In Memoriam Michael O’Brien

Patrick Morrissey, Poetry Editor

“To live high, up among the cornices, from exception to exception, hearing an earthly music.” Since Michael O’Brien died on November 10, 2016, these words, from his elegy for his friend George Quinan, have been on my mind. Now that Michael is gone, they seem somehow to elegize him, too—to describe a way of life he sought in poetry, a state of heightened attention, mobile and light, on the wing yet always down-to-earth, every syllable attuned to the music. Not the poetry of extraordinary sights and elevated feeling, but rather a poetry uncannily alert to the most ordinary details: Michael’s attention could make anything exceptional. Waiting for the subway:

 

the patch of

light

 

on the tiles

at

 

the station’s mouth

brightens

 

a

ripening plum-dust

 

A tree in spring:

the dogwood’s

rush

 

to surpass

itself

 

every surface

 

pressed into flower

 

Waking up:

The person waking is

not the one in the

familiar unraveling

dream the one with

another life who now

on the stair forgets

you as you forget him

 

Sea and sky:

Blade of the sea

that clouds withdraw

 

a glimpse, a flash

of the world without us

 

eye counting its rooms

in the imageless dark.

Michael’s ways of wording the world are so memorable that I often find myself forgetting that the phrases are his and not my own. These are the words of a friend quietly pointing out the things you’ve always seen but hadn’t yet registered; he shares his attention gently, without possessiveness. To make experience articulate without insisting on himself—that’s the rare gift Michael has left us. His poems are spare and exact, but everywhere they remind us of earthly abundance: “here      where there is everything instead of nothing.” He liked Lady Murasaki’s answer to the Prince when he asked her why she writes: So there will never be a time when people don’t know these things happened.

            Michael had a special affinity for resemblances. He loved similes, echoes, and puns. The word “likeness” appears in his poems again and again. He catches the flicker of resemblance in “Streets,” a very recent poem (published in Chicago Review 60:2, and available here). With wit and tenderness he talks us through the work of making distinctions:

 

1

Moving fast, the eye

works it out that

they’re a couple, he

reaches out to

touch her cheek, no,

to take her cellphone.

 

2

From down the block

hard to tell a

spill of trash from

a sleeping man

until the eye,

the quick, patient

eye sorts it out,

sorts it all out,

the parts, the fit.

 

3

In streetlight the huge,

deep-veined, heart-shaped

leaves of the caladiums are

ears, butterflies, ghosts.

 

In Michael’s poems, metaphors and similes name connections waiting to be discovered; likeness seems to be a property of things themselves, not just something the mind constructs. The confusion of one thing for another can be revealing if we’re patient with it, and Michael recognized human need in our tendencies to confuse and connect things. As one prose poem proposes: “The tug of likeness, its insistence. x=y. That fish-scale iridescence. Otherwise an unswerving rain. x=x. Boxcars.” Likeness is not sameness; likeness reveals difference, and it’s the differences between things that light them up, saving us from mindless repetition and a life without possibility.

            For Michael, discernment was not only a matter of phenomenology. To work out the differences might allow us to live differently. There’s deep compassion in his poems. He understood despair and believed that something else was possible. As he puts it in one sketch of a homeless woman: “She leaves one cart, goes a few steps with the other, returns to the first, brings it up to the other; stops, sets out again. Like a defective purgatory no one remembers the point of, or how to turn it off. Like being hazed by one’s needs. By human practice. Which can change.”

            The first book of Michael’s I read was Sleeping & Waking, which Flood Editions published in 2007, around the time I moved to New York City. It seemed to me then a secret guidebook to the city, and to this day I cannot walk the streets of New York without hearing Michael’s voice. I cannot imagine the city without him in it. We met in person a few years later, in 2009, when I introduced myself, his biggest fan, after a small reading at the now defunct BookCourt in Cobble Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, he seventy, but the difference in our ages was no problem. Over the years we became close friends. Michael and his wife, the painter Joan Farber, welcomed me into their home on 23rd Street for regular afternoon visits; we drank tea, walked the dog, sometimes visited a nearby gallery to look at art. I’d show Michael my poems; he’d respond with careful attention to the work, offering warm praise where praise seemed due, and honest, clear-eyed criticism when it was necessary, as it often was. Michael was a frank man—soft-spoken, but frank. He was my first reader, and I feel a little lost without him. Most of the useful things I’ve learned about poetry I learned from him one way or another, though he never assumed the attitude of a master teacher. He wanted to know what I thought about his poems, too; he took me seriously and steadied me when I doubted myself. He was a wonderful friend—generous, focused, droll, and wise.

            After I moved to Chicago, our visits became less frequent, but we corresponded in earnest. Michael’s letters were treasures, full of notes on what he was reading or listening to, along with favorite quotations, tales from the past, and lively dispatches from his and Joan’s various adventures. You never knew what else he might fold in: a draft of a new poem, the program from a concert they’d recently enjoyed, a postcard of one of Joan’s paintings, a copy of an article he thought might interest me. Checking the mail is a drearier task now that he’s gone. It’s hard to accept his absence. I think of two lines from his poem remembering Thelonious Monk: “Who ever thinks the syntax will stop / the potlatch of the intelligence be dispersed.” Michael’s contributions to our collective intelligence, gathered in his books and dispersed now among his readers, are quietly immense. He will be missed, but we can remember him by the unmistakable syntax of his poems.

 

Click here to read Michael O’Brien’s “Streets,” and five other poems, from the new issue of Chicago Review.