And, although these unreal citadels,
Which we in our minds have sculpted,
in better days,
Echoed with the coal drenched laughter of restorative decimation,
They are now the sole preserve of the fine accoutrements of your doubt.
Yet doubt is the seed,
plump to burst,
to be ripped apart,
ready for its shuddering frame to remain,
but as broken shell,
crushed under full-formed step.
—Oisín Breen, “Her Cross Carried, Burnt”
On 11 September, 2001 I was supposed to fly into Washington DC for the annual Small Press Xpo that weekend. Obviously that did not happen. Instead I found myself with ten days of vacation and nothing to do in the middle of an extremely panicked America. I hopped on to the Coast Starlight train and headed south.
Trains in America are fascinating for many reasons, but the most interesting to me is that unlike buses or planes, trains encourage people to talk. That fact, and the fact that passengers on the train tend to be people who are in no hurry and accept a leisurely flow of time made my trip rich with conversation. Throughout the entire distance, people from all across the country greeted me like I was a long-time neighbor. I talked a little but mostly I listened. What I found was that suddenly a lot of people were interested in two things rarely in the spotlight in masscult-obsessed America: classical music and poetry.
When I was young in the 80s, I’d seen this before, in Lebanon and Germany, but I’d never noticed it in America. Since then, however, I’ve noticed it repeatedly. In times of crisis, people around the world turn to music and poetry, which are of course two sides of the same coin.
2020 was certainly not like 2001 in many senses. But both are united by the sense of fear, uncertainty, helplessness, invasion, and crisis. So it’s no wonder I found myself turning to poetry again.
It was in this spirit I received Oisín Breen’s book Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, which comprises three quite long poems that treat the idea of memorial. Each poem approaches the subject in different ways that combine the historical, the social, and the personal.
I’ve long had a complaint about poetry post-1970 or so. Long ago Babette Deutsch wrote a tentative (“diffident,” she said) definition of poetry as “The art which uses words as both speech and song to reveal the realities that the senses record, the feelings salute, the mind perceives, and the shaping imagination orders.” And that has always been the basis of my complaint: the balance is off. Too much poetry after the Beats and Hungryalists is stuffed with an excess of speech. Actual song is rare.
So it’s an incredible and pleasant surprise to open up Mr. Breen’s book and find so much song, a legitimate striving toward a verbal kind of cantus firmus and polyphony. It is difficult to illustrate this with the short excerpts that literary critics seem to dote on these days, but that is a strength and not a shortcoming. The third poem/cycle in the book, “Her Cross Carried, Burnt,” particularly leans on this approach to verbal song. The density that builds as a result is often difficult but also quite lovely.
In its eight sections, a poetic voice stands over a grave and begins an incantation. That incantation begins in the present tense with present tense observations and accrues in density as simple observations connect to memory with clever weaving of the immediate present with the historical present:
It is the fragmented matrix of shifting tectonic plates;
a collage of extreme rapidity.
It is the stative,
Active, whilst choosing its own beliefs.
It is an open declaration,
riveted, sealed with internalities,
its nails made out of off beat jazz.
It is short, temporary, momentary, memory, transitory,
five seconds for five shillings.
It is the incantatory.
A brief moment,
Respite at a Victorian peep show.
So, birthed by knowing,
It is the fabric that binds this music in the making,
It is the hemline torn so as to give utterance to song.
I take the poem to be a meditation on “singularity” with various resonances: just as love for the one in the grave is singular, and the point at which the poet stands chanting is also singular, the poet’s memory brings the past and future into the present as a singularity of its own. He emphasizes this with references to time and space as a continuum.
That singularity of learning,
In the first years of which,
Knowledge disturbingly disperses time.
This is why everything I know,
and all that I recall,
is manque and reimagined.
And why the fallacy of knowing memory is out of this thought torn.
It is why my looking backwards to find my origin
Is the disputing act:
that haunted search for formulae that give fractals endings,
and rainbows a location in which their pulse becomes a hearse.
Our looking backward then, is both the on switch and the off.
It’s a lovely piece, conceived with an elaborate architectural form that would make one of the numerologically inclined composers like Scriabin or Bach rather proud. More importantly, unlike so much of contemporary poetry, it is finally about emotion and emotional revelation that cannot be contained by mere intellect. In the hands of a poet like Paul Muldoon “Her Cross Carried, Burnt” would reach the point where emotion should reveal itself but would halt, and instead be buried underneath the poet’s embarrassment about actual feeling. Not so here. Mr. Breen has found a fragile balance where the form of the poem — in eight parts, each part analogous to a note of a musical octave — can still express actual feeling without needing to subdue it by castration.
The form of the first poem in the book “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb/a gesture of bringing a little life/back to the dead?” seems to differ, certainly, from “Her Cross Carried, Burnt.” But it is only because it is more direct. In its eleven sections, “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb/a gesture of bringing a little life/back to the dead?” keeps the present and the past much more separate. The poet uses the past imperfect tense frequently here, as quite distinct from the present.
Statement here is heightened, as it is throughout the book, but it is also more jagged. The poet’s rather more emphatic separation of past and present here provides the musical question; the musical answer is in the third poem, viz., that past and present are one and the same.
The fourth section of the poem in fact is comprised of poetic questions that beg an answer.
What songbird hovered flightlessly,
its wings silent, and its mouth open,
precocious in a rendition of the vacuum?
What night, illuminated by the mossy green of old lamplight,
its possibilities fragmenting like forming ice,
sheds skin in recompense for a fallow wantonness on the lips?
What measure is this that strips us of compassion,
but leaves us thrilling at the raspy fulsome pleasure of it all,
a hot wet fungus in a crystalline dew?
I ask you–
What do you make of me?
But this is not answered here. It is only elaborated. The following section, rather than answering any of the questions posed, immediately launches into bardic song, somewhere between the chanson de geste of The Song of Roland and the prosimetrum of Táin Bó Cúailnge:
I am the last living thing that remembers you.
I can not know if you straddle moments, or if snake-like you strangle me in echoes of anamnesis. Nor do I trust you to forget, or to pigment the images you see, as I do, with figments of rent seas, even now, as you plunge your teeth into the entrails of your kin.
I asked you for memory of my father’s death, but you chose to lavish your bann, and I do not atone.
It’s this constant reference to forms of the past that anchors the entire book of Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten and it plays out in truly beautiful manner in the final section of “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb/a gesture of bringing a little life/back to the dead?” This section reflects the first section of the poem. Going back to the very first section, in which the poet writes:
And I place flowers on my father’s grave, a gesture, like any other, to bring life to the dead.
And beside me two junkies eat a watermelon from a plastic bag,
And a black and white tit hops beneath their feet.
this closing section begins not in verse but in prose like an old epic and then settles into verse as the only way to contain the emotion:
Here it is then, an apocrypha of angels and monsters and barrel bombs and love and forgiveness and repentance and such relentlessness that leaves me so rent that I can only exhale.
I exhale like it is the first time I have ever done so and it is.
I am born and for the first time I remember.
Whist, I say.
Whist, I know.
Whist, I know and love you.
Placing flowers on a tomb is a gesture of bringing life to the dead.
I love that stuff.
The middle poem of the book, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity,” is the most obviously Irish in form. It’s also the least Irish in content — or at least it seems so at first glance. My own reading is that the poem treats Dublin as a kind of modern Babylon, a place where the old gods all the way from Ninhursag to Rita Hayworth remain embedded in every stone of the city and recreate Dublin as a kind of modern Eridu. It’s literate and affectionate.
As much as I like the piece, I wondered for awhile why it was in this book. The first and the last poems are obviously connected; this one less obviously so. Then it occurred to me that was exactly why. “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb/a gesture of bringing a little life/back to the dead?” is the set-up for the book. It is, if you will, the first A section of an ABA musical composition. “Her Cross Carried, Burnt” is the A section revisited, as in a Haydn sonata. “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity” is the quiet B section, the Andante movement of the sonata-allegro form.
In that sense, it is a treatment of the history which never dies and is always present, the history to which the other two poems must respond, and which they must finally accept. The sixth and final section of the poem makes it clear:
Lugh, Lugh, this is your home:
Dublin, her arse, her gaping maw, a high arched velvet cunt to be beatified
Dublin, her incantations slung from behind a drink-wet moustache, when
Dublin, a city not divided but severed, tribal, and obsessed with her own
Dublin, a city that rips the barnacles off her own sea drenched hull so as to
feed them to herself, pretending they’re cockles and mussels
alive alive oh —
This “quiet” B section grounds the book and allows for the rapid-fire, dense concatenation of imagery past and images present in the third section. Without this section preceding the final, the book would seem abrupt, like a 20th Century atonal work, instead of a classical sonata.
I’ve read the book five times now, each time questioning my own knowledge of the work, and my initial assumptions about its vocabulary and the historical references within it. And each time has been a journey worth taking. Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten reminds me that there is plenty of song left in the world, even when there is so much banal, electronically distorted speech.