“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems” Oisín Breen (Beir Bua Press) – book review

Oisin Breen Lilies on the Deathbed of Etain and Other Poems book cover

This pamphlet features two longer sequences, starting with the title piece, and four shorter poems. In a nutshell, “Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” explores the life of a woman in youth, age and death through a lens of motherhood. The poem doesn’t flow in in chronological order, it’s a series of recollections from differing perspectives. It starts,

“All this ends with the hocking of soft skin in loose folds,
A solemn current of spooled ink,
A stuffed portent:
That elegiac parchment of cause and effect,
And rhapsody, where each stroke of the hand
Is delicate enchantment.

Yet, like stripling vines in stupor,
We wrest ourselves from a standing start,
Only so as to glut ourselves, keening in the play of rustling air.

And, like children caught in first blush,
At rush to gorge our nascent wanting,
We relentlessly feast on the contingencies
That differentiate stone from stave.

But the salted oceans we pillage render up scant grain,
And illumination is in death, annihilation
And the hard sense of knowing:

………….Curtain-fall and the committal.”

Étain on her deathbed and the poem’s speaker is aware that she should be their focus but the speaker is also carrying that limbo of expected bereavement, the knowledge that the end is near but not yet in place. For each of those caught in the same limbo there are tears and memories which begin to surface as they think about what Étain meant and represented to them. The lyrical tones suggest a softness of memories, a woman much-loved. The sequence draws to a close,

“It is October, and the sharp sting of the frozen wind electrifies,
and traces, in tandem with your tongue, the small creases of
age between my shoulder and my neck.

It is October, and we are drinking from each other, and it is
impossible to stop.

Almost the end:

And to a drumbeat of breathless water, she fell still.
And nine trees hung over the river,
Each dropping their fruit unto its course,
And every afternoon she clambers along its banks,
Filling her pockets with hazelnuts,
And poaching salmon where none swim,
But that was not on the Dromahair, that was on the Analee,
Where she and I guzzled hazelnut and hawthornberry stew.

It was beautiful the day she died.”

There is love and tenderness here. The dropped fruit suggestive of a bountiful life reaching its end. The collection of hazelnuts suggestive of a nurturing nature, someone storing in a time of plenty in preparation for leaner times. The memory is unfocused, the speaker remembers her catching salmon but then remembers there are no salmon in the river he’s thinking off so it must have been another river. However, he remembers the food, prepared by someone who cared for him. It doesn’t matter what day she died, but his memories make it beautiful.

In the second sequence, “The Love Song of Anna Rua”, the tone remains lyric but the form becomes sonically experimental, part I begins,

“Ha-ra-hao-………… Ha-ra-hao-…………Rah-Hao-………… Ha-Rah-Hao-
Ha-ra-rao-………… Ha-ra-hao-…………..Rah-Hao-

………….All poetry is songliness,

………………….AND IT IS SHATTERING

Tse-Tse-Tse-
………………..Like the ringing out of arias,

Ha-ra-hao-

………………….Hung out from the balcony.

Tse-Tse-
………………Songs,
…………………………They are like the ringing out of arias,

………………Like red sheets:
……………………………Falsettos
……………………………From the window flung.

Songs,

They are built to crescendo”

The poem ripples over the page as a slow-moving river might. The gentle pace gives the reader space to take in the sound patterns and echoes.

The shorter poems start with “Six Months Bought with Dirt: the Bothy Crop of Arranmore,” about migrant Irish labour in Scotland where migrants,

“They knelt in the dirt, stopping only to chew on soda bread,
Its crusts wet with last night’s treat of dillisk soup,
A welcome weed, and water wine, dried in bags,
Kept beside their sleeping mats, having gathered it by moonlight,
Having gathered it as children, too,
On the storm-swept rocks of home.”

It concludes, “Six months toil for a kiss,/ For a child’s hand held,/ Six months bought with dirt.” The migrants, making as much money as possible for their families back in Ireland, sustain themselves on soda bread and familiar tastes knowing that their stay is temporary and home beckons. It’s noticeable home comforts are found via food, rather than improvised music or craic. There’s a puritan sense of all work and no play with earnings spent miserly if at all so the only comfort is in the sustenance of a piece of soda bread.

“Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash,” watches puffins (from the distance of a boat),

“In great improbabilities of scurrying new movement,
That left me gasping at their impetuousness
And vivifying life, as they paused, then ducked
Beneath the waves, only to rise unto an apex of white foam.

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

The puffins are in playful mode, rising and falling on and into the waves, seemingly without care.

“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” is an ambitious pamphlet. The two longer sequences explore multiple voices on a common theme while the shorter poems are more focused. All demonstrate a love of language, both of meaning and sound, not just as single words but how sounds build patterns and add texture to the poems.

“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” is available from Beir Bua Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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