Sean O’Brien’s Embark – review

In Embark, Sean O’Brien deftly shifts between registers and tones to present and think about the world in different ways. In his elegies, melancholy recollection is expressed in a way that combines elegance with conversational intimacy. Other poems are more obviously highly wrought, like ‘Of the Angel’ with its archaic-sounding title. This describes a boy at a Remembrance Day ceremonial –

The poor mad angel boy of twelve
With the unblinking gold-green stare
And the frightening permanent smile

That should be love but cannot be
Is brought by his mother to join the crowd.

That opening already trembles between the mundane and the visionary. Compassion and the near-banality of line 5 ground the boy in ordinary life but the visual image blazes like a Gauguin painting. At the end, oracular comment of extraordinary intensity and power presents a despairing vision of the indifference of the universe and the annihilation waiting for all:

There is no home or resting place.
The broken ground will have us all
Indifferently back. And here he is,

Imprisoned in his element,
The angel boy who neither lives nor dies.
Where can his mother be? He waits among us,

Innocent and terrible. His smile is death,
And like the world his green-gold gaze
That should be love sees nothing everywhere.

Crucially, this vast annihilating vision is still anchored to the physical presence of the boy. The tension created between human sympathy and the bleak vision of cosmic indifference is what makes recognition of the latter so devastating.

A different beauty appears in the sardonically playful grace of the micropoems of ‘Woodworks’. ‘Rooks’ is one:

The sitting tenants of the hilltop
keep a weather eye on everything.
Oh, they’ve heard it all before.
Surprise us, they say. Go on. Thought not.


The metaphor faces two ways: we see rooks as cynical, life-bruised people and people as cynical, life-bruised rooks. It’s presented with the lightest, most humorous  touch but implies both pathos and anger. It’s the poet’s reticence that makes the little poem so suggestive, inviting the reader’s imagination to play around different ways of seeing the people and life-situations they evoke.

Such supple movement between different fields of knowledge or experience and reference, different levels of seriousness, different modes of address implying different relationships to the reader, is the fruit of many years’ writing (this is apparently O’Brien’s eleventh collection). It’s also the fruit of many years’ reading. The writing can be highly allusive, sometimes in ways declared on the surface, in references to figures like Rilke, Heaney, Heraclitus and Chateaubriand, Klee and Arcimboldo, or songs like the Grateful Dead’s ‘Box of Rain’. Often it’s through quotations one may or may not recognise, quietly absorbed into the texture of O’Brien’s own words. Such literariness is obviously deeply embedded in O’Brien’s way of thinking. What’s striking, though, is how tactfully he ensures that it’s not a barrier to the less literary reader. There’s an extreme example in the magnificent ‘Waterworks’. This starts with a memorably phrased image of falling rain:

 Indifferent to sorrow as to time,
the rain is bouncing off the outhouse roof

Actual rain and metaphorical analogues to it pervade the poem. In the middle comes the statement

Poor pelting slums and summer palaces
alike endure the rain

‘Summer palaces’ nods to Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ but makes perfect sense on its own, in a world in which the homes of the super-rich effectively are palaces. ‘Pelting slums’ is given adequate meaning by the imagery of rain.  However, for those who do pick up the reference to Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear as he prepares to assume the role of the beggar Poor Tom and

…………………………………….from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity

there are further dimensions of richness. Above all, it invokes the play’s concern with government and its violent contrasts of social justice and injustice, benevolence and cruelty, superfluity and deprivation – things that have been so much at issue in O’Brien’s earlier books. They’re less explicitly developed in this one, but pervasively implied in its background, and this poem contains a particularly sharp slash at government spin:

……….a mountainside collapses on a train

and we sit waiting for the minister to tell us
what’s wrong now. We know he’ll blame the rain
for raining and the poor for drawing breath

Throughout Embark, I warmed to O’Brien’s gentle humanity. All the poems seemed to grow out of his concern for people, the emotions they feel and the lives they’re given. Though steeped in high culture, sometimes framing his subjects in almost metaphysical anguish, he never sounded cerebral or remote. His stance towards the reader always implied a courteous invitation to shared reflection.


Sean O’Brien, Embark, 72pp, £10.99, Picador Poetry, 2022

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Sean O’Brien, Philip Gross and Selima Hill in issue 69 of The North.

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