‘No Cure’ and other poems by Jean O’Brien

The Dreaming

In my Dreamtime I was the lizard,
skin smooth, yet scaled
the contradictions of the Chameleon
without the colour,
for I had the colour of the rock
grey, green warm and dry as the sand.
My dance was the dance
of perfect stillness.
Reposed amongst the rocks
only my darting tongue
would betray my presence.
In the dry hot wind
the smell of raw loneliness
coming off me was like a skin
that would not form.
The desert sun is too harsh,
the hot sand like pumice
strips off the grace notes
while my skin shifts to encompass
the loss.

First published in Working the Flow, Lapwing Publications (1992)
Eds: Dennis and Rene Greig.

Smoke and Mirrors

The magnifying mirror frames her face
holds tight its reflection, throws it back at her
bright and big. The lens takes her in,
rearranges her face. It is insistent;
a moon drowned in a lake.
It has no point of view, no alchemy except a true
reverse of what it sees. Words fly from her.
The lines on her forehead and at her eyes
are granite. Ogham notched on the sharp edge,
she has become her own memorial stone.

She sees the drowned young girl,
sees that terrible fish swimming towards her.
She steps back past the tideline
her face flips over, a rush of vertigo,
a different point of view flicks into place.
Above the silver arched interior
displaced air is too thin. She has passed
the concave mirror’s focal point.
Bell, book and candle cannot hold her.
Suddenly she is Alice, topsy turvy
vanished into a land of smoke and mirrors.

*Ogham, ancient Irish script consisting of 20 characters,mainly
of lines almost like a number symbol.

First Published in Reach Lapwing Publications(2004)
Eds: Dennis and Rene Greig.


This is a girl of seventeen, a side view,
seated on a swing
hung from a chestnut tree
her dress hitched by the wind

This is a picture of my mother
before I was her daughter
before her father disowned her
before she married my father
before she had six children

This was all before the swinging sixties
that could not free her
before the doctors
before the hospital stays grew longer
and longer,

before they fed the electricity
into her poor head that failed to help her
before the priest offered prayer as a cure
before the shock of her own mother’s death
hit home

This is my mother before I saw her
dead in the bed, her cold hands
clutching at air,
before life swung full circle
and could no longer hold her

This is her on that green day
skirt askew, hair streaming out,
holding the ropes of the swing taut
rushing to meet her future
arcing in the air before her.

First Published in Lovely Legs, Salmon Publishing (2009)
Ed. Jessie Lendennie

Watching for the Comet

“…for the path of comets is the path of poets:
they burn without warning…”
Marina Tsvetaeva.

Towards the west a small celestial trail
spirals the sky and nets me, Jubilant
stars in its wake so pinprick bright
I could trace them with my fingertips,

Their old, cold light clusters like a chorus
chanting for the dead, all my kith and kin,
known and unknown tailing their light for me
to read in the night sky.

My head heavy like a newborn as I
stargaze. I see venus, earth’s sister
and I see the lemon moon’s
pale slice. Then I feel earth’s grip

slip from me, I am unhitched, no longer bound,
I lose my bearing in a sea of fiery stars.
Floating in the firmament I have become
an adumbrated body of falling light.

First broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1.
Producer Cliodhna Ni Anluain.

No Cure

On some far beach where earth and shoreline meet
just as the last echo of the vespers bell sounds,
a woman silhouetted in evening light,
naked but for her silver skin
slips into the water with verve.
We watch like souls waiting
to be saved

Nearby a golden Balarmy, bird of fable, flies
to where the earth and sky and water meet.
The dipping sun streaks the clouds vermilion
as his broad wings flap and gather in the slipstream
of a star, Venus or evening star.
It shines like a sinecure, useless
and with no hope for souls.

The Sargasso sea deep with floating weed
weighs the woman down. See the knobbled vertebrae
of her back as she thrashes through its clinging mess,
its seaweed dreams. The golden bird flares
above her, the curve of its beak follows
the line of her back till the bird
and the woman are one.

First Published in Lovely Legs, Salmon Publishing (2009)
Ed. Jessie Lendennie.

The Stubble Field

A tawny fox stands exposed
in the same stubble field
that last year I walked through
as ears of wheat waved and lifted
waist-high about me. Leaving me
stranded half-woman, half swaying
wheat. He trots alert in the reaped
field that stretches hugely away,
sunlight sets the rough tufted stalks
a-sparkle, he turns flailing
at an imaginary crossroad
as if the shorn wheat still billowed
around him. He pauses, sniffs the air
adjusting to the slow accumulation of loss.

We gun the car down the empty early morning
road, tarmac not yet warmed up.
The fox with nowhere to hide shelters
in studied indifference, betrayed by the rise
of fur bristling at his neck. And I recall
pushing through the fluid wheat, ripping
sticky cobwebs from my bare knees,
unable to see my feet in the dense growth:
yet sensing something, some unease
lifting my hair at the nape. We speed by,
leaving the limitations and losses
of the landscape in the mirror
as the fox zig zags across the stippled
field and we all high tail it out of there.

First Published in Merman, Salmon Publishing (2012)
Ed. Jessie Lendennie.
No Cure and other poems are © Jean O’Brien


Jean O’Brien’s New & Selected, Fish on a Bicycle is her fifth collection and was published by Salmon Poetry in 2016. She is an award-winning poet, having won, amongst others, The Arvon International Poetry Award and the Fish International, most recently she was Highly Commended for the Forward Prize. She is one of the 2018 recipients of the Katherine and Patrick Kavanagh Fellowships. Her work is widely published and anthologised. She holds an M.Phil for Trinity College, Dublin and tutors in Creative Writing.


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