Our Editor, Steven O’Brien has had a fantastic review for his latest poetry collection ‘Scrying Stone’ – see for yourself below!

Reviews of Jonathan Davidson, Early Train (Sheffield: Smith/Doorstop, 2011), ISBN 978-1-906613-32-7, 53pp, £9.95, and Steven O’Brien, Scrying Stone (London: Greenwich Exchange, 2010), ISBN 978-1-906075-56-9, 68pp, £7.99.


A poem is a song, he says,
But one that does not care
much if you join in or not.
Oh, she says, well, as long
as it won’t keep me awake.

(Jonathan Davidson, ‘Song’

In his new collection, Early Train, Jonathan Davidson doesn’t seem to expect his poetry will keep readers ‘awake.’ The collection is shot through with images of self-effacement, as though the poet is apologising for the modest domesticity of his subject matter. In the final poem, for example, Davidson imagines a man who ‘will … gather up my life / like a number of stacks of small change.’ Likewise, the poem ‘Domestic’ is mainly about that ‘small change’: after ‘the washing-up / and drying up and the putting away,’ the tidying and cleaning, Davidson takes himself ‘upstairs / to the attic bedroom hoping’ he might ‘find there / something very important / to write about.’ Clearly, the implication is that, in such an everyday, domestic context, finding a ‘very important’ subject for poetry is difficult.

The subtle beauty of Davidson’s poetry, though, consists precisely in its ability to pinpoint what is ‘very important’ within the mundane and domestic – within ‘the washing-up / and drying up and the putting away,’ which are, after all, important parts of most of our lives. And, of course, there are also the hidden parts of those domestic lives, the attics to which we retreat after the washing-up – wormholes within the domestic sphere in which we are lost or lose ourselves.

It is with such wormhole-attics that Davidson’s poetry is particularly concerned. The poems in Early Train are full of places and moments within the everyday in which people lose themselves, or are lost – places and moments of real ‘self-effacement.’ In ‘Hide and Seek,’ for example, the customary game goes wrong on one occasion when seeking parents fail to find hiding children: ‘we counted to ten / and ten again, the house emptied of sound, / and we were lost: unsure, undone, unfound.’ Similarly, in ‘The Boy,’ the poem’s natural landscape fails to tell the underlying ‘palpable truth’ that ‘a small boy lived at the track’s end,’ who ‘disappeared one summer, happy or unhappy.’

The past tense here suggests, quite rightly, that many of the disappearances in Davidson’s poetry are not just spatial but temporal as well: sometimes, games of hide and seek succeed or fail across time. There are a number of poems in which figures seek lost or hidden past selves. In ‘Sketch of My Father,’ for example, ‘the days fall over / their many selves to bring you back / to a Welsh field in wartime’ where is hiding the father’s ‘child-self singing as you hacked / at bracken.’ Sometimes, though, the days fall over in the other direction – so that, strangely enough, there is a ‘child-self’ hiding not in the past, but the future. In ‘The Baby,’ Davidson dreams in villanelle form of a crying baby who is hiding ‘out of sight,’ in a future ‘beyond the sleeping world’:


You wake to hear it crying in the night,
The baby that you want but don’t have, yet.
Beyond the sleeping world its voice takes flight.

You still don’t know its name, one day you might.
It seems to know you though you’ve not yet met.
You wake to hear it crying in the night.

Here, Davidson imaginatively reverses the poetry of loss, and its usual chronology, whereby the almost heartbreaking sense of loss is for an unborn future child, rather than one lost to the past.

In the poem’s final stanza, though, the future baby seems willed into being through the dream: ‘The child is dreamed alive, you hold it tight. / You say that you’re alright: your face is wet.’ There are, then, occasional moments of finding as well as losing in Davidson’s poetic games of hide and seek; but these moments are often strangely refracted through time – so a future baby is momentarily united with a parent-to-be; or, in ‘Tony,’ the poet finds the mourned-for loved-one ‘in the garage … / the charnel darkness, in the chaos / and disorder, the lost stuff.’ Likewise, in ‘Goodbye,’ the narrator dreams of ‘the cul-de-sacs and crescents / of childhood,’ where he is reunited with ‘the dead man pushing’ the ‘hand-pushed lawnmower.’ These poems stage impossible reunions across time, findings, homecomings in which the lost are ‘dreamed alive’ – or, at least, ‘dead-alive,’ in the case of ‘Goodbye’ – through Davidson’s poetry. Davidson may not expect his understated and domestic poetry to keep his readers ‘awake,’ but with sleep comes strange and poignant dreams.

In less domestic terms, many of Steven O’Brien’s poems, in his remarkable collection Scrying Stone, have similar dreams, intermingling ghosts of past and present. In ‘Lough Swilly,’ for example, O’Brien writes that

I have heard that all times are present.
My ancestors are thriving as I speak,
And dying.
Their now generates against my now,
Perhaps divided by no more than the swoop of blades,
Or tides we may not cross.

These literary and historical ‘ancestors,’ who include Gilgamesh, Joshua, Guy Fawkes and Larkin, thrive and die in O’Brien’s poems alongside contemporaries; indeed, often ancestors and contemporaries are not even divided by ‘the swoop or blades’ or ‘tides we may not cross,’ but gradually merge, their faces and histories superimposed on one another across time. In ‘Bonfire Rut,’ Guy Fawkes becomes the ‘ur-foe’ of the State, or ‘Fawkes of the hundred faces – / Bin Laden, Bonaparte, Baal. / Enemy.’ Likewise, in ‘This Joshua,’ Bin Laden, or a Bin Laden-like figure, is a ‘Joshua of the news hour,’ who induces a sense of déjà-vu in his viewers:

And it seemed we had seen him before,
Or others like him –

Sitting beneath an apricot tree
In a broken place.

These moments of déjà-vu are not, then, benign resonances, partings or reunions across time – as is the case in Davidson’s poetry; rather, they are often violent and politicised intersections, trans-historical hauntings which wreak havoc and suffering on those involved. In the sequence of Gilgamesh and Enkidu ‘translations,’ which concludes O’Brien’s collection, Gilgamesh both haunts and is haunted by his future: his ancient ‘Uruk’ is also modern Iraq, its history invaded by army helicopters, medics, suicide bombings and modern forms of terror and suffering – and, indeed, vice versa, as those modern forms of suffering are invaded by past calamities:


There was a city. One city. Uruk was its name;
Frescoes and marble, the sheen of virgins’ thighs
Faced the morning sun.
A hand-built hill of clean dressed stone.
I remember tiny cymbals in the fingers of dancing girls.

But I have heard the halls have fallen.
The bastions are rubble.
Dry channels where reeds were nourished.
Women grieve in the market square.


Here, the suffering is both modern and ancient, contemporary and mythological: the poem occupies a peculiarly trans-historical space, in which contemporary news images of women grieving ‘in the market square’ following some atrocity might equally be part of the Gilgamesh myth. These trans-historical moments in O’Brien’s poetry don’t serve to distance or displace the grief and suffering: rather, they intensify these things, by emphasising recurrence, continuity, and a kind of mythological terror which haunts modern politics.

Not that O’Brien’s poetry is solely concerned with the world of macro-politics. It also operates on a more intimate level, where ghosts from the past haunt the present in more personal, understated ways. In the beautiful poem ‘On Cissbury,’ for instance, the narrator walks ‘blind / … into the mind of a cloud’ and, ‘up on the ridge,’ he becomes absorbed by a past ‘longing’:


… the white wind slipstreamed
Licking reminders of you –

Blind whispers, like poultices.
An endless racing sibilance of your name,
Tumbling the wet stone of memory.


Strangely enough, the ‘licking reminders’ of other people also operate between poems in this collection, whereby well-known ‘ancestors’ from the overtly political poems blindly whisper across time and space to narrators of the more personal poems. Guy Fawkes, for example, seems to whisper his own fate to the narrator of ‘Cave Painting,’ in which O’Brien reconstructs the psychological incarceration and torture of a school’s ‘Remedial Class’:


No one led us to the cave wall
And showed us how to mix the pastes of thoughts ….


You made fists of our tongues
Riveted our lips half shut.
Shackled us to extra metalwork ….
Taught us to do.
For we would not be paid to talk ….


Even now,
Passing a hand
Over the flanks of my thoughts,
I am never easy.
They are not tolerant
Or tame.
They still feel the branding rod.

The metaphorical tortures here (‘branding rod,’ ‘riveted …lips’) recall the tortures of Guy Fawkes, which are captured in horrific detail in other poems; and the violent alienation from language (‘You made fists of our tongues’) echoes what happened to Fawkes’s own command of written language whilst on the rack. In a disturbingly brilliant poem, ‘The Breaking of Him,’ O’Brien bookends a description of the rack with images of Fawkes’s two signatures, before and after the torture. Whilst ‘His first signature brags,’ the second signature ‘flaps across the page … // A jerking, broken wing, / Fluttering against the wall of the confession.’

For both the narrator of ‘Cave Painting’ and the Fawkes of ‘The Breaking of Him,’ language is ‘never easy’: it is an expression of pain and, indeed, incarceration, ‘fluttering against the wall.’ Because this is the painful truth of O’Brien’s poetry: that the resonances, hauntings, recurrences across history all convey an underlying incarceration within that history, and its ancestral cycles of violence and terror. All the poet can do is powerlessly echo these cycles. This is why the collection ends with the image of Gilgamesh as a kind of poet, futilely singing of his ‘new pities’ to no one in particular:


Gilgamesh scuffs along the street
Beating the echo with his hoarse new pities
No one bars his way. No one listens.


This review can be found in the latest issue of Iota (92)  http://templarpoetry.com/collections/iota/products/iota-92

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