The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O’Brien, Picador, 2015.
I have a confession to make: although I really like reading prose, I really love reading poetry.
I think my love of poetry started when I was a very young child, sitting under the kitchen table and listening to my mother teach my home-schooled half-siblings. Family legend has it that I used to pipe up and recite the lines of poetry that my half-brother never could seem to remember, but which my mother insisted he memorise. I moved on from being unofficial prompter to writer of very bad odes in the style of Keats and Shelley, great swathes of words lamenting the passing of time and the dying of trees, and whatnot. Yes, I was a weirdly melancholic child, so it’s no wonder that I gravitated towards the Romantic poets. Wordsworth made me weep; Coleridge fascinated me; Byron enthralled me.
As I got older I started studying poetry, the nuts and bolts of it, learning about the mechanics of it. I stopped writing my bad verse and started reading more carefully. I developed a love for the sonnet which is with me still. How do they do that, was my frequent question. How do they DO that?
I’m still fascinated by poetry, and I’ve come to understand that poetry and painting are the two artistic media that speak to me in the most intense way. Poetry and painting don’t seem to require explanation: my experience of them just seems to slip into my brain, somehow, and I’m not conscious of analysing or thinking; I just seem to ‘know’. Poetry and painting are all about Ah-Ha moments for me, and I like the immediacy of the experience.
So, I read Sean O’Brien’s latest collection of poems, and loved them. He’s a sixty-three-year-old British academic, poet and playwright, and has won many awards for his writing. Clearly, he knows his literary stuff. I found The Beautiful Librarians a joy to read, because the poems are so clever and accomplished, and so different from one another.
The first verse of the titular poem:
The beautiful librarians are dead,
The fairly recent graduates who sat
Like Francoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters
With cardigans across their shoulders
On quiet evenings at the issue desk,
Stamping books and never looking up
At where I stood in adoration.
When you enter grey rose country,
After the days, more days, the last,
The comfortless finality
That has not finished yet, the rest
Versus the rest, no aftermath
Is absolute enough for death.
Grey roses’ petals do not fall
At summer’s end: the grey rose rears
Its hydra heads to stand for all
That can be neither mourned nor shed
In the grey gardens of the dead.
Grey roses worn on the lapel,
Grey roses rooted in the mind,
Grey roses with a sweet-sick smell,
Grey roses, grey with all regret
For all that has not happened yet.
The grey rose has no history
In the lost world it imitates.
The grey rose is and cannot be.
It neither toils nor spins. It waits,
A truth that will not set you free,
Grey rose that’s nothing but a rose
That flowers here where nothing grows.
They’ve put you in the Edward Thomas Room,
The dim one in the tiny annexe with the tiny window blocked by leaves,
With a sleepless chiffchaff and the bed
You realise eventually is coffin-shaped.
There will be baked potatoes and a sense of déjà vu,
Lasagne and, perhaps, a sense of déjà vu,
The Director is on leave / is leaving / has left /
Is barricaded in the office with
A shotgun and a box of Mini Cheddars.
It all seems very far away, The Rurals,
Like somewhere you’re not really meant to go,
Not liking smells, or sheep especially, in Wales almost.
Yet after all, what is it? Only a week of your life,
One long week of the short third act,
In which to have fallen with a sense of déjà vu
Among demons and maniacs and bores.
Reading down the the list of names,
You seem to know them all from somewhere –
Flanerie O’Anaconda, Delphine Stain,
Euphemia Bandersnatch, Clive Overbite
And the indomitable Norman Shouty,
And someone who is always not there yet
But on a train / plane /a mission / medication / sectioned.
And all the rest. How many of the bastards are there? They are waiting.
If the slurry served at dinner seems to have a fringe on top
Remember, truth is beauty, beauty truth
And that is all you need to know. So eat your greens.
Enough of this, it’s time, it’s time.
There is a further room prepared, the Déjà Room,
Down a dark path, through a mire, a grimpen, a minefield, a boneyard, Wales, not far,
And there at last you’ll have to talk to them. They’re waiting,
Waiting with their pens, their grudges and their daggers, eagerly.
How ghastly to be a writer for hire and have to make your living running writing courses and giving readings and fronting up at festivals. *shudder*. I read somewhere that when O’Brien performed this poem at a book reading it didn’t go down too well with some of the punters. I’ve never been to a writers’ festival and doubt that I ever shall. I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with a few writers whose work I admire, but being part of an audience doesn’t appeal to me. And, as far as I’m concerned, no one can ‘teach’ others to write: it’s either something someone has a talent for, or not. Can you imagine Tolstoy teaching a MFA class, or Woolf doing a Q&A session at a writers’ festival? No, me neither. Writers as celebrities is a whole other post, though.