Warning: Spoilers! How can there be spoilers for poetry, you ask? Easily, I get very excited, over analyse, and man-splain the whole book, watch me.
“Oisín Breen is a 35 year-old poet, part time academic in narratological complexity, and a financial journalist covering the US registered investment advisory sector. Dublin born, Breen spent the last decade living in Edinburgh, and has lived, among other places, Damascus, and Prague. His debut collection, ‘Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits, forgotten’ was released Mar. 29 by Hybrid press in Edinburgh (hybriddreich.co.uk).
Primarily a proponent of long-form style-orientated poetry infused with the philosophical, Breen had a number of poems published in his early twenties mostly in online magazines, before taking time out to hone his craft, since then he has been published both in written and audio formats in a number of journals, including the Blue Nib, Books Ireland, and Dreich.”Oisin Breen
It is my firm belief that the purpose of poetry is evisceration. From the guts that we have spilt into verse, comes the lesson we’ve not only learned, but we have picked clean until we comprehend enough to share it with the world. Poetry is our way of coming closer to the secrets of the human condition. Oisín Breen, author of Flowers, All Sorts, in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, does just that. I’ll admit, I was on the fence about the title at first, but after reading the collection two times and finding the melody in Breen’s words, I can’t imagine a better name for his work.
With his first stanza, Breen drags you through the graveyard to his father’s final resting place, where he brings the dead to life again. His visceral imagery leaves you feeling hungry for more. Breen writes:
“And I place flowers on my father’s grace,/ a gesture, like any other,/ to bring life to the dead. /and beside me two junkies eat a watermelon from a plastic bag,/ and a black and white tit hops beneath their feet.”(Breen 7).
The juxtaposition reminds us of the cruel ignorance, or perhaps the hilarious coincidence, of the simultaneity of the world around us. While Breen grieves for his loss, the world cannot stop for him. And even in grieving, he feels insufficient, as he writes on page 9, the grief eventually dissipates. The human condition is one of contradiction. We are constantly in a tar pit of emotions. Here Breen exemplifies how our emotions are both overwhelming and yet are never enough. How do we justify grief? How long until we can release it? Breen forces us to interrogate our own emotions:
“It is only in death that the final form of those we loved emerges.”Breen 11
How did he feel about his father when he was alive? Only he knows, but how have your emotions changed after a loved one died? Breen places us face to face with the very things we have refused to acknowledge. Emotions will not control Breen, he will bend them like a sculptor to his will, and so his poetry is born.
He goes on later to talk about his mother, he writes:
“Nor am I that inking that a part of her that she would hide and deny/ would always hate me for having stolen what was most precious from her:/ her reason for living, and made it my own.”Breen 26
He draws attention to the reality of what our mothers experience when they give birth to us. It’s a grotesque reality that we spend very little time thinking about, but Breen is uncaring in our disgust, or rather he desires our disgust. He wants us to address reality in a way we have refused to do. Taboo is not untouchable to Breen, rather it is another tool with which to shape his art.
Throughout the rest of the first section, Breen evokes the image of rust when describing time, aging, and memories as if his thoughts are becoming old and stale, not just his (or his father’s) body with its liver spots. He repeats the phrase:
“But the act itself/ its flash powder of yellow-tan dust,/ engorges the hour-hand at its brightest/ in a languor reconstituted: all just variations of dusk.”Breen 12
in order to give time a sense of heaviness. He does an incredible job of making you feel the weight in his heart. He is both damaged and healing and human, and there are moments in his writing that I don’t know what to do with intellectually, I just want to feel. For example:
“Thus, in truth, each iteration of life produces frisson and wields it like a/ drunkards crutch, like half-a-weapon and a half-strung melody./ Thus truth is nothing but the crushed pleats of the stories we tell ourselves/ to state, with surety, that we are pregnant with a real salt of the earth/ kenning of ourselves.”Breen 21
Just take a moment and let that punch you in the face, you probably needed it today anyway. It takes a true mastery of language to both make the reader consider your ideas deeply and apply their new knowledge to their life, and to confront them emotionally. Part of me wants to eat my own manuscript because Breen is so good.
I think my only complaint is he starts off so strong with his language. The first page is weighed down with adjectives, and the references he makes often went over my head. However, I recognize that Breen is leagues smarter than I am and not only is his writing emotional and tormenting, but it’s an opportunity to learn. For any student of literature, Breen has cooked us a vernacular stew and I have devoured it.
Speaking of intelligence, Breen invokes the names of many gods and myths that I had never heard of, but the learning of creates a new depth to his writing. I have so far read this book twice, and will certainly read it again in the future, but my first read was blind. I went in with no expectations and circled everything I didn’t understand. The second read, I researched everything I circled. In part one, Breen calls to Baru and Asipu, who, in Old Mesopotamia, read the entrails of animals for divination. He writes that he killed a rooster, made it into a paste, and put it over his eyes– like a mud mask– to better perceive time. It’s the type of thing no one dares write about anymore. It’s so gross and visceral and delightful. I can’t quite decide if Breen is writing from the perspective of these prophets and gods, or transcending himself to their level, either way it’s so unique, fresh, and bold that I can’t help but love it. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom as a post-postmodern Howl.
Part two dives deeper into many different Gods and myths. This section is both a prayer and a reimagining of the voice of the Gods.
“Who am I?” Breen writes, “They asked me./ I told them I was their lord and their God,/ and then I asked them: who you were.”Breen 43
Breen is both speaking to the Gods and speaking as the Gods which culminates with Dublin being Lugh, the king of the Gods. In the same breath, Breen describes Dublin as being a city of whores and drunks, he writes,
“Dublin. a city that rips the barnacles off her own sea drenched hull so as to/ feed them to herself, pretending they’re cockles and mussels.”Breen 58
I imagined in this section that Breen thinks of the people in his life as his Gods– we’re getting into very interpretive territory here, but he talks about the Gods as if they were people, scavenging for food, trying to survive in Dublin. The line between reality and folklore is deeply blurred so that we never really know who Breen in talking about directly. It’s almost sacrilegious but in a way that sounds like worship.
The most pungent pieces in section two, for me, were “Merodach,” and “Gula Innana.” My understanding of these Gods are that Merodach is the Patron Saint of Babylon who is in possession of the divine wind weapon. Of course, this is based on google searches and is not as a deep a knowledge as Breen’s, but his writing fills in some of the gaps. Breen Writes:
“Merodach, take this gift, the fruits of my people: their sin.”Breen 42
In a way, this conflates the story of Merodach and Jesus Christ, who, in the Christian faith, died for the sins of his people. The “sin” for Breen is the sin of pleasure: of drinking and sex, the internal war of grief, which he wishes to destroy. In this section, Breen also discusses his memories within Dublin, and the memories of Dublin itself which are also sins that Breen wishes to escape and/ or to return to. These “sins” will somehow cure him of his nostalgia, one way or another.
Gula Innana, on the other hand, is a conflation of several Gods, the God of sex and the God of healing. To me, this suggested that sex itself can heal. All this sin that Breen is committing, is also a form of dealing with grief. Many young people go through this phase of heavy drinking or sexual activity, and it has become taboo (at least in America) and the normalization of it here, even the worship of it, is a painful and brave salute to sadness and growing up.
In section three, Breen returns us to the graveyard, but this time for an unidentified woman. Based on the first section, I chose to believe this woman was either his mother or a lover. Throughout the book, Breen utilizes repetition to drive a point home. In part three, the repetition is of the phrase, “I incant” and/ or “I recant.” The incantation is a song that he sings at the grave, or perhaps the work itself. Often Breen uses second person to replicate a conversation. I imagined this conversation was between Breen and the reader, and therefore the “song,” was in our hands the whole time. The “song” was his serenade to life. It’s his ability to be human, and here he is acknowledging that he’s starting to get a hold on this whole “existence” thing. Breen’s lesson, I believe, is that there is no right way to live. There is no correct way to grieve, we just have to do our best.
After the grief of loss and the indulgence in sin from parts one and two, we have finally reached Breen’s resignation, and reverence, of life.
“And thus I bleed purpose,” he writes, “And it is with my blood, with my wit that realities are made./ and I have a reality, and I AM a reality.”Breen 66
Although this may seem like a very simple statement, it can be very difficult to totally grasp. To accept that we are a reality, is to accept that we will die, to accept that tragedy will strike us, and that we must grapple with our emotions. Regardless of his dark themes, he uses the ending of his book to give the reader hope. Much like René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” Breen reminds us that we are, in fact, a reality, and there is no wrong way to be real. All experiences are valid and different.
Amidst this epiphany, Breen also says,
“And so, there is no returning home,/ of the other then, consider all relations shifted./ All of that which was, is necessarily ended./ And we, through creation, break the cycle,/ And throw ourselves to the mercy of the sea.”Breen 71
What’s done is done, Breen reminds us. We can longer return to a situation or a timeline that doesn’t exist. We must grieve, and we must sin, and we must move on. He reminds us that we will feel pain, that our future is uncertain. But we must forgive ourselves, and once we have done that, we are in charge of our changes. What I’m trying to say here is that Breen takes tragic topics and exemplifies them in a way that is way too real and close to home, to force us to relive our most unnerving moments, so that we can experience some sort of catharsis. Humans are a nexus, Breen teaches us. To put it simply, we are in this together. We experience things individually but empathically. He writes:
“it is in this way that the Nanking rape, sack of Rome, Irish famine,/ Dresden Blitz, and London bombs were the opening of the sweetest, of the/ most tender buds.”Breen 87
We cannot see the good that comes out of the bad, but without the pain of tragedy, how can we know the joy of happiness?
Finally, we return to the title:
“and though the flowers they have fallen,/ flowers, and fruits, all sorts in blossom,/ figs, berries, and thorns forgotten./ And though the fruit it has long since rotten,/ tending her grace, it remains as pretty as ever.”Breen 95
And with that, dear reader, I leave you to learn for yourself what Breen is talking about.
I give Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom a solid 10/10 for originality, creativity and masochism. Breen hurt me in ways I didn’t know I could be hurt, and for that I thank him.
“Of form, we are explicit,/ a ribald phallus out of which our ordinariness,/ our nature as phantasmagoria in C minor,/ our tense subterfuge in symbolism,/ out of which everything is ejaculated,/ out of which our gushing fountain-head of knowing is born.”Breen 69
I have nothing important to say about this, I just appreciate a good dick joke.