Holding Hands with the Dead

Ellen Cranitch on Poetry Of Remembrance


The City with Horns

House of Tongues

November: the month of the dead, of Remembrance Day. Wet leaves, chill air, fog. This word’s particular music – long vowel, lingering consonants – pervaded Sean O’Brien’s previous, award-winning collection The Drowned Book. That music runs on like a river through his latest volume which features a number of elegies as well as a series of poems inspired by France. The first two lines of November are almost entirely made up of words to do with perspective and chronology:

Look away just for a moment,
Then look back and see


As Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy knew well, the position from which you view things is one of the chief ways poetry can challenge the devastating linearity of time. In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ Larkin writes of his characters that ‘all their lives would contain this hour’. Hardy’s recasting of time in ‘At Castle Boterel’ is even more explicit:

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before
In that hill’s story?

The way in which poetry is able to redefine time matters most of all in elegy. Under the imperative of bearing witness to another, poetry exploits all its resources – sound, syntax and imaginative worlds. Among a number of elegies for family and friends, including the poets Peter Porter and Michael Donaghy, the poem written to O’Brien’s mother stands out. Resolutely clear-eyed, this is elegy so attuned to the delicate path it must tread between what is owed to the deceased, what to the bereft, that it almost mistrusts its own impulse:

This elegy’s a metaphysical excuse,
A sick-note meant to keep you back
A little longer.


Honesty is at a premium, and much of what is so affecting in this poem derives from the sense of things unsaid or the flicker of things wished different, though in the portrait of O’Brien’s mother this runs in tension with her conscientious teacher’s pragmatism. Just as ‘The Novembrists’ speaks somberly of relations between the poet’s mother and father and himself as ‘desultory, familial’, ‘Elegy’ conjures moments of disconnection via swirling shifts of perspective:

I think of how we stared into the bonfire
As we stood feeding it with leaves
In the November fog of 1959,
You, in your old green coat, me watching you
As you gazed in upon
Another life.

This restless movement between viewpoints renders the direct simplicity of homage to a life (‘But let me do it honour and repay your gift of words’) all the more moving by contrast. The poem ends on a note of subdued hope following a brightening vista of ‘willowed levels, water and the northern shore’ shared by the poet and a woman he encounters on the bus, ‘of your age / Your war, your work’. This strange meeting is just one of the several ways in which O’Brien brings past into present. In this collection, imagined and real worlds walk alongside each other; the living hold hands with the dead.

Yet despite the absences and dereliction conjured – of people and place, of civic responsibility, of a meaningful connection with history – the book left me exhilarated. This is due both to the calibre of the poems about loss as well as to the brio of the set pieces. One, the propulsive epic with which the book ends, ‘On the Toon’, is a visionary riff on Dante. At each narrative twist, you feel palpably the poet’s delight at the perfect glove-fit of a transposition of the Inferno onto his imagined contemporary Newcastle. We meet a Cyclops with a snooker cue and witness Dante’s rule of symbolic retribution represented as the materially rich actually being made out of lard which liquefies in a burst of flames. As with the more overtly political poems like ‘Sunk Island’ or ‘The Citizens’, ‘On the Toon’ has serious points to make, about the breakdown of the welfare state and the closure of libraries. Its success, however, owes much to its compassion and buoyant wit. ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ is a rite of passage of rueful warmth. Comically poignant, the fifth of this sequence of sonnets is particularly joyful. Here, stream-of consciousness, film dialogue and retrospective narration combine to affirm the vivid actuality of adolescent experience; the breathy refrain, ‘It is snowing’ hits something of the high notes of the ecstatic finale of Ulysses.

Above all, however, it’s the lyric poems that linger and account for the way in which the book leaves a luminous inverse – the sense of an abiding spirit, of people and of place, of O’Brien’s water-filled, urban pastoral. ‘Narbonne’ is a wonderful poem. Sound is its subject and governing principle. It’s full of crystalline images, deft allusion – like the nod to Robert Frost’s ‘Road Not Taken’ – and urgent syntax that, as in the work of W S Graham, sometimes has to mint itself anew to capture meaning:

The sound of a train is the sound of the wind
In the narrow streets, is nowhere, is a train
Not taken, though I see its swaying corridors
Framing the sun’s flight second by second
And wake to a scattering of rain at the glass,
To streets I have been dreaming, still and wet
From which the sound has only now
Yet therefore utterly departed…

The urgency of the poems derives in part from its careful orchestration of stress; fleet, aural echoes within the line play within and against a flexible blank verse. This runs like a heartbeat through the collection fuelling some of its most memorable observations and is able to contain conflicting feelings of great intensity:


To these familiar conditions that will once more
Exalt the heart in breaking it. Come close.


The relationship between ways of seeing and time is a concern that emerges also from the compelling centerpiece of Tamar Yoseloff’s fourth collection, ‘The City with Horns.’ Yoseloff takes her title from a phrase Jackson Pollock scribbled in the margin of a drawing. You can see why this poet is drawn to the American abstract expressionist whose drip technique freed line from its task of bounding and defining objects; one of the poetry’s preoccupations is the blurring of states. The uncomfortable physical intimacy of strangers on a bus (‘Invisible Nearby Sea’) or images of floods (‘Where you are’) are articulated through a poetic vision ever quick to cut through conventional barriers, between skin and clothes (‘Singing Woman’) or, like Sean O’Brien, between living and dead (‘London Particular’). What makes the book a pleasure to read is the way its ambitious subject matter which includes the relationship between art and life, is expressed in a diction both spare and assiduously exact. Each compact word glows like a hot coal and feels like it could be no other.

The poems in the Pollock sequence are narrated by a number of different voices, Jackson Pollock himself; his wife, Lee Krasner; his lover, Ruth Kligman who survived the car crash that killed him in 1956 at the age of 44, and a narrator. The sequence sets out to recreate the fast-living, short-lived ‘action painter’, in all his alcoholic tempestuousness. The words are all weight and heft; harsh consonants and heavy vowels bring us, in ‘The City with Horns’, a wrestling match of an evocation of Pollock’s muscular charisma: ‘like a bull, great bulk of the Minotaur, / naked and erect’. This energy is apparent in the way a tricolon, in the same poem, opts to field different syntactic constructions rather than settle for a dull list: ‘horny again, no broad brave enough to fuck him / this beast of a man, a real artist, no bullshit’; or in ‘Springs’ where curt clauses depicting an almighty row between Jackson and Lee – smashed plates, foul language – miraculously resolve into a splashed canvas. While ‘Springs’ depicts a physical struggle, other poems explore the metaphysical one embraced by any painter grappling with appearance versus reality and with the effects of time:

I wanted people to sit still
for one goddam minute but they
flash through your life –

portraits are for the dead.

Trees construct themselves into a solid mass
as the horse picks up speed…


So complete is the imaginative connection made by Yoseloff with Pollock’s life and art, that these core poems are inevitably the most powerful. ‘Tokens’, inspired by objects left by mothers at the Foundling Hospital, aptly transforms its poignant premise through the use of riddle and rhyme but doesn’t attain the same intensity. From the rest of the collection, I found the quiet wit in ‘Shadow’ where a couple are compared to books – ‘I’m a slim volume, you’re / leather-bound, slightly foxed’. – and the elegiac minimalism of ‘Field’, especially memorable.

As in November, loss is a central theme in Susan Wicks’ House of Tongues. Yet in Wicks’ poetic vision, loss is not just a process of subtraction but of addition, it can furnish insight. Many of Wicks’s poems probe how the essence of a living thing or an experience might most accurately be known through the imprint it leaves behind. Freshly disturbed snow or grass, for example, vividly retain the identity of the deer; or in the ingenious ‘Box’, a bird-shaped hedge reverting to nature after ‘Some topiary intent / coaxed it alive’, hovers between one state and another. This preoccupation finds its most complete expression in one of the strongest poems ‘Pistachios’, where a dawning realization of the absence of sex is compared in charged sexual detail to shellfish exposed by the tide.

Although some of Wicks’s poems in the early part of the book can tend to be under-pressured and there’s an over-reliance on the list-of-three default ending, her subject matter has range, bespeaking both an affinity with the natural world and an unflinching willingness to explore difficult emotional terrain. In ‘Untitled(wheelchair)’ the detailed materiality of an empty wheelchair conjures the invalid – ‘my side-by-side feet // aligned on the footrest, as the grey road rolls under’ – in a fresh and moving piece that unexpectedly affirms the human spirit. The poem’s utter lack of sentimentality brings to mind Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Sixty Years After’, focused on a similar image, in White Egrets.

The collection ends with a flourish on a sequence set in the Swedish Hanseatic harbour town of Visby. Here, the motif of tongues which has run through the collection is fully realized in a number of dramatic monologues. Some are laments for the loss of the town’s mercantile might. Others, set in the medieval period, are gossipy and vengeful diatribes focused on primitive appetites such as lust, envy and greed. “Little Ingeborg’, in the voice of a woman coerced under torture, is a particularly arresting. Sparse lyric and unobtrusive rhyme are balanced against edgy consonantal sound drawn from an amalgam of Swedish and English to generate a new idiom which gives this savage tale great immediacy.

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