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Sean O'Brien: three poems

Dead Man

The dead man waking in the hedgerow,

bound in last year's ivy, lies and listens –

seagulls, trains, the vault of heaven. He apprehends

the scraping of a cleaner's bucket

on a flagstone in the nave as carefully

as Bonaparte's artillery, the ocean or a voice

in an attic crying no no no. The earth turns over.

He lies and listens to the slow upwelling

of the mosses in the merest hinted fissure

in the path beside the back door of the garage,

which will open any moment with a gasp of rust,

releasing oily ancient air and warmth

where spiders have been working double shifts

to swag the rafters and the window frames.

Here is a place prepared. It begins. It is good

on the whole. The dead man turns to sleep once more

with one ear open for a drop of rain

new-born a mile above, beginning its descent

into perfection, sent to shake the ruff

of the preoccupied narcissus, and for a moment

raise its empty face from self-regard.



Under the great sunlit vault of the station

time too is waiting, with the Temperance Seven

and Flanders and Swann and a tiny young woman

escorted by a double bass in funeral black.

Whatever is possible glints in the distance

where tracks curve away under bridges

and over the soupy, slow-gliding Ouse, beyond York

to the land where the North is in earnest.

Slowly the Pennines rouse themselves to travel on

and Ocean spreads his cloak of royal blue

on the stony shore of Thornwick Bay, killing time

for sunstruck trippers who stand there for hours

with one foot in the water, staring at a smudge of smoke

that is fading away and away but is never quite gone,

bearing a richly ambiguous cargo of uncles

stiff with concertinas and doubloons, away

to the pink edge of empire that bleeds from the map

like a water-painting book reversed by magic.

Oh, it could be worse. It will be worse. But while time waits,

the books displayed on barrows all along the pier

are fluttering open like applause remembering itself

against the odds, the words undaunted, saying quietly

to those with ears to hear that this time, while it lasts

there’s no discouragement / shall make us once repent.



Under a dripping arch of the railway,

this is the weather-god seeking shelter

with a torn cagoule, amnesia for company

and absent-minded lightning

jumping from his hair and finger-ends.

Beyond saving, they say, sleeping rough

on the cobbles, in that pool

of fretful electricity, son of Don't Care,

here to illustrate the moral.

Boil him, fry him, still he Don't.

The weather-god had everything

but irony, and if the mind of the divinity

is literal, it comes to this, the death

from which they had to make him first

and then forget, as he forgets.

Oh now stand clear, they say.

Stand clear of what? Stand where?

It Says Here, Sean O’Brien’s tenth collection of poems, was published by Picador in 2020. His latest collection, Embark, was published in 2022 and his Collected Poems appeared in 2012. His work has received awards including the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes, the Somerset Maugham, Cholmondeley and E.M. Forster Awards. His novel Once Again Assembled Here was published in 2016 and his collection of short stories Quartier Perdu in 2018. He is also a translator of works including The Birds (2001), Inferno (2006), Spanish Golden Age plays by Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, and the complete poems of Abai Qunanbaiuly (2020). In 2017 he was Weidenfeld Professor in Comparative European Literature at St. Anne’s College Oxford. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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