Sean O’Brien, although familiar as one of our most garlanded poets (winner of the TS Eliot prize and, three times, of the Forward), is still in no way – to his credit – a known quantity. His masterly new collection, It Says Here, is partly about unknown quantities. In the title poem, he writes:
That the sky is a page where with a flourish
The birds write the truth in invisible ink
And the eye is too slow to be certain
That this word and that word are never to meet
In a subsequent poem, An Assignation, he imagines an impossibly perfect love affair, a plan for a sultry rendezvous in which the lovers are rather like “this word and that word” in that they never meet. At the end, the man takes off a “non-existent hat” to the woman sitting alone in her blue dress. O’Brien repeatedly plays with making impossibility possible. In a later poem, And There You Were, he explores another impossible meeting, imagining the return of a dead friend to a bar in Euston. It is a heartbreaking poem because it reads so casually, as if the sighting of the friend were the most natural thing in the world.
You stayed on, confirming a purpose –
This and not some other place would be your destination
For the moment. And of course you didn’t see me.
Death is the ultimate unknown quantity and the woman who haunts the poem “a charm against the dark”.
A charm against the dark is required in Hammersmith, a long poem in 10 cantos, a free but not easy walkabout in west London that could not have been written had TS Eliot never written The Waste Land (although perhaps that impression has mainly to do with a river frontage). O’Brien again is interested in exploring what cannot be known. This immersive piece is partly based on what he remembers hearing about his parents’ life in London in wartime and the early postwar years. Throughout, there is a mournful awareness that much of what actually happened has vanished without trace. He writes:
Rises for a moment like a gas-flare
From a sewer and is gone.
There is a darkening scrutiny of what the living are owed and a repeated line: “This is not solitude but something worse.” At times, filling the gaps in history with imagination feels like a lonely project, but it is powerful on the page. In artistic terms, O’Brien has become a parent to his parents – and there is something poignant about that.
But the greatest pleasure, whatever he chooses to write about, is O’Brien’s unforced gift, the ease of the writing, the phrases that seem to roll off his pen. In The Long Field, a fine poem about memory, he writes: “Rain has itself for company this afternoon.” I love the ease of that line - it makes you see rain (in its plurality) afresh. In the same poem, the “sensible emptiness” of afternoon is spot on (we all know the sort of afternoon described), although the sensible is then overturned and ordinary weather interrupted by a surreal and unwelcome flash: a skeleton with a fob watch whose message is clear.
Names is the shortest poem in the collection. I am not sure how true its ending is (names, too, are erasable), but I feel it scarcely matters. One is willing to accept what it says here with gratitude because of Sean O’Brien’s wondrous musicality – a rare commodity. Just read the last couplet aloud and let it do its work.
• It Says Here by Sean O’Brien is published by Picador (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Names by Sean O’Brien
Ravenspur, Ravensrodd, Ravenser Odd,
Salt-heavy bells heard only by God.
Drink to the lost and the longshore drift:
When there is nothing the names will be left.