Oisín Breen is a Dublin-born poet, currently living in Edinburgh, where he works as a financial journalist and PhD candidate. Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten can be purchased online here.
Saint Patrick, they say, spoke with Oisín in the final days of the latter’s three hundred years of life. Patrick wished to complete his conversion of Ireland with the baptism of the last hero and greatest poet of the island’s mythic age. But Oisín, having just returned from a centuries long sojourn in Tír na nÓg, the faerie land of immortality, was too full with memory of pagan magic and ancient Celtic glory to bow before the saint. Heavy with history and too many years of adventure, he drew up his esteemed talent for words one last time in order to recount his life, and to justify his rejection of Patrick’s God.
It is hard enough not to recall this myth of Ireland’s mythic warrior-poet when confronted with a book of verse by a modern Oisín, and it is harder still when the book concerns itself so prominently with myth and memory. Oisín Breen’s new book, Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, beginning as it does with the reminiscences of an aged narrator and filled as it is with lost gods, seems to almost invite the connection. For most debut poetry collections, an inescapable comparison to a semi-divine mythical poet would be a handicap. Breen, however, stands up to the challenge with aplomb, and Flowers leaves me glad that it is our new Oisín’s ambitious first book of poetry, rather than his last effort (to my knowledge, the poet has not spent any time on enchanted islands, and therefore seems unlikely to succumb to centuries of delayed aging anytime soon).
Flowers contains three long free-verse poems, which, though independent works, are stitched together by shared threads of theme and image. The book is riddled with references and motifs that slip across the borders of the poems: the ancient Mesopotamian occult, song as active force, a rather grimy kind of Irish situatedness, and the occasional bit of floral imagery, to name a few. All of these and more are martialed for a near obsessive contemplation of memory, the pursuit which animates each of Flowers’ three poems and lends the work a greater cohesiveness. Memory is one of those topics which is so universally considered poetical that I cannot imagine a reader who would be surprised or even particularly roused by the promise of “a book of poems about memory.” And yet dismissing Flowers on that basis would be a mistake; Breen’s writing makes a case for the inexhaustibility and interest of the theme. Flowers effectively reminds a reader why memory has its poetical reputation.
Memory in Flowers is rarely allowed to sit static or become detached from the tissue of reality; Breen instead favors actions and interactions of memory. His characters are consumed by memory or subsume it into performances (singing, narrativizing, conversing, or making offerings). His memories themselves are equally active—they do not simply weigh on the speakers but surround and crush them. More than that, Breen’s predilection for obscure gods highlights another tendency in his poetics of memory: he writes memories which subtly become speakers or subjects. The personae of Flowers, like gods no longer worshipped, exist only through the action of memory.
Breen’s experiments with memory-or-history-wrought personae is fitting, given the tradition of exploring the transmutive border of personal and universal dear to the Modernist tradition from which he clearly draws inspiration. Beyond the obvious—Breen writes a poem which meanders through Dublin, in which he mentions Joyce by name—the almost stiflingly rich texture of Breen’s words, his use of dynamic focalisation, and his proclivity for arcane reference set him squarely in the Modernist lineage. At times these indulgences in complexity can border on frustrating; even a reader conversant in Celtic and Mesopotamian mythology will surely stumble when Breen excerpts a specific Guardian article from 2015, mentions a certain neighborhood in Brussels, or presents the linguistic history of Dublin by writing in Icelandic and Irish-Gaelic in addition to English. It can be easy, too, to become so buffeted by this esoteric minutiae that one loses track of the poem’s greater flow. It is testament to Flowers’ worth, however, that I was left wanting notes and a second reading rather than to toss the book aside.
In fact, it was the second poem, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity,” which contained all three of my examples of Flowers’ difficulty, that most appealed to me. Breen does a beautiful job presenting his weird, disjoint, impressionistic history of Dublin. The presence of degraded gods who once stood over Mesopotamia, the birthplace of cities, engenders a kind of awed horror at these great masses of mankind and their distortions of our experiences of space and time. This is not to say that either of the other two poems, “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead” and “Her Cross Carried, Burnt,” were significantly weaker. At no point is Breen unsure of himself, and an especially exceptional bit of verse is never far away. Flowers contains in equal measure feats of maximalist description:
“A spirit turned to box of fags beneath the cushions of a shabby bar,
One writ upon so drearily with overlaid instructive maps of text,
Wet from barrel dregs, dribbled from the mouths of over zealous
nightfall children spending time in gorging hungry hands on the
sugared spice of one and others milky teenage skin,”
“But I introduce myself to myself, since in each instance I am venn;
and the veins, hushed and mum,
throb with want, mixed with the slight of hand of surety.
and the ring she gave me has for the hammer sung.
and despite it all, soon sure I’ll feel I’ve got plenty,”
and melodic lyricism:
“Enough and well. Their drinklips sewn shut.
The door: a portal saloon slung.
Time enough bedad Adad. A closing song is sung.
From me you’ll know the the prelude of their world so spun.”
Yeats’ Saint Patrick, having heard the stories of the hero Oisín, declared that he was “wrecked among heathen dreams.” I can say the same for Oisín Breen, though out of admiration rather than condemnation.
Note on the First Edition: The physical copy of Flowers printed by Hybrid Press, which Oisín Breen kindly provided for this review, is a five and five eighths of an inch by eight inch paperback, approximately octavo size. It is rather slim, only 96 pages in total. The cover printing, though absolutely sufficient for the job, is noticeably blurry when inspected. The internal printing is impeccable, and the paper—which is a kind of light linen color, with the occasional speckle of visible fiber—is easy on the eyes. Though perhaps an inconsequential critique, the gutter margin strikes me as slightly too small; I often found myself stretching my copy open. The Hybrid Press edition comes with a CD tucked into a plastic pouch which is strongly bound to the inside of the book’s back cover. In order to comfortably read the book, the CD must be removed from its pouch and placed somewhere else, which is a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless. Fortunately, the contents of the CD more than make up for any logistical disturbances. For those to whom semi-obsolete media formats are still accessible, the CD provides a substantial added value: a full reading of all three poems, in the poet’s own impassioned and franticly musical voice.
Review by Rory Nevins