” . . . Farewell happy fields. / Where Joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, / hail Infernal world” —Paradise Lost
I hate religious poems. So I was surprised as anyone who hates religious poems could be when I found myself finding a Christian subtext to Dan O’Brien’s wonderful poem “The Dead End” in the current issue of 32 Poems.
There are technically wonderful things about the poem, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those. For starters, O’Brien accomplishes a lot in 32 lines. Inside the taut, tightly packaged narrative is a setting, a conflict, a protagonist, a plot of man vs. nature and even a subplot of man vs. man, and a resolution straight out of postmodernist fiction. The language is excited, and each line—more often than not—establishes a question that the ensuing line answers, a deft stroke that simultaneously builds a propulsive urgency to the poem while ratcheting up its tension.
But the poem’s religious underpinnings are what draw me repeatedly back to the poem. The first stanza establishes a post-Fall physical ugliness of the landscape—“tangled / … skeins of wild grapes, skunk / cabbage and moss that soaked / through our soles”—against the haunting emptiness we find at the poem’s close.
O’Brien throws a rhetorical red herring at us in the shape of an initiation narrative that is replete with disobedience, violent imaginings, petting, and potential arson. But the Judeo-Christian implications are hard to ignore. We find out from the poem that what we’re seeing is the aftermath of a world gone to ruin, a corrupted land whose only water supply is “clogged/ with rotting leaves, bottle / glass, condoms and rusted / batteries.” In such an environment, the children of the poem feel compelled to fulfill carnal urges of all stripes. Animalistic “humping” against one another “on discarded cushions / speckled with mold” becomes a kind of grotesque parody of genuine love-making as outlined in The Song of Solomon. And instead of beating their swords into ploughshares, the children take sticks and “beat them into swords” to make war against one another in a reversal of Isaiah 2:4.
As the poem goes on, O’Brien plays out the perpetuity of the fallen world. As the kids habitually attempt to cross the frozen brook that runs through the congested culvert, they repeatedly break through the filthy ice. When they yank themselves free from the sludge, their “soaked down coats [cling] / like shame.” This shame, of course, mimics the feelings first witnessed in Genesis, where—having eaten of the fruit—Adam and Eve’s eyes become opened to the contrast between themselves and God. Likewise, the congested culvert seeping sewage into the swamp contrasts Eden with the fallen world, leaving the children to confront the consequences of the actions in the Garden that result in this world becoming “the dead end” to which the poem’s title points.
Near the poem’s end, the children relay how their “bald father” “decries the local government” about its negligence in regard to the brook. The Old Testament uses baldness in a figurative sense to express the barrenness of the country (see Jeremiah 47:5), so the description is apt for the father, a kind of Adamic character who blames the “government” (an obvious metaphor here) for the condition of the area. If the government would simply reverse its decision, the brook “would flow clean and clear / … like it did in the days / before [the] six [children] were born.” This call from the father for a return to paradise that predates the birth of his six children is particularly revealing.
Or maybe that reading is all a bunch of hooey, and the poem is only about a disgruntled father with six obstinate children and nothing more.
At any rate, O’Brien’s pulls together a fine narrative poem, one like I wish I saw more of coming across my desk at Linebreak. Too often narrative poems forget that they’re poems, and attention to sound and rhythmic urgency gets subjugated to a narrative that lumbers from point A to point B. “The Dead End” suffers none of these qualities, and brings to me the only hell I know: reading a poem that I wish I’d written.
Ash Bowen’s poems have appeared in Quarterly West, Black Warrior Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. He is co-managing editor of Linebreak, and his poem, “My Love Is for the Weatherman,” appears with Dan O’Brien’s “The Dead End” in 32 Poems 10.1.