‘Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín’, by Oisín Breen

This collection from Oisín Breen melds together several thematic threads in a series of Beat Generation-esque prose poems that propel the lyrical form of the language to its maximal point.  Love pokes its head over the parapet many times across the collection, most notably in the title poem, yet is neither simple nor typical but rather presented in the many-splendoured form that often appears in the mythological legends of the world. 

Setting the standard for the collection is the title poem, a long narrative exploration of the life of Étaín, an ethereal figure from the Irish Mythological Cycle. Just so, the opening lines introduce and elucidate the cyclical nature of mythology, poetry and love, with Breen’s use of language striking a balance in being both contemporary and ageless: 

All this ends with the hocking of soft skin in loose folds, 
A solemn current of spooled ink, 
A stuffed portent: 
That elegiac parchment of cause and effect, 
And rhapsody, where each stroke of the hand 
Is delicate enchantment. 

Love runs through the collection, followed closely by death, msot evocatively portrayed in the last lines of Part I of ‘Lilies …’:

For each of us it differs. 
But our death will come in a single reckoning, 
       a blow that shakes us from navel to heart,
       a furious meeting of synapses 
       riffing out sketches in a stop-start-stop algorithmic play,

All at once, 
And not at once. 

And I have been dying for such a long time.

What is evidenced time and again in the collection is the flowing, almost mellifluous grasp of Breen, who examines heavy emotional content in delicate ways that never shy away from the truth of emotion. 

In the opening of ‘At Swim, Two Pair’, Breen folds together the upper image of swans swimming across the lake with an under image of humanity facing itself:  

In two directions then, they swim, mother, sister, and kin, 
Their bodies half submerged in the gloaming, vespers sung, 
And the water around them weaves eddies,

Much of the power of ‘At Swim, Two Pair’ stems from the extent to which these two elements are given space to express themselves, and how well they support one another. 

In many of the poems, love is present yet somewhat submerged. In ‘A Chiaroscuro of Hunger’, it comes to the surface: 

It was ten years ago, when she asked me
To serenade her. She sat beside Triton’s fountain,
In Rome, as the sun-shook air near split with heat,
And small globes of water acrobatically landed
On my cheeks, red with the thought of a kiss.

Breen’s composition of poem titles is evocative, and the final in the collection, ‘Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash’, is my favourite for this reason. That the poem it belongs to is equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking only accentuates Breen’s mastery of language. 

Some threw a fit of flight, and lifted, light, 
Their slack frames into a furious fling- 
-ing of black pistons moving through the air, 
As if it were a heavy soup, 
And their beating wings a great machinery 
That could render even planets unto ash. 

Breen’s technical capabilities are brought to the fore in the sequence “The Love Song of Ana Rua”, a sprawling post-modernist poem that defies categorisation, expectation and quotation. It is a visceral poem that demands to be read and read again. I can only imagine the power that would be held in a recitation of it live. What ‘The Love Song …’ does so well is embody the power of language as its own end. The lines, often short, sharp and jutting (in contrast to the longer prose-poem style of lines in most of the other poems), play across the page in ways that challenge the conventions of negative space and where that belongs around a poem. 

What is evident in the collection is the depth of Breen’s understanding of mythological signifiers, continued and embedded throughout the poems, even those that seem modern or mundane, if you will allow that to be the counterpoint to myth. A voracious collection, this second collection is nothing if not a clear manifesto for why Breen will be a voice in modern poetry for many years to come.

Originally published by Beir Bua Press, Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín has been re-published by Downingfield

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