Like most first collections of poetry, Damen O'Brien's Animals with Human Voices is rich with possible future directions.
Unlike most, the futures, all seem remarkably assured.
He seems equally at ease with closely-rhymed discursive poems ("Colony Collapse Disorder") as he is with metaphorically-dense and lyrical free verse ("What Happened to the Oysters").
In an Afterword, O'Brien notes that his book was 10 years in the writing. Clearly, it is better for the time taken.
One possible reason for this relative slowness is that O'Brien is a poet in love with language.
Like the late Les Murray, who wrote of "hyperventilating up Parnassus", this can occasionally lead to overreach, but mostly it's a reassurance that in Animals with Human Voices the reader is engaged with the real thing - i.e. poetry of substance doing verbal justice to its original insight.
The insights range across a number of fields, most notably an awareness of climate change, a lament for human cruelty, the strange nature of what might be called "Australian Culture" and some (thankfully ecumenical) concern with the numinous.
The book is divided into four sections, each titled with what the poet would seem to consider its outstanding, or most representative, poem. It is in the first section, "Animals with Human Voices", that the book's overall thrust is most clear.
Not unlike Les Murray's sequence, "Translations from the Natural World", O'Brien also has an almost playful approach which happily serves to set aside any possible reader concern with anthropomorphism.
The trick appears to be to talk about animals as "they really are" while simultaneously offering implications about humans along the way.
One of the most powerful of these poems is "Laika Was a Dog" which, although written in the third person, is very much from the viewpoint of that famous involuntary Russian canine space pioneer.
The last six lines are an indication of O'Brien's abilities throughout the rest of the book: "Laika burned up long ago , falling homewards / in that claustrophobic kennel she was kept in, / so she is closer to us now than ever, / close enough to almost see the small comma / of her bones, nose to tail, her blistered paws. / First travellers have the hardest maps to make."
The collection's other three sections more than maintain the quality seen here.
Many of those poems also end with metaphors as moving and as memorable as "the small comma / of her bones".
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