Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection of poems, Europa (2018), was shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot prize, of which he is a previous winner. His book-length poem Hammersmith is to be published by Picador in 2020. His verse translation of Lope de Vega’s The Sicilian Courtesan is to be staged later this year. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In memory of Mathew Sweeney
‘We were not murderers. We were clowns.’
It was our last engagement in Berlin.
Once more as if by magic we stepped out
Through the curtains of Nebel und Nacht
To do our stuff and parley with the guard
On the gate at the British Army hotel
At which by some appalling stroke
Of dark absurdity we had been booked.
We stood there in our long black coats
And homburgs, with matching black holdalls.
The squaddie unshouldered his weapon
And rang in to summon assistance. So,
Should we read him a poem? Or do one
Back into the darkness? We waited,
Since waiting was what we did best.
We had out-bored a hundred terminals,
Born to the trade, man and boy, man and boy,
And as with Mike and Bernie you might ask:
So which one is meant to be funny?
Either, neither, both. We’d died a death
In halls from Magdeburg to Spandau
But our timing was uncanny, coming on
Like this and in this of all places,
Just as they winched the iron down for good
And closed the palace of varieties. At last
A sergeant came, a regular humourless
UnFalstaffian man, who could not tell
Which side if any we were on. For an age
He examined the passports, one red, one green,
Of Estragon Goldberg and Vladimir McCann.
For all I know we may be waiting still.