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Jean O’Brien – No Symptoms

Profile O Brien LE P&W March 2021

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2021.

Jean O’Brien’s last collection was her New & Selected Fish on a Bicycle (Salmon Pub. 2016/2018) Her new collection is due in autumn 2021 and is called Stars Burn Regardless. She was awarded a Patrick Kavanagh Fellowship in 2017/18 and recently had a poem included by the Irish Ambassador to Washing in his women poets month in February. She holds an M. Phil in cw/poetry from Trinity College, Dublin. Ireland.


No Symptoms

Again today on the App I mark myself safe,
No Symptoms, as we all play
the numbers game, dodging virus balls
like a perverse pinball machine.
Some go walking the shoreline,
coffee cup in mittened hands,
others stay indoors waiting it out.
A scattering of voices instruct us
on the radio, through our screens,
charting our levels, mortality numbers,
we are falling ill on an industrial scale.
Days are short and blur into one another,
we sleep, wake, eat, scan our screens,
exhausted we calculate the odds
of the loaded dice and see the sky
lighten with the dawn
and live another day.

Heart Burial

French Archaeologists have exhumed
five, four hundred year old hearts in lead boxes

The pit was littered with them,
heavy, heavy as lead.
Little heart shaped boxes that have endured,
as the dead heart endures.
Its beat long stilled,
arteries hardened
from a malestrom of emotions
felt and suppressed
held in the downdraft
in an old loop of pain.
Each one with its own tale
and no way now of telling us,
except by its presence.
Nothing of how sunrise
glistened in the door
and the heart ripened
again in the gleam. At Vespers no telling
of voices rising and falling
singing the sun down
Salve Regina matermisericordiae
and how it shored up clusters
of loneliness
and days’ blunted features.
The Lead slick from the clotted earth
it has long been encased in,
silent and unseen
blood scraps cling within.
We clean the magic boxes,
polish them to a shine with spirit breath
and raise them once more
like Lazarus to light, to love.


Mermaids’ Combs

White horses shimmer with breath-
bubbles rising like exquisite pearls.

Mermaids golden hair bobs
on the wave muscled surface, fan-

ning out on a bright bed of sargassum
seaweed, caught in the net of horse latitudes.

Where they rise there is no sight of headland,
salty sea washes over them as they slip

their skin and grow land-legs.  The land-lubbers
cannot fathom them, regard them as sirens,

superstitions. Set their dogs searching
after the gleam of a dried-out parchment-coloured tail,

lying abandoned in the sand near the shore,
pools of green/blue scales drying like a dream.

The dogs slip their leashes and snuffle along
the tidemark, some half-remembered scent

luring them on like beachcombers, or is it snatches
of songs too high-pitched for men’s ears that they hear?

Whatever, everyone man, beast or mermaid can feel
the fluid tug of the tide, the instinct for water.


© Jean O’Brien