, and only he and John Burnside have won both the Eliot and the Forward for a single collection. Nonetheless, The Beautiful Librarians wouldn’t be my choice this year.
Aileen Ni Gillechroist