Kerrie O’Brien: a poet with promise

‘Illuminate’ is a poet’s pilgrimage. For a young poet, she has a strong sense of succession, her place in the line

That Dublin poet Kerrie O’Brien views poetry as photography or art is no surprise. After all, she is an art history graduate from Trinity College Dublin. Her debut collection Illuminate (published by Salmon Poetry this year) is a testament to both. Like photography and painting, poetry is about precision, control, structure, and rhythm. It is a creative process, distilling the emotions and condensing what O’Brien calls the “raw beauty” of a single moment in time into a single line or stanza.

The late John Montague likened poetry to a feather. Yet he knew it had the power of a gun. Words have a way of moving us, sometimes deeply. That is why poetry matters. It has been said that art imitates life. No, art is life. There is a feathery lightness to O’ Brien’s work. Her words give life to the human experience.

The 28-poem collection explores themes of loneliness, love, legacy, and light. Illuminate is a poet’s pilgrimage. It begins with a private and deeply personal moment. Morning Sun transports us from the poet’s bedroom to any one of Edward Hopper’s paintings of solitary women, perhaps his Pensive Lady in Pink.

The bed faced the window


So I would wake to brightness
Stretch in its warmth

And contemplate the rooftops
Of the city….

Shiver in the memory
Then bathe

The body is a temple to be lived in, loved, and understood. In the poem Core she writes:

You need to be very still
To hear the concert of your body

To think about what you contain

Salt and water
Know what it's doing
Renewing itself
Back to Earth

It is a quiet thing
This is where our riches are

We are all red inside
Brimming with love

All fluid and quiet and fire.

She concludes the collection with her Wish for a good death after a life hopefully lived well:

I want to thank the well-loved
Bark of my body
For all it has done.

I want my spirit to go out
Like a laughing child

Running through the fields

And all along the white
Sands of the sea

Ready for anything.

Nestled between these three poems you will find the poet as pilgrim making her way through life from Dublin to Paris in search of inspiration. The French capital looms large in this collection. O’Brien travelled to Paris in 2012 when she was 24 to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She came away from that transformative experience knowing and understanding that hers would be a writing life. In the same way that she wants to understand herself, she seems to want to tell us how she got there, how she arrived at this defining moment. And so we find ourselves following closely behind as she retraces the footsteps of such literary giants as Samuel Beckett and Ernest Hemingway.

We see her visiting Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse, to pay homage, and perhaps tap into his literary genius. But standing there, she has an epiphany of sorts. The great scribe is not to be found there, for his very essence is back home in Ireland.

And it seems fitting
But get no sense of him –

Because really
On warm evenings
He is at home
Near Cooldrinagh

Still roaming the hills
With his father.

We also find O'Brien sitting and reading in the holy literary site of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore that gave birth to Joyce's Ulysses, learning of Hemingway's time in Paris when he was her age, then, walking the streets in search of him, hungry, tired, but persisting in the freezing cold and rain with her personal pilgrimage. Trusting. Her trust is rewarded. Hemingway finds her and gently leads her on, urging her to be patient. She will find her way. In the poem Hemingway she tells us:

I hadn't eaten
The hunger raw and persisting

But he led me
And right where he lived

A café…

It then came
A thudding chant –

Be still, still
In the howling.

Have faith
Just a little longer.

The writing life is a solitary life. Zadie Smith recently told the New Yorker’s David Remnick: “Writing is a real way of controlling pleasure”. It’s work – hard work. For some it can be sheer drudgery, a slog. Elizabeth Bishop published only a fraction of her poems during her lifetime, spending time writing and rewriting, always in search of the right word, the right phrase. She was not alone. Writers struggle over every word, poets especially, and rightly so. O’Brien is no different. She has been writing poetry for the best part of a decade now. Illuminate took time. She remained dissatisfied with her poems, choosing to include only one (Ashes) in this collection. But the experience in Paris liberated her. Travelling to the City of Light allowed her to find her voice, unshackle herself, find clarity, and write freely. Incidentally, she doesn’t write when she travels. Too many distractions. All of her writing is done at home in Dublin, often in Trinity’s library. It doesn’t necessarily make the work any easier, but it has purpose now.

For a young poet (she’s 29), O’Brien, like John Montague, has a strong sense of succession, and her place in the line. Whether she’s writing about the scribes who have gone before her (Beckett and Hemingway), the healing power of her great-grandmother (Inherent) or just sitting on a Sunday afternoon breaking bread with her grandfather (Sundays), she recognises the importance of each moment in time. She takes the time.

Despite all the years that lie between us
We eat together each week

Eighty years of you, still strong…

Something powerful about your presence
An elegance
The whole family has some trace of it –

All the life you've had
Most of it I know nothing of

But I love you for it
Your pride and mystery…

In a society that often struggles to deal with death and grief, O’Brien’s poetry provides us with a language to deal with love, loneliness and loss. As her poem Wish shows, she is fearless and unafraid of death. This is highly unusual for someone so young, but it’s that lack of fear that frees her to live, to love and to console. And nowhere is this more evident than in her poem You Come to Me, where she consoles a grief-stricken friend.

I took your hands in mine
As I had taken my Grandfather's
When he thought the end was coming –

Only touch will do
In these moments
Each time the same prayer –

You mean so much to me.

The loss of great Irish poets like John Montague earlier this month and Seamus Heaney three years ago may leave us with gaping holes in Ireland’s literary landscape, but it’s refreshing and uplifting to know that a new generation of poets like O’Brien are coming up through the ranks, shedding light on the stuff of life, and reminding us why poetry matters.

Emmanuel Touhey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC