Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits forgotten
by Oisín Breen
2019, ISBN 978 1 873412 04 6
There is an auditory quality to Oisín Breen’s poetry. The work incorporates sonic and typographic elements, and is richly alliterative, onomatopoetic, paratactic, and sibilant. The collection is sold with an accompanying CD, and the poems are best listened to in Breen’s own Irish accent, spoken with a sonorous lilt that brings each of the poems to life. The 95 page book contains only three poems, but they are grand, long, and epic, taking up space and working across time. Each of the poems relates to one another and are connected through the act described in the title of the first poem:“Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?” Taken collectively, the work is an elegy; a meditation on death and time, inheritance and love:
This is a quilt-work composed of acts of forgetting,
and each instance of kenning is a quickened sapling.
The writing is baroque, often exploding into a word-play that is so multi-syllabic it becomes more musical than semantical:
Yet I lack the wherewithal to fail to yield to the palpable thrum. It is extrinsic,
and dressed in surges of undifferentiated starlight,
I am asymptotic, and bifurcated in mnemonic flight,
and each point is plotted in baroque notation,
as plush woven sounds wash in the rippling coarse-grain of transition-
Breen manages the richness of his linguistic prowess well, creating a poetry personae that seems to be singing a beat reverie – like Ginsburg’s Kaddish or Whitman’s Song of Myself. Throughout the book Breen brings in multiple references, from the bible to epic tales, combining these with modern day perspectives and referents. He also utilises changes in font, word alignment, in exclamation and repetition:
Whist, I say. Whist, I know. Whist, I know and love you.
The second poem, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity” continues to play with the themes of the first: grief, elegy, memory, identify, loss and what remains. The references come thick and are mixed together in way that is heady, featuring the Semitic god of storms, “Hadad”, whose name and its many variations evokes the dead father of the previous poem. There are other gods here too – Abellio and Merodach, Gula and Innana. All invoked with a sense of loss, nostalgia, and desire. The work is still intensely sonic – “Adad, Rammam, Rimmon, Hadad”, with even more rhythm, rhyme and alliteration than the first poem, although more canticle than regular beat. The work has a strong forward motion, moving through Dublin: Talbot Street, Beckett Bridge, Liberty Hall:
Dublin, a city that rips the barnacles off her own sea drenched hull so as to feed them to herself, pretending they’re cockles and muscles and through time, childhood memories of coming-of-age, sex, and a deep and convoluted history mingling with a historical lineage.
This poem is the most linguistically complex of the three, often sliding into different languages, and invoking Icelandic sagas, Gaelic language and mythology, Mesopotamian epic, street vernacular, Spanish, Latin, personal history, Greek orators, workers jargon, the Holocaust, and early 20th century celebrities. The narrative structure varies, as the writing stretches across a page, steps downward, incorporates italics, capitals, dashes, timestamps, columns and a very liberal and effective use of white space. It’s ambitious and full bodied:
For in 2015, I love you, and I splice interstices of intersecting sedimentary instants in refracted chronological collapse — tempus fugit I say; and you tell me: damn your eyes – so we’re still needful of swallowing sights with the thrill of a divested melancholia, and, like de Sade said of reconstituted churches of bones: it’s all sublimity and the funerary art thus done to give life; so, from rounded domes of authority, I linger — my fingers (re)threading data — touching your thoughts while you wait, a service to please you, as you gush the binary agitated dilemma of the placelessness of sightlessness and love.
In spite of its complexity, the poem progresses quickly, with exuberance as it celebrates life against the backdrop of death – history repeating, co-existing, ever-present, and, revived/brought back to life against the backdrop of daily life – the shouting in the street and the flowers of the telling.
The final poem, “Her Cross Carried, Burnt” is more purely lyrical than the first two. This poem is presented as a kind of song(“I incant”) that works towards (re) creating life, not only in the revival of the father but also as a means of reviving the self, from the broken heart of loss to an acknowledgement of life:
From out of these notes of incantatory creation,
Comes electricity, and the existential song of cut aluminium skin,
That cigarette swallowed ode to plenty, birthed by penury, and sustained by contraband elation.
This last poem moves from an annual pilgrimage to the paternal grave, outwards, working towards the creation of something universal that unifies life and death. Breen moves the lens of his focus from Dublin to Prague, from past to present, from father to mother, From a single person’s grief to an origin myth that encompasses everything. Quantum to cosmological:
We are all, in part, pulsars,
etching secondary moments,
in which we have something been,
with furious, tempestuous light,
into the fabric skin of space,
into those nested Russian dolls of one and other’s fantasy.
Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits forgotten is not one of those books you read through and pop back on the shelf, ‘completed’. It’s Homerian, Whitmanian, Joycean, Eliotian and yields fresh treasures with each re-reading. Notes might help with some the extensive references, but the work reads well enough without knowing the etymology of each of the words, or the references, sometimes not in English – though knowing them does add additional depth and pleasure to the reading. This is a rich, exciting and complex series of poems that is both a philosophical poetic statement/Ars Poetica about the power of art, but also a moving and deeply emotional work of art about love, light, loss, and life.