Poetry Sean O'Brien Voice Box, London

'A clear-headed writer - and not half bad as a comic'
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The Independent Culture
Sean O'Brien, this year's winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry with a collection of poems called Ghost Train (OUP, pounds 6.99), looks the very epitome of the manly man: generous legs well splayed as if prepared to take - or throw - a punch or two; thumb neatly hooked into the belt of his Levi's, which have clearly done some time between here and there.

"This first one's a ballad about the distracting influence of libraries," he says to the accompaniment of a curiously delicate sideways incline of the head - like a milk jug being tilted to deposit just a dash of the stuff into a bone-china cup. "It's a warm-up poem," he adds, teasing us into fantasising a little bit about poets being perpetually on the road and all that that might mean.

The ballad rocks along steadily, a telling, sharply etched, funny piece of writing that tilts at librarians, those pompous guardians of ignorance and sloth. O'Brien enjoys tilting at things. In a later poem he takes a big swing at the North-east, where he worked as Northern Arts Fellow from 1992-4. At the end of that stint, he gouged a great lump out of the hand that had just been feeding him by writing a poem called "Never Can Say Goodbye". "That poem caused me some trouble. Who says that writing doesn't have any effect? I had a bucket of excrement dumped on my head for daring to criticise the North-east..." The details are in the poem itself: the River Wear which flows through Sunderland, for example, which is "deep enough to urinate a conurbation's beer in..."; or all those gormless grant- applicants whose poems were nothing more than "gin-soliloquies".

O'Brien is a clear-headed writer, a punctilious reader - and not half bad as a comic turn either. One theme in particular dominates his writing: some obsessive need to interrogate the history of the recent past - and especially those years between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Atlee government in the early 1950s - in order to try to define the nature of a political road that was not taken (to the greater loss of future generations). These poems have a delicate ghostliness about them - so at odds, paradoxical though it may sound, with the hefty, full- bollocking northernness of O'Brien himself.

MICHAEL GLOVER

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