Then, midway down that channel of the dead, A figure thick with mud rose up and called: 'Who are you? You have come before your time.'
(Inferno, trans. Sean O’Brien)
Since reading the Inferno as a teenager, the subject of the dead in poetry has continued to fascinate me. There was something about the imaginative scope of Dante’s masterpiece that appealed to my boyhood love of dystopian action movies such as Fortress, The Running Man, and Mad Max. The way his hell was like a video game with levels of increasing difficulty, or how it seemed like a sweaty nightclub playing different grades of heavy metal or tortuous acid house music across its many floors: it seemed to beg comparison. Which of today’s politicians would you cast into the circle reserved for fraudsters?
In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood suggests all writing is perhaps ‘motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.’ For Rilke, making the journey into the underworld was a necessity. Seamus Heaney shared a similar view, seeing writing poems as a dig down for revelations ‘of the self to the self’.
Although real death is certainly on my mind – saying ‘till death do us part’ while surrounded by umpteen depictions of Christ’s crucifixion leaves one feeling mighty humble, as does becoming a father, creating new death by giving rise to new life – I am interested in why and how poets re-imagine the dead, especially since it is such a historically-trodden theme.
I came back to municipal Arcadia To walk among its foggy linden-groves And count the line of benches slick with frost That leads to the black waters of the lake. There was the landing stage. The garbage scow Knocked at the shore. The Brylcreemed ferryman Looked up once from his Sporting Life to nod With the supreme complacency of those Whose work is waiting patiently forever.
Like Rilke, journeys to the underworld are also a necessity for Sean O’Brien. Throughout his nine full collections of poetry, several plays and pamphlets, two novels and various translated works, he makes many descents. Formally, some of the early poems seem to resemble drills – ‘The well of inspiration is a hole that leads downwards’ (Atwood). With quick-paced anapaest-driven meters, these poems are keen to get on with the business of mining, galloping as Tennyson’s Light Brigade rode ‘into the mouth of hell’. Beginning in parks or public houses in cities like Hull or Newcastle, the doors to hell are stumbled upon in the everyday – drains become ‘vents for the stench of the underworld’, the pub carpet unzips ‘to vomit its cellar of demons’, and puddles are ‘dark, peopled water’, ‘leaning and listening’. At other times O’Brien is drawn towards the underworld, to go down as Orpheus did, to document the below.
As in that famous myth, O’Brien also makes trips to bring people or eras back to the white light of the page. Often these trips begin in the afternoon, which features heavily in O’Brien’s oeuvre: ‘Just around a corner of the afternoon’, ‘In the unmoving reaches of the afternoon’, ‘There are no trains this afternoon’, ‘One weekday afternoon when we are dead’, ‘The afternoon is permanent’. In his poems, the afternoon comes to represent a liminal space, the time of in-between. As time stalls in these afternoons, the crossing of the threshold is possible, or made obligatory.
Elsewhere in his work, the dead feature as devices to consider matters of mortality. Many of these poems find their setting in the post-war world to which he was born, as a way of recreating, for dramatic enquiry, the eras gone before him, or to question what the remnants of these previous ages say about the past, present and the future – ‘all this is England, / Just left here, and what’s to be done.’
In considering how O’Brien’s poetry holds conference with the dead, this essay will explore how the poem in O’Brien’s work becomes an underworld itself: a site where his main subjects of England, time, politics, death and literature are rendered through the application of imaginative and autobiographical resources, to allow the living and the dead to refract and reflect each other, echoing social or political concerns, while establishing the poem as the venue, as the playing field or graveyard, to contain this discourse.
The singing of the dead inside the earth Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush
Of water into newly opened darkness. My brothers, The living will never persuade them That matters are otherwise, history done.
(‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’)
England in O’Brien’s poems is often approached from the perspective of being over. Of his first collection, Peter Porter said that O’Brien’s subject was the ‘swarming detritus which is England’, and that his concern was with ‘people living like cheese mites in all that history’. This is made explicit in the early poem ‘The Park by the Railway’, from 1983’s The Indoor Park, in which the speaker and his girlfriend meet in a ‘shabby park’ to explore the ‘industrial pastoral’ before them:
You strike a match to show the china map Of where the railways ran before us. Coal and politics, invisible decades Of rain, domestic love and failing mills That ended in a war and then a war Are fading into what we are: two young Polite incapables, our tickets bought Well in advance, who will not starve, or die Of anything but choice.
The poem evokes the trappings of class, the privilege of being part of a generation that did not go to war, and the guilt caused by both. It ends by asking ‘Who could not choose / To live this funeral, lost August left / To no one by the dead, the ghosts of us’. The choice is rhetorical; to live in England is to live in a funereal state, a permanent afternoon. Set in a kind of post-England, it presents the speaker as someone condemned to study the sites, relics and emblems – these stand-ins for the dead – in order to learn what history they possess and emit. Notice too, how from ‘Coal and politics’ to ‘anything but choice’, O’Brien uses one continuous sentence. Formally impressive as it is to control such a consistently muscular rhythm over multiple lines, it exemplifies how O’Brien uses sentences to condense time in a single breath, to suggest how ‘invisible decades’, ‘love’ and ‘war’, exist simultaneously. As Atwood states: the dead are ‘outside time’; they ‘know both the past and the future’. O’Brien’s long sentences are a formal response.
Another early poem, ‘The Amateur God’, depicts a worn-out park, rich with tension between intended and actual states: where the statue of a ‘cherub is moulting his head’, and ‘The Peace Rose’ has been ‘Pruned to a barbed-wire paradox.’ Towards the end, the underworld bleeds into focus. Time is arrested, ‘The afternoon is permanent’, and the speaker’s deceased father and uncle appear ‘in suits of pale ash’, ‘still sinking the black in the shade.’ After, the poem goes a step further to suggest the garden is really the poem – ‘the amateur god of this garden is me’ – and the speaker, who it is assumed is a poet, the amateur god of his domain. In these final lines, O’Brien draws attention to how the present and the afterlife, as well as imaginative control, co-exist on the plane of the poem.
A more recent poem, ‘A Closed Book’, is also concerned with overlapping time. As a single sentence of twenty-eight lines in the present continuous, it flows through various historic events as though these events exist all at once in ‘the empty square’ where the speaker sits reading his ‘émigré paper’ as a cart rolls by ‘Piled high with bodies’. Like the garden in ‘An Amateur God’, the ‘empty square’ can be read as a metaphor for the blank page of the poem, in which it is possible to bring back the dead. The poem itself exists outside of mortal time.
This idea is more thoroughly explored in Hammersmith. In his own words, the poem is about ‘the history of an imagination’ where ‘matters which seem separable from each other in the waking world, such as historical and political facts and actual places, and the forms and locations they assume in reverie, personal impressions and memories, the known and the dreamed, merge, shift and re-combine.’ The post-war Hammersmith in which his parents lived is layered onto the one he knows from memory and culture. As in other poems, O’Brien employs long sentences to speed up and slow down time, to commentate on the present while reflecting on the past:
Oh loneliness, your name is Hammersmith. The river fills again, the barges wake and shift
On skating blackness. Now would be the time To find her coming to the dance Among a crowd of other girls, the time to know
This room, the empty stairs, the empty street, The high tide of the gale, As an annunciation.
England is gone, with snoek and the groundnut scheme, With Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps And the cold coming of immigrant ships,
To decline and fall, to a wind of change To a world no longer rich and strange Where Caliban and Ariel
Shivered at the sound of the sunset bell At Lloyd’s and at evensong’s white chill And the citizen army cobbled its boots
For the money had long run away down the drain
Everything lodges itself in the imagination. Once the whole treacly mess has compacted itself into a kind of coal for extraction, the poet need only light the fire and breathe in the rich combination of all of life’s detritus. And exhale. In Hammersmith and ‘An Amateur God’ no one specific time is able to become fully conscious. The dead and the living must compete for attention.
The poem provides a space of ‘apparent permanence’ (Atwood) and exists long after its maker. Unlike other types of performance, the voice in the poem, and by extension its subject, remains. The poem is as permanent as the afternoon in the garden and will be as lasting as our ideas of heaven and hell. As O’Brien declares in ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’: ‘There are miners still / In the underground rivers / Of West Moor and Palmersville.’ He does not say there once were miners, he declares they are still extant, arrested in the underworld that the poem creates one hundred years from now.
Perhaps his most dramatic distortion of time appears in ‘On the Toon’, a long poem in which O’Brien’s speaker is led on a Dantesque journey by a Virgil-like ‘river-girl’ into the ‘secret Hell of Tyne.’ It is a satirical elegy to the working-class of Newcastle upon Tyne, wherein it explores the ‘underworld of history’ to create a version of the underworld, conveying in this process social and political concerns.
Filled with references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the vast inventory of subjects covered includes industrial heritage (dead miners labour ‘waist-deep in ice’); Newcastle’s reputation for nightlife (‘a triple-headed bouncer’ guards entry to a nightclub); socialism, (at the crypt ‘Of some forgotten liberal benefactor’ fascism is prophesized to return ‘Among these boneyards fed on disappointment’); the decline of public libraries (O’Brien becomes an ‘unconsulted’ book, asked: ‘Now tell me this, whose interest is served / When people can no longer concentrate’); and homelessness (‘Cartographers of Grainger Town’s decay’ who ‘speak the truth’). Even St James’ Park is reimagined as a graveyard with ‘tombs crammed in / Beneath the sacred turf’.
Through these many subjects, O’Brien considers a tension between the loss of working-class rituals and the wish for a fairer, more equal society, which is ultimately unattainable. The final canto imagines the city as a paradise: ‘one free-city state / Of equal citizens who served the common good,’ which, unfortunately, ‘waits in the permanent conditional / That’s yet to find its time’.
A similar, pessimistic tone is found in ‘The Seer’, part of a sequence titled ‘Pedagogy’. ‘The Seer’ questions those in power competing to own and profit from the past. Although it mocks, it is really a lament against the seemingly irreversible marketisation of history for political gain, on which the speaker can only commentate:
Dear friends, applaud the man’s divine aplomb: Today the seer says the time has come To privatize the Somme and Passchendaele – And if that works, then everything’s for sale:
The eighteenth century? Keep out. Enclose Old, wasteful, state-run epochs and let those With money and imagination set The idle dead to work, lest they forget –
For too long coddled by oblivion – Which side their stones are buttered on. The grave will cease to be a gravy-train,
At least for them. Think what we stand to gain, The seer says, for no one ever lost On Nagasaki or the Holocaust.
The dead are also politicised in an earlier poem, in ‘In a Military Archive’, where dead soldiers are ‘Preserved as footnotes in the texts’, so they may ‘study suffering / In the language of their betters’. Literature becomes their grave and their afterlife. In ‘War Graves’, O’Brien considers how the dead have become ‘composed / Entirely of literature’:
Unending noon. The harvesters ‘are stalled Like tanks on the escarpment’. Must this be ‘The trap of elegy’, to find ourselves composed
Entirely of literature? To have no exit From the immortality that holds us Sheltering here beneath the canopy of beech
To wait the shower out inside the scent of earth and heat And then pass through, an ignorant posterity That cannot seal the yawning grave, still less survive it?
The cannon of war poetry contributes to this grave, which is no grave, but a form of limbo that keeps the dead from going where they must, stuck within an endless loop ‘beneath the canopy of beech’. Poetry has the power to stall the dead within their occupations. As the City of Troy was unable to mourn until Achilles returned Hector’s body in The Iliad, the dead depend on us to bury them so they may find their peace, and the living find theirs. ‘War Graves’ evokes the image of the solider trapped within a continuous hell of war. The speaker of the poem, trapped in the act of remembrance, can only voice his desperate opposition to this permanent afternoon.
Come to the candle-light. I’m not afraid to look upon the dead. When they return they have a right to hospitality within our gaze, the same as other things.
(Rilke, ‘Requiem for a Friend’)
In poems where the actual dead return, they are often glimpsed in the present visiting from the underworld. In Rilke’s ‘Requiem for a Friend’, a spectre returns to haunt him. As Rilke attempts to deduce the ghost’s intentions, he imagines a renewed capacity for living, seeing his friend alive again in the Rilkean symbols of mirrors, roses and fruit.
A supernatural menace exists in O’Brien’s ‘Revenants’. Set in a park in the afternoon ‘the dead are reassembling’ ‘beneath the dripping trees’. But it is never clear why. They walk among the living ‘with faces / You know and should recognize’. It is a poem about mortality, where the function of the dead is to foretell the deaths of the living. Once again, England is presented as a funereal state.
However, in ‘Praise of a Rainy Country’ it is the speaker who has the agency. Written in memory of Julia Darling, the speaker urges: ‘remember’, addressing both reader and the deceased, to take them back to a version of the nineteen-sixties. Throughout, the rain becomes a device with which to communicate with the dead in their domain:
The rain is all digression, touching Everything and nothing, as peremptory As the Creation, emptying itself Afresh into this iron river, pooling In the hand I offer you, and still it seems Behind the roar and hush there is a chord We know but never hear, that rain awakes, And leaves suspended, as between Acceptance and desire, that calls to us And, for no reason, speaks on our behalf.
Like Keats’s offer of ‘This living hand, now warm and capable’, the poem speaks across time, and with every reading lives again to carry both poet and reader once more across the border, to enact a temporary resurrection.
We live and work in the service of the dead. We carry on doing the work they did, upholding the laws they put in place, studying the literature they left behind, honouring the newly dead with rituals they gave us. Materially, poems are dead things; moments of contained energy left on the page in books for others to later resurrect, to breathe alive through recitation or reading. For Robert Pogue Harrison, language itself can be read as a metaphor for the dead: ‘the origin of our words lies not so much behind them as in them’: words ‘contain within them humic underworlds’. As the earth reabsorbs the dead, becoming both ‘receptacle and contents’, so too does the poem. O’Brien’s visions of the underworld and the poem itself become one and the same. Writing poetry is a way of resurrecting the dead.
I woke the ferryman. – Go on. Where next? – There is no next, he said. This is the place.
I find myself in a time for living, surrounded by still-living parents and now a child to keep me buoyant on the ocean of time before me. Yet still this poetry concerning the dead, the underworld and the afterlife, has an irresistible pull. Not because I want to be morbid, or indulge my boyhood likes, but because the dead have the potential, as Mary Ruefle says, to ‘teach us everything’. To imagine the dead in poems is to open the capacity to imagine their lives. And to imagine their lives is to imagine the possibility of one’s own. And to imagine is to try to step outside of the confines of mortal time.
A poem from O’Brien’s most recent collection, Europa, combines many of this essay’s concerns. ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ both resists and attests to death’s unavoidable approach. Aging and the passing of time is evoked through the image of grass moving ‘on the mass graves’, grass which steadily encroaches upon the speaker as he tries to complete his work which is ‘So near it its conclusion now / That I will never finish it’. As the grass gets closer – ‘Is in the room, my mouth, is me’ – the speaker reflects: ‘How blest I am, to have my work, // To tend the graveyard I become.’ In its final line, the spatial division between the living and the dead merges within the body, which is presented as a graveyard, that timeless site of congregation between the mortal and the dead.
By imagining his dead as outside of mortal time, within historical panoramas, or by merging the spaces that the living and the dead occupy, O’Brien’s poems transcend time, pausing where necessary to resurrect and provide deep focus, to commentate or underline. The speaker in ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ goes on existing in a permanent underworld, living within his own death, writing the graveyard, or underworld, that he has become; a process that is ongoing and cannot be stopped.
I found myself once more beside the lake, Where he was waiting patiently, as though We’d never met, and roused himself to push The iron coffin out from shore again.