Jean o’Brien’s last collection was Fish on a Bicycle, New & Selected Poems (Salmon 2016/2018) Her new collection is due in autumn 2021 and is called Stars Burn Regardless. In 2005 she was the Writer in Residence for co Laois. She was awarded a Patrick Kavanagh Fellowship in 2017/18 and recently had a poem included by the Irish Ambassador to Washington in his women poets month in February. An Award winning poet she has won the presdigious Arvon International prize along with other awards, she holds a Master of Phil in cw/poetry from Trinity College, Dublin. Ireland. She has a website at http://www.jeanobrienpoet.ie
‘My advice about poetry, should anyone want it, could actually be summed up in eight words: read, write, read, read, read, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Like most poets I have my tropes and subjects that I return to with regularity: suicide (my Mother’s) as in my poem Before and the campaign for assisted death and the silencing of women in parts of the world, I have a number of poems using the tongue as an image. All is not serious however and my Skinny Dipping poem has been well received worldwide, receiving 70K hits a few years back. My Sheela Ni Gig poem is about Irish/European fertility symbols of the Crone, who is as much revered as feared here in Irleand.’
THE STOLEN SHEELA NA GIG OF AGHAGOWER SPEAKS
Set high above the doorway, under the flying buttress,
pockmarked now with age and lately turned to stone,
I sat. Know me I whisper, I am woman, I am crone.
With my etched lashless eyes, hairless head,
grinning mouth and triangular nose how could I tempt anyone?
The wind and rain are always at me, lashing me,
leaving me lonely. Someone saw me and desired me,
swayed by my crude posturing, my endless fertility.
When I open my thighs the world flows in
and the world flows out. I have spent all my life
so far exposed above Aghagower perched in my place
knowing the world through the spread of my lips.
In the unconditional dark someone dethroned me,
un-croned me, made me young and beautiful again.
I shrieked leave me be, I was happy.
Note: Sheela na Gigs can be found on church & buildings throughout Europe, they are grotesque female figures prominently displaying their vulvas, thought to be pre Christian fertility figures. The poem won the Fish International Poetry Award
This is a girl of seventeen, a side view, seated on a swing hung from a chestnut tree her dress hitched by the wind This is a picture of my mother before I was her daughter before her father disowned her before she married my father before she had six children This was all before the swinging sixties that could not free her before the doctors before the hospital stays grew longer and longer, before they fed the electricity into her poor head that failed to help her before the priest offered prayer as a cure before the shock of her own mother’s death hit home This is my mother before I saw her dead in the bed, her cold hands clutching at air, before life swung full circle and could no longer hold her This is her on that green day skirt askew, hair streaming out, holding the ropes of the swing taut rushing to meet her future arcing in the air before her.
From Lovely Legs (Salmon Poetry 2009) You can hear the poet reading it here.
I’m Irish, we keep our clothes on
most of the time. We performed
contorted dances on beaches in Cork,
or Donegal; undressing under a,
not yet wet towel. Worried that any gap
might expose us, lay some body-part bare.
It was the Immaculate Conception that did it,
if Mary could conceive a child
without removing her knickers, then by God
The rest of us could undress and swim
without baring our buttocks.
We swam serene in freezing seas,
goose bumps freckling our pale skin,
we lay togged out on wet sand desperate
for the weak sun to dry us, before performing
the contorted dance in reverse. Now as I
remove my clothes, peel them off layer
by layer down to the bare. A brief moment
of unease before the release of water
baptising skin. With a quiet ‘Jesus, Mary’,
I dive in.
From Merman (Salmon Pub. 2012)
HER TONGUE AS A PLUMB LINE
In the temple of Taposiris Magna in Egypt, archaeologists uncovered a female mummy
with a golden tongue.
She rarely spoke and when she did few listened, she stumbled
over words, her tongue stuck to her teeth as she tried
to lick the sharp air, words slipped out sideways
from her deformed mouth, few could understand.
Alone she hummed tunes that vibrated in her throat,
flooded the cave of her mouth and broke out in song.
Children stopped their play to listen as she trilled
the air with golden notes, true speech eluded her.
At night she cried salt tears, tasting them bitter
on her lips and clumsy tongue, sensing the sea’s tunes,
the ululating of the waves and slosh of water
on the shoreline, sirens singing vibrato in the wind.
When she died her broken father ordered the priests
to remove her organs and place them in canopic jars,
embalm and wrap her body and lastly to leave her tortured
tongue intact and to seal it in gold so she could finally find
her voice and talk to Osiris and the gods who mattered.
HEARING ATHENA’S LITTLE OWL IN CRETE
Bubo, Athena’s owl flies out into the night sky
that turns from indigo to black as we sit
watching vast universes set out their wares,
their stars, their pulsars the swath and swirl
of the milky way. Startled by a swish
of wings that displace the air,
we pause our eating and look up,
see only sky, but hear the loud tu-whit tu-whoo
reverberating out over ink-dark sea.
We drink cool wine, its buttery shade sparkling
in candlelight. Reach greedily
for glistening green olives, scarlet tomatoes
plump and sweet from the sun,
relish chalky crumbs of goat’s cheese.
The bone moon edges through the sky
its exuberant light outshines everything,
we bow to her and lift our brimming glasses
to the imperatives of command and make ready
before this moment is blindsided.
We lazed in late afternoon Texan sun,
sipping cool water, a flicker near my eye
alerted me, I saw the green petrol shimmer
and ruby throat of a hummingbird.
I knew that smear of air immediately,
its tiny tongue flicking in and out
of a bell red flower, its colour reflected
in the bird’s majestic throat.
We stilled our souls and breath,
so swamped by this tiny being
licking the air and adjusting
itself, that we hardly dared breathe.
He was a thing of fable, an opened
jewel casket scattering emeralds and
rubies into the sky, we started
when it flew almost into our faces
hovered a moment like a blurred
smudge seeing its own reflection in our
startled eyes and after a while
satisfied, climed in the bruised air
and we let out a long held sigh.