Poems from an underwater realm

02 June 2016

All of the books in the Picador Classic series open with an introduction by a writer or public figure  a personal recommendation from a reader who knows the book intimately. Here is the opening of novelist and poet Helen Dunmore’s introduction to Sean OBriens poetry collection The Drowned Book.

by Helen Dunmore

‘And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book’, declares Prospero towards the end of The Tempest. He says these words within the frame of a play which will make his magic immortal, and to an audience which knew that witchcraft was incapable of drowning. The drowned book cannot be destroyed, but will continue to speak.

Sean O’Brien has not taken his title from The Tempest lightly. This collection is full of transformations and revelations, losses, griefs, recoveries and the startle of unexpected joys. In this the spirit of The Drowned Book is profoundly Shakespearean. The poems take us to an underwater country, fitfully illuminated, mysterious, oozing out its secrets, with its own river roads and ‘infernal gloom’. It may be England as imagined by Caliban. Or it may be the England that lies beneath the pond-skater antics of politicians who think we’ll agree that it’s best not to look at anything too closely. It is a land of comedy, fear and raucous unlikelihood. On Humberside

‘the jellyfish
Hang in the murk at the jetty
Like plastic rain-hoods –
A race of drowned aunties
Come back to chastise us
For something we don’t know we’ve done yet.’
(By Ferry)

The inhabitants of this England are withdrawn into themselves. Railway guards, doctors’ assistants, travelling salesmen, artists, convicts, quarrymen, tramps and children, they live in a past that floats just beneath the surface yet can hardly be touched. They remember the war. They are much subject to surveillance, for who can tell what crimes may be committed when everyone is guilty by virtue of their existence:

‘Now join me, honest citizens,
Let’s drink to unknown crime –
We’ll all be on the inside soon,
One nation doing time.’
(Song: Habeas Corpus)

The waters of this country hold, as if in a distillation, images, ideas and objects which have long been central to O’Brien’s poetic imagination. Like Graham Greene, O’Brien has created his own land to which he returns, book after book. It is utterly recognizable. It is Northern, cut by canals and laced by railways, full of wide distances, bombsites, dereliction, hard energies and wit. This place has its own smells, and its own passport. Here are ghosts and glasshouses, ‘dark, peopled water’, ferries, railways, rain. Here is loss, betrayal of the individual and of a class, the slow failure of the postwar attempt to build another country which might be, in every sense of the word, more fair. It is a sombre and hypnotically beautiful vision.

‘What use are your gifts now,

Your cage-bird and kind word,
Your old-world fidelity,
Infinite patience?’
(Five Railway Poems for Birtley Aris)

The new world order, it seems, has little use for such qualities, and down they go into the drowning darkness:

‘In their long home the miners are labouring still –

Gargling dust, going down in good order,
Their black-braided banners aloft,
Into flooding and firedamp . . .’

There is no sentimentality here: crippling lung disease is as real as the solidarity of the banners. The bleakness of this vision is tempered throughout the collection by a very different aspect of Sean O’Brien’s poetic character: his ability to conjure up the surreal, the disruptive, the sudden shot of beauty across the bows of the ship of state. In ‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, young children play in a dirty urban stream, in the Hull of the nineteen-fifties. O’Brien conjures up the era exactly, with its polio outbreaks, newspaper murders that never curbed the freedom of children to wander and its acceptance of the facts ‘in black and white’ on the TV news. But there is something larger than memory here. The children’s fear is elemental and these lines strike a shock of recognition.

‘– But what was it made us a little afraid
In those huge summer dusks
Where the sun and the moon
Stood on opposite sides of the heavens
And clocks stopped at curfew?’

Here, as in many places, O’Brien conducts the imagination of the reader in full understanding of how orchestra-like that imagination may be, in its sensitivity to every beat and shade of tone. He is a poet who understands very well that writer and reader are accomplices in creation.

This is the opening of Helen Dunmore's introduction to the Picador Classic edition of The Drowned Book by Sean O'Brien.

Read 'Water-Gardens' from The Drowned Book

The Drowned Book Picador Classic

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