Review of Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and Other Poems by Oisín Breen

Cover of Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín: A collage of photographic white lilies, a cartoonish green stem with two leaves, and stylized symbols in blue and green, as if drawn in by crayon, with the book title and author's name at the top in black typography, separated by a wavy black line stylized as a waterline upon which a swan figure with the press's name in it is inscribed.

Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and Other Poems by Oisín Breen

Beir Bua Press, 2023

52 pages, $8.15

Review by Melissa Ridley Elmes

“All poetry is songliness,” Edinburgh-based Irish poet Oisín Breen declares outright in “The Love Song of Anna Rua,” the second poem in his second poetry collection, “AND IT IS SHATTERING.” Building on a fundamental idea of language-as-form and language-as-music, Breen develops his concept of poetry as songliness through six poems giving attention to subjects and themes sung of by the earliest bards of Ireland: the beautiful Étaín and heroic Cú Chulainn of Irish legend; love, longing, loss, life, death, and rebirth; and the lives and doings of people living in an island nation. The connections forged among and between these poems through aspects as varied as ancient mythic travel and modern sailing practices, eternal resting places and the temporary shelter of bothies, oral tradition and the written word, birdsong and human speech, and classic poetic subjects and modern poetic forms, present an intelligent and exuberant exploration of Breen’s pet theory of the interrelationality of language, form and music. 

For the vast majority of American audiences, Irish mythology in poetry is synonymous with the work of W.B. Yeats, but it’s far more accurate to consider Breen’s work in association with that of T.S. Eliot. A modernist bent in these poems is clear in their dense and often unexplained allusiveness and in their experimental forms, comprised of lines varying between one word and going across the page to wrap along to the next indented space, fragments of chanting, passages of prose, shifts in margin and line placement, and the use of plain text, italics, and all-caps. Too, the emphasis on the relationship of past to present, ancient to modern, speaks to an Eliot-like approach to the use of myth and legend for the purposes of conveying something of the anger and energy of his own time, which is evident in Breen’s work as well, this combination of anger and energy particularly and vitally present in “Six Months Bought With Dirt: the Bothy Crop of Arranmore,” and “Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash.” And the mingling of languages to convey tradition and innovation, indigeneity and colonization, reflecting a multilingual Irish society contending with discomfort concerning its past and present and the uneven relationship of its members to the same, seems to draw on Eliot’s similar preoccupations with relationship, communication, and mutual (un)intelligibility in the modern world.

Which is not to say that Breen’s poetry lacks in either lyrical beauty or originality, but that he frames these within a decidedly and recognizably modernist style. Yet, that unrelenting modernity notwithstanding, or perhaps because of the frame it offers within which to play with language, there are moments throughout this collection that demand the reader pause, stunned at the unexpected turn of an image; for example, in “The Love Song of Anna Rua,” where he writes of nostalgia and the songliness of poetry and their effect:

Do you remember then?
How it’s just like piano music?
The way it cuts through your eyes?
And how it left your irises
Freshly spliced with tears?

Then, later in that same poem, as part of an embedded manifesto on the composition of poetry and relationship in poetry, he declares,

… we must gulp down the feasting flies,
So that we might thrive,
With many eyes,
Plastic, priapic, yet alive.

Breen alternates such darkly lyrical passages with jarringly modern phrasing, musing of a hypothetical affair presented within the frame of a screenplay (“The shot is exterior/A different room./I enter.”):

… ‘Is her head too small?’
‘And is she really married?’
‘Didn’t I already meet him?’
‘Christ, he was really fucking ugly wasn’t he?’

Then deftly moving into traditional romantic fodder which would not be considered out of place in the lyrics of an Ed Sheeran song mere lines later:

I want the cobblestones to be wet with rain,
Just to offer you my umbrella.
I want it to be cold,
Just so as to offer you my coat.

This juxtaposition of the familiar and traditional with the unexpected and startling, of the sublime with the mundane, of the crass with the lovely, of the evergreen with the right now, runs like a current throughout the collection to offer the reader a glimpse of Breen’s literary and literal influences and inspirations and showcase the interrelationality that serves as his primary preoccupation in this work.

Of the title poem, all I can say is that reciting the fifth and sixth sections aloud, slowly and with care for the value of the vowels and the musicality of each line, is well worth the time and effort and yields a transcendent reader’s experience unlike any I have had in recent memory, and while a knowledge of the story of Étaín deepens that experience, it is not necessary in order to feel the melodic thrill and heft of this poem. If Breen’s purpose in this collection is, as with some mathematical problem, to show his work in proving his theorem, then these two sections above all make the case that indeed, “poetry is songliness…  AND IT IS SHATTERING.”

Melissa Ridley Elmes, a white woman with her hair pulled back and an elfish, mischievous smile on her face as she peers out at the onlooker, situated in front of a curtain.

Melissa Ridley Elmes is a Virginia native currently living in Missouri in an apartment that delightfully approximates a hobbit hole. Her poetry has appeared in Black Fox, Poetry South, Haven, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Eye to the Telescope, Spectral Realms, and various other print and web venues. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Dwarf Star and Rhysling awards, and her first collection of poems, Arthurian Things, was published by Dark Myth Publications in 2020 and nominated for the 2022 SFPA Elgin award for best book of speculative poetry.


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