Poetry Review

Featured poet — Oisín Breen

“Flowers, all sorts…” review by Jeff Kaliss

To all the rest of us, there can be something forbidding and welcoming about venturing into Irish literature. What I first felt in high school about James Joyce, I’m thrilling to again in Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits, forgotten, by Dublin-born Oisín Breen (his given name is pronounced ‘Uh-SHEEN’).

This collection of long-form poetry was released a few months ago by Hybrid Press in Edinburgh, where the 35-year-old Breen now makes his home. Our excerpting it here is not entirely by chance: Breen contacted our Review after realizing it is published in the same town where he’s secured a long-distance bread-and-butter job, as a financial journalist for Mill Valley’s RIABiz.com. He in fact visited here last year, and though it was many months before the COVID shutdown, he “hated the fact that all the bars close at nine. . . excepting the Deuce [the 2 AM Club].” He’ll have his poetry with him when he returns to seek out Bay Area saloons, “for two reasons. One, because it’s just fun. And two, because I have an ongoing battle with people who talk to me about, ‘accessibility, Oisín!’. They believe in a dumbed-down, boring way of talking. [But in Scotland] I’ve performed poems from this book in bars, and it goes down a treat, because it has musicality, it has emotion, and that’s all you need. It doesn’t matter if they understand everything, that’s not the point.”

Breen’s manifest erudition — passages in the Gaelic language,  references to Mesopotamian and Irish mythology (he was named for a Celtic poet warrior), and top-drawer English vocabulary — have me scratching my head, as does the subject matter of the doctoral dissertation he’s writing in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh: narratology and its connection with complex systems. But what comes through clearly in his verse, aside from the musicality and emotion, are  themes of love for people, place, and tradition. “And, I hope, a sense of humor and wonder,” the poet adds.

“There’s also seriousness and an understanding of form, with similarities to the traditional British. But they don’t have a sense of play, and we do.” This spirit manifests at times as giddy  structural experimentation and fluidity of tense, in “trying to show a holistic view of life.” The life is partly Breen’s, and partly “other people’s memories, that I just lifted.”

On your journey through it, you’ll find it becoming your life, as well.

Breen.
Intro to Breen's poetry
The first two excerpts are from “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”— which is the first of his book’s three sections. The third excerpt is from the second section, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”

Oisin states, “Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, the collection carries three long-form pieces, each in a series of thematic parts, and it is stylistically and formally playful. That being said, it also has that muck between its teeth that can leap out and grab you. The book is unlike much of what is presently de rigueur. It's full of foot-stomping paeans rolling through father-death, mother-death, memory, revelry, horror, meaning, and contradiction. But again, it's also quite riddled with a sense of knowing irony and humour.”
  
“Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”
 
I asked her if the muck-begetting brown felt good on her skin,
She told me to ask her if she felt the same-as-I.
For weeks now we've both been mute.
Not a murmur,
Mute. That awful consequence of our intemperance of speech.
 
She asks me for a root to gnaw on,
Sitting at the bus-stop if it rains,
And I say we should play kissing games,
But she'd like the real heaviness so much more.
 
Now the worms in our bellies are ripe for the hunger,
And I can hear all the heartbeats in the world,
And all I want is to rest in parabola.
 
So I stand,
Feeling just like that
Here
Beside you
But what will become of the ashes I give you?
 
This is a history of contempt.
 
But it is in these steps,
those that you take,
after the door has closed,
and my morning begins,
having said goodbye to yours,
that I recollect,
each time,
that I love you.
 
But, full of doubt, behind me I have left a litany of spoiled wishes.
But, though I remember more than enough to sate my living on, I take
myself to the riverside bridge, solely to weep at the bones.
 
Oh barû,
 
The act itself,
Its flash powder of yellow-tan dust,
Engorges the hour hand when it’s brightest.
 
Barû, pitifully, I speak, and I remember.
 
***
 
I start, not with a heavenly chorus, a wail, or a Guinness wet lip against
my cheek as my da tells me he loves me -- a moment he will always
forget, yet one that defines me -- but precedes and succeeds the seconds
that counted for him when he said there he is, that's my boy.
 
Nor am i the heavy sweat dripping release of gushing coos: ahhh, that my
ma' belched out rapid when she said i have made you and she saw and
knew that she was right, and knew when she said it and would be right
forever that she did, and that she had made me.
Nor am i that inkling that a part of her that she would hide and deny
would always hate me for having stolen what was most precious from her:
her reason for living, and made it my own.
 
I start, instead, with a rasping cough on the horizon if I don't ultimately
mend my ways, under the moody lights of a room empty save for myself
and a jobbing brewer, looking backwards over what mattered and realising
it was only the small things that ever will.
 
I am married, to be, and was.
I step into the hail and the rain on a cobblestone May and watch my
beloved walk forwards in the diachronic time of stilled heartbeats.
I am in love, thank Christ I am in love.
 
I am facing down an inverted set of footsteps racing out of a bar,
and I am taking back words that I said when glasses smashed and voices,
briefly raised, shook heavy thoughts into lightness.
 
I am plucking flowers at a baobab tree and thinking, ‘what if you forget
me?’
 ***
“Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”
Dublin, that day was the start of a cycle that would lead you in but three
days to falling madly in love, eschewing the contents of your stomach all
over her feet, still trying to hold yourself together while the clanging of a
bass guitar in the castle was ripping your belly apart, and even so,
working the courage up to just, just -- and, I mean you gave her a biscuit
beforehand for Christ's sake -- to kiss her so gently, then hard, really hard
on the lips, to have one of those last memorable days of friendship with
your then closest kin, to have to twist yourself through the railings in
Fairview because the Dart track is mad-long and there's no way off it
when you walk through the city, just to end up being on the front page of
the paper, for you were battered while trying to run from the guards.
 
Dublin, from the bridge, your river beautiful, your pockmarked, bric-abrac
coloured houses shift themselves along your quays, each of them
looking like an awful dodgy dealer, singing out story bud; strawberries
one euro; and how dey red it in a bewk. I mean Jaysus the state of you,
what like? I does be tellin ye, d'ye hear me?
 
                                      Bleedin muppet!
 
Dublin, I can smell bread by Liberty Hall, and look at the fifty-three about
to shudder its way down past the last hovels that you've left near the
docks, and watch as your heart, beautifully, I admit, is quartered, so that
finance can lift you up from behind, so so nicely that it makes you feel
like you're glowing, and makes you want it all the more so much so that
you endlessly push out your chest and masquerade, all tarted up, while the
building in Joyce's The Dead is a ruin and you'll pretend you've got no
money.
 
But Dublin, Lámhfhada, that's the king and all for you,
 
                                        the Long-Arm
                                 Do you remember him?
***
END

Our Poetry Editor, Jeff Kaliss


Jeff Kaliss reads poetry to jazz at 7 Mile House, San Francisco, with Don Alberts Renaissance Band. Late Don Alberts on keys at right. April 9, 2016. Photo: J.Macon King

For Jeff Kaliss interview see Salon.

A poem written while listening to Andrew Speight and group perform the title song, at the Café Stritch in San Jose. 

songbook: Autumn in New York

Why does it seem,
long after I left,
long after she left,
autumn invites Aunt Stella
down from her penthouse
to walk her way
into it,
just a few blocks east
at Central Pak,
where 93rd stops being west.

And the hurried grid of Manhattan
spread-eagles suddenly
onto rocks and grass
and Stella can pass
through birds scurrying
through what’s left
of their September sounds,
and Stella can still sniff
past her own perfume
and still inhale
auspicious splendor
of autumn decay.

Passing the benches
of Central Park,
she kicks her Bergdorf boots
through unpackaged piles
of crackling russet riot
which the trees, green gone,
would not hold on to.

Stella turns to me
to wonder with me
what it will be like
to be scattered and remembered
this way.

Escapade

Speak to me through open windows,
in licking language,
with familiarity fresh
as it is tasty,
but showing off
in my shaded office,
so I can’t but smile
to let you know I know
that it’s you, not me.

Send me a letter
of love I don’t know yet
but you know,
because you are,
and you need a receiver
to press yourself upon.

Let me hear
how you sing to yourself,
when you’re romancing yourself,
when you’re wanting to get yourself into bed,
or out of it
and over to the desk.

Deliver to me
a caring package
of goodies you think I’ll like,
because you’ve binged on them,
and treat me to
the sources of what’s nourished you
and gotten you as far as me.

Transmit to me
groups of glyphs
to get me spinning
in your direction,
drawn towards you
through time and space,
together in new orbits.

Down Apiece

She lies down,
downhill from the clapboard house, and the barn,
far from her bed,
and she rises to rest
down left on Wyeth’s canvas.

There she stretches
along all our memories
where she may stay,
if only she can,
long past the sea-cooled day’s dusk
outside the town of Thomaston,
and long after,
after she’s gone to ground
in the town cemetery,
and the artist has been lain
beneath a worded stone,
way down along the rolling hills
of Pennsylvania.

For now, with us,
she feels with the brief, short life
of a Maine meadow,
in all its amber multitude,
her eyes, away from ours,
watching the waves of simple splendor,
no place for longing there.

The Death & Everlasting Life of Glenn Frey (1948-2016)

“It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,
Slowin’ down . . . “

Slowin’ down, to pick up Glenn Frey.
That guy from the Eagles, taking the early ride,
the early flight south, to death.

Swing low, sweet Flatbed Ford!
Early to death, and early to rise,
makes a man legend, not always wise,
makes a man gone.
Makes me feed the jukebox at the Portals,
over forever nightcaps, forever.
Next morning, makes me wake up, to versify,
too early.

Slowing down, forever.
To take a look at me.
Young and firm and friendly.
To take a look at her.
Take a look at Linda!
Winslowing south on Routes 17 & 10, to Tucson,
to take a look at Linda Ronstadt, young and ripe
and hanging on a gearshift.

Hitching a ride on Linda’s flatbed wooden stage, way out West,
to the Whiskey a Go Go, on the Sunset Strip,
full of LA girls in halter-tops,
full of kinds of fun, legals and illegals,
for guys becoming Eagles,
full of guitars to grab, drums to pound, keyboards to twiddle,
full of the glad sounds of being,
sung through Linda’s succulent girl-mouth,
her chocolate eyes showing what we can do, and should do,
to try and pull the reins in.
Ride ‘em, Cowgirl, in tight jeans.

After the set, we unplugged, went out back, and got older.
We got sold, we bought,
we broke up bands and marriages.
We lost our hearing.
Or was it just the good music we lost?
And here we are with Glenn,
faded further than our jeans,
on our last, aching legs,
long hair grayed and thinned.
Wheezing in the dust of Winslow, Arizona.
Interstate 40 is the new Route 66.
Glenn was 67.
He wasn’t new.

But what a fine sight to see!
A final sight.
A girl, my Lord, with angelic horde,
slowin’ down to get old Glenn, dust him off,
and carry him to where the songs are free and forever.

She ain’t singing, that girl.
She might be humming.
But she sure looks like Linda.

When will she be back for the rest of us?

Jeff Kaliss reads poetry to jazz at Bird & Beckett bookstore San Francisco, 2018. Bassist Ollie Dudek. (Not shown singer Thu Ho, pianist Grant Levin.) 7 Mile House poster with Kaliss & King, 2016.

Note: Autumn in New York was originally published in Forum magazine from City college of San Francisco, Fall 2019. Bird & Beckett photo from Kaliss collection.