James Edward O’Brien

All posts tagged James Edward O’Brien

In recent posts* I have been revisiting poems from the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Eye to the Telescope #22, The Ghosts Issue“, which I guest edited.  The issue went live October 15th, 2016.

In this last installment, we explore the “unmeasured” – the impossible up-not-down, the then that is too far to reach but close enough to feel, the ending that is not so much a beginning but a continuation.

*In case you missed any (or should you like to revisit them), links to the previous six posts in this series are located at the end of this feature.


undying by John C. Mannone

|| laugh some
more || slip past the door
|| put your helmet & gear
in the corner of your
shanty and unbreak your
wife’s heart ||

Any exploration of a theme like “ghosts” that does not also deal with grief would be an exercise in frivolity.  That is why in this issue of Eye to the Telescope you will find poems of lost love and sorrow interspersed with the quirky and uncanny and tales of high ghostly adventure.  Death –that most central and inevitable drama of human existence–deserves the poet’s attention.

Of all the poems that I read for this issue, none were so exquisitely sad as  John C. Mannone’s “undying”.  I do not use this phrase lightly–this poem is not maudlin, it is not gothic in its grief.  Rather, Mannone gives us in unadorned language a series of mundane images–men doing everyday things like joking in an elevator, kissing their wives, drinking coffee.  The power of the poem is in its form: the actions play out backwards, calling quiet attention to the enormity of their sadness through their finality–the last sip, the last kiss, the last ride down into the coalmine.

The strength of “undying” is also in its impossibility: the men do not know they are doing these things for the last time.  We never know.  The poem asks the dead to reverse death, which of course they can’t, so the imperatives–unchoke, unkill, unbreak, untouch her, repeated over and over, are absolutely hopeless and awful, and wonderful in their ability to articulate utter loss.

Note, too, the appearance of the poem (a long, vertical column, like an elevator shaft) and the structural || positioned throughout, wherever the narration pauses for breath.  Clever, clever.

John C. Mannone has over 550 works published in venues such as Gyroscope Review, New England Journal of Medicine, Inscape Literary Journal, Windhover, 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar, Baltimore Review, Pedestal, Pirene’s Fountain, Event Horizon Magazine and Syzygy Journal. He’s been awarded a 2016 Weymouth writing residency and has two literary poetry collections, including one on disability, Disabled Monsters (The Linnet’s Wings Press, Dec 2015) featured at the 28th Southern Festival of Books. He edits poetry for Silver Blade and Abyss & Apex, and he’s a college professor of physics in east Tennessee. Visit jcmannone.wordpress.com


Séance at Black Horse Pike

by James Edward O’Brien

Even deaf, the pain’s just as prickly, the distance too long to mend with the legs we’ve been given, or the legs taken from us.
There hasn’t been a boot sole cobbled to suit a journey like this…

“Séance at Black Horse Pike” reads like an epigraph to “undying”, and, really, to all the poems in this collection.  It has the thumps and flickers of a séance but it is really a reflection on death, and life– the whole painful business.  I feel like Black Horse Pike could be anywhere we sense history, the comings and goings (always goings) of lives, “then” and “now” separated by a notion of time thin as a well-worn carpet, yet set apart by an impossible, impassible distance.  Perhaps what we think of as ghosts are just those who, like us, have been struck by their own mortality there–perhaps the cold drafts and distant footfalls are just echoes of our existential dread.

I find the second-to-last stanza quite interesting: the only thing uplifting, life-affirming in the whole poem, the “overripe plumb” (our youthful expectations? the long-gone fruit of Eden?) appears out of nowhere and just hangs there, mocking, out of reach.  How ghastly! But how gorgeous.

A bit of trivia: James Edward O’Brien wrote “Séance at Black Horse Pike” in traditional stanzas; it was a mysterious technical glitch that caused his submission to appear to me as a prose poem.  We only discovered the mishap in the wee hours before publication; I liked it so much this way, I convinced him to keep it.  Special props to Jim for obliging me.  What do you think-how would the poem read, if framed differently?

James Edward O’Brien lives in Far Rockaway, NY, with his wife and dogs. His poetry has appeared in Nerve Cowboy, Black Bear Review, WordWrights, and Bathtub Gin. His speculative fiction appears in Cyclopean, 87 Bedford, and Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits. Jim’s chapbook, Broke-down Shotgun Blues, was awarded first place in Nerve Cowboy’s 2002 Chapbook Contest.


But after by Alex Harper

and though
the shadow of the end
lengthens as the day grows old
then turns to dust
it will restart at dawn—
remember this

My choice to place Alex Harper’s “But After” at the end of this issue was largely self-indulgent: not only does it give us a much needed upswing after the dark turnings of the previous poems, it also encapsulates my own hope and faith for the afterlife.

In my submission call, I quoted these lines from Manuel Acuña‘s “Before a Corpse”: Existence is a circle, and we err/when we assign to it for measurement/the limits of the cradle and the grave.”  “But After” was the answer to that poem I was hoping for.  In many of the works we’ve seen, death is not an ending, but Harper’s is the only one in which death is just a temporary reprieve from the real business of living.

To me, “But After” takes a stab at that most essential of life’s questions: why.  Why do we do this? Why do die? Why do we live? Because

there are things to do
you left undone and seas to watch
you’ve never seen, words
you’ve never spoken and there is
always hope

Existence is a circle, and, in a way, Eye to the Telescope #22 ends where it started; the ghost given form in the body, given meaning in the poem, here to be lived, read, written, over and over again.

Alex Harper has been published in Liminality, Mirror Dance, Not One of Us, Kaleidotrope, and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. He lives in England and can be found online at palexharperwriting.wordpress.com and on Twitter as @harpertext.


Want to have another go? Revisit the poems from Eye to the Telescope #22, “The Ghosts Issue” here:

Part 1: Intro – featuring poems by y L.W. Salinas, Holly Walrath and Akua Lezli Hope

Part 2: From Archetype to Personal – featuring poems by Robin Husen, Dawn Cunningham, Suzan Pickford and Cathleen Allyn Conway.

Part 3: Planes, Trains, and Gooseberry Jam – featuring poems by F.J. Bergmann, Daniel R. Jones, Joe Nazare and Oliver Smith

Part 4: Ghosts Without, Ghosts Within – featuring poems by Christina Sng, Andrea Blythe, Aisha Tayo Ijadunola and Lev Mirov.

Part 5: Space Ghosts – featuring poems by Jessica J. Horowitz, Charles Christian, Lauren McBride, Ann K. Schwader and Deborah L. Davitt.

Part 6: Into the Wild – featuring poems by Wendy Rathbone, John W. Sexton, Rebecca Buchanan and Jane Yolen

Part 7: The Unmeasured – featuring poems by John C. Mannone, James Edward O’Brien and Alex Harper