080.1: Liam O'Brien:: Brighton, 1923. Sea-Monster & The Proposal & Hospital Country 080

In this triptych by Liam O’Brien, one is pressed to remember Ovid’s Metamorphoses—each beautiful or tragic tale of flight, fancy, pursuit, and transformation. In “Brighton, 1923. Sea-Monster” we first see a game of “boys-will-be-boys” choking each other that unfolds a mermaid like, “ungainly woman: legs joined,/breasts like limbs, mouth thick. Crowned/ with fleshy bull kelp.” Transformation and witness are at the heart of these poems. Always, the speaker invokes another (brother and lover in each) in order to perpetuate the narrative. The backdrops are tragic and beautiful, where in “The Proposal” the speaker’s father is a recrudescent Icarus, who doesn’t fly to the sun, but “foolish into a cherry tree.” There is no moral of this parable to avoid staring into the bright light of day. There is no moral or didacticism whatsoever. Instead, the father falls from the tree and is humbled before, presumably, the mother-to-be, where he delivers a proposal of matrimony, again presumably. Presumption is a frequent stance that the reader of O’Brien’s work must take because his narratives are beautifully garbed in mystery and intrigue. They are emotionally heavy, without giving too much information that would undo their splendor and that is their gift. Cody Todd

Brighton, 1923. Sea-Monster.

I don’t think she was meant
for the porcelain air of that day—gills
lay ridged along her wide throat. Maybe
that’s what you liked in her, brother. You liked
gasping. I liked gasping back. You liked
laying your fingers over my throat’s length,
keeping in a brother’s breath. And the monster?
Not even her face was beautiful.
Down on the shore that day, both
overdue for a haircut, both guilty,
we found her. She could hardly breathe,
brother. This ungainly woman: legs joined,
breasts like limbs, mouth thick. Crowned
with fleshy bull-kelp. A princess for you,
my brother. You took your hand from my pocket,
left me for a different kind of monster.

The Proposal

Once, our father was a bird. Remember? He told us this. He told us how he carried white wings in his arms all the way up Atalaya Mountain. How he sweated in his bakery whites, and moved in a haze of flour, and tied a red bandanna over his braided black hair. How at the top, and dizzy, he spread his arms and was taken by the wind—a desert wind, sudden and thick in the turquoise day—over rocks, over juniper, over mounds of fool’s gold and then over the great emerald coolness of the Plaza where our mother sat in white, waiting for nobody. And he told us how he landed, foolish in a cherry tree, his arms all twisted with the broken hang-glider of his wings. How he knelt at her feet, because he was weak and because he wanted to, and because his feathers lay in tatters. And what he asked then, and what she replied.

Hospital Country

Here is the country of hospitals.
Frame it with your hands: the paper
bedsheets, the eyeless needle, the dreams dropped
softly in. It is a country
of trick mirrors. This face, I almost told you
is not my face.
Here is the wheeled bed, not ours but mine,
the shelter of gauze,
the flooding veins. (Here every season
is flood season. Rivers ache widely in their canyons.)
Here are the pink gloves
the yellowed pillow turned twice
for luck. Here is eight o’ clock
when goodbye goes on. You sink your head
on my blanketed thigh, which is ground
barely touchable, and the neighbor cries “Nurse”
all night long. Here are no lullabies.
This is hospital country, my ashy-lunged love.
Map it. Measure it. Leave no border untraced.
Cartographers, we shall know it
intimately, and our feet
will not enter that country again.