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This review is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Cover of Europa
Adam LongTrigger Warning

Sean O’Brien, Europa (Picador) £9.99
In his ninth collection of poems, Europa, Sean O’Brien’s ‘tackles England and its relationship with Europe through their tangled history and into the uncertain future’, and ranges impressively from the legacy of the Civil War through to the horrific one-hundred-and-twenty-year story of Germany through Imperial and Nazi hubris to communist nemesis. As the monochrome drawing of a 1920s Berlin skyscraper on its front cover suggests, Europa is an encounter between the old and the new.

A sense of unreality pervades the collection, and from the very first poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’, we are invited to tumble down the rabbit hole. An initial image of grass on a mass grave steadily encroaches upon the author until, ‘The grass / Is at the door, is on the stairs,/ Is in the room, my mouth, is me’. In another delightfully odd poem, ‘Signs and Wonders’, O’Brien assembles five Sappho-like vignettes, snapshots of conversation that purport to be ‘from the Rubovian’, an imaginary kingdom in Central Europe that is technologically stuck in the late eighteenth century, invented for the 1950s British children’s television puppet-show The Rubovian Legend – if you don’t know it, there’s a clip on YouTube. Each snapshot is wonderfully weird: in one, ‘The cranes have ceased to fly. / They dismantle themselves / Like funfair rides’; in another, a group of hangmen stand idly around ‘in situ / With all their equipment / Going to waste’. You feel like the speaker in Bob Dylan’s ‘The Ballad of a Thin Man’: ‘Because something is happening here, but you don’t ...

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