Sean O’Brien, The Beautiful Librarians – review

O’Brien is a highly accomplished writer, but to my ear a surprising number of the poems in The Beautiful Librarians are undermined by weakness in what should be the animating interplay of syntax and metre. The title poem is just one of them. It’s full of fine phrases and nuances of implication, but for me it falls apart because of the way the syntactical impetus seems to collapse at the end of line after line, even as the sentence struggles on. In other cases, there are problems with the material itself. The political gestures in particular can seem tired and perfunctory. I can imagine “Oysterity” going down well at a reading, with its punning Joycean title, its brutal caricatures, literary in-jokes and rueful self-lacerations, but it doesn’t have the subtlety or inwardness to repay rereading.

That said, there are a number of striking successes – enough to make the book well worth investing in. I won’t easily forget “The Wendigo” with its “tunnel / Fireweed staggers on like wild white-headed Lears”. The very fine “Always”, set in a heat-baked Mediterranean harbour town, presents a series of images that are individually like sharply defined snapshots of the literal scene but cumulatively become far more than the sum of their parts, woven as they are into a richly suggestive, shimmering and elusive tapestry of emotional tones, through a series of reprises, variations and outright self-contradictions shot through with faint but haunting, horizon-extending allusions to other poetry.

I’d also like to give special mention to “Mutatis Mutandis” and “Wedding Breakfast”, but my favourite poem in the book is probably “Nobody’s Uncle”. Starting with an epigraph from Douglas Dunn (“That’s one old man who’s nobody’s uncle”), it seems at first to be describing a lonely old man in negatives reminiscent of Larkin’s “I Remember, I Remember”. At the end of the poem, invited to step aboard this man’s boat, we identify him with Charon, the boatman of the dead in Greek mythology and in the third canto of Dante’s Inferno. Suddenly earlier details take on a fresh force, like the reference to his “stinking gear”, or the statement that “No girls grown old think fondly of him now.” O’Brien misleads us at the beginning to heighten the impact of the revelation at the end. But of course the effect would quickly wear off if he merely displaced one understanding with the other. What makes it last is that the new understanding and the old coexist, like two cinematic takes at the moment when one dissolves into and shines through the other. “Nobody’s Uncle” isn’t simply death; he’s simultaneously the fiercely independent, bleakly marginalised human figure we at first take him to be and the personification we finally see him as. In the first aspect he both prompts and scornfully rebuffs humane fellow feeling. In the second he chillingly marks the boundary of all feeling, humane, human or otherwise. Here, as in the other outstanding poems, the seamlessness of the imaginative development is made possible by an almost equally flawless unfolding of syntax and metre.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 54.

Sean O’Brien, The Beautiful Librarians, 64 pp, £9.99 pbk, Picador, Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR

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