There’s a lyrical brooding Irish poet living amongst us in the guise of a general manager of a five-star hotel in Jimbaran. Odd Poems and Slogans is collection of John O’Sullivan’s poems that were created, edited, re-constructed and ultimately chosen from those he has penned in 30 countries in a span of 20 years.
O’Sullivan has spent the last decade equally between Cairo and Bali, visiting for one reason or the other scores of places in between. Many of the book’s poems loosely chronicle these innumerable journeys and adventures. The people and scenes he encountered are as diverse as the lands that inspired the poems.
His travels have taken him to wartime Beirut, Cairo’s extraordinary City of the Dead, Easter Island, driving 3400 kilometers all over the island of Iceland, the spectacular fjord country of Norway, seedy LA bars, and of course to the vista on top of the cliff where he works overlooking Bali’s Jimbaran Bay.
John O’ Sullivan and was born in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland in 1962, fittingly the same town as the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats spent most of his life and where he was laid to rest. O’Sullivan shares Yeats’ competency in the English language and his passion for all things Irish.
For our Bali-based Irish poet is Irish to the core, unselfconsciously signing his emails and website postings “Irishman,” naming his son after an Irish missionary, and waxing ecstatic about visiting sacred Irish historic sites, and even writing odes to the ancient Druid religion of Ireland.
O’Sullivan has been writing poetry since he was 12 years old. While growing up in Ireland, words and art became the young boy’s escape and remain so to this day. But the Irishman appears to be most serious about his poetry. The website that he created to promote his various creative pursuits – painting, music and poetry – is largely devoted to his poetry.
This is O’Sullivan’s second book of published poems. He published a photo-poetry book in Cairo in 1999 entitled “under the blazing sun” and he’s currently working on his next book of poetry entitled “ecdysis” which will be brought out in 2010.
To paraphrase his own words, each of his poems has the ability to be listened to with a sense of the poet himself speaking. This is evident when he employs double alliteration in one sentence in the poem “the source:”
sayan smiles on new day dawned
In the same poem when he conjures up the nearby Ayung river in the lines:
sacred ayung sighs/on secrets/flowed/through generations/ of cleansing/...upwards.
His love of words reveals itself in the playful five-line love poem “thought:”
the taste/of you/still lingers/on my/thought tongue
With a poem on every page, these tightly crafted pieces of only three or four words per line combine a lilting voice, keen observation and a rapier-like staccato choice of words as when he dispassionately observes how Easter Island’s magnificent civilization comes to its appalling end: No wood; no future, annihilation.
He chooses as his subject matter the whole universe of emotions and experience - any thought, action, object, revulsion, sensation or political stance under the sun whether it be confusion, adoration, best friends, canal walks, war, conscience, Irish independence.
He writes about whatever inspires him, what moves him, what elevates his thinking. This could be an “old warrior” Balinese farmer who lost his land and now only sharecrops, a friend killed in a tragic road accident whose voice is still eerily heard on his cell phone, the emotional and physical misery of asylum seekers, and about a wonderful friendship with a much older man who happened to be his father.
He even writes poems about poems, as in his praise of Japanese Haiku poetry: short poem/of extreme meaning/I salute you/I admire/your neatness. O’Sullivan then goes on to contrast his own loose lyrical poetic structure with that of the elegant and succinct haiku form.
On the other hand, he employs the same pitiless economy of haiku. Some of his poems are as spare and condensed as a thin sharp black shadow on bright concrete – in essence word puzzles requiring long reflection to grasp. Others strike to the heart immediately, like the Bali bombing when heaven on earth/as pure as allowed/drenched with guilt.
One poem, describing the view from a ridge, is only seven words long: earth from on high/seems so low, making even haiku metrical phrases appear long-winded. His exclusive use of lower case not only evokes humility but accentuates even more the brevity of his style.
O’Sullivan believes poetry must be accessible. For each of his poems the poet supplies reference points, i.e. where and when the poem was written to give the reader a contextual insight in order to make his free verse more meaningful.
His website (www.irish-poet.com) can be a richer experience than reading just his poetry alone because, as he explains it, words and images are meant to be together, having the ability to qualify and amplify each other’s resonance. The poems, paintings, descriptive travelogues and links on the site complement each other. One of the poet’s paintings is featured on the cover of the book.
It’s remarkable that we didn’t even know of the man’s other persona as a poet until he revealed his hidden talents at the Ubud Writer’s Festival in October 2008 which in essence unmasked a double life - one of an affable hotel management professional and the other the vast interior landscape of a complex and passionate human being.
One of the most absorbing sections of this small sheaf of poems is his “notes on poems” section in the back. These notes, which employ the same intense economy as the poems, do not so much tell you what and how to feel as relate why and under what circumstances 88 of the book’s 135 poems were written – suicide by hanging, the ravages of alcohol, a winter’s dawn, etc.
Odd Poems and Slogans provoke reverie and empathy. Because they can alternately grip, tantalize, amuse and elude the reader, each poem needs to be sipped, savored and rolled over in the mind several times to finally give up or deepen its meaning.
Odd Poems and Slogans by John O’Sullivan, Foreword by Bruce W. Carpenter, Qube Press Singapore 2008, ISBN 978-981-08-1490-8, 148 pages, 135 poems, notes.
Available for Rp95,000 at all Periplus outlets or ordered directly through PayPlus from the poet’s website (www.irish-poet.com).