Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Drowned Book

Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book is a mixed bag: he works in several different forms, with several different emotional registers, and with a wide range between fairly straightforward poems and quite complicated ones. And the quality of the poems varies as well.

The book begins with extremely dense poems that only begin to work when a clearer narrative begins to drive the density, in the uniquely titled "Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins," which explores the relationship between open drains and polio in the late 1950s (and yet is much more than that). Shortly after that comes "Drains," with its rhymed quatrains. To my ear, O'Brien seems to be channeling Durs Grünbein's use of quatrains here, as a way of satirically exploring the dark side of the contemporary world (although it might be Gottfried Benn who is really in the background of all this).

"The Mere" was written in response to a threat to drain a mere and develop the land; it shows that O'Brien might well be best considered an occasional poet, not in any disparaging sense but in the sense that he writes best when he has a specific occasion to respond to with some sort of commitment (be it emotional, political, or poetic).

"Song: Habeas Corpus" shifts again into rhymed quatrains (with some variation in stanza length) to address political issues; the shift is entirely appropriate to the poem's occasion and intention. (But see here for a scathing reading of the same poem by a reviewer who is extremely harsh with O'Brien.)

"Valedictory" also uses rhyme and meter to drive home political points with satire, while effectively incorporating more of the density of the earlier, non-political poems in the book (like the "Salmon" poem).

In the end, though, despite several other poems that I like ("The Hand," "Praise of a Rainy Country," and an utterly unique one called "The Thing"), I put aside O'Brien's book wondering what all the fuss is about (Forward Prizes and all that). The book is much less impressive than much less heralded books I have read recently, and certainly not in the same league as Daljit Nagra's debut or Edwin Morgan's A Book of Lives. And the one I really wanted to compare The Drowned Book to is Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon, because O'Brien's book beat out Sweeney's for the Poetry Book Society Choice a quarter or two ago. To me, the Sweeney is incomparably better (and I am currently reveling in his Selected Poems).


I should add that I reviewed O'Brien's Cousin Coat for Orbis a few years ago, which I was also pretty unimpressed by.

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