thirty-five: Sean O’Brien, The Drowned Book

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Sean O’Brien until recently, when I found out he’d won last year’s Forward prize for poetry. So it seemed appropriate to start with his prize-winning collection, The Drowned Book.

The blurb says that much of this collection ‘takes [its] emotional tenor and imaginative cue from [Sean O’Brien’s] acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno‘. Unfortunately I haven’t actually read the Inferno, so I felt like I was on a bit of a back foot from the start. That said, the opening poems – all about water, rivers, the sea – are undeniably compelling, drawing you into their dark, subterranean world. Water seems to be a place of memory, haunted by the dead – perhaps the borderlands between this world and another… I loved the dark, knowing, and, in places, comic tone of these poems.

There’s satire, too, on Britain’s current political and social climate – ‘Valedictory’ was one of my favourites. But it was the watery poems that really captured my imagination, in particular ‘River-doors’ and ‘Praise of a Rainy Country’, as well as ‘Blue Night’. Here is ‘Water-Gardens’:

Water looked up through the lawn
Like a half-buried mirror
Left out by the people before.

There were faces in there
We had seen in the hallways
Of octogenarian specialists,

Mortality-vendors consulted
On bronchial matters
In rot-smelling Boulevard mansions.

We stood on their lino
And breathed, and below us
The dark, peopled water

Was leaning and listening.
There on the steps of the cellar,
Black-clad Victorians

Were feeding the river with souls.
They left us their things,
Reefs of blue ware

In the elder-clumps,
Tins full of rust in the shed,
And on the bookshelves

English poets, all gone damp
With good intentions, never read.
Their miles of flooded graves

Were traffic jams of stone
Where patient amphibian angels
Rode them under, slowly

Their voices came back
From sinks and gratings,
The treasure seekers

Gone downstairs, while all the time
In King Death’s rainy garden
We were playing out.

The Drowned Book, Sean O’Brien (Picador, 2007) Winner of the 2007 Forward Prize

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