Love the Stone: Michael O'Brien's Avenue, by Elisabeth Whitehead

The poems in Michael O’Brien’s book Avenue (Flood Editions, 2012) are poems of pathways and of travelers (O’Brien himself and the travelers he makes of us) through highways of memory, sleep, world, and words. Haiku-like, the poems drop thin, like thread (or an avenue) down the page, slim blocks of image and quiet contemplation that create a flash of experience, snaps of instance/ insistence. Cityscape, seascape, cloudscape, and dream, individual moments are suspended briefly before dissolving and becoming ghost. When they fade what is left is a resonant silence. Love the stone.

                         Love the stone 
                         that for a moment 
                         breaks the water’s 
                         unruffled flow. 

Attention is brought to the edge of transition, not only to the experiences of image and movement, but the gaps of stillness in between. We move freely (pulling into and out of) from dream to waking, memory to moment, presence to absence. At rest and in constant motion, repeating images of the tide, flipping in and out, seem appropriate for the book’s timbre. The sea still patiently.

                         The sea still patiently 
playing its cards, turning 
them over, one by one, 
breaking up the pattern, 
laying them out again, 
unhurried, nothing to 
lose or gain, only the 
course of the possible. 

There are no titles, no named characters (beyond a “he” and a “she,” that might be the same individuals or not, that might reappear or not). The poems can be read from front to back, or back to front, or in any direction, in one sitting or one poem quietly at a time. Like the action of tightening or focusing a photographic lens, we can, in a moment, see a landscape large and then immediately flash to another scene for a pinpoint of particular. A cellphone can mesh on the same page with a blade of dune grass. We accept a description of a forest next to the E train moving towards West 4th, without the images or our senses ever clashing. Graffito. Cyclamen. Where street (St.) can read like saint (St.). The gentleness of gesture, and flux of the poems allows for a wide acceptance and our trust.

Boundless, barrier-less, wavy, dissolving, clear. 

                         Membrane of sleep
                         through which he sifts,
                         back and forth, no
                         longer knows on
                         which side he dreams.

I like that I cannot point at these poems too much. I cannot tack them down. I don’t know what side of the dream I am on. (Love the stone.) When I think I have them finally in my grasp, the book pivots, or steps to the side and out of the frame, or floats away. I think I hear sound, but then realize sound has been created by its absence. (Two crows cross the frozen lake/ without a sound.) I see an image, but it is created by the removal of color and description. (Threadbare hillside, whose colors/ go out as clouds gather.) I think I am moving forward, but I am also falling back. (Gull climbs, falling/backward into/the wind, away from/the ones who cry What?)

Poems that are solid, liquid, and air at once. Unhurried, these brief moments touch down momentarily, and then are gone.

The book begins with an image of a building dissolving into its own refection. What side do we stand on, between the walls of sleep, of memory, of words, and silence? 

Elisabeth Whitehead

Elisabeth Whitehead grew up in the Washington D.C. area and in Japan. She currently lives near Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she teaches writing at Wake Forest University. A chapbook of poems, "To the Solar North," was recently published in A Third Instance by Instance Press.