by Oisín Breen
Agatha Christie’s 1967 mystery Endless Night begins, “In my end is my beginning… That’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right, but what does it really mean?” I thought of these words, after I read Flowers, All Sorts in Bloom, Figs, Berries and Fruits Forgotten by Oisín Breen. I like that long but intriguing title, the three long poems contained in this poetry collection sound all right—more than all right—but it isn’t clear what they mean.
The three poems definitely sound good. They appeal to the senses. They’re alliterative and assonant. There’s repetition and variation, like a sonata. Within the poems, there are many fascinating and beautiful phrases. There’s word creation that would have delighted James Joyce. All in all, Breen’s language and his use of language are downright pleasurable.
Immediately, Breen’s words appeal to the senses of touch, sound, and sight. Memories are specifically “silk-heavy,” which conjures up something fine and thin in an engaging, sensual way; they have a melancholy “timbre of slowness.” This opening stanza ends with the sorry sight of “liver spots on my translucent skin.” They do not sound like happy memories—but they are beautifully evoked. And the next stanza has a beautiful sound, and it is repeated several times throughout. In the third stanza comes a phrase both striking and alliterative: “an effulgence of shadows, shimmering on sun-whetted stone.” Then, the title of the poem— “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb/a gesture of bringing a little life/back to the dead?”—appears as an intriguing statement, in which the poet places flowers on his father’s grave, “a gesture…to bring life to the dead,” a gesture followed anticlimactically by a couple junkies and a little bird, nearby.
This could be a poem in itself, but it continues for 24 more pages. It not only continues, but it tends to mystify. It makes references to the Dublin area that only a Dubliner is likely to know, like Liffey Run (of Dublin’s River Liffey), Howth (suburb of Dublin), and the DART, or Dublin Area Rapid Transit. (I didn’t know any of that; I had to look it up.) It uses obscure words. What does “Whist” mean? What is the “baru” that the poet repeatedly calls upon? What is “haruspex,” “culling,” or “catabiotic”? It makes references to what sounds like ancient Irish places and people, probably mythic (if my recollection of Irish myth is correct). In sum, the poem’s vocabulary and references make the poem excessively hard to understand.
Similarly, the next long poem in the collection, titled “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity,” is mystifying. Who or what is Adad? The following words “numerous begab” don’t shed light on the question; they only create another one. Then, the reader encounters Shala, then, Rimmon and Hadad, then, Ani, then, Bel. Who are these people, and what do they signify? Nor is this all that’s mystifying. Who is Merodach, whom the poet repeatedly speaks of? Why what looks like a historical account, or, later on, what looks like a timetable? Why the sudden reference to Dachau in a poem presumably about Dublin? And so on. Yet—Breen has a fascinating way with words, as in these lines:
We draped ourselves in wooden beads
and chanted, pig-drunk
and bellowed until the police tore us from the steps,
until the dancers became the throwers of stones,
and the whiskey inside me was made vitriol and noise.
Likewise, phrases such as “glass-eyed fog/forgetful memory” and “long, steady, lingering, wistful, perforated, explosive, painful, and/ delicate incisions in time” are unquestionably arresting. Overall, this poem has a recurring theme of thirst and hunger and need that haunts the reader.
Again, in the third and final poem, enigmatically titled “Her Cross Carried, Burnt,” there is much to enjoy, and there is much that mystifies. There is repetition of lines that intrigue, such as “Each year I sing this better/Many lines. One song.” There are evocative phrases, like “brawling, hide tanned, relentless inner I.” But—the parts cannot be subtracted from the whole, which becomes, as in the previous poems, too hard to understand. Questions—too many questions—arise. What is “lateralarchy”? What is the “Geist of pointing fingers” or “the fragmented matrix of shifting tectonic plates?” How is birth “Regal, pitiful, aristocratic, and submissive”? If there is an underlying narrative in the poem, it gets lost in confusion.
Unfortunately, there is a WTF aspect to this linguistically inventive poetry collection. When poems—such as these three—cannot be comprehended, they can make no lasting impression.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.