Lifesaving Poems: Sean O’Brien’s ‘Before’

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To safe and almost universal silence I published How Far From Here is Home? (Stride) a few days before Christmas in 1996. The book did well, selling out its print run in a little over two years. For a début book of poems to do that in the pre-internet, social media age looks to me now like a miracle.

Rupert Loydell of Stride did a very good job of selling the book pre-publication, on a slight discount, to a subscription list of friends, family and anyone else who knew me.  Not only did this give Stride a bit of necessary cash flow in advance of paying the printer, it also meant we were up on the deal before the book hit the shelves as it were. (Spoiler alert: I never actually saw the book in a bookshop).

As Rupert was fond of telling me: ‘You won’t sell anything at Waterstone’s. Your market is at readings.’

To be fair to him, he did his fair share of organising these, including one with Phil Bowen in London, whose Variety’s Hammer came out at the same time. The three of us drove up from the sticks and back in a day and we felt like gods.

Not long after the its publication Mark Robinson wrote some very kind words about the book in the final edition of Scratch.  Another miracle.

The readings gradually dried up, as they do. Then, silence.

Towards the end of 1998 I was invited by Siân Hughes, then education officer of the Poetry Society, to fill with her the role of ‘teacher’ for some prizewinning young poets on a residential week at the Arvon Foundation’s Lumb Bank writing centre. (For a fuller account of this trip you can read The Day Ted Hughes Died here).

The plan was to meet the poets at their prize-giving ceremony and reading at the Festival Hall then join up with them on the train to Lumb Bank a week later. It felt like a good gig. There was hoopla, hobnobbing and even a buffet!

Then I made a terrible mistake. Arriving at the Festival Hall way too early I found myself mooching around the Poetry Library and persuading myself now would be a good time to catch up on the reviews sections of poetry magazines I had not got around to reading. You never knew what you might find, I told myself.

Picking up magazines at random I had a chuckle-filled time reading the eviscerations inflicted on my fellow-poets. This came to an abrupt halt when I read the opening sentence of a review which turned out to be about my own book. It read: ‘Anthony Wilson is far too capable a writer to ever be any use as a poet.’ It did not mean this as a compliment. I read the sentence again, to check I had read it correctly. The room began to tilt. Sweat seemed to be coming out of my eyes, but I knew it was not sweat.

I went outside for a bit, onto a balcony overlooking the Thames. Even the river seemed to be tilting. I noticed that I needed to hold on to the furniture to walk.

Then I made a second terrible mistake, quickly followed by a third. I read the rest of the review of my book of poems (it got worse), then photocopied it so I could share my outrage with Rupert and Siân. Taking nothing away from their sympathy, neither course of action did anything to improve my state of mind.

Once the initial shock of my discovery had worn off I seemed to enter a long tunnel of numbness. Normal life and interactions would continue around me, but I participated in them as though hearing and observing them through a wall made of glass. Everything was muffled: sound, the taste of food, my children’s laughter. Everything except my anger.

Siân was great company on the train. She said the answer was to eat and drink my body weight in almond croissants and Virgin Trains coffee while penning offensive acrostic poems using the letters of the reviewer in question. This helped enormously.

Our tutors for the week were Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough. Keeping us busy with insane sounding exercises like writing a villanelle before lunch, they threw ideas, poems and anecdotes at us implicitly expecting that we were well up to the task not only of keeping up but writing poems of value.

This feverish and competitive atmosphere cajoled me from thinking too closely about the review. Nevertheless, as soon as I was away from company my fears about its hostility gnawed away at me. I began to believe that they were right.

I remember going to bed on the second night with a poem (Jo had set this as an exercise) that we found from a book we had plucked off the shelf at random. The idea was to read the poem aloud and to try and memorise as much of it as possible before falling asleep.  I had chosen her own anthology Emergency Kit , probably in an attempt to please her. I closed my eyes, opened the book and stabbed at a page in the darkness. The poem I had chosen turned out to be ‘Before’ by Sean O’Brien. I had a dim memory of having read it when I bought HMS Glasshouse (OUP, 1991), but now the poem seemed to come alive in a completely different way. In its meticulous calibration of that time before waking and the switch to what Les Murray calls the ‘daylight mind’, I found myself suddenly able to hold my rage and disappointment at something approaching arm’s length. The world O’Brien describes is not free of pain, far from it. But, hypnotised by its somnambulant rhythms I found myself wanting to believe in words as a force for good again. Things could be otherwise.

A miracle.

Next morning I found Roger eating toast and marmalade alone in the dining room. ‘Sleep well, son?’ he asked.

‘Never better, thanks.’

‘Memorise your poem?’

‘Not really. Bit long.’

‘Nah, me neither,’ he said.

Before

Make over the alleys and gardens to birdsong,

the hour of not-for-an-hour. Lie still.

Leave the socks you forgot on the clothesline.

Leave slugs to make free with the pansies.

The jets will give Gatwick a miss

and from here you could feel the springs

wake by the doorstep and under the precinct

where now there is nobody frozenly waiting.

This is free time, in the sense that a handbill

goes cartwheeling over the crossroads

past stoplights rehearsing in private

and has neither witness nor outcome.

This is before the first bus has been late

or the knickers sought under the bed

or the first cigarette undertaken,

before the flush and cross word.

Viaducts, tunnels and motorways: still.

The mines and the Japanese sunrise: still.

The high bridges lean out in the wind

on the curve of their pinkening lights,

and the coast is inert as a model.

The wavebands are empty, the mail unimagined

and bacon still wrapped in the freezer

like evidence aimed to intrigue our successors.

The island is dreamless, its slack-jawed insomniacs

stunned by the final long shot of the movie,

its murderers innocent, elsewhere.

The policeman have slipped from their helmets

and money forgets how to count.

In the bowels of Wapping the telephones

shamelessly rest in their cradles.

The bomb in the conference centre’s

a harmless confection of elements

strapped to a duct like an art installation.

The Première sleeps in her fashion,

Her Majesty, all the princesses, tucked up

with the Bishops, the glueys, the DHSS,

in the People’s Republic of Zeds.

And you sleep at my shoulder, the cat at your feet,

and deserve to be spared the irruption

of if, but and ought, which is why

I declare this an hour or general safety

when even the personal monster –

example, the Kraken – is dead to the world

like the deaf submarines with their crewmen

spark out at their fathomless consoles.

No one has died. There need be no regret,

for we do not exist, and I promise

I shall not wake anyone yet.

Sean O’Brien, from Emergency Kit (Faber)

Lifesaving Poems

13 comments

  1. Clarissa Aykroyd

    This poem seems almost like an extension of, or a response to, Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything Is Going To Be All Right’. By the way, regarding your story, I’ve not reached the stage of having any of my poetry criticised (that I’m aware of!) but I too tend to react with rage and hurt to criticism – ah, the joys of being sensitive! I’m sure being able to laugh things off is much more fun.

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      I like the idea of this poem being a response to Mahon’s…. I’m sure my reaction was a sensitive one… one the other hand, even hardened pros I showed it to said it was a brutal review. It happens. Thanks as ever for commenting, I really appreciate it.

      Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

      Like

  2. Mandy Sutter

    A great piece Anthony – and I’m there with you. I’ll never forget receiving a stinger of a review from Martin Stannard for my second pamphlet, along similar lines, i.e. that what I had written wasn’t poetry. It was in 1994 but I can still remember some of the actual phrases he used! Perhaps if I saw the review today it would seem softer and who knows I might even agree with him. But as someone once said, the mind is Teflon for the good experiences and Velcro for the bad… us writers can be a sensitive lot.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Well absolutely! A stinger from Stannard! My goodness, that means you are tough. I’m not naming the magazine or the writer (it wasn’t him); I did consider them ill for quite a long time. They may have been right (but I don’t think they were). I think I forgot about it after about six months -or a year or so…or ten… Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

      Like

  3. Mandy Sutter

    And I love the poem, with its strange, potent mix of menace and peacefulness, its celebration of life in the face of impending disaster. Unsettling and calming all at the same time! It’s really special. Thanks.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Absolutely. It is a great poem. I’ve just reread HMS Glasshouse on the back of this. A magnificent book, full of rage and insight and vision. An amazing piece of work, so good it kind of leaves me feeling I should give up. Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

      Like

  4. roselle angwin

    In case I haven’t told you before/often enough, I SO enjoy reading your blogs here, Anthony. And for a fine writer, you’re a pretty good poet, IMHO! (‘H’ for ‘humble’, har). :-). Glad you took no notice of that reviewer. We’ve all got to have those reviews, haven’t we – grandiosity all too common a condition of poets, I suspect. Rx

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Roselle

      this is high praise indeed, words I treasure very much indeed. Thank you. I think all we can do is ignore the voices whose opinions are not coming from a place of wanting the best for us, and do our best to hold onto the ones that are.
      As ever with deep thanks
      Anthony

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  5. Pingback: Read our seven best poems about Newcastle and the North East | Newcastle.Press

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