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  The Drowned Book
Sean O'Brien

David Bowden
posted 2 October 2007

Swearing often feels like a lost art. For a long time, of course, the difficulty was in actually doing it in any public sphere: once it was out there, one did not need to worry too much about how you did it. Now that proper swearwords have lost much of their impact – to be replaced by the much less fun ‘hate speech’ – to swear properly requires a certain finesse; a precision with rhythm and context.

This is why comedians tend to be best at it, reliant as they are on timing and the ability to surprise. Playwrights do tend to be quite skilled at it, although mostly in imitating speech or conveying emotion – you only tend to notice the swearing in plays when it has a special impact, or when it’s in the wrong places. It tends to be a less vital skill in novelists, (arguably) with a broader scope than the precision of their language – with Joyce and Lawrence it only became such an issue because they weren’t allowed to do it – although when used correctly, such as in the sole ‘cunt’ in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, it can have devastating effect.

Oddly, musicians are actually pretty poor when it comes to profanity: the most famous exponents in pop music are the Sex Pistols, and their most well-known examples are confined to television appearances and album titles. This is probably due to rhythm – in basic three-chord blues-based rock the lyrics have to provide a melodic counter to the repetition of the instrumentation, so the key words are often polysyllabic. The influence of jazz and eventually hip-hop, where the music is less structured, put greater influence on vocal rhythm and thus gave more freedom to swear. It took until NWA for music to have its own glorious, magnificent ‘fuck’ to call its own. Nonetheless, pop and rock remains better at innuendo and euphemism – does anyone really believe 'Teenage Kicks' would’ve been a better song had it been a song about teenage masturbation, instead of teenage yearning? Would 'The Lemon Song' been improved it had been given the more appropriate title ‘Wank Me Off, Sweet Cheeks?’ Even lauded lyricists like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or The Streets aren’t terribly musically proficient.

Poets, as you might’ve noted, are pretty good swearers: the good poets, at least. Chaucer made an art out of punning on ‘queynte’; Baudelaire and Rimbaud could even get TS Eliot hot under the collar; more recently, Larkin and Plath have been able to sear their work on a generation of angst-ridden teenagers with a couple of choice fucks. It is interesting that so many performance poets tend to swear very heavily: in a form which is all about instantaneous impact, they try to milk it as much as possible. There is a flipside to this, of course: the image of angry sonnets about shitting and pissing and getting fucked in the wanking cunt are almost as cliched as black polo necks and berets. Bad poets are invariably diabolical swearers.

Sean O’Brien is a first-grade cusser. This is because he is a fine technician: his use of strong and simple rhymes make every word and sound count, which is why a profanity in his work usually sticks in the mind. It is in this respect in which he most resembles his spiritual forebear Larkin, and the grim humour that resides in the perpetually decaying image of their hometown Hull drives much of their poetry even when, as in O’Brien’s earlier poem ‘Fiction and The Reading Public’ he takes on the voice of Norman Mailer arguing with a death-row hick.

Carrying on a tradition of earthy Northern poetry that dates back pretty much to Gawain, O’Brien is clever but not fancy. This is his sixth collection of original poetry and we’re on familiar terrain: Hull, politics, municipality, water, swearing. His previous effort was a translation of Inferno but it seems, on the surface at least, that the biggest influence he has taken from Dante is a few new ways of discussing the drainage system. True, the tone is sombre and death hangs over the book, but – as the title implies – not only is it a watery one, the slow creep of age and failure, rather than in flames of hellfire but it is also all over. The blurb mentions personal circumstances, and judging by the number of elegies on show there must be some pretty serious personal circumstances driving O’Brien, but when he unveils in the heavily Larkinesque ‘Serious Chairs’ the image of an ‘aged independent scholar’ with ‘knowledge like a skull in a box’ it is one of the few moments when death wins out. Bleak as the funereal reminders of ‘phone calls ignored and left ringing’ from the drink-sodden Barry MacSweeney or the ‘viscid stink’ of the ‘sputum-algae’ which plague the Wold are, water offers hope and regeneration (if properly drained, naturally) that is of some comfort to the narrator, even as we leave him being ferried in an ‘iron coffin’ with a somnambulant boatman in the concluding ‘Arcadia.’

And yet it’s difficult to get past the sensation that there’s something not quite right here. It comes appropriately enough, with a swearword. To be precise, thirty-eight lines into ‘Timor Mortis’:

Join Zeno, Zog and Baudelaire
As conscripts of le grand nowhere
Some on ice and some on fire,
Some with slow piano wire,
Screaming, weeping, brave as fuck
And absolutely out of luck

Something went wrong there. The first five lines are classic O’Brien – literary and irreverent, nicely phrased, rhythmic. But then the last line strikes a bum note. It is supposed to be arrhythmic I grant you, but it’s all a matter of context. It is a list poem – scientifically proven to be the last refuge of the scoundrel – and rails, with typical O’Brien ire, against the destruction of human trivia (‘De Tocqueville and Thomas Hobbes/Ascetics, charvers, Rent-A-Gobs’) by the finality of death. But that final line doesn’t just slow down the rhythm – it sounds exhausted. The poem is ultimately anaemic, like the ghosts the haunt the collection – from the weak satire (‘Dispensers of banal advice/Kate Moss and Condoleezza Rice’) to the jolly-rhythm and sad message combination. Worst of all, it sounds upsettingly reminiscent of Billy Joel.

There are warning signs earlier on. In the song ‘Habeas Corpus’ he attacks the anti-terror laws, concluding:

Now join me, honest citizens
Let’s drink to an unknown crime –
We’ll all be on the inside soon,
One nation doing time.
Burn out our brains,
Lock us in chains
To prove to us we’re free -
There’s none so blind,
We think you’ll find,
As one who cannot see

It’s really that horrible, all the way through. Everything from the lame sloganeering, the buttock-clenching earnestness – hell, even those bastard italics. At first I wasn’t so sure how seriously to take it – O’Brien has always been very skilled at combining political observations with a sense of the limitations of poetry as a political tool – but when it’s followed up, only a few poems later, with ‘Timor Mortis’ he starts to sound like an embarrassing drunken uncle telling you how good the sixties were.

It’s only when you reach ‘Valedictory’ later on, that you start to get an image of what’s occurring. O’Brien takes the opportunity to strike a few more blows against an ailing Thatcher, listing familiar crimes – the Belgrano, asset-stripping, Orgreave. There isn’t much difference, on the fact of it, between this and ‘Timor Mortis’ – but the old enemy seems to have reignited the poet of old. The rhymes and metre strike the right note (‘Strange, no one nowadays admits/To voting in the gang of shits/Who staffed her army of the night’): the anger seems real rather than habitual. The poem ends with the acceptance, despite the glee he anticipates from her eventual death, that ‘we must be merciful’ and remember that the ‘task is always to rebuild/ Our city’ and there ends the politicking for the rest of the book. He comes to bury her, then, not to praise her. The message implies that we should move on, but in many ways it seems like the poem is another elegy – not for Thatcher, but for the angry young man O’Brien was, and the old political discourse.

For all the images of apocalypse, political ennui and death, most of the other poems in The Drowned Book does what good poetry should do: offering redemption through its own fragile brilliance even when all seems lost. O’Brien is getting older and more aware of his own mortality, but excitingly seems ready to face the challenge as a poet which this sets him. ‘What use are poems in the dark?’ he asks at the end of ‘Timor Mortis.’ Nothing, but they provide a little warmth and light in the gloaming. Sean O’Brien is dead; long live Sean O’Brien.


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