Jean O’Brien

The Ornate Fireplace

My bedroom had a small ornate fireplace
it had a tiny grate and on the cast iron
hood a Pineapple was embossed.
In winter this bedroom space that I shared
with my older sister was always cold.

The window’s thin glass panes were
not up to the job of holding out
damp Irish weather. When the frost came,
it showed up inside and out.
we traced our blue fingers through
the patterns, small worlds held
momentarily there.

Occasionally if one of us were ill,
our mother would climb the stairs
with a carefully balanced shovel
full of fire. She would empty
the burning coals into the waiting grate.
The room became smoky and eventually
warmed it enough to melt the frosted
windows. We felt special.

our room lit up with flames that changed
from blue to red and sometimes hissed,
now and again a spark jumped the grate,
we’d watch it smoulder on the rug and go out.
I grew old watching it, my mother and
my sister’s lives went up in flames
and that room and house has passed
to other hands, who perhaps find the fireplace
a novelty, if indeed it still exists.


And Then There Were None

Like the jagged stump of a severed tongue
speech was an unformed blur blundering
around her mouth. Our memories are taut
and tighten with each retelling
like stones in the pockets of the drowned.
Volts of electricity singed her skull,
burned her out, erased her.
Were any of us really listening,
until she let the tablets do the talking?
Those small lozenges jolted us out of our torpor.
Now too late we listen, straining our
faulty recall for the twist of the tongue,
bitter words like bone bleached pebbles
scattered in a discharge of static
that shot through her, a blue halo
spiking her head. The full moon’s
baleful stare, an unblinking eye.
The past is a ruined dark room you can neither
sleep in nor leave.


Mud and Amber
(75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz 2020)

Here in the dimmed lights of the old Cloth Hall
gazing at Baltic amber piled high on stalls
I see what seem like dust motes trapped inside,
all shade and shadow and splintered angles.

The air is filled with wings like tossed silver
coins as pigeons lift and land in a timed
dance. Winter in Krakow, the bustling
square with well-wrapped people in horse-drawn cabs.

There is more amber here than my eyes can
hold, all shapes and sizes glisten and shine
stall after stall heaped with offerings
that I try to scan surreptitiously.

Choice is almost impossible, this one
or this, see its depth, its fire, the trapped
fly or beetle suspended forever,
yellow secrets in the hardened resin.

Back in the hotel room I remove my
fur-lined boots discarding them carelessly
under a chair, later I go to pull
them on then notice smears of hardened mud.

Yesterday we were bussed the forty plus
miles to the camp. Mud of the cursed earth
stained with so much mire and blood, reminding
us of people stopped here in their tracks sus-

pended forever in history, their
faces fixed by the dark of the cattle
-cars they rode in. I left the mud to dry.

© Jean O’Brien

Jean O’Brien‘s 6th collection Stars Burn Regardless was published by Salmon Publishing in Spring 2022. She is an award-winning poet, having won, amongst others, the Arvon International Poetry award and the Fish International, and been placed and highly commended in many others. She was awarded a Kavanagh Fellowship and was the November Writer in Residence in the Centre Culturel Irelandais in Paris in 2021. She holds an M. Phil in poetry from Trinity College, Dublin.

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