Sean O’Brien, It Says Here – review

I’d like to start by quoting the fine short poem ‘Names’ from O’Brien’s new book It Says Here. If just saying it aloud enchants you as much as it does me then this is a book you should buy:

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.

It’s reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Merlin’ in its particular elegiac feeling and tune, but the names it refers to aren’t literary in the way those in Hill’s poem are (‘Arthur, Elaine, Mordred, they are all gone’). All three are different names for a port city on the Humber that was significant in the Middle Ages but has been completely lost to the sea. It’s a wonderful little poem that instantly communicates a powerful emotion or complex of emotions while inviting endless meditation and remaining in some ways teasingly enigmatic. I could write pages trying to disentangle the magic of the words but I’ll just mention two elements. One is a simple beauty of double meaning: the way that that sonorously melancholy second line both describes the three names, the words themselves, as salt-heavy bells and at the same time evokes the trope of the church bells of drowned cities ringing soundlessly under the water. The other is the way the whole poem slides towards paradox, a shimmering between suggestions that makes it resistant to reductive summary. I mean that as we’ve just heard those names they aren’t heard only by God, and the time frame seems to shift between the stanzas, the first being a time after the loss of Ravenspur, the second a time before it, unless we take it to mean ‘when nothing is left anywhere those names will survive’. We’re teased out of thought by being drawn into it.

Though this isn’t true of ‘Names’, sorrow and rage are powerful driving forces in It Says Here, as they have been in earlier books by O’Brien. Both often have a political dimension, but O’Brien’s strong political responses get their depth from the fact that they’re not isolated or abstracted from other forces that shape our lives. Moreover, although his responses may have a sharp topical relevance, in this book he avoids restricting them by applying them explicitly to any single situation. The brilliantly mordant, ballad-like ‘Little Pig Finnegan’ is an example. Apparently rewriting an old children’s book, this tells the story of a little pig who runs away from his farm to avoid being killed for bacon. He comes to another farm where the kind-seeming farmer’s wife makes him welcome:

She fed him and bathed him
And fed him again
Till the sleep rose up over his head
She put on a white coat
And she cut his wee throat
Till he thought holy fuck now I’m dead tra la
Till he thought holy fuck now I’m dead
Then she minced him for sausage instead tra la
She minced him for sausage instead.

At this point in time we might be tempted to apply the poem to the way the old Red Wall seats of the North went Tory in the last election, but I’ve no idea whether O’Brien had that particular association in mind. If he did, the poem’s relevance is clearly not confined to that situation.

The contrast between the styles of ‘Names’ and ‘Little Pig Finnegan’ illustrates O’Brien’s metrical virtuosity. Of all the different strengths of this book, it’s above all the richness, variety and emotional power of his music that impress me and that I want to explore.

Such skills are essential to the success of the big centrepiece poem ‘Hammersmith’. In this, largely set in and around Hammersmith and the Thames but with digressions elsewhere, scene dissolves into scene, time into time, voice into voice, without clear narrative or conceptual development. It opens

England is finished, not that it matters
When even the weather is done for,
When the Boat Race ends though it’s barely begun,

With a boy from Wisconsin who catches a crab.
For a moment the eye has him
Over and gone in the silver-black Thames,

In the deep shade of Harrods Depository –
Drowned Palinurus to sleep with the fishes
And raggedy scuttlers down on the slime-bed,

And several books later converse with John Snagge
In the slow fields of Hades by Hammersmith Bridge
Where Richard Widmark also met his end

At the climax of Night and the City, that love-song
To water and terror and death –
Oh, but the oarsman recovers, though the race is lost

Startling swerves of thought and reference come thick and fast. Even in the first line the speaker zigzags between dramatic outcry and shrugging indifference. In lines 5 and 6 the spectator imagines for a second that the rower who misses his stroke actually goes overboard. Though he’s pictured doing so in the shade of the great Edwardian brick building of the Harrods Furniture Depository near Hammersmith Bridge, in the burst of fantasy that follows he momentarily becomes Aeneas’s helmsman, Palinurus, who falls overboard and drowns in Book 3 of the Aeneid. Plunging under the Thames with him, among crabs like the ‘pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, we surface in an interview with John Snagge the boat race commentator. We’re still half in the dream of the Aeneid, though. Palinurus falls overboard in Book 3 of the Aeneid and Aeneas meets and questions his ghost ‘several books later’ when he goes down to Hades in Book 6.  Suddenly, though, we’re out of that hell and in the hell of London in a 1950 film noir. All this takes a long time to disentangle but flashes through the mind of the poem in the second it takes to realise that the oarsman didn’t actually go overboard at all. As we read, the associations and resonances hit us fast. That’s because the syntax drives on so unhesitatingly and because of the speeding up effect of the metre. There are variations of pace, of course, but broadly speaking things are driven on by the strength of the stresses and the high proportion of unstressed syllables between them. Mixing different metrical feet, O’Brien capitalizes on the feature of our response to rhythm that makes lines in trisyllabic, anapaestic or dactylic metres, like ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’ or ‘Just for a handful of silver he left us’, move with a rapid swing. I love this swiftness of thought and the way tones flicker between grumpily lugubrious pessimism, flashes of visual delight and humour. The humour itself involves a combination of very different voices – both the comic raconteur’s delight in absurd action, preposterous spinning out of a tale and mordant anticlimax, and the donnish humour of a buried play on words in which the idea of a ‘post mortem’ on a race is imagined as an interview in the underworld. Even more than the rich unfolding of ideas, resonances and associations, though, it’s the music itself that I find completely spellbinding, the clear-cut, satisfying shape of each phrase, the variety of these shapes, and the effortlessness of the movement between them.

As the poem develops, individual lives and bits of individual stories come briefly but vividly into focus. Apparently they draw on facts about O’Brien’s parents and in particular on his mother’s memories but, as O’Brien says in his ‘Note on Hammersmith’, a great deal is imaginary or invented, and characters and situations melt into each other. This liberates the situations and emotions described from contingent attachment to the particular circumstances of particular lives, immediately releasing what I might call their archetypal energy. However, it does make a poem of over 800 lines difficult to hold in the mind as a whole. Brilliantly evocative, beautifully shaped, thought-provoking and sometimes moving as it is on a line by line, passage by passage basis, only time and rereading will tell how deeply and effectively it all coheres as a poem. There’s a kind of paradox here because what it would cohere around is an idea of disintegration. The whole work is pervaded by expressions of uncertainty that slide between expressing the ungraspableness of the past as the speaker fails to find solid facts about his parents, let alone enter the life behind those facts; expressing the (partly consequential) ungraspableness of his life in the present; expressing political and economic dispossession; and expressing the elusiveness and perhaps the illusoriness of the concept of Englishness embodied in various national myths.

Against these multiple uncertainties O’Brien ends the poem with an image of the speaker’s parents’ existing in a kind of visionary reality that is only just but also utterly outside the speaker’s reach. The luminous yearning of the lines is made poignant by the push and pull between the intensity of realisation that makes them seem so close and the acknowledgement that they can never be reached:

At the end of the garden runs a river
I will never reach. They walk there
In the silence of the intimate, and with the day

So vast and patient they have nothing on the clock.

Despair, a sense of universal disintegration and political anger reassert themselves with a hellish and pungently disgusted image:

There is no bedrock to be found.
Imaginary England
Rises for a moment like a gas-flare

From a sewer and is gone.

Here I think there may be an element of direct attack on Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ with its epigraph from Coleridge ‘the spiritual, Platonic old England’. O’Brien’s disgust and anger aren’t just for others, though; he knows we are all ‘Complicit by the fact of being born / And drinking from the poisoned well.’ Nevertheless, the yearning, the dream, the ideal all live in the mind as love for the beloved dead and also for the might have beens and perhaps the might still bes of wider society:

But let me remember the possible days,
The river, where the garden ends

And those I lost are walking still.


The traditional, even archetypal images of river and garden and the very rhythms of this section take us into a style of poetry surprisingly evocative of later Eliot and a very long way from the style of ‘Little Pig Finnegan’. One of the great strengths of O’Brien’s book seems to me to be the way it brings together in a richly personal brew very different, often conflicting thoughts, feelings, perspectives and ways of writing. I think it’s an important work which will repay much rereading, and my provisional feeling is that Hammersmith in particular does cohere brilliantly and paradoxically around its evocations of incoherence and uncertainty.


It Says Here by Sean O’Brien. £10.99 Picador ISBN 978-1-5098-4042-7

This review appeared in The High Window in June 2021 and I would like to thank the editor David Cooke for permission to reprint it here.


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