Oisín Breen’s debut volume (‘collection’ really being the wrong word for this 95-page, three-act meditation on memory, love and loss) presents the reader with an extremely enjoyable and sometimes profound series of reflections, cogitations, lyrical flourishes and interpretive frustrations. It is hard not to be impressed with Breen’s utter rejection of contemporary poetic trends and the skill with which he maintains what might be described as a High Romantic diction. It could easily come across as pastiche yet finds a voice of its own as much through bloody-mindedness as anything else; the poet relentlessly works his fulsome descriptions (“Memories, stilled and muted harmonia, / silk-heavy in the russet wind, / like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines, / and a timbre of slowness”) alongside moments of tender simplicity (“Tending your grave, / I find it as pretty as ever”), surprising and effective similes (“What maker stretched out melancholy, / like a fattened pig’s skin, / into a parchment of minor regrets?”) and disarmingly open revelations of past cruelties and misdemeanors (“I hid because there was a kid nearby I knew. / We all called him retarded. / I was bullied too, but hating him was a guilty treat. / I was happy to feel like everyone else.”) to create an idiom that is very much his own. It is an idiom that will put some off immediately and lose others along the way, but it is one which I find rewards a patient and sympathetic reading – or to give that a more metaphorical twist: you’ve got to allow yourself to be pulled along in the wake of Breen’s language or you’ll sink.
While the diction may be romantic the overall tone of Breen’s project is modernist, and as we move through the narrative triptych we encounter myriad literary, religious and folkloric allusions juxtaposed with shifts of register and scenes of contemporary Irish/Scottish life (which we are surely intended to assume are the poet’s own memories – this is how I take them at least) and all of this of course echoes with Joyce and Eliot – the pub scene at closing time deliberately conflates famous scenes from Ulysses and The Wasteland I think, and it is impossible not to relate the central voice to Leopold Bloom (the speaker even has a friend called Stephen!). But the density of allusion and religious reference is such that it was David Jones who kept coming to mind as I read this collection; and it was back to Jones’ not-always-unproblematic writings on poetry that my mind wondered as I read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten. This, from his preface to The Anathemata, is worth reading with Breen’s poetics in mind:
…one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependent involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.
If you are disinclined to agree with Jones on this, or to accept his idea that the language of the past exists in the present as ‘deposits’ which are there to be mined or collected (I’m not sure what verb Jones would use here) by poets, who can thereby access truths deeper than they will find on the surface alone, then you will be likely to run out of patience with Breen quite quickly. I have sympathy with this modernist view of poetry, although as I say it is not without problems and has a tendency to lead towards the political right of insular breeds with shared heritages and ethno-exclusivity. Breen’s work, I should be clear, shows no signs of taking any such sinister turn, but suffice to say the reader looking for succinct nuggets of pared-back poetry should look elsewhere.
As the title alone illustrates, Breen’s work is as much about the sound of words as their semantic value; in fact it might not be far off to say that the book is a re-balancing of words’ meaning with their musicality: in prose, the former is given primacy, in poetry the latter gains ground, but as to how much, that is the business of the poet, and it’s arguable that part of Breen’s project is to bring these two aspects of language into equilibrium – or even to position musicality as dominant. This resonates with the continual references to song throughout the book; the speaker refers to words and the stories they tell as a “brutal song”, “vital song”, “one song”, “song of meaning”, and “song of understanding”. And it is possible that in listening to the book read out loud (the hard copy apparently comes with a CD of Breen’s own reading) it would be possible to discern melodies and motifs which I have missed with my internal readings, and which may carry meanings in the same way that Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte carry meaning for musicologists.
Breen, according to an online biography, is also a student of Narratology, and one way to read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten is as an experiment in narration. How far, Breen seems to ask, can I take readers out of the prosaic world of the text’s events (the story, or diegesis – i.e. a youngish man visits his father’s grave, and goes drinking with his pals) and into the protagonist’s poeticised, stream-of-consciousness (the narrative – i.e. a youngish man mulls on life, experience, memory and grief, journeying towards some form of self-reconciliation and understanding) before the work’s sense of meaning starts to fall apart? To this extent, the work is an intriguing failure, in part because the momentum of the external story never builds sufficiently to carry the weight of the internal narrative, and partly because the characters (the deceased father, particularly, but also the friends, and the ‘she’ of the final movement) are all lost in the complexities and music of the narrator’s inner voice. We learn nothing about the narrator’s father, and the placing of flowers on his grave (though full of delightful irony – bringing to the dead the ‘life’ of cut flowers which will then wilt and die) is in the end just a stimulus for the narrator’s memories and musings – much like Proust’s madeleine. It would have been lovely to hear more about who this man was, and why he stimulates such intense rumination in his son. Is there some deeper unexpressed secret lying at the heart of the piece? That we do not learn the answer to this question was likely part of the poet’s plan, and now, as always with poetry, I dislike judgmental readings and am suspicious of the dictum that a work should be judged even ‘on its own terms’, because every critic (every reader) brings their own terms with them. But I will say this: I came away exhausted. Yes, exhilarated with the language, but also worn down by what reads like a 95-page Joycean epiphany.
But if Breen’s reach ultimately exceeds his grasp within these pages, it is because his aims are so lofty – I am reminded of Julian Barnes’ comment on the Michel Houellebecq novel Atomised, which, he said “hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits”. Much the same could be said of this volume, I think, and that Breen does not ultimately bag everything he aims for, does not detract from the great deal there is to enjoy and ponder in this book – and to look forward to with respect to this poet in the future.
You can buy Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten from Hybrid Press, here.