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.