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Tallying With The Present: Dan O'Brien's Scarsdale
Jeremy Gordon , January 4th, 2015 12:03

First reviewing the American poet's second collection, Scarsdale, Jeremy Gordon then sits down to talk about confessional poetry, the irrelevance of form and the mythic quality of childhood with Dan O'Brien

                “Because eventually my father took pity
                on us all, and bought us this house in Scarsdale
                so that our children at least would not suffer.”

Dan O’Brien first found acclaim as a playwright, coming to prominence with the multi-award winning The Body of an American in 2012. War Reporter, the American’s debut poetry collection, released last year, drew from the same source material; taking as its starting point the moment that photojournalist Paul Watson took the photograph of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu for which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. It explored Watson’s harrowing past and the complex interactions between the poet and his subject as they attempted to come to terms with that past.

War Reporter, which won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, was full of brutally but not gratuitously shocking images and powerfully explored the way in which memory can haunt us. Although sometimes decribed as “docu-poetry” there was nothing detached about it. O’Brien’s collaboration with Watson in fact continues into the present day. On December 1st he won the Troubador International Poetry Prize for ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’, inspired by events witnessed by Watson in Syria.

Scarsdale is another narrative collection and shares its predecessor’s vivid examination of memory. But here it is Dan O’Brien himself that is the lens and the lingering wounds of his upbringing that are brought directly to bear. There is no shrugging away from the uncomfortable - this is confessional, confrontational work with the poet daubed literally and liberally on every page.

The collection is split into three unnamed sections, each separated by a sense of time and place: ‘The House in Scarsdale’ during childhood; travels in Europe as a graduate before O’Brien’s return to America. There is a beginning; there is an end; reveals, twists, transgressions… But, ultimately, although heavily autobiographical, it is not really linear but mythic. Its episodes, its themes, its images are recurrent and symbolic even as they are singular and specific.

The tone, even from the poem prefacing the others, ‘My Handwriting’, is both unremittingly elegiac and strangely triumphant:

                I had other sins, of course,
                and prayers I knew by heart.

                Or did I dwindle myself down
                to this thread on the page
                so my mother would find me
                and ask, What’s this?

This is perhaps Scarsdale’s central question: What’s this? What is this poem about the past? Why did I need to write it? And how can I tally it with the present?

Shame is the binding quality of all the figures in Scarsdale and they are something of a cast. There is a mother, a father, a brother, a sister and probably others siblings – of specifics it is uncertain. The fragility of this family’s world is shown by how easily and cruelly it is pierced by the titular figures of ‘Raccoons’:

                they’d return with their dexterous
                almost human hands, and leave the grass
                littered with our shame: diapers
                full of shit, carcasses
                of chicken roasters, tampons, our father’s
                condoms – all strung out
                in the pachysandras, all caught
                in the teeth of a rotting
                backyard fence.

There is not just the expression of collective shame but an attempt to understand why the family should feel ashamed, particularly the children. Take the complexity of the attempt to understand in ‘Hardwick, VT’ the sense of:

                One’s own mother desired
                by strangers…
                beers from cans. They watched her
                moving in her bathing suit
                with a sullen pride
                like hate.

One of O’Brien’s particular poetic talents is to make a poem turn without that turn seeming overt or dramatic: “like hate.” As if the emotions being expressed weren’t already myserious enough.

There is so often an implicit but central question of ‘why’ embedded in these poems and their layers of guilt, shame and uncertainty. Short sentences stacked on top of each other, more “docu-poetry” indeed than lyrical expression, the poems move forward decisively but not rushedly, image after image. Locked in O’Brien’s constant enjambement is the sense that he never wants these poems to pause either. The desire to ponder is rejected and his questions compacted into every poem’s fabric. Each poem is just something that happens, that happened and it doesn’t have to just make sense.

The figures of the ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ loom mythically, religiously large; the father callous to the point of brutality: “Our mother he’d nail/ each Sunday morning/ to their bed. Yet never any sense// of music in the man…” When a neighbour dies of cancer young: “Father says, It’s nature’s way. Forking/ another piece of meat into his mouth.” Images of red meat recur uncomfortably, made even more so by their wilful cackhandedness.

O’Brien’s mother is utterly beleaguered: “Water in the bowl after/ the flowers have been lifted out.” – O’Brien can be chillingly straight - but she is also a figure of complexity, if not shrouded secrets then full of them. In ‘Gramercry’, near the end of Scarsdale, mother and son watch a play in New York.

                the morning you rode the subway
                for the first time since you were a girl,
                you told me…
                …Mother and son in the dark house watching
                The age-old drama continue. Then strolling
                downtown after, with bankers descending

                into the melee of the streets. Struggling
                to hail you a taxi.You said: One day
                you will live here. And how will I ever know
                if you envied me or condemned me
                before vanishing into that everyday scene?

The lines of this poem are heavily charged, each a kind of implicit question; the steady, unhurried rhythm; the ing ing ing ing before the calmness of the mother’s final statement; the sadness of that final question. How can we ever know?

Scarsdale’s descriptions can be as unflinching as scenes of flesh being ripped apart in War Reporter but O’Brien’s portrayal of his family and its interactions are always considered rather than raw with anger. In ‘Another Complaint’ the poet’s sister is kicked out of the house by the father “for crying too much”, mocked for her education in Fine Art & Literature and her job as assistant to an editor of romance literature, which the parents deride as “soft-core pornography”. Then, “For Christmas”, they take ‘exhume’ her thesis – “a soldered bird/ like a phoenix…/and almost funny for how close it flew to art” – and inexplicably bolt it to a tree stump: “festooning/ its iron wings with colored lights, then left her there burning/ well into a wet new year.”

O’Brien’s skill is that his most emotionally-charged images – and there is another in this same poem that is impossibly sad – never seem histrionic because they are never allowed to become everything. The line moves on, “well into the wet new year”, and the poems never become subservient to them, nearly always ending equivocally.

The middle-section, set in the UK and Ireland, provides if not light relief then at least a change of scene. The humour is a little less black here too (not a huge ask when previously O’Brien has explored the irony of moments like his father battering raccoons to death, which he had failed to properly kill the night before, because he does not wish to wake up the neighbours “before breakfast”).

From the adoescent ramblings of ‘First Pages of a New Journal’: “Bought a book/ of Jung’s work on dreams (because/ you never know when something like that/ might come in handy”. Or something which begins as humour in ‘Where you from?’ The poet, trying to make himself “anew”, answers the question with ‘the Bronx’, trying to play the hardman, we feel. His own reason: “Because it made me seem//less this child of wealth, whom I did not believe/ I was anyway.” The exploration of identity runs throughout Scarsdale but becomes particularly sharp when looking from outside its main setting.

Upon returning to America, O’Brien now older, Scarsdale swtichknifes between moments of obfuscation and clarity, but it is the sense of clarity that gently grows. The images are simple but powerful: the scene “Like any Edward Hopper /painting, together, alone…Eating the light/ off a scratched plastic plate.” Or in the penultimate poem the memory of ‘Truro’ – “This is not to say we were not brought to the beach/ once a year..” – curiously nostalgic for a time both lovely and horrible. In narrative terms, more explanations, though few definitive, are offered for the familial relations running through the collection, which force the reader back to the beginning.

In fact, for both poet and reader or listener this is a collection all about returning, leaving and returning. There are mysteries and thoughts locked deep within these poems and the questions and wounds in each will remain fresh, the complexity of emotion and narrative unfaded. Slowly, steadily, Scarsdale draws you into its world, so full of suffering and cruelty and yet a strange kind of hope and by the end even catharsis.

O’Brien must be commended for his great bravery in releasing these poems into the world but there will definitely be some who find this collection too painfully confessional. Beyond its complex biographical considerations, however, Scarsdale is in essence a struggle to find the beauty and meaning of memories where beauty and meaning should not exist: this is poetry which you simply have to hear again.

Like War Reporter, Scarsdale is more than just a collection, in the sense of an amalgamation, of poems. Can you perhaps explain to a non-American/New York audience what Scarsdale’s connotations are as a place? And what its connotations are to you?

Dan O’Brien: Scarsdale is an affluent suburb about 20 miles north of Manhattan, and it’s where I was born and raised. Once it was solidly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant territory, but nowadays Scarsdale has a significant Jewish population. I spent most of my thirteenth year going to friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs. So I identify closely with that culture too. My curly black-Irish hair was often referred to as a “Jewish afro” in school. When I lived in Ireland briefly in the ’90s I was often asked if I were Jewish, and sometimes the way they asked it made it seem like they were looking for horns.

My parents were raised in Scarsdale too; they met at Scarsdale High School, went to the senior prom together, and quickly (and most likely accidentally) started a family of six kids, of which I’m the fourth. Scarsdale is wealthy, but my family wasn’t. My father was the son of an Irish-American plumber and himself a plumber, before he got a certificate in computer programming and went into business for himself as a “computer consultant,” working out of the attic of our house. Only recently did I discover the degree to which we were supported—in our decidedly middle-class upbringing, I should make clear—by my mother’s father, something of a Horatio Alger figure who was orphaned at eight years old and rose to substantial wealth in New York City’s garment district.

Scarsdale is for me, essentially and unabashedly, a poetic bildungsroman. How does where we come from form who we are? And how, if ever, do we break from it?

What was the starting point for Scarsdale? I’ve read that you’d been workshopping a play, a ‘speculative memoir’, entitled The House in Scarsdale. There is a monologue by that name, of course, that ends the first section. Did it all stem from there?

The play is actually much more recent. The poems are at least ten years — if not forty years — in the composition and compilation (I’m forty now).

I’ve always tried to write about my childhood, to try to understand it, because there were so many secrets and lies and delusions swirling around, and so much mental illness — not just mine or my siblings’, but my parents’, and my mother’s in particular. Her childhood in Scarsdale was arguably even more dysfunctional than mine, almost mythic, really, or mythic as it was understood by her children. My father was cold, often cruel, and always inarticulate. His family’s history is still largely a mystery to me.

But it was being disowned almost a decade ago by my family, for reasons I still don’t understand, that required a painful and often enlightening reevaluation of where I’ve come from, and who I was becoming. I was searching for answers, and poetry was the best way to do it — indeed, poetry was instinctive.

The first section (the second if you count ‘My Handwriting’, which is a kind of epigraph) seems to take place during the poet’s childhood in Scarsdale; the second during travels in the UK, and particularly Ireland – I wondered if you wanted to comment on that setting at all? You have previously said that you connect the landscape of Ireland with your impulse to write.

DOB: I do think of that first poem as a kind of epigraph for the entire collection, so yes, after that, the first section is focused on the hermetic world of childhood. The second section looks at my somewhat tragicomic attempts to break free of the stasis and paralysis of where I grew up.

Ireland and the UK — and travel in general, to be honest — are synonymous with my basic conception about writing, about art. That one has to venture outside the self in order to create something meaningful, to save oneself from oneself.

But that part of the world spoke to me because of writers primarily: Yeats’ “Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother's womb / A fanatic heart”—when I read that as a teenager I knew nothing of Yeats and little of Ireland, but it spoke to me and for me.

Beckett was another one. Endgame, Godot, Footfalls; these were all domestic tragicomedies of my own family and childhood, as far as I could tell. The psychology was all there; it explained so much. So I had to go where these writers came from.

And where would you say we are we in the third section? And why are we there?

DOB: The third section is going home again, trying to reconcile these first two sections, growing into an adult in painful and ambiguous ways. Sometimes there are memories of childhood in this section, but I believe they belong here because it’s the older man reflecting. This is also the section in which my family destroys itself. The book ends, at least for me, on a note of acceptance if not exactly forgiveness.

Is 'Gramercy' about the last time you saw your mother? It closes with a very powerful question. Why does it mean so much to make something like that into a poem?

DOB: ‘Gramercy’ is a poem about coming to terms with never seeing my mother again, though it doesn’t depict the last time I saw her. As so often happens with memory, something that didn’t seem significant at one time suddenly returns in a more meaningful, often haunting way. So this poem could be understood as a premonition of our final separation, which wasn’t too long after that anyway.

The epigraph comes from John Cheever. Why Cheever? Is this collection in dialogue with Cheever’s work at all?

DOB: I love John Cheever. I mean, he was fantastically neurotic, and I don’t hope to emulate his personal life, but he captured a world I know so well—Westchester Country, where he lived not far from Scarsdale—and the family dynamics within that world. Cheever’s mysterious and ambiguous relationship with his brother also means something to me here; his story ‘Goodbye, My Brother’ has lived with me for almost two decades now.

I wanted to ask about your philosophy on the line. War Reporter used that ten-syllable, single-single stanza form throughout, which you’ve previously described as an “intuitive choice”. It was prose poetry really, except sometimes the rhythm (or rhyme) came on very strong. Scarsdale is mostly in free verse and quite formally varied. Was it an intuitive choice to write this way for this collection? Free verse places so much emphasis on the line. What is it that you are trying to do at the level of the line?

DOB: I’m afraid I don’t consciously make a distinction between more “prosy” lines and something more comfortably “poetic.” These poems simply came to me this way, and evolved this way over years of revision, for better or for worse. I blame my upbringing, as it were, as a playwright for this penchant for free verse. But I’m simply looking for a representation on the page for how I would read it to you, were we sitting across the table from each other, and that’s about it.

Though that does make sense to me, it's almost as if I don't quite believe you. What about, for example, the way you use stanzas in a poem like ‘A Leaf’:

                Wouldn't it seem
                a miracle if
                it had happened at all

                this way?

You don't believe in lines or stanzas as 'units' at all?

DOB: I think of stanzas as units for sure. Line and stanza breaks help communicate meaning via emphasis, implied subtexts, a visual relation to breath, pacing, time, and many other things besides, I’m sure. But it’s very personal and idiosyncratic and always changing, how I think about this.

In Scarsdale whose voice are we in? Is it ‘the poet’, as in War Reporter, or Dan O’Brien? Is this confessional poetry? I sense, that in the case of both questions, you switch as necessary, or desired. Connected to this is the question of how you can write so honestly about your own family. I’ve always thought there was a degree of exploitation in confessional poetry – how do you deal with that? Or was there no other way?

DOB: Well, “the poet” in War Reporter is also “Dan O’Brien.” It’s always me trying to talk to you, or maybe communicate to you on some level deeper than that. I know people talk about “personae” in poetry, but I’m just trying to be honest. I’m adult enough to realize that this is of course a performance, but honesty is what I’m after. Perhaps it’s the American in me but I don’t think “memoir” or “confessional” is necessarily a pejorative. I think, actually, these days it takes a certain kind of courage, and maybe foolishness.

When I was 14 and stumbled across Anne Sexton, or even Sylvia Plath, in the high school library I felt I’d found my life raft. Because of the honesty, because I felt I was connecting with some very intimate and profound in both these poet’s psyches. Robert Lowell also, especially ten years ago when I felt I was having a kind of certifiable “crack-up.” Sure, sometimes these poets make me cringe or feel embarrassed a bit, but I don’t care, I don’t really care about writing where I can’t tell what the writer is risking in him- or herself.

As for writing about families, yes, it’s difficult, and often painful, for me and probably for my family—those who notice and care. But at the heart of this book is great love and yearning, and yes of course also disappointment and confusion and grief, and anger. But these are feelings I think we all share about our families, to one degree or another.

How much do you see these poems as unified? Does it matter to you how they work outside the context of Scarsdale and the narrative there?

DOB: I’m definitely trying to tell a story over the course of these 70-odd pages, as with War Reporter. Again I blame it on my years as a playwright: it’s hard for me not to think to some degree of character development and narrative over the course of a collection. That said, most of these poems have been published individually in magazines and journals. I hope most if not all of these poems could be meaningful to some people on their own.

So you want the reader or listener to decode the familial relations running through Scarsdale? I am thinking particularly of the poem 'The Wrong Son' here, which seems almost a reveal.

DOB: I assume a reader would piece together at least the most important familial relations in Scarsdale. ‘The Wrong Son’ is a reveal, yes, but most of these poems are, in that the poem attempts to convey a realization of some kind, or a half-realization: “half-” because ‘The Wrong Son’ may in fact be only a fantasy.

Would you self-identify as a Catholic? Or when did you stop self-identifying as one?

DOB: I wasn’t raised Catholic, but my father was. When I was a kid we’d drive by I.H.M., or Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, in Eastchester, just over the border from Scarsdale, and my father would tell us that I.H.M. stood for “Institute for Helpless Morons.” This might tell you something of my father’s sense of humor, as well as his opinion of the Catholic Church. That said, the Irish Catholic thing was huge in my family in a cultural sense. The tragedy, superstition, emotional and sexual repression; the usual.

So what stage is the play at now? What do you think it will bring to bear differently than this collection?

DOB: The House in Scarsdale is in the reading & workshop phase of things, so while I believe in the play’s basic intents and structure I’m sure there will be much focusing and tightening to come, clarifications, adjustments. The lion’s share of that can’t happen until the rehearsal process for its premiere production. The Hopkins Review has just agreed to publish an excerpt.

Seeing the play would likely be a very different experience than reading the poetry. While the play also deals with the past, it’s truly about the drama (and comedy) of asking taboo questions to estranged family in the present. And it’s an active mystery, as the protagonist, a version of me, strives to figure out “what went wrong,” and to pursue a flowering fantasy or perhaps answer: that maybe my father isn’t my father. In the play, as in life, I did succeed in tracking down my estranged uncle, a man who’d dropped off the grid almost forty years ago. I’m not telling you what I found out—you’ll have to see the play, if someone is ever foolish enough to produce it.

Scarsdale is out now, published by CB Editions. Photograph by David Bornfriend