Sinead O’Brien’s book guide for surreal journeys in absurd times

The Irish punk-poet recommends four otherworldly stories, from Flann O’Brien to Virginia Woolf

Achieving an avant-garde sensibility in music seems near impossible in the era of artistic density. Sinead O’Brien’s debut album Time Bend and Break The Bower experiments in merging punk and poetry, producing something so ultramodern and unfamiliar in its sound that it breaches the boundary between the present reality and an uncanny world of its own.

Perhaps it’s O’Brien’s transdisciplinary history that serves as a breeding ground for invention. On the design teams for cultural phenomenon maker John Galliano and, later, for the architect of new wave fashion Vivenne Westwood, the Irish poet incorporates the artful balance of reference and experimentation she learned in design into her music, citing references with disciplinary range, from Helmut Newton’s femme fatales to the bleak landscapes of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

To celebrate the release of Time Bend and Break The Bower, which came out on Friday, O’Brien shares a booklist for Document, giving readers physical touchstones of entry into her surreal world of words, sound, and image.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf
“Rich, thoughtful, a dense catalog of the self. A totally new sensory environment. I take it in small portions, tasting the menu piece by piece. This book hones in on one of my own primary fascinations; the exploration of multiplicity in individuals. The characters see in so much depth, speak so earnestly it’s as if the truth about reality is being revealed rather than just another perspective. The ultra-fine details of ordinary lives are pulled up into a glorious drama, taking up so much space and time. It really teaches you to look, to see, to live an emotional life—to be fully engaged with your world and above all else to find your ‘selves’.”

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
“Two people with great taste listed this as their favorite book; Dan Carey my producer and Blindboy (Blindboy podcast/Rubber Bandits). Two people who love the surreal and love language. My dad also owns a compendium of Flann O’Brien’s works which has been on our bookshelf and somewhere in the back of my mind forever. It’s one of my favorite books now too. Flann O’ Brien’s sense of humor and voice never gets stale, it feels really modern. Searching memories and familiar places with his guide ‘Joe’ who happens to be his soul, the narrator goes on a philosophical enquiry laced with absurd humor set in rural Ireland. It’s somehow believable and ridiculous at once. I’m in.”

selected poems 1930-1989 by Samuel Beckett
“This book contains a selection of translations from French into English by Beckett of Rimbaud, Apollinaire just to name a couple. I’m interested in translation; how the translator delicately (or not) finds a way to illustrate not only the ideas, meter, structure and sense of the poem but even the nuance and personality contained in the original. It can’t be possible to actually ‘translate’ a poem though can it? Here in this book, I came to see Beckett’s translations as collaborations; Beckett x Rimbaud etc… It became a different thing—then, I was reading his ‘collaborations’ and scanning for his contributions, I found them. The pieces do not remain the same as the original—there’s a distinct yet restrained smack of Beckett. They are transformed, affected and changed. I think it’s a new way of looking at poetry in translation.”

Inferno by Dante
“Firstly the rings or circles mechanism is brilliant; the visual guide down which is illustrated all over the first few pages inside the cover. It burns itself in your mind and you carry it on the journey. What strikes me is that the book in its entirety reads as a poem with an impressively consistent meter and pacing. It’s an incredible piece of writing from that angle alone and quite a unique achievement with the form when you think of it like that. You read the story in the meter, you get to know its undulations and breaks – it even becomes familiar. It’s a visceral dive into the hot dark full of brilliantly executed scenes. Think Hieronymus Bosch and you’re on track! And like the other titles—it is primarily about a journey, this time—a descent deep down and in.”

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