Book Review: ‘Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín’ by Oisín Breen

By Stephanie Gemmell

In Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín, released this month by Beir Bua Press, Irish poet Oisín Breen builds on his background in experimental poetry to craft a collection that effectively juxtaposes the rhythm of language with its descriptive power.

The collection opens with its title poem, immediately engaging the reader with artful contrasts between vivid, traditionally poetic imagery and more conversational interjections. Having never read Breen’s work previously, I found that this opening poem commanded attention and respect—while also serving as an invitation into the rest of the collection.

The six sections of “Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín” present starkly different poetic and narrative styles, with threads of repetition woven throughout the piece. The poem’s sections integrate elements of Irish mythology with frank, bracing, and often unexpected imagery. Breen’s choices of form and stanza structure complement his use of language to propel the poem forward, with driving momentum at some moments and with a slowing lilt at others. As a whole, the poem not only conveys a narrative from complex and varying perspectives, but it exists as an experimental exploration of the existential ideas at its core.

The pieces that follow “Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín” address poetry as song and rhythm—which finds clear, palpable expression throughout the collection—while building on the sense of philosophical exploration first introduced in the title poem. In seven parts, “The Love Song of Anna Rua” accentuates Breen’s poetic voice through experimental uses of form that guide the reader’s attention and give visual emphasis to the words on the page. The book’s structure reflects a sense of progression and quiet momentum from piece to piece, demonstrating a thoughtful organization of not only the poems themselves but the collection as a whole.

Throughout the collection, Breen varies his use of poetic devices and phrasing yet maintains an engaging, unwavering authorial voice that guides readers through the often unpredictable and surprising scenes of his work. This collection is one that readers could open to any page and find something to contemplate, decipher, or imagine.

As a whole, the collection showcases Breen’s attentiveness to the musicality of language in conjunction with its narrative power. While this awareness is reflected throughout all of the poems in Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín, it finds expression in more unexpected and almost percussive phrases in the collection’s final four poems.

Breen’s talents for integrating traditional poetic influences with more experimental techniques, along with his evident reverence for the tradition of Irish poetry, make this collection distinctive, compelling, and powerful.

About the Poet

OISÍN BREEN, 37 is an Irish poet, journalist, and academic, working in the field of narratological complexity.

A Best of the Net nominee, Breen is published in 100 journals, across 20 countries, including the Tahoma Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, About Place, New Critique, Northern Gravy, Reservoir Road, and the Madrigal. This collection follows Breen’s well received debut Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, published by HybridDreich in March 2020.

You can find Breen on Twitter: @Breen, and on Mastodon:

STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place ChapbookCapitol LettersThe Ekphrastic ReviewThe Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.