Sean O’Brien

This Tuesday, as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Visiting Writers series, the Scottish Poetry Library hosted poet, novelist and critic Sean O’Brien. O’Brien’s most recent poetry collection Europa deals with issues of place, identity and belonging.

The event consisted of a poetry reading by the author, followed by a short conversation with Beth Cochrane, the Events Organiser at the library. O’Brien read thirteen poems from his new collection, and, like many skilled poets, the content of his writing was further enhanced by being read aloud.

Although he says the book is not explicitly about Brexit, there can be no denying its value to our current national conversation about belonging. The book’s blurb carries the straightforward assertion: “Europe is not a place we can choose to leave”. The poetry stresses themes of shared identity, its tone bitterly melancholic. O’Brien’s style – in both speech and the written word – is excruciatingly dry. Perhaps the best example of his relentless wit is put forth in ‘The Chase’, where he paints a bleak picture of a function-room in some unknown corner of the Midlands, which “must long for arson”.

The collection sets itself up to tackle broad social issues, but interestingly O’Brien focuses on personal stories to gradually build a broader sense of despair. For example, the poem ‘One Way or Another’ seems built on a personal story of loss. It does not, however, feel out of place alongside ‘From the Cherry Hills’, which is set in Yugoslavia and fosters a powerful sense of dread. This poem seems to prevent a calm stasis before inevitable trouble: “a place to keep the violence dry for now”. In this collection a dire future and an increasingly uncomfortable present go hand-in-hand.

O’Brien seems cautious of admitting plainly to the polemicism which undoubtedly runs through his work. However, the message is fairly unavoidable: these forgotten, bland locations are the birthing-places of Brexit. “…you think/ These people do not matter. Then they do.”

The conversation with Beth Cochrane lightened the mood a little, where we got a further glimpse of O’Brien’s sober wit. He declared himself excessively proud of his pen, dismissively proclaiming that “you can’t write anything of significance with a biro”. More seriously, however, he demonstrated a rich and nuanced understanding of the issues he set out to tackle in this work. He stressed that the UK owes much of its language and culture to mainland Europe, and commented on the worrying rise of Far-Right groups.

It seems these days that Brexit has exhausted much of our collective creative energy, but now and then a writer produces a work which makes you glad of that fact. Europa is that book.

Sean O’Brien previewed his new poetry collection, ‘Europa’, at the Scottish Poetry Library on Tuesday 27 March. 

Image: Heather. R via Flickr. 

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