Retrospective Loss

The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O'Brien (68pp, 9.99, Picador)

Sean O'Brien's latest collection has a consistent theme of bitter political disenchantment coupled with a sense of nostalgia, not so much for time and place but for social ethos.

Whilst superficially O'Brien laments the loss of The Beautiful Librarians, sophisticated beings that seemed beyond the reach of a gauche student (although personally I don't recall librarians ever being very glamorous...), this is actually a lament for the loss of libraries and the educational and social principles which enabled them. Whilst some might take the view that the world moves on, resources evolve, O'Brien leaves no doubt where he stands.

The finger is pointed at the Thatcher years and the greed intrinsic to that period, and this is broadened to a dislike of the South and the materialism and lack of social empathy that O'Brien believes lies below the North South divide.
For example in 'Another Country' he writes:

   You stand for everything there was to loathe about the South,
   The avarice, the snobbery, the ever sneering mouth,

   The lack of any solidarity with any cause but me,
   The certainty that what you were was what the world should be.

However he is not without humour and in 'Oysterity' gives us a clever condemnation of himself (and of others who behave similarly) talking about austerity while gorging on shellfish. The author ends up appallingly sick and believes 'I'd got what I deserved...'.

There is much to admire in the writing here; there's a depth that demands the reader work hard. In a few of the 40 poems the reader is left with the feeling that there are keys pieces of information he doesn't possess and which are needed to unlock the puzzle - for example in 'Immortals' where less sympathetic readers may wonder if it's worth the effort...

And in that regard it reminds of Eliot. Indeed there is a sense of three poets present here: Eliot, Auden and Larkin. Eliot for some of the denser imagery and that requirement for more information; Auden because O'Brien plays with different forms whilst carrying strong socio-political messages; and Larkin because there is an overarching bleakness.

In 'Protocols of the Superfluous Immortal' O'Brien says:

   The day extends towards whatever/

   It extends towards, forever, and the god
   applies himself once more to thirteen down,
The only word that rhymes with breath. But it's no good

which, like other poems here, has a Larkinesque slant. Larkin is perhaps more skilled with (or slavish to?) form, but that's not to detract from O'Brien's work.

This is a well written collection with a strong message - although not delivered at the expense of beauty in the language, despite its occasionally obtuseness. However it does feel retrospective not only in its message but because the writing itself feels linked to an earlier time.

And this isn't helped by capitalizing the start of every line - which now feels rather dated and out of fashion.

     Marc Woodward 2015