Book Review: Other Maidens by Toti O’Brien
Michael Paul Hogan reviews Other Maidens by Toti O’Brien, a collection of poems exploring grief and wonder, fear and joy, estrangement and intimacy.
Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. In addition to numerous articles and reviews he has published six volumes of poetry and his first collection of short stories is scheduled to come out from Adelaide Books in New York at the end of this year.
I bleed fragments
smooth like pebbles
ricocheting on dumb
Lament.AUGUR, Toti O’Brien
Toti O’Brien’s Other Maidens contains seventy-nine poems divided into nine sections, creating a unified whole where themes and images cross textual borders with the effortless grace of the birds and waters that she so often evokes in her personal landscape. ‘Childhood memories flood me,’ she says in the poem ‘ATONEMENT’-
muddy river punctuated
with green lotus leaves
islands of remembrance.
[……………….] I recall
Grandpa teaching me
how to capture reptiles
then walk them like dogs.ATONEMENT, Toti O’Brien
And later on, in the poem ‘GIBRALTAR’-
I recall the fragility of the boat
the immensity of the ocean.
The incredible depth of color blue
with its oily thickness.
The dense surface
tensed like the skin of a snake…GIBRALTAR, Toti O’Brien
But this is not a book about memory per se; it is far more profound, more subtle than that, weaving memories with landscapes both remembered and imagined; weaving memories with interior landscapes that are sometimes real and sometimes symbolic; but most important of all, creating a multifaceted portrait of the poet herself – simultaneously a living woman of flesh and blood, and a symbolic Everywoman exhibiting all the contradictory power and vulnerability of her sex. It is no accident that twice she references Ulysses and Ithica; no accident, either, that she refers to Penelope, Queen of Ithica and Ulysses’ wife, as ‘tall, dark haired fairy of my childhood / princess of rebellion and faith’ and goes on to write –
Countless years sitting at the loom
weaving and unweaving your web
with a steady beat, a firm pulse
like a moon incessantly waning and waxing
in the sky, deep and black
like the ocean where Ulysses is lost.HERO, Toti O’Brien
That ‘weaving and unweaving’ could easily be read as a symbolic statement of the poet’s own task, that of weaving and unweaving the pattern of life, where the needle is a pen and the tapestry is the very book that we hold in our hands. And, like a motif in a tapestry, certain words and images occur throughout the book: birds are referenced often; they have a symbolic value, and range from sparrows to flamingos to the cormorant; the image of a snake recurs, specifically in reference to its (cast off) skin; the word ‘mother’ (or its American familiar ‘Mom’) appears in a dozen of the seventy-nine poems; flowers; references to dancers; and so frequently lakes and rivers and, ultimately, the sea; the sea that separates Ulysses from Penelope; the ‘sky blue petrol ocean’; the sea in which her maritime merchant great-grandfather lost all his ships –
The ships never returned from their journey
on the year Great-grandad lost his reason
after his eldest son, beloved, a priest
died of poison while he separated mass.
I can see it all. The cassocked uncle
eyes transfixed by the dark pool that seems wine
whirling down the tall calyx of gold.
A vertigo hypnotizes him while a maelstrom
(cold wind from invisible clouds)
gulps our vessels like thimbles
in the far Indian Ocean or ’round the Southern Cape.
All the spices explode, a meteor of dust.
Our wealth peppers a distant Sargasso.LEGEND, Toti O’Brien
And within this profound and beautifully structured work there are small moments of independent, stand-alone joy: an image, a line, a perfect simile. Here are two exquisite cameos of the dancers referred to above –
Dancers hold their bodies like prayers
rising up like cigarette smoke
to gods sleeping, hushed by layers of clouds.
They hold their heads like crowns
of flowers floating on water
their smiles disembodied like dentures
made of milk and mother of pearl.DANCERS, Toti O’Brien
Since she practises her tightrope
routine on salvaged cobwebs
she has lost weight. The emptiness
between her tights is a womb.
So is the void between her arched calves.
At her waist, inconsistent
she wears the torn fabric of an umbrella.
No need for the center hole to be enlarged.THE MAGICIAN, Toti O’Brien
But ultimately, what will stand out for many are the poems that combine perfectly controlled writing with psychological insight, particularly those which treat of death, be it the physical death of a person (there is a beautiful elegy to her brother which steers clear of any trace of sentimentality and is more moving as a result), the death of a relationship, the death of innocence, or the Zen approach to death as the gateway to rebirth, always combining the writer’s necessary subjectivity with universal truth –
But where did your soul go?
Tell me please
some of it remained on land
shredded fog lingering
by the branches and bushes
of your beloved garden.
In the shade of the evening light
in the mist
of all things we don’t know.THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, Toti O’Brien
All flesh, not only mine
has grown inconsistent.
The world is an aquarium.
We are jellyfish stranded
on a lonely beach
losing color.ALL FLESH, Toti O’Brien
Other Maidens is that rare thing, a significant (both in length and content) collection of new poetry that combines a natural lyricism with seriousness of intent and is a success on all the aesthetic and intellectual levels to which it aspires. I will conclude by adding that it is a beautifully produced book, larger than the standard format, well-printed and well-spaced, with a cover painting by none other than the author herself. And it is to Toti O’Brien that I will leave the last words –
Is this Ithica? I can’t be surer
than I was about disaster to come.
Life is always past the next corner.
All I can see is a slice.
A small rest.
A break between lines.ULYSSES’ SONG, Toti O’Brien
Other Maidens by Toti O’Brien, is published by BlazeVOX [books], Buffalo, New York. You can purchase a copy on Amazon.