Lovely Legs reviewed by Paul Perry, The Irish Times, Saturday May 23rd 2009
IN JEAN O'BRIEN'S third collection of poetry Lovely Legs there's a very telling line in the poem Photographing Air . "Things are not what they seem," O'Brien writes. And in a book with such a breezy title, bright cover and light tone throughout there's a much more serious and complex undercurrent at work. O'Brien's father appears in more than half a dozen poems. He is the one waking O'Brien's "younger me" to the news of her mother's death in When Childhood Broke . She passes his parish when lamenting her departure from Dublin, and he is the one who populates her memories and dreams. "The dead visit me in dreams", she writes in Scandinavian Dream . The wonder and strangeness of finding oneself in "foreign fields" has created a new imaginative space for O'Brien's moving lyrics. Her imagery can be memorable, as in Masks , where "a man stands in a field wearing a mantle / of bees", but darkness hovers throughout. Her mother's gold band tightens "its golden grip" on her and a poem to the poet's daughter suggests "the kernel of death / sits under her skin". "Thinking of lost summers", the past is a central theme of the collection and culminates in the moving piece Before .
This is her on that green day
skirt askew, hair streaming out,
holding the ropes of the swing taut
rushing to meet her future
The poems in Lovely Legs are like "the flickering scenes we scrutinise / in the darkened room" of the final poem. O'Brien has managed to make an effecting collage of images and memories with a tone of both pathos and resilience as she tells us, "I touch the wound and walk".
Paul Perry's most recent book is The Orchid Keeper. He is currently writer in residence for DÃºn Laoghaire Rathdown public library service
Lovely Legs reviewed by Jim McAuley, The Irish Examiner, Monday June 22, 2009
accomplishments extend from this third collection of her poems to her
role as writer-in-residence for Co Laois and as facilitator for
creative writing classes in prisons and elsewhere.This review appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, June 22, 2009
The intensity of feeling, even while restrained by the poet's attention
to significant imagery, gives these poems strength, whether reflecting
on the loss of her mother and father or recalling events which reveal
how observant she was in childhood, a gift that serves her well as a
Many poems describe natural events, ranging from a beekeeper with his
swarm (and the queen-bee "snared in a cage under his chin") to
"Once I saw a cow nudging an inert lump of brown; moaning low she
fussed the fretted circling the still calf until it stirred, moving its
nut-brown just born head..."
Many more poems carry ironic undercurrents, generated by everything
from social inequalities to bad weather. These witty, compassionate
poems are rewarding, though some will find the typographical errors
Lovely Legs reviewed by Val Nolan, Poetry Ireland Review
Issue 98, July 2009
Lovely Legs by Jean O'Brien [is a book] in which the faraway promises of jet-trails are constrained by the domesticity of skylight frames. A lively, readable collection concerned with the intricacies of relationships and the many moral contradictions of society, Lovely Legs follows the arcs of 'lives on a fulcrum', honing in repeatedly on moments of change and realisation. Bee poems such as 'Masks', which opens the collection, make clear that the book's presiding deity is Plath, though O'Brien successfully resists the kind of easy mimicry which might have compromised her own perspective. Poems here discuss femininity and children, but they are all very clearly in O'Brien's voice, a seemingly carefree lilt which nonetheless exudes complexity and depth. Old stories of 'hope and romance' dissolve into poems that actively resist (and sometimes ridicule) the past, while other pieces here lean heavily on popular culture such as The Simpsons or the word soup of 'magnetic poetry' which clings to refrigerator doors across the country.
Nature too is everywhere in Lovely Legs, but, in contrast to the 'weedy gravel, neglected lawns' of Moran's Green or Granier's 'Suburban Woods', it is the cultivated nature of yards and gardens which predominates. Similarly, the many poems here addressed to or about O'Brien's 'younger self' attempt to civilise the unruliness of childhood, and, in a self-mythologising turn, lessons are always learnt. Often they are comically disproportionate to the experience, such as when O'Brien recalls how, as children travelling along redbrick lanes, she and her friends were approached by a pervert, a Joycean encounter which 'make us remember / to hurry home for tea.'
Further poems explore notions of poetry and language themselves, images which 'escape us' or verses which don't have 'enough words to go around'. Frequently O'Brien's writing focuses on people's inability to communicate, such as the last speaker of the Uru tongue who 'has kept herself to herself / since the second-last person / who spoke Uru died.' Meanwhile,
Truth is a labyrinth, obscured
like the laburnum that lies between
the sapwood and the heartwood
we sense it just below the surface.
It is only in the lyric, in the poetic rush, that true connections can actually occur. Poetry is an interactive art, one where ' coded messages are posted / in limited language', and unpacking the layers of meaning in these communiqués is part of the pleaure of this dense book. O'Brien's verse - like her bees - is 'buzzing and busy'. Her word of 'flat, broad horizons' is one seen 'with compound eyes', and her warm response to Paula Meehan's poetry is equally applicable to her own; amid all the 'noise of traffic', the 'clang of tram bells', there is also 'the brightening hum of her words' which, 'like a modern day Angelus / calls us home'.