O'Brien's poetry has always been gruffly political. Larkinesque in its images of a Britain weeded over by urban neglect, in a state of imperial decline, yet with an overt satirical bite that Larkin muted into sour disaffection. From the first O'Brien bore witness to a nation grimly beset by moral sclerosis, and to lives invisibly marginalised. The bleakness was relieved by a peppery humour. The poetry itself trimly well-crafted, its music an uncluttered flow. Less thrawn, less unkempt than Peter Reading's verse, say, it appealed to a readership that still sought formal smoothness, a line that sashays untroubled along.
O'Brien's signature is detectable in every poem: dreck and sonority - “Gore and shite, crap-nebulae/And greasy bubbles...”; deft enjambments, syntactic precision. A vers de société of used condoms like bloated tapeworms and crushed beer cans. In 'The Ideology' (from Down River) we have this typical cameo:
A gang of girls is out in this.
Beneath a streetlamp by the pub
They stand with folded arms, comparing clothes,
Shouting as if expecting an echo.
The poem ages them. They go indoors.
They marry or not and bear children
And die, and are found in mid-shriek
In a different poem, still there in the cold
Wearing hardly a stitch, being happy
The way those who live with industrial parks and asbestos
Are happy, because if they weren't they would die,
On the need-to-know basis of beauty and truth.
O'Brien has in mind here Larkin's lines in 'Afternoons' - “Their beauty has thickened./Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives.” - but sets a kind of grizzled compassion against the neutral, faintly patronising distaste of Larkin. O'Brien's anger at social injustice tolls from this poetry; yet O'Brien remains responsive to the ironies of his stance. A poem like 'Nineties' (also from Down River) is almost anthemic in its fury:
Your hundred streets, your twenty names, all gone.
A stink of burning sofas in the rain,
Of pissed-on mattresses, and poverty's
Spilt milk, its tiny airless rooms designed
To illustrate the nature of subjection
To its subjects. They tell me politics
And history are done...
The Drowned Book, however, signals (ahem) a sea-change. O'Brien writes now in altered light: an undulant submarine shimmer. Images of water predominate. Water both in its pristine form, and as managed and trained by men (“Sites of municipal vaticination,/Vents for the stench of the Underworld..” - 'Drains'). The first sheaf of poems immerse themselves in the destructive element, a loose sequence exploring its symbolic value. O'Brien's habitual tart brusquerie gives way to waterlogged reverie, as it sinks full-fathom five. 'Eating the Salmon of Knowledge' expertly evokes a childhood into which the rumour of corruption seeps - “Crime, sex, the smell that wasn't fish”; it also captures the queasy sensuousness of our early untutored perceptions:
- But by the time the city had its way
The water, if you glimpsed it, looked as thick
As jelly from a tin of Sunday ham.
A brick would shake it slowly
While the shawl of sputum-algae
Gathered up its threads again
And went on rotting from within.
- But it was water so we fished.
“River-doors are not sea-doors... They are the isomers of boredom.” - O'Brien's meditation on rivers alludes quite openly to T.S. Eliot's 'The Dry Salvages', with its sludgy adagio - “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed, and intractable...” And more pointedly still: “It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,/The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar/And the gear of foreign dead men..” O'Brien offers a further modulation of the trope:
Barges, drowned dogs, drowned tramps, all are
Subdued to its element, worked
Into the khaki, with ropes and old staithes,
Estuarine polyps and leathery excrescences
No one has thought of a name for.
So much for childhood...
These damp clarted places afford one shelter from the peevish miseries of adulthood: “Fleeing through a river-door the adult world's critique...” O'Brien complicates the water-symbol. It's not the sea that he hymns, but the sinuous intrusion of water through the material solidity of the social world. It works also as a figure for imaginative autonomy, as in 'The Mere' – something subject to human encroachment, modest, ugly and seemingly not -to-any-purpose: “Its poplars and willows and sludge. Its gnat-clouds.... Its having been/Here all along. It is nowhere, serves nothing, lives/On your behalf when you are absent...” So apparently inutile, it nevertheless ought to be preserved as something in defiance of gratuitous 'redevelopment' - “..the aesthetics of crims from the deadlands/Whose task is to make good a landscape...” - sanctified by its obdurate refusal to be anything other than itself, and so it makes its silent, stale summoning:
...Anonymous, here with us now
In the order of things – this is what
You will find you have chosen,
If choice is the word, to defend.
As the volume progresses, O'Brien returns to his old political stomping grounds ('Song: Habeas Corpus', 'Proposal for a Monument to the Third International'). Yet The Drowned Book is distinguished also by a number of striking elegies on dead poets: Michael Donaghy, Ken Smith, Barry McSweeney, Thom Gunn. 'A Coffin-Boat' is a dark Acherontic fantasy, dourly animated by O'Brien's recent translation of Dante's Inferno: “Get used to the visible stink. It will cling/In a tissue of soot to your hair. Get used/To the silence that stares and says nothing.” The poem savours of a bitter grief. O'Brien's art has debouched into new territory. It can be by turns surreal and waspish. It glances, in the end, away from the moist fenlands of the earlier pieces, to an apocalyptic vision of a world annihilated by snow – O'Brien's account of anthropogenic climate change:
To put an end to all analogy, pure cold
That proves what it need never say,
It calls us home again, beneath a drift
In which the figure and the ground collapse -
No more redundancy, no more perhaps.
Meaning and the possibility of meaning erased, no more Arcadias.