When Less Than Perfect is Enough by Patricia Horn O'Brien

Patricia Horn O'Brien
Author photo: Robert Lorenz

The poems in When Less Than Perfect Is Enough, the long-awaited first book from Patricia Horn O’Brien, are pure delight. This marvelously various collection rings all the changes: from sorrow to elation, bitterness to acceptance of the semi-sweet joys life offers between bouts of weather. There is rue here, and raucous humor, love lost and found, and always a steadfast onwardness. About the book, Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen writes, “I’ve known and been moved by Pat O’Brien’s poems for more than 20 years. How good to see many of her finest collected in When Less Than Perfect is Enough! It is a

...holding on
to what we’ve got. A few good friends. A few
good laughs. And a day that started out
rainy that’s brightened up. Not sunny exactly,
but something close to what we want.

“In this beautifully crafted work of returnings, of drivings home, of attempts to keep loved ones safe, Pat O’Brien’s poems hold on through times of drink and smoke and rain and a devastating car crash. Simultaneously, they reach out to others, always returning to the solaces of contemplation and love. I must add that the book contains not only the anthology-ready ‘What It Took to Wake Up’ and ‘She’s Twenty’ but is anchored by three absolutely superb sequences: ‘Musings on a Question,’ ‘What Seemed Then Like Love’ and ‘One or Two Crows and So On.’ These sequences are so damn good that if I were Irish I’d dance a jig in their honor…or perhaps I have.”

Front cover photo by the author

Pat O’Brien has written poetry for as long as she can remember, and poetry has been an essential tool in exploring and expressing her relationship to her family of origin, to her nuclear family, to her place in the world with all its richness and all its upheavals, and to her field work as a licensed social worker. In the latter capacity, she has worked with under-served populations in New York City and Bridgeport, and with those in medical crisis or affected by adoption. She has also helped to establish and maintain Hospice services in three Connecticut prisons, including the York Correctional Institute for Women, where she brought poets, artists, and other professionals to work with Hospice inmate volunteers and staff. After completing her Social Work degree at Columbia University, Pat was lucky enough to attend literature and poetry classes taught by outstanding teachers including Dick Allen, Peter Ulysse, Don Barkin, Maggie Nelson, Patricia Klindienst, and Edwina Trentham. She has been an active member of Guilford Poets Guild and more recently helped to co-found Connecticut River Poets. Her fellow poets in these groups have been invaluable in broadening her understanding of poetry and helping her nudge her own work into shape. Her work has appeared in many journals including Poet Lore, Connecticut River Review, Embers, Pulp Smith, Connecticut Library Journal, Fresh Water, and Connecticut Review. It has also received awards from the Trumbull Arts Council, Acton Public Library, and Embers magazine. For over 20 years Pat has been assimilating the valuable teachings of the Shambhala/Buddhist tradition, learning to practice two of its vital principles: Don’t be attached to an outcome and Be open to all possibilities. She resides in Old Saybrook with her husband, John, and not too far from their three sons, Richard, Michael, and Keith, their amazing partners, and their terrific kids, six in all.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-26-9

Copyright © 2012 by Patricia Horn O'Brien

6" x 9" paperback, 98 pages





for my Grandfather

Of the few memories not claimed
by childhood’s end, the Berkshire calendar remains.
Twelve tear-off pages of days stapled beneath
one black and white photo arrived by mail
each year, compliments of New England Telephone.

Flattened on our enamel table,
pole-studded mountains thinned the still air
of our Bronx apartment. We had to catch our breath
and squint into a sun exploded by the topmost pole.

Down noon-dark declines, the sun’s last light spilled,
outlining the spiny poles, the voices
the silent wires hid.

So that was where you worked! With hip-slung tools
and steel-toed shoes, you must have owned
those Massachusetts mountains.

I don’t remember what year the calendar stopped.

Oh, the mountains claimed you all right, but not by any
unexpected fault, a casual yawn heaving trees,
swallowing fauna and linemen. Not by an Arctic wind,
yanking your cleats from their perch, ungloving
your strong man’s grip.

I would have remembered that.

Instead, you must have climbed down, rung
after rung, signed in your cleats and gloves.
Had someone drive you home. And in a month,
or years of months, let someone lay you down
in the foothills just outside of town.



He never took my hand on the way home
to ask me to please, please lie for him
about the hours we’d spent at Daly’s Bar
and Grill. Besides, I’d liked being propped
on the tall, backless stools, my feet

barely reaching the shiny footrests.
Barely able to swirl right to left. Left
to right. Barely able to raise my elbows
onto the bar’s certain curve.

He didn’t see the need to ask if I could name
just what he drank. He’d guessed I’d neither
count nor judge the contents of the drinks
so jovially shoved toward where he sat
next to me, his kid.

Besides, I liked the smoke
and the sun’s vague passage across
the hot Bronx day while we remained
in the steal-away of Daly’s half light.

We were all right until he pressed
the bell of our apartment door and my mother
surveyed us standing in the hall. Then I felt
the weaving of his body next to mine.

Then I saw my father through my mother’s eyes.
And he lied.

He told her we’d only stopped a while.
He’d only had a few. He’d only had

a beer or two.
Without knowing, on that threshold I knew
it was not beer he drank on that long stretch
of afternoon but something to pin the three of us
right where we stood.


When Less Than Perfect Is Enough

On the day we drove all the way to Jones Beach,
Parking Lot 11, the day no one thought to lure me
from the Atlantic’s perfect waves, twice my
10-year-old height and a million, trillion times

my weight, the day the sun etched freckles
to map the me not covered up and, not content
with that, burrowed past my pale defense with heat
whose ripening evidence arose only on the long trip

to my bed, past ten packed parking lots, over
the Whitestone Bridge and the Bronx River Parkway, up
the 7 floors to the dead white sheets you encased me in,

sticky with the Noxema you slathered on my misery—
by my bed that day, the next and the next, you hovered over me,
perfect love the remedy for imperfect mothering.

Listening In

In the locker room a mother
and small-voiced daughter enter
adjoining showers. I hear
their voices rise above their
twin cascades. Hear the ping

on the metal divider between
their matching work to remove
this morning’s ocean salt and all
of the beach that clings. The daughter
calls out to let her mother know

she was able to reach the soap.
To let her know how the water
helps her rinse off all the soap.
All by herself.
She inquires if her mother likes

her shower too and her mother
laughs an answer which flows
above, below the divider to reach
the child’s upturned face.
Her soapy feet.

I have had only sons and never
minded until this steamy room.
Not a longing, really, but a blossoming
a mother and daughter happened
to include me in.


Midnight Call

Our stop and go advance
toward the rolled-over van is
wordless. Breathless. Until

we see them climb
from the upended doors,
one by one, dazed but
smiling. Happy
(if happiness travels
this close to death)
for their wobbly legs,
their hungry lungs,
the wind’s snowy persistence.

And seeing the survivors’ array
of ski hats and bright mittens rising
into the storm’s white advance,
we reach for our coffee.
We breathe. We are gone.

Not that all walk away.
My brother, for one.
to the opposing lane
just as the oncoming car
crossed the line.

The moment they both
caught their mistake.
Their attempt to return...

Not that I know
that night. That road.

I barely know (as one
might know
a hard-earned truth)
the call that, strangely,
came to me. His sister. Only
his sister. Who knows
how the call skirted
his wife? Skirted our mother.

His boys, now, are grown.
They don’t know I got that call.
But when I see them, I hear
the phone ring. I turn
to the wall and try
to return to sleep.

In the only dream
to which I cling
past bed, past
my sons and
my brother’s sons
emerge from doors
dazed and smiling.
Bright notes
in white-out storms.


Together the Squirrel and I

Together the squirrel and I registered our horror.
Although it was I who was safe on the sidewalk,
my height providing the right perspective.
The wheel and the squirrel were perfectly aligned.

No irreducible space would save him.
But at the time that wasn’t absolutely certain
to either one of us. Together we raised up
our paws/hands to ward off
the oncoming weight. I forgot myself
and yelled, “Stop! Dear god oh my god stop!”

But my supplications were no more heard
than the squirrel’s. His front paws joined,
his face lifted up, he died
and by the second wheel died a second time.

So his life ended, although not the accident
that was left of him. Even as I watched
more cars came. One only close.
Its wake lifted his tail,
then let it drop. So much for hope.

For days I was half-dead myself,
the vision of fragile life gone
raw on my brain.
But I was also half alive,
having a good old alive time.
It had been, after all, the squirrel.

And passing by the spot later in the week
I saw he had been reduced to a small,
dense rise the color of tar.
It seems even in these modern times
nature accommodates us all.


It may be disingenuous to call this happiness, but the man
with his mountain of black plastic bags overflowing with
all he’s known, rag by rag—a scarf, a gown, yesterday’s news
and all the days’ before, bright metal stuff

or stuff that’s turned—calls for some kind of summing up.
From the one subway seat upon which he sits,
his bags cascade into black valleys,
seats west, seats east.

Out of the mountain’s settled top he extracts an arm
to fan himself with half an envelope, small treasure
from the shiny universe he not only created but oversees
in its own gently rocking orbit.


for John

Now and then I look up
and find you across the room,
reading, maybe, or on the phone.

And, although never seeming
to be lost in a dream, you appear
to me not unlike a dream,

your hazel eyes and Irish blush
suddenly Here, as if
I’d failed to see you all along:

your funniness, your willingness
to listen, to read a poem of mine
out loud so it arrives

unexpectedly, a poem as fresh
as one drifting from a meadow
or over an ocean.

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