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

of words

smooth like pebbles

ricocheting on dumb

oily waters.

Birdsong. Echoes.

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

but isn’t

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

Written by Michael Paul Hogan

Other Maidens by Toti O’Brien, is published by BlazeVOX [books], Buffalo, New York. You can purchase a copy on Amazon.


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