Damen O’Brien: Walking the Boundary

World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2024, 117pp.

There’s a certain kind of poetry which gets its strength from a combination of an intriguing and original conception for each poem with a forceful expressive power. This latter can come from an intensity of language or from an ability to follow ideas through – and generate new ones – with a rapidity that often leaves the reader behind: what rhetoricians of old called “a copiousness of invention”. Damen O’Brien seems exactly this kind of poet to me, both in his first book, Animal with Human Voices, and this impressive new one, Walking the Boundary. He brings together invention and expressiveness at a high enough level to make him stand out among his contemporaries. A look at the opening section of each book will give me a chance to explain a little further.

Interestingly both opening sections concern themselves with animals. True, from the point of view of the concept behind the poem, some of the poems of this first section are not notably adventurous: “The Flame” is a kind of study of the ferocious fertility of the female Huntsman spider, and “Sonnet for the Tardigrade . . .” is an affectionate celebration of a microscopic creature which, regrettably unlike us, can hibernate and survive impossible conditions for thousands of years. But others of this first section demonstrate more intriguing conceptual set-ups. “A Smallholding”, for example, describes a farm near Tenterfield mainly focussing on the way that it impacts (or fails to impact) the lives of the numerous animals that share the environment:

. . . . . 
They are surprised to find the farmhouse: the Redbelly Black
with its ten-second memory of consequence, its lifetime
recollection of revenge, the Blue Tongue with its reverence

for warmth, the Corellas with their wry knowledge
of laughter, are eternally shocked to find this house in
their valley. Swallows flying through the panes of glass

in dismay, forget the shape of this house every night,
though they sleep in the furrow of its eaves. Every morning
they discover the house as though it were cast in the dark . . .

It’s only at the end of the poem, as the animals enter the house, staring at such incomprehensible oddities as photographs hanging on walls, that we are told that the owners are nothing more than dead bodies “in their long bed”. And so it’s a poem not only about the different ways humans and animals perceive their environment but one which can also be read as a brief snapshot of the world after we humans have gone. In “The Stain”, a householder, glumly painting his fence, sees a sea-eagle working his freehold (to quote Les Murray) holding prey in its talons. Blood falls on the head of the householder like a marker from above but its significance isn’t clear: the two worlds are too far apart to communicate.

In “The Ninth Circle” – the part of Dante’s hell reserved for those who betray – seems to portray the fate of a hunter and meat-eater whose punishment is to be visited by those animals he has killed. This in itself isn’t an unusual scenario but surprisingly the animals don’t exact any sort of vengeance: instead they beg to be killed and the man finds himself doing it over and over. And then there is the final poem of the group which is subtle and, I think, one of the best. “The Pelican Feeder” describes a man feeding fish to a group of three pelicans who have each been damaged in a different way. In its small compass it explores guilt, damage and redemption. The man has guilts about his children and his dead parents but we’re explicitly told that that the pelicans are not “needy reincarnations” of these. The poem has a thought-provoking finale:

. . . . .
They’ll take the fillets cautiously, snatching them
down, their grave eyes unblinking and honest.
Over time they’ve come closer, he’s nearly been

domesticated. They have almost discharged their 
duty – a life for a life. A few more handfuls of fish.
A few more storms to clear the nets from his head.

Given this new book’s title, it’s tempting to see these “animal” poems as being interested in the border between humans and animals – a boundary to be walked along. And this may be true though there are a host of other boundaries that the book is interested in. It makes it all the more intriguing that the book’s fourth poem, “The Great Disappointment”, has nothing to do with animals at all. It tells the story, from a disciple’s point of view, of one of history’s most famous “crisis cults”, movements which, by some calculation or other, fix the end of the world, or the arrival of a messiah, or the descent of aliens, at a precise date. And when nothing happens many interesting things – of interest to anthropologists and psychologists – happen to the erstwhile believers. One of the most famous recent calculations in a Christian context was made by William Miller who predicted the arrival of the messiah would take place at a specific date in 1844. When the messiah inevitably fails to return, this disciple, instead of believing he has been conned all along or that the calculations were slightly incorrect – a common solution – actually believes that the event took place and, because he was dozing off, he missed the arrival of the messiah and is now doomed to live in a kind of shadow world “the other side of Paradise, outside its closed gates, with / those that were not chosen . . .“ It’s a brilliant conception out of which an extraordinarily strong poem develops. Is it original? You would think someone else would have dreamed it up before but, at least until any evidence to the contrary turns up, I’m accepting it as O’Brien’s own and an example of how strong his conceptual set-ups for these poems can be. It’s also a very resonant idea, the sort that will appeal to the Matrix generation: what if the lives that we think we are living out in as much fullness as possible, are mere shells? And so on.

The idea of apocalypse, the end of days, is a notion dreamed up by Jewish theologians probably in Babylon during the exile and for their own understandable purposes. We have carried it with us into our own cultures for two and a half millenia – it was the milieu that John the Baptiser lived in. It has an understandably strong fascination for O’Brien. The second section of Walking the Boundary concerns itself with time and one of the poems, “The Inheritance”, recalls the world of “The Great Disappointment” though with the addition of the newer idea of a “rapture” when the saved will be whisked up to heaven. In this poem, the speaker goes out of his way to avoid the angels who are searching for him:

When the angels came to take us all, I hid.
They raptured all my neighbours one by one,
pulled the rip-cord of their soul out of their
mouths and flung them up to paradise. But not me.
I crawled beneath the floorboards with the cats
and listened to them walk from room to room . . .

It seems a reasonable choice and reminds one of the choice the Savage makes in Brave New World when he is confronted by Mustapha Mond: better to live and die in the faulty, painful world we know than to spend eternity singing songs of praise in some abstract paradise. The idea of some divinely organised end of the world also lies behind “The Next Sunrise” where people are in a plane on a flight to Singapore when it happens. Again, conceptually, it’s a rather marvellous idea:

. . . . . 
I looked for a dove with an olive in its beak, but there
was just the receding of the wave, a hard luck rainbow,

the morning sky and the absence of stewardesses, stonkered
in the tail on serving bottles of gin and tonic. But this is
the most beautiful day of the rest of our lives and I can tell
as we circle endlessly over where Changi used to be, that
there is hope for us, that things will work out after all.

Other poems from this generally strong section deal with time in a less theological way. “Scene: in Medias Res” is a poem describing the sense of freezing time that happens at a moment of extreme pain. Here, it is where the character’s lover leaves him, “pitiless – her dress, her back – walking away.” Interestingly the series of images of a world frozen in time precedes this denouement rather than being introduced by it, and we have an example of the fertility of ideas that I spoke of in my introduction. Twenty-eight lines of examples of a strange world, deprived of movement:

. . . . . 
                               wine glasses
nudged into suspension, their red tongues
licking air; plates mooned to fracture
and spillage, stiff in their starburst of 
spaghetti; a startle of pigeons, lurching 
or rising, caught in hard air. . . .

Here there is an expansion of visual images. Something similar happens in a later poem about Dubai where an extended suite of visual images is controlled by the poem’s continuous reminders that sand is an ever-present phenomenon here “forming glass and diamonds, pearls and marble” on the one hand but on the other threatening to obliterate. It raises the technical issue of what is going to control such fertile inventiveness. And it isn’t only a fertility of ideas and images. There is also a sense of linguistic revelling which can prompt extended descriptions, something best seen perhaps in “Day of the Spiders” from Animals with Human Voices:

Across the blowing fields of stars
the spiders lay their sheets of silk:
the drying sails of master mariners,
the trampolines, the circus tents,
the spinnakers, the knotted tights,
rippling in the wind’s rip, rent in
the wind’s trap, flip and flex of
diamond strings, anchors and cast
hooks of spun stuff, stardust,
whiskers and filaments, thready wire
radial and fanning, pleated and snug,
the vibrating coils of nothing, the
strings burning into being, noodling
out of air. . .

And so on. It’s interesting that what begins as a series of generated visual metaphor for the spiders web, changes to words generated for their verbal qualities. Poems like “Sand” and “Day of the Spiders” show this inbuilt creative talent but they also remind us of its problems. Is this fertility an indulgence on the part of the poet? Even worse, is it a movement toward a kind of superior performance poetry were a thin conception is an excuse for verbal expansion and the answer to the question: When should this stop? is it when the poet senses that his audience has had just enough? In other words the poem is reduced to the structure of a stand-up gag or comic anecdote.

I think this happens in some of the poems of Walking the Boundary which are straightforward angry pieces and may be nothing more than performance pieces, poems like “What is Wrong with the Date?” and “A Tour in the Garden of Earthly Delights”. Each of these allows for extended expansion and each is built around a single concept that is just interesting enough to sustain it, but not much more. My prejudices about poetry require something more than this: public pieces, reflecting contemporary pieties (admittedly conceived as desperately important causes) are always somehow one dimensional.

But the best of the poems in Walking the Boundary have a nice balance between conception and expansive/expressive powers. I’m taken by “Over Coffee, I Think of My Children” whose oriental-poetic sounding title gives us the only clue to the real significance of the extended description of a documentary about “the Colorado climber who wedged himself / for three days in a deadfall canyon before / he cut his own arm off and climbed back out”: we escape only by leaving something behind. It recalls a wonderful Leunig cartoon called “Planned Parenthood” in which successive frames show a parent jumping from an aeroplane, pulling the ripcord of his parachute and finding that a child pops out of the backpack on the end of the parachute. He’ll go on safely to reach the ground while the parent, parachuteless, plunges to his doom.

And then there is “Walking the Boundary” itself. A moving description of a man walking, as men do, with his father along the damaged boundaries of the father’s property. It’s about the borders between the human world and the natural world. The latter has no respect for the strange geometrical lines we set up:

. . . . .
                        the fox drags carrion from his
neighbour’s fields to my father’s garden and the blackberry
that my father’s eastern edge is cursed with, tumbles
cheekily into his neighbour’s west and nothing keeps
to the place it is assigned. . .

But, of course, it is also a poem about the boundaries between child and parent, the former going through the forms of agreeing with his father’s plans while, at the same time, doubting that time will allow them to be fulfilled. This theme leads to what is perhaps the most strikingly conceived poem of the book: in “An Inscription on a Grave”, the child’s fear of the parents’ future deaths is converted into a situation where,

. . . . . 
              I’ve been killing my parents for years,
trialling my sadness, running simulations on the only
disaster that can’t be insured for, picking the scab.
We do this in the tomb of our thoughts, fantasise
our tragedies. I make a great orphan, a sympathetic
bereaved. . .