Sean O’Brien’s collection Europa comes at a fitting time for a poetic exploration of European and British identity. It’s a heavy read, moving across the continent, but still retaining the ability to focus in on the details in breathtaking and meaningful ways.
The collection opens with ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ – a title which seems to mimic the infamous Free Derry Corner, hinting at a collection that will explore the sense of borders and barriers to movement. The opening lines are a thick brushstroke of pessimism with a reference to the war, immediately making it clear that this will be a difficult and thought-provoking journey:
“The grass moves on the mass graves.”
The sense of place built in the opening poem continues in the rural details in ‘Dead Ground.’ The third poem ‘Zorn’ is probably my favourite for the way that O’Brien uses a bleak image of a railway siding to comment on history and how it is easily and conveniently forgotten (“low, inexorable speed is that of history”)
One of the strengths of this collection is the fluidity of the sequencing. The forgotten trains in ‘Zorn’ segue effortlessly into an incisive portrait of “Albion’s forgotten middle” in ‘The Chase’, the poem that most overtly refers to racism with mentions of racism and St George’s Flag, ending with the brutal “You think / These people do not matter, then they do.”
Many of the rest of the poems in the collection refer to past cultures as O’Brien moves across Europe, focusing his attention on hotel foyers and the people who populate them. Throughout the collection, there is a strong sense of being exiled or abandoned. Many of his characters are strangers, all of which combines to create the unsettling impression that our position in the world is uncertain, that we are isolated from our culture and our humanity. As the collection draws to a close, O’Brien comes back to the war in the beautiful ‘The Sunken Lane’ declaring “I mean to walk down the sunken lane/ where the dead are once more/Trying to assemble in the dark.”
Despite the warnings and tersely post-apocalyptic sensation that underpins a lot of these poems, there are still some incredibly poignant personal poems. The collection ends on a positive, with ‘A Closed Book’ finishing with “waited to begin.” A difficult, but enriching read. O’Brien’s astute attention to detail is masterful in its incision in parts, creating a clever and insightful portrait of modern Europe as he sees it.