By James Bourey
Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom. Figs, Berries and Fruits Forgotten
Publisher: Hybrid Press
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
If you’re a casual reader of poetry with little patience for words that are challenging, verses with lines that sometimes seem tangled or long sections that feel Joycean, then you may be tempted to avoid this book. But you’ll be missing some very good work from Irish poet Oisin Breen who invokes incantations to explore grief and the emotional complexities of loss.
Even the title of this book is intriguing. The imagination could easily shape the title into a poem:
A poem it is; simple lines and direct, yet there is a weight and a beauty that is very reminiscent of lines from the Asian masters. Mr. Breen writes with a depth of experience and in the tradition of Celtic storytellers. But this author moves around a little more than one who is completely grounded in a native tradition.
There are three extensive sections in this collection, with numbered poems of varying length and complexity. The first section is titled with a question, placed upon the page as a poem;
Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb
a gesture of bringing a little life
back to the dead?
We quickly learn that this section is about grief for the loss of the narrator’s father. The narrator opens with a description of his struggle with memories;
Memories, stilled and muted harmonia,
silk-heavy in the russet wind,
like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines,
and a timbre of slowness.
Changes occur; and Breen uses the page to shape those changes, from standard type to all capitals, white space, movement of stanzas on the page. At first, these seem distracting. After a little thinking, a little re-reading, we see the author’s purpose. And then there’s the first appearance of the word “whist” – an old English term meaning silence or hush. It reoccurs at irregular intervals throughout the book. At the end of the first poem whist seems like part of a gentle phrase of comfort;
Whist, I say.
Whist, I know.
Whist, I know and love you.
Other words appear that may be unfamiliar to the American reader – kenning, gra, baru, Asipu, Sennacherib, and many more. Some are drawn from Gaelic, some from Irish myth and still others from Mesopotamian and Assyrian mythology. Yet the poetry flows. The reader can revel in the sound, discern the emotion and feel the impact of the lines without being overly distracted. Later, a little research into those words can add a richer experience when we go back for some re-reading.
The first section of the book works through grief in its varying stages and levels. The narrator creates a tribute to his father but he also digs into their complex relationship. He uses nature and mythology, his own childhood and the life of his father, ancient and more modern religious stories to help find an understanding of, and peace with, death and loss. At the end, the section opening question has become a statement;
Placing flowers on a tomb is a gesture of bringing life to the dead.
The second section of this collection is called DUBLIN AND THE LOOSE FOOTWORK OF DEITY. This section seems like a stream of consciousness ramble through places and history and myth. Yet there is structure, a varied and often deliberately skewed structure, that makes the reading a challenge. Obscure references and unfamiliar language again give the reader (this reader anyway) the need to slow down, to think and sometimes to look things up. Some might say that the poet should offer some help to the reader – footnotes or simplification perhaps. But that’s not really the job of the poet. The poet only needs to put on the page the images and observations he/she sees in the way he/she sees and feels them. Mr. Breen has a unique vision and a very fine ability to use wonderful language to create strong, sensual and intricate poetry.
The final section of Mr. Breen’s collection is titled HER CROSS CARRIED, BURNT. This section begins with what seems to be an Ars Poetica, the voice of the narrator quietly, perhaps desperately, bringing forth his unstoppable need to sing his lines;
I must and I will.
Incant - to chant or intone - carries not only the image of the poet but that of the monk singing his daily prayers; a ritual, a requirement, a necessary part of his redemption. But there is much more to this section of poems. The narrator moves along through the creative process, digresses to the breakdown of his inner self, and widens his vision to those that came before and those who share in his present and future. This is, again, a complex and widely varied section. Mr. Breen doesn’t shy away from any part of the “examined life.” This final section of the book seems softer in tone and has a resoluteness that is missing in the first two parts. However, it is still marked by extremely creative use of language, a wonderful “read aloud” quality in sound and rhythm and enough clarity to keep the reader engaged throughout.
So, don’t shy away from this challenging collection of poetry. Buy this book. This is enriching work, work that will expand your poetic horizons and perhaps encourage you to look into other modern Irish poets. There’s a rich harvest in that land. You can read more about the poet here.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, The Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for The Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.