Many of us recall from our school days that doughty and often dog-eared Leaving Cert volume, Soundings, which has been successfully republished in recent year. That great anthology featured two of Thomas Kinsella’s early poems, Mirror in February and Another September.
The lucky amongst us found these two poems to be mesmeric, almost hypnotic in their beauty. Kinsella was all the more mesmeric for this writer because Another September enjoyed for its setting the environs of Enniscorthy where your reviewer grew up.
At school, we knew Thomas Kinsella was a Dubliner, who had married a woman who grew up near the town. You would see him occasionally at Mass, looking thoughtful with those inscrutable glasses, that dark beard. We knew exactly the bend in the road where the attractive, brambly, rambly old house his wife had grown up in venerably stood. The poem was therefore extraordinarily vivid because of this familiarity.
The poet and critic John F Deane has written perceptively about Kinsella, aware of the challenges he can pose for the reader.
“ .. the work has been, and still is, an effort to draw order out of the chaos of this randomness, a work that does not impose an order but extracts it from a hard visioning of actual experience. "
Derval Tierney in her critical work, Thomas Kinsella: The Peppercanister Poems (University College Dublin Press, 2001) also recognises Kinsella’s attempts to find a new mode of articulation. A marked change in style is generally perceived to have occured around 1972, when he started publishing his poems in pamphlet form, through his Peppercanister Press. The poems got more daring, more fragmentary, prepared to accept alienating possible readers even.Kinsella is intrigued by the potency of symbol, the power of the unconscious, and Carl Jung’s dream literature has reportedly been a key source.
“What we see in the Peppercanister poems is a poet working towards a means of expression, towards a way of communicating an understanding of experience, “ Tierney writes. “And in order to find that means of expression, that means of communication, he must forego a poetic language which derives from detailed witness to that experience. “
What all this amounts to is that readers have to go with the flow. In other words, take the poems of Thomas Kinsella as Paul Celan once understood his poems could be taken - as messages in a bottle, not everyone gets the message.
Late Poems gathers the work from his five most recent Peppercanister pamphlets. There is a mildly valedictory note in some of the poems, teasing over life and the future with a realistic, pragmatic eye. The Belief and Unbelief pamphlet, first published in 2007, reads as though he were trying out different voices.
John F Deane sees the poems therein as “ `prayers’ to an unnamed but guiding force behind nature and human bring.” Deane once asked Kinsella to write a poem aspiring to or urging the total abolition of war in the world, a task Kinsella, it appears, was initially reluctant to take on. In time he did deliver his Man of War sequence, included here. The poem Retrospect charts the history of warfare from the brute bludgeonings with a club to the sophisticated death-dealing of today.
a given still, and occupying still
the same proportion of the human purpose,
Elsewhere in the book there are other poems which explore violence. The Last Round: An Allegory describes a boxing match with chilly objectivity, as though describing some esoteric ritual. The depiction is dramatic, as the howling fans urge on the two pugilists who fight until the last bell sounds.
They were separated.
the arm of one was elevated.
and the two bruised faces
stared away from each other out at the dark.
There is a handful of intimate, less keyed-up poems too, poems that pretend to do not much more than what they actually describe. In The Affair, an old adversary is spotted at a funeral, as the reason for the original hostilities comes back after many years. Reserved Table is perhaps the simplest poem in the book, a gentle scene- setting of the poet and his companion being shown to their places in a jazz club, where the musicians are already playing.
Kinsella is a loving painter of beauty in nature too, seen from a calm perspective, epiphanic moments honed in on for their unlikely magnitude, their enduring potency, as in the poem Summer Evening: City Centre.
In the last light at the end of the Lane
a faint golden haze shimmered.
A cloud of midges, teeming, minute.
Furious in their generation,
they dance among each other
to keep their places towards night and nothing.
A system of selves consuming itself,
worrying at its own energies;
the outer boundary self-established;
without a centre.