On Michael O’Brien

August Kleinzahler

Very few significant American poets called as little attention to themselves in their lifetimes as Michael O’Brien, who died last November at the age of 77. Much as with Lorine Niedecker – whose ‘silences’, he wrote, ‘derive from an intellectual conviction that art, like science, demands total concentration on the object of attention’ – his poetry was all about paying attention, in his case to the smallest, most fleeting details in the world at hand. The world in nearly all of O’Brien’s city poetry is Manhattan: the Upper West Side during his years at Columbia; Chelsea, where he lived for decades; the financial district, where he had an office job; and Midtown, where he spent the last decade or so of his working life. These city poems are cinematic, in a flickery, stroboscopic manner that uses unlikely juxtapositions to capture something of the speed and density of urban life:

Mahler ripens in the bookstores
Upstairs a jet is icing the sky
Across Spring Street a man pours ice from a sack
Into a bucket, precise as a drumroll
Down Sixth three buildings glow like ingots

The Morgan darkens, an old tooth
Doors of sound on 42nd Street
Where I sit in the reading room
At the window the sun comes and goes
Like a heart pumping light

This is from ‘The Days’, which appeared in a collection called The Floor and the Breath in 1994. The publisher was Cairn Editions, an imprint O’Brien set up in order to get out his own work and that of his friend Frank Kuenstler; no one else was interested in publishing it.

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