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Merman / Jean O'Brien


By: Jean O'Brien

From the mythological Merman of the title poem, which won the 2010 Arvon International Poetry Award, to the imaginative “Fragments” and on to more serious poems such as “My Mother Ate Electricity” these are all engagingly written using the acoustic play of consonants and vowels so necessary for bringing life and music to the poems. Accessible and often strongly narrative they are a...
ISBN 978-1-908836-03-8
Pub Date Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Cover Image Ray Murphy
Page Count 98
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From the mythological Merman of the title poem, which won the 2010 Arvon International Poetry Award, to the imaginative “Fragments” and on to more serious poems such as “My Mother Ate Electricity” these are all engagingly written using the acoustic play of consonants and vowels so necessary for bringing life and music to the poems. Accessible and often strongly narrative they are always alert to the comic and everyday even when broaching hard subjects such as illness, mental illness and death. As always in O’Brien’s work, images of nature and landscape as well as relationships and a lively engagement with the ways of the world resonate with grace and candour. 

“A wonderful poem.” 
Carol Ann Duffy

“...with appealing directness [O’Brien] draws us in to the immediacy of the charge that fuels her poetry. From East to West and back home again she maps out memories that command our attention alongside the always shifting present day lived life.” 
Cliodhna Ni Anluain 
(Producer, Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1)

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Jean O'Brien

Jean O’Brien was born in Dublin where she now lives after an eight year sojourn in the Irish Midlands where she was Writer-in-Residence. She has four previous collections to her name; The Shadow Keeper (1997), Dangerous Dresses (2005), Lovely Legs (2009) and Merman (2012).  Her Awards include the Arvon International Poetry Award, and the Fish International Poetry Award. Her work has been placed and highly commended in a number of other competitions including the Forward Prize. She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin and tutors in Creative Writing.

Hinamatsuri - The Japanese Doll Festival

Nusha, our daughter loves the ceremony of the dolls,
the loving couple, the prince and princess seated
in tiered splendour at the apex, lolling like melons
with their robes puffed out around them,
painted faces almost smiling, lacquered lips red as cinnabar,
their night-dark hair is real and shines as if lit by stars.
Nusha brushes her hair until it glows, taps her wooden getas,
wriggles her toes. This is her day for praise and future-wish
our job is to guide her, watch her grow and push
her off into the river of life, like the dolls of long ago.
Ever year we stow them away, once made of straw,
but now something more substantial, something lasting.

The next row seats five musicians, garb not as sumptuous,
as the royalty, but gorgeous nonetheless, each one holds
an instrument that Nusha says she can hear, hear the strings,
hear them sing. Our ears are too old for such sounds;
we listen as leaves rustle in trees, and a tumult of traffic goes by.
The last step holds the helpers, clothes more like our own Yukatas;
plain, serviceable. They proffer the food, mochi sweets, peach
blossoms, brushes for the royal couples hair, oils and unguents.
Nusha holds a western doll, tall with golden hair, slim waist,
generous chest, she says I need to grow up soon, it’s urgent.

Blue Bobbin

Its dull case an ornament
in the corner, its use almost
forgotten. someone has taken
the table of the Singer Sewing
machine, once everyone had one.
If you lifted it out you could turn
the handle instead of footing
the treadle. Gone, along
with the table is the drawer
that held bobbins, my delight,
as a child sifting the
spools of rainbow thread.

When my mother sewed
she favoured the blue bobbin.
All our curtains, whatever the colour,
were backed with blue stitches.
I helped her thread the needle
through a maze of eyes and hooks
down to where the thread vanished
into a small silver box.
Like a magician pulling an endless
stream of hankies from his sleeve;
it conjured another thread
and together, they and we,
formed the stitch.

At night when mother was busy
I used to slide the lid on the silver
chamber to see if I could figure out its trick.
I only saw the small half-moon lever
moving back and over
and like a hidden slice of sky,
the edge of a blue bobbin peeping out.

Copyright © Jean O'Brien 2012
Review:  Merman reviewed by Beth McDonough for DURA: Dundee Review of the Arts (April 2014)

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
    grassed? [..]
    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.

Other Titles from Jean O'Brien

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