Retired Boston firefighter Bobby Breen, seen here at his home in Brunswick, has just published his third book of poetry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bobby Breen remembers well the instructions from his teacher, soon after enrolling at a Harvard summer poetry writing program some 20 years ago: Don’t waste time penning “hearts and flowers high school poems.” Write something real.

Breen, who had served two decades on the Boston Fire Department, decided to write about removing a lifeless body – he’s not sure if it was a man or a woman – from a bed in the aftermath of a fire. In a poem titled “The Eighth Circle,” he wrote of how the body “moves as if Jell-O in our hands. Intense heat makes it so small” and how the pungent odor “stings the nostrils. You learn fast to mouth-breathe.”

“When you write a poem, each and every word is so important,” said Breen, 68, of Brunswick. “We only have limited space to tell our stories.”

Breen had always been a poet at heart. He’s always written and found himself often in the company of poets, including Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, whose poem “Helmet” was inspired by Breen. But Breen himself didn’t start pursuing poetry seriously, including studying at Harvard, until about 20 years ago, after injuries forced his retirement from the fire department. Those included breaking his leg while falling through a trap door during a restaurant fire and permanently damaging his shoulder trying to lug an industrial dumpster from another fire scene.

His third and latest book of poems, “Undertow: A Tide Pool of Poems,” came out this month, and a book launch event is planned for Sept. 28 at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. Breen will read from his book, answer questions and be accompanied by Celtic harpist Alex Bigney. Copies of the book will be sold, and it is also available at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, The Mustard Seed Bookstore in Bath, Print: A Bookstore in Portland and all Sherman’s stores.

The book features 75 works, including “The Eighth Circle” and another poem based on his firefighting experience, “A Bridge to Boston,” about the rescue of a woman threatening to jump from a Boston bridge. Breen was one of the rescue workers sent to save the young woman, about 20 years old. He writes of the tension rescuers felt waiting for the right moment to pull the woman to safety: “hair on end, please, I thought, don’t jump from this vibrating place. I will wait, watch with you. I know how to wait.”

“I think that Bobby’s work is suffused with humanity, and that must, in some ways, come from his work as a firefighter. He writes with clarity and compassion, and with the suggestion of a life lived well and to the full,” said Cathy Brown, arts programmer at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an arts center celebrating the late poet’s life and work, in Bellaghy, Northern Ireland. “Experience and an appreciation of other people is key for a poet, and I think that his background makes Bobby the poet he is today.”

MUTUAL INSPIRATION

Breen grew up in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, in a family of seven children. He remembers memorizing the Joyce Kilmer poem “Trees” in grammar school and that saying the poem while looking at a tree made it “come alive for me.” In high school, he studied the works of Longfellow, Poe and Dante and found himself inspired. But he also came from a family that had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and knew it was important to find a good, steady job.

So after a stint in the Army in the early 1970s, serving stateside, he decided to take various civil service exams and passed the exams for police officers and firefighters. He worked for a while as a juvenile probation officer before joining the Boston Fire Department in 1978. While in the department, he got a degree in fire engineering technology from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Bobby Breen, right, and prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, left, together in a photo from the 1980s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Even before he turned his full attention to writing poetry, Breen had made a significant contribution to poetry by giving his fireman’s helmet to Heaney, an Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 and who died in 2013. Breen first met Heaney in the early 1980s, when Heaney was teaching at Harvard and Breen was working as a fireman and studying for a firefighting-related degree. Breen frequented poetry readings and was friendly with area poets at the time. He met Heaney when another poet invited him to a reading.

Heaney and Breen, who was from a big Irish family in Boston, struck up a friendship that included exchanging letters and poetry ideas over the years. One night after a party they both attended, Breen gave Heaney his fireman’s helmet on a whim.

“It was just kidding around, crowning him the head of the tribe, things like that,” Breen said. “But a helmet is one of the most important pieces of equipment a firefighter has. It has almost a mystical quality to it.”

Heaney loved the helmet. He kept it in his office and let children wear it from time to time. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, Breen wrote to Heaney and said he was considering writing something about their friendship, using the helmet as a focus. But after a while, he wrote again to say he couldn’t write the piece. So Heaney decided to give it a try and wrote the poem “Helmet,” which appeared in Heaney’s 2006 collection “District and Circle.”

The poem opens: “Bobby Breen’s. His Boston fireman’s gift/With BREEN in scarlet letters on its spread/Fantailing brim,/Tinctures of sweat and hair oil/In the withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs/Beneath the crown.”

Letters Breen and Heaney wrote to each other are now part of a Heaney collection at Emory University in Georgia. Breen says the fact that Heaney had read his poems and liked them, and told him that he was indeed a poet, was inspiring to him.

“I never knew I was a poet until I met Seamus,” Breen said.

After retiring from the fire department in the late 1990s, Breen enrolled in a Harvard summer writing program and also studied literature and psychology at UMass-Boston. He worked as a teacher and as an engineer for construction companies. He had spent summer vacations in Maine since he was young, including at a family cottage in Limington. His wife Karen is from Maine, so about seven years ago, they decided to move to Brunswick full time.

While he writes about his experience, Breen’s poems are also about a range of other topics. He’s got one about the Latin language and how it helped hold the world together when Rome fell. He’s written one called “Berry Harvesters” about the struggles of Maine blueberry harvesters. And he’s written about nature and Irish heritage.

“I sensed something (in Breen’s poems) well-tethered to the ground, human flesh and struggle, wired into the voltage of European and American intelligence, and particularly Irish cultural tradition with the many fractures and sentiments, chaotic energies and tribal spirits of the diaspora,” fellow Maine writer Dick Taylor of Bethel wrote in an email about Breen. “With all his education, firefighting those many years anchors everything to the bedrock of the hazardous, unavoidable, fragile world. We suffer, exult, heave a sign of sadness or relief, and go on, until the alarm sounds again, as we know it will.”

Breen holds the old fire helmet that was the recplacement for the helmet he gave to Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem, who wrote about about it. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Eighth Circle

The body moves as if Jell-O in our hands.
Intense heat makes it so small.
What was once hair
shrivels tight to the skull.
The char falls, exposes
steamed white flesh and bone.
The sweet pungent odor
stings the nostrils.
You learn fast to mouth-breathe.

We place the fetal corpse
inside the red neoprene bag.
We tighten and buckle the leather straps.
The coroner places the body on the gurney.
The chaplain makes a sign.

And what about the match?
The one who sets a fire
is commonly called the match.

At the station,
I hose down the inside of the red burse
and watch the spirit of a mother’s child
hold tight to the bars of the floor.

A Bridge to Boston 

And you find that same stupidity in the Greek chiefs,
When her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
Made the wise, the foolish weep for her
When they heard tell of such a rite.
-Dante, Paradiso, V 68-72

Alone at the patrol desk. I
had the second watch. I took the
call, we responded, to a bridge
stretched high above the Charles River.

The wind blows her brown hair across
her face. Not more than twenty, she
sits on the I beam’s edge. Her hand
gripping twilight’s suspension steel,

she stares at me. I back away.
She decides to sway with the bridge.
We care not of the why we are
here. Alive, I am alive, my

hair on end, please, I thought, don’t jump
from this vibrating place. I will
wait, watch with you. I know how to
wait. The safety harness restricts

a firefighter’s breath. Sweat stains
the belt across the shoulder blades.
The rope is slacked, knotted in place.
I watch the earth and sky. These dire

stand-offs take hours of pleading.
At the moment you look away,
I make my move. Leap the guardrail.
The searchlights from far below reach

my eyes and I reach out to save
you. We hold each other on that
narrow I beam. We struggle. I
could not let you go. I take your
strong hand in mine and reach safety
of wider ground.

– Bobby Breen


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