Accepting the gift


POETRY: PAUL PERRYreviews The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected PoemsEdited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley, with a CD of poems read by the author Bloodaxe Books, 154pp. €14.99

BRENDAN KENNELLY has just turned 75, and it’s nearly 50 years since his first collection, Let Fall No Burning Leaf, was published. To mark the milestone and to celebrate his birthday Bloodaxe Books has brought out The Essential Brendan Kennelly.

Unlike Familiar Strangers, Kennelly’s own thematic selection of his work, from 2004, The Essential Brendan Kennellyhas been edited chronologically by his former Trinity College Dublin colleague Terence Brown and the poet Michael Longley. As can be imagined, the span and range are vast. Indeed, there has been a selected poems of Brendan Kennelly in every decade since the 1970s. It’s a process of conservation, not so much natural selection as necessary selection. Editors and readers have a role in this process. What are the poems we love? What are the poems we need?

Of Kennelly’s poems there are some that reappear and endure. Beginis one such poem. Add to this The Kiss and My Dark Fathers. Dream of a Black Foxreads as an indelible image of totemic fear. So too the plaintive Poem from a Three-Year-Oldor the relinquishing Let It Go. I See You Dancing, Fatherhas echoes of Patrick Kavanagh.

Of course, there are omissions. If you have ever heard the Co Kerry-born poet read The Stones,the chances are that you have never forgotten it. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear in the book or on the CD that accompanies it. There was a time when such add-ons were innovative, but time and technology move on. And yet it’s probably the bonus item of the CD that makes The Essential Brendan Kennellyso worthwhile. The poems are meant to be heard, not read, Kennelly once said, and his best readings have been engrossing recitations delivered without book, page or note. His haunting poem Proof, recorded in 2002 and included on the CD, demonstrates his captivating voice:

The fox eats its own leg in the trap

To go free. As it limps through the grass

The earth itself appears to bleed.

When the morning light comes up

Who knows what suffering midnight was?

Proof is what I do not need.

As for the words on the page, one minor quibble with this selection is that the individual collections are not named in the list of contents; not, that is, until we come to the “sequences” or the Bloodaxe-published books. This means we don’t know which poems have come from, for example, the magisterial and elegiac The Boats Are Home(1980), published by the Gallery Press.

As for those sequences, or epics, the selections from the book-length Cromwelland The Book of Judasseem less essential and more arbitrary. No Image Fitsis a central poem to The Book of Judas, but it does not find a place here. The Essential Brendan Kennellydoes, however, include the haunting [ 28], from The Man Made of Rain, although it is the only poem from that collection.

This complaint cannot be assuaged by a 75th-birthday tribute, but it is perhaps an objection to redress the cries of too much, too much by many critics. I’d suggest this is a criticism we will hear less of as the years pass. The great Anton Chekhov wrote up to 800 short stories, and nobody now says he wrote too much. That is why the selection of a writer’s work is so important.

One of the first poems in The Essential Brendan Kennellyis The Gift, in which he writes: “It was a gift that took me unawares / And I accepted it.” The acceptance of the gift of poetry, and the joy and pain it took and takes to accept such a gift, is worth honouring. Irish poetry would be unrecognisable without Kennelly’s vital contribution. A lifelong vocation is captured in the final poem, from Reservoir Voices, of this celebratory collection:

I look back, up. Where is the hill of shadows?

Grey clouds cover it. Where is the orphan now?

And who is the person shaping to write me down?

Words are wild creatures. Fly them home.

Paul Perry’s most recent collection is The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance, published by the Dedalus Press, 2010