NBCC Awards Finalists in Poetry: Michael O’Brien’s “Sleeping and Waking”


This is the seventeenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Michael O’Brien, “Sleeping and Waking,”Flood Editions
Michael O’Brien’s “Sleeping and Waking” is a book both pungent and delicate. Moving us through an urban pastoral of graffiti, traffic, elevators, subways, overheard conversations, headaches, shifts of weather, homeless scavengers, and neon flashes, O’Brien evokes a contemporary Manhattan both dreamy and vivid.  O’Brien has been at it for years but only now is getting a broader, and deserved, readership; a long writing life lies behind such deceptively easy lines as –

  tiny rainbow of spilt gas in asphalt puddle, its hospital tuck

O’Brien’s apparent casualness belies an alert, sensuous sensibility.  He draws on the economy of haiku via imagism as well as the relaxed noticing so characteristic of New York School poets (Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler).  There is nothing frenetic about O’Brien’s poetry, however, no splashes of exclamation points or salutes to zany friends: instead he invokes a kind of hypnagogic state signaled by the title, taking us on a kind of dream-journey we might associate rather with Dante or with such pilgrimages as Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”  Clouds descend on mountains (here, in Ireland), cellphones flash their blue lights, music haunts the subway.  “And all the while the body is talking to itself, susurrus of information, incessant, unnoticed.”

The book is an episodic, elegant, intense homage to the art of “attending the announcement of the one event, forsaking all others.” Invoking Japanese poets, Wallace Stevens, and Hippocrates in his titles, O’Brien easily pivots between specificity and a philosophically-tinged abstraction:

Road dust & winestains
on my clothes, a

long journey, everywhere
reminded of things.
—“After Lu Yu”

Likeness washes
across things without a
trace, a cloud’s
shadow in a field.
—“Under Slievemore”

It is a delight to encounter a book of poems simultaneously accessible and sophisticated.  These poems conjoin the absolutely contemporary to an out-of-time mindfulness; they at times suggest an unpretentious, latter-day wisdom literature—“The world as airport. The book of days”—anchored in the vividest perceptions: “Dawn, horizon, fracture of light.”

In “The Mark,” an Ash Wednesday poem, the poet hymns a kind of broken difficult faith, envisioning the annual commemoration of the crucifixion as “This/porno flick, this/lust to burn /the world away.”  Capturing the burning world even as it burns itself away: O’Brien’s work is one of precise, rapturous attention. – Maureen N. McLane

Other reviews:

David Orr in The New York Times:

Maureen N. McLane at Zoland Poetry.

A review by Lily Brown here.