A review of Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and other poems by Oisin Breen

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and other poems
by Oisin Breen
Downingfield Press (re-issue)
ISBN-13: 978-0645231816, Paperback, 64 pages, Nov 2023

I have recently received two books of poetry, and in both cases I know the poets personally. So as I review their work, you can judge for yourselves whether I’m biased towards being kind for the sake
of friendship. The first book before me is by Oisín Breen, an Irish poet currently living in Scotland. Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and other poems is published by Beir Bua Press, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. It is slim and (irritatingly) the pages aren’t numbered. I have no idea whatsoever why that irritates me, but I have to acknowledge that what it does is stop me from integrating the page number into what I am reading. We read everything. We experience everything, and every moment has its resonances and repercussions, so perhaps I can well do without page numbers. Let’s move on.

So, our Ossían comes out of his cell and looks at the waterfall – maybe a trout is leaping up the
damn thing but maybe not – and the wee cataract brings forth a flood of words from him. And they
are as Irish as anyone writing in English can pour. In fact, it strikes me that what I’m reading here is the work of the best Irish poet currently writing in English. Not that there is no whiff of parody
about this, or at least of the absurd, for here is someone who is as aware of Joyce and Brian
O’Nolan (I can hear him damning me now for even mentioning them, and reinforcing a stereotype
of the black and sinister arts of an Irish writer in foreign parts!) as he is of Yeats. T.S. Eliot is,
however, also banging on the door, at the head of a dozen other wights of sundry heritages, begging to be let in. Och, no more of this nonsense!

I say “no more of this nonsense” and then the poet chips back at me, “the beast is holy, the haar is
holy, and holy too is the red honey,” and Allen Ginsberg yells over the top of us both “The world is
holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!” until we beg him to stop. Please. There is only so much
intertextuality a mortal can take.

But it’s serious, deadly serious. Written with care, and with love for language. At first sight, there seems to be something infernally unruly about Oisín Breen’s poetry, until you spot the fact that the structure is there, recognisable but bloody oneiric, lulling you into a false sense of security and then ripping itself up and changing. The poet knows what he is doing, committing shapes to the page as well as words – left justify, right justify, hanging indent, italics, upper case – and then abandoning them like half-finished blocks of flats, malls, and offices, maybe half-recalling them later as though at a second try. This breaks your expectations, but instead of putting you off, it
makes you continue to read, hoping for a structural resolution. Will there be one?

What is structure without words? Oh, and what words! “All poetry,” he says, “is songliness. AND
IT IS SHATTERING-” The opening of ‘The Love Song of Anna Rua’ hits me like a waulking song,
with its patterned “Ha-ra-hao- Rah-Hao- Ha-Ra-Hao-” No, I have no idea why the upper/lower
case. Just accept the mystery. And if you don’t have the Irish…

Na caillini, dubh. Na buachualli, dubh.
An grá; dubh, mar nil faic na fride againn.
… the operative word is black. And then…
Yet, though our beauty, like the hourglass,
has long since been crushed, it remains,
and it IS animating,
And it IS the agent of disruption.
It is in the stirrings of the cracking of eggs.

And then the last words of the book, tailing the final poem, a one-pager (Oh Lord, F. Scott
Fitzgerald is tugging at my sleeve, ffs!):

And their black wings beat against the lolling current,
Along the white lines that bifurcated the luminescent tunnels
Collapsing in their wake.

That the last word should be “wake.” A trail of water behind the boat, come up from sleep into
consciousness, a farewell to the dead. I always approach Oisín Breen’s writing as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to take part in the creative process myself. Oh, will you have this

About the reviewer: Paul Thompson is a bit on the old side, is almost a doctor of literature at St Andrews, and is about half as important as the poetry under review. He writes reviews and criticism on his website, Taxonomy Domine, or What the Hell is Art, here: https://whatthehellisart.wordpress.com/about/