Fish on a Bicycle: New & Selected Poems, Jean O’Brien, Salmon Poetry, 130 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1910669587
To arrive at a “New & Selected Poems” is more than an endorsement: it is a literary event to be celebrated, the outlining of a significant oeuvre. Jean O’Brien’s “Fish on a Bicycle” ‑ its title accompanied by a surreal Kevin McSherry image of an anglefish on a two-wheeler ‑ gathers together almost a hundred poems from four earlier collections and two chapbooks written over three decades. A short review cannot do it justice.
The title derives from the epigraph to her poem “Flying Fish” – “A woman needs a man like / a fish needs a bicycle” (Irena Dunn) – more love poem than feminist polemic, describing an encounter that takes the twosome out of their element. Being out of one’s element works like a trope throughout, with fish and water an undertow in the collection as a whole. A more recent poem, “Out of His Element”, has a trout who has leaped onto a bank in his drive upstream and now “lies drowning in air”. There are dangers in being out of one’s element; even psychologically. In “Drowning at Sherkin”, for instance, a young man’s neatly folded clothes belie the tragedy; in “K2 Mountain”, Alison Hargreave, who died on the mountain, is commemorated with a sideways reference to the narrator’s distraught mother – “some days she simply has to climb a mountain”.
But there are gains too. And many poems are about transitioning; from young to mature love, from childhood pre-knowing to “I’m outta here” (“Hatching the Vision”), from “appeasement” (“Staying with the Nuns”) to stargazing, being “unhitched, no longer bound” (“Watching for the Comet”). Given the title, it is not surprising that water appears in many guises; in “Skinny Dipping” with its “coming out” echoes and her comic riposte “It was the Immaculate Conception that did it”, to a woman washing ‑ ‘in splashes of light / she is a body of water” (‘Shaping Water’) ‑ to the impressive “On Shellinghill Beach”, where the voice is that of the buried and disappeared Jean McConville – “where I am is dank and dark though I feel / the constant motion of the oyster-catcher …”
In 2010 “Merman” won the Arvon International Poetry Award, a layered poem in the voice of a mermaid who is “landed and pinned down” by a work colleague Glaucus, the Merman, although “I said no”. This sense of male entitlement is effectively ridiculed and opposed in poems like “The Docile Girls” ‑ the girls “like seals when they bathe” in King Shunzhi’s harem, where “at night there is only one penis in the whole palace”, or in “Samhain (November’s Eve)”, where the woman who is forced to lie with the priest steals the Derrynaflan chalice as fair exchange for the new “treasure” in her womb.
“Domestic” carries its weight of darkness for saying it slant; “Light falling at an awkward angle / can splinter air / like discordant voices” for someone adrift between paranoia and real threat. When she turns to intergenerational griefs the poems fizz with a different energy, felt especially in poems dealing with her mother’s trajectory from girl at seventeen on a swing (“Before”) to “sometimes I hear her sob” (“Sound Waves”) to the awful reportage in “My Mother Ate Electricity” – “they nailed you in place, fed volts / into your brain and bound it up with haywire” (a quiet pun on “going haywire”) ‑ this anguished “Antigone” who will take her own life (“Breaking the Rainbow”).
In poem after poem we recognise O’Brien’s subtle signature style, her unique perspective as myth-maker who takes what is real and gives it back to us in all its mysterious particularity, whether this is a health check or a sea ride from Holyhead to Dún Laoghaire, her daughter’s tattoo (“Rebel, Rebel”) or a swing in autumn where inscape is released as surely as a hero’s javelin in Heaney’s “Pitchfork”. Her accent is Dublin, her cadence laced with those local threads of conspiratorial confiding, “come here ’til I tell you”.
Wide-ranging in her choice of subject, she includes poems acknowledging historic moments ‑ Twin Towers, the moon-landing – and natural disaster but all treated with an empathy that renders them available to a satisfying response. As one of that generation of women who reinstated poetry as both a female and male undertaking, often with wit and courage, (“Yes I can Bake a Cake”), she has done it with panache, having dared to unapologetically peel off, skinny-dip then dive in. The world of Irish poetry is fortified by her presence.
Hugh O’Donnell has published three collections of poetry most recently, No Place Like It with Doghouse