Late Poems by Thomas Kinsella. Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd., 2013. ISBN 9781847772435 (paper).
Reviewed by Adrienne Leavy
Now in his mid 80s, Thomas Kinsella is regarded as the elder statesman of Irish poetry, and with this latest volume he consolidates his position as one of the most talented poetic voices writing today. Widely acknowledged as one of Ireland’s most important contemporary poets and Gaelic translators, the Dublin born Kinsella began his career in the mid 1950s, with the publication of his first collection, Poems. Since then he has continued to produce an innovative and challenging body of work characterized by a symbiotic relationship between his autobiographical experiences and their aesthetic rendering. Notwithstanding the critical and commercial success that his lyric poetry enjoyed, Kinsella abandoned traditional poetic forms and strict meter early in his career, turning instead to free verse and the Anglo-American modernism of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. This change in style, first exemplified in Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), and Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972), has resulted in a remarkable poetry of personal interrogation that is simultaneously traditional in theme and formally experimental.
Late Poems gathers together the five most recent pamphlets issued by Kinsella’s own Peppercanister Press: Marginal Economy (2006), Man of War (2007), Belief and Unbelief (2007), Fat Master (2011), and Love Joy Peace (2011). Collectively, these compact volumes reflect Kinsella’s continued effort to craft a positive aesthetic response to the waste and bitterness that he considers an inevitable facet of life. They also reveal a poet at the top of his form, interrogating not only his own life, but also his relationship to the moral and political world that revolves around him. The search for meaning and order will always be provisional, but as these poems show, there is a level of peace to be found in “an imagination arguing with itself / until the ache is eased.”
In addition to the minimalist style and sparse diction that has characterized much of Kinsella’s mature work, a hallmark of the poet’s aesthetic is a refusal to honor the poetic conventions of resolution and closure. Kinsella deliberately and creatively repeats and echoes himself, finding new aesthetic meanings in experiences and poems from decades earlier, and Marginal Economy, the first sequence in this collection, continues this practice. A prologue addressed to an unidentified “Nightwoman,” who is simultaneously the archetypal Jungian figure who dominated much of the poet’s mid-career work, and also the Muse figure who is the subject of the final two sequences in this collection, establishes the mood of inquiry and self-reflection evident throughout Late Poems: “Nightwoman, / picking the works of my days apart, / will you find what you need / in the waste still to come?” The opening poem, “First Night,” chronicles the young Kinsella’s move into his flat in Baggot Street in Dublin, the setting for many of the poems about the poet’s wife Eleanor, and also the well-known “Baggot Street Deserta.” The funeral of a close friend from Kinsella’s civil service days is remembered in the provocatively titled “The Affair,” where an old adversary of the poet’s is among the mourners. A Catholic wedding in the Protestant chapel at Trinity College is described with detached detail in “Wedding Service,” creating the impression that the Kinsellas are outsiders, and that the poet in particular stands as an observer on the cusp of two religious traditions. Personal reminiscence gives way to a more generalized meditation on the effect of change on civilizations, in “Marcus Aurelius,” the key poem of the sequence. Kinsella portrays Aurelius as a gifted but flawed ruler in the wrong job, a man more inclined to philosophy than warfare, but also a man unconcerned with the persecution of “the early Christians.” The Emperor is “in a false position” at a precarious time in history when “over-confidence and ignorance” are everywhere. Yet Aurelius is not immune from participating in the brutality that surrounds him, as his wife’s passion for a gladiator results in the gladiator's death and Aurelius ordering that his wife be bathed in the dead man’s blood. Continuing the process of revisiting previous work, several other poems in this volume recall the Jungian influenced poetry from Kinsella’s middle period.
Kinsella’s reputation as a poet of genuine moral seriousness is evident in Man of War, the next sequence in Late Poems. The complex relationship between good and evil is examined in a series of poems that consider mankind’s propensity for violence, which he describes with typical understatement as the “occasional destruction of others, face to face, of the same kind.” The poet proposes various alternatives to “the waste of lives,” yet paradoxically, these alternatives would only limit man’s brutality by curtailing the carnage, as Kinsella recognizes that his proposal to abolish warfare will never succeed. The self-serving ideology of war, with its false claims of moral authority, is made apparent through selective references to literary and historical texts that describe conflicts ranging from the Trojan War to the Crusades. The tone throughout is one of grim irony and controlled anger against physical and spiritual violence, reminiscent of Kinsella’s earlier work in “Old Harry,” from Downstream 1962) and Butcher’s Dozen (1972). Ultimately, Kinsella’s horror of war is based not just on the human suffering it causes, but on the recognition that this capacity for destruction undermines man’s achievements and rationality.
Despite Kinsella’s longstanding skepticism of organized religion, he has always been interested in the relation between skepticism and faith, and the tension between these two belief systems informs the poems in Belief and Unbelief, the third sequence in this volume. Themes of loneliness and sickness, along with the random fragility of life, dominate the opening poems, but as in much of his work, Kinsella finds solace in the redeeming power of love. ”Legendary figures, in Old Age,” celebrates the sexual nature of man, and suggests that human love is more real than abstract concepts of divinity and redemption. “Prayer 1” and “Prayer 2,” along with “Addendum,” suggest that the relationship between skepticism and faith is one of mutual interaction rather than one of contradiction. This sequence reinforces the impression in “Rhetoric of Natural Beauty,” the last poem from Marginal Economy, where a disappearing sunset momentarily stills the speaker’s doubts: “In the face of God’s creation / our last doubts fall silent, / fulfilled in acceptance, / reflect, and disappear.”
Fat Master and Love Joy Peace find the elderly poet still striving to craft a creative response to issues of suffering, erosion, and mortality. These meditations coalesce around the figure of the Muse (the poet’s “old opposite”), who is represented as both a metaphor for the creative process and as the artist’s ideal audience, “the one only adequate Other.” In both sequences, Kinsella continues to explore his role as an artist, arguing that the possibility of fashioning some form of aesthetic order from the chaos and disappointments of life is a worthy endeavor. Interestingly, Kinsella deliberately destabilizes the poetic convention of the Muse, when the figure is imagined as a snake-like apparition and ultimately a disembodied voice who symbolizes the poet’s alter-ego. Regardless of what form the Muse takes, the difficulties and challenges inherent in the creative response are symbolized by this figure, which is frequently depicted as an unwelcome trespasser on the poet’s consciousness, yet one whom he is continually in dialogue with. These poems reveal the Muse to be an essential aesthetic partner who has provided a necessary and enabling foil to the poet over a lifetime of writing. As he writes in “Into Thy Hands,” Kinsella’s life-long search for aesthetic meaning is ultimately “All offered to an intimate, / wayward in acceptance, / self-chosen and unknown.”
This latest collection reminds us of the singular talent of one of Ireland’s most distinguished poet, who continues to fearlessly explore the predicament of the individual in the modern world. Kinsella’s artistic vision is characterized by a profound humanity and a deeply rooted commitment to the aesthetic quest for meaning and self-knowledge. The poems in Late Poems confront the ordeals of life and show us the varied and contradictory responses of the human heart to these ordeals: wonder and longing, brutality and compassion, joy and grief. Despite the long overdue critical attention that Kinsella’s work is now beginning to receive, Kinsella still remains an oddly marginalized figure; Irish critics and poets respect his writing, yet somehow his career has failed to attract the global audience it deserves. With this new collection, readers have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the work of this extraordinary Irish poet, which will certainly prompt further reading of Kinsella’s extensive canon.
Copyright © 2014 by Adrienne Leavy.