Issue 4: Sean O'Brien

Cahiers du Cinema

As though between performances, the ‘varnished waves’ of seats are gone,

Their dreaming space abolished with those darkened afternoons

Spent sunk in sticky ginger plush, revising The Belles of St Trinian's

Or The Three Hundred Spartans, with David Farrar (Xerxes)

Sulking on his golden catafalque, his voice of cold command

Not only underused but dubbed for overseas. The end.

In Purgatory, that crawling corridor where we are only ever

Halfway up the queue, there will be questions asked, of course.

Herr Oberst, I can only tell you what I know: Karl Malden

And his hooter sniffed out Robert Shaw and all his Tigers

Camouflaged beneath the snows of the Ardennes. A dirty war,

When even Bronco Layne’s a Nazi in disguise. Does any of this count

When the space closes into itself, the shadows go back in the box

And the box into nothing? In place of memory, ‘dark nostalgia’. Bah.

A poster in a newly opened shop professes to preserve

A thing you never thought you’d need to own. You must re-learn

The dreaming gaze that formerly you aimed with passionate indifference

At anything and everything that now you cannot prove was once

The past, in all its posthumous authority, plus free mistakes.

Begin with August’s dusty cumulus at five o’clock, when you

And all the other creeps and criminals emerged unwillingly

Into the orange glare of actuality, to find the city charged once more

With an intolerable tedium whose grammar could not house

Your guilty joys. Oh Natalie, en deshabille, detained by grim hussars

While climbing from a bosky pool in far Bohemia, somewhere

The glinting Tony Curtis, even, might not rescue you!

On one hand there were things the lard-faced devotee might have absorbed

Officially (the ‘facts’), and then there was the world, e.g.

This dark-eyed goddess, warm as breath, remote as a Czarina.

Forget the school of life: post-cinematic sadness taught me all I know,

For instance that a man may have to choose between a woman

And a train, and even though she’s Jeanne Moreau, who makes

The glummest scullery an everywhere, the outcome’s black and white,

And off limps Burt to keep his date with the chemin de fer,

To take revenge for Dufy and for France, for Papa Boule (Michel Simon)

Shot out of hand by Wolfgang Preiss quite early on behind the engine shed.

‘If we are to live, then let us live,’ Kirk Douglas might have screamed,

Anachronistically, but he preferred to dance along the oars.

We all know men like that, oppressively ebullient, but which of us

Knows Janet Leigh, so strangely underdressed for her excursion

On the longship? And who else dare wave her past but Poitier and Widmark,

Delighted by distraction from their own marine catastrophe?

Farewell, supreme foyer where it was always afternoon!

Arriving in the middle I could always leave when I came in,

Collapsing time into the image of an arrow shower

Curving out of sight, as in The Charge at Feather River

Modernism, yes, but this was Hull: no 3-D specs for us.

There in the silence between features, perching on a crumbling ledge

Above the gulfs and Thrones and Dominations of the grim Criterion

I wondered at the vast occluded system of the secondary stars,

Calhoun and Madison, Mahoney, Chandler, Aldo Ray and Gordon Mitchell,

Rough riders-Tarzan-beefcake-stuntmen and in Mitchell’s case

Achilles, grieving, very slowly, at the pyre of Patroclus, when all at once

The credits rolled, the lights came up and here was that unnatural act,

An end without a settlement of blood. The gods themselves

Were tired, like the furniture of heaven. Outside the streets were dark.

Dark as Edgar Wallace in his Albany of death. On every floor

A crew was grimly working to supply the second feature,

Like Catholics persisting in the forms when faith was gone

To frame an image of an underfunded English purgatory

Complete with acts and fatal outcomes but with nobody to care.

And yet one afternoon you wake to find yourself in Finland

Kissing Francois Dorleac in her tiny knitted dress, and as she feels

To find the space between your vertebrae and with the other hand

Extracts a hatpin from the mattress, it is clear that you will

Live forever. It is snowing. As the Gulf of Riga drinks down

General Midwinter’s army, then locks itself with ice once more,

Then, English, Colonel Stok observes, you have no choice except to live

Forever. It is snowing. Kiss her. It is snowing. Kiss the girl

And soon you will no longer know the blizzard from the screen.

O Muse of Cinema, who taught us waking sleep, who warned

And guided with your sudden torch, and flogged us food

Intended for the undecaying teeth of gods, I think I saw you once

In mortal form, far down the long red corridor, with one hand cupped

Beneath your elbow as the other raised a cigarette, while you stared up

Into the smoke as though just then you longed to be like one of us,

To give back your omniscience and lounge at prayer with all

The other ladies at the matinee, with drunks and desperate old men

And games-evading schoolboys, all of those who shared a faint

And yet abiding sense that what was shown might prove to be

A trailer for the life to come, when all the Forms from slapstick

Through to evil via Rin Tin Tin and Vera Ellen would at last

Unmask themselves, and with our watching brief fulfilled

We’d make our way in silence through the exits into perfect nonexistence.

But all this has been stolen – all the light, these dustmotes in the beam,

The self-forgetfulness and boredom and desire, headache, toothache,

Arse-ache, blessed privacy, these visions in the isolation tank

Of borrowed afternoons that for some unknown reason never found

Their way back into rightful ownership by idiots and bores. So now

They have their victory for common sense, and those of us who spent our youth

In thrall to the delirious excrescences of self-consuming Kapital

Will have to find another means by which to cross the shadow-line

That separates Hilts from Switzerland, and Gina Lollobrigida from almost

All her clothes. We watchers in the cave are cast out once for all

Into that fearful teatime light where everything is being filmed

And narrative has given way entirely to its critics, who must read

A hundred screens at once for damning evidence of dreams

That will confess no final meaning and escape the present tense.

Sean O'Brien's sixth collection, The Drowned Book (Picador, 2007) won the T.S.Eliot and Forward prizes. Recent publications include a collection of short stories, The Silence Room (Comma, 2008), a novel, Afterlife (Picador, 2009) and Night Train, a collaboration with the artist Birtley Aris (Flambard, 2009). He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Copyright © 2010 by Sean O'Brien, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.