Citizen of the world

POETRY: Selected Poems , by Richard Tillinghast, Dedalus Press, 201pp, €14.99

POETRY: Selected Poems, by Richard Tillinghast, Dedalus Press, 201pp, €14.99

THE PUBLICATION of Richard Tillinghast's Selected Poemsconfirms the status of Dedalus Press as one of the most outward-looking publishers operating in Ireland. Other presses, such as Salmon and Wild Honey, and the New Writers Press before them, have done their bit in recent years to internationalise the Irish poetry scene by introducing non-Irish writers to local audiences. Over the past decade or so, however, Dedalus has done more than any other press to bring poets from that larger field of literary production to the attention of Irish readers, in anthologies such as A Night in the Nabokov Hotel: 20 Poets from Contemporary Russiaand Poetry Europe/Europoésie, and in the publication of individual collections by Michael Augustin, Elisabeth Borchers, Inger Christensen and many others.

Richard Tillinghast's Selected Poems, with an introduction by Dennis O'Driscoll, is, then, a significant addition to Dedalus's project of publishing poetry from an impressively diverse range of national, linguistic and cultural contexts. Indeed Tillinghast is a poet whose work seems particularly appropriate for a press with such an internationalist outlook.

Although he is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, Tillinghast grew up with a deeply divided sense of what it means to be American. His father, who is memorialised in the poignant early poem R.C.T., was from New England but moved to Memphis in the early 1930s. Tillinghast has written that in the 1940s "a Southerner and a New Englander – my parents, for example – were practically citizens of two different countries. As I grew up, particularly after I got to know New England better, I came to see this mixed cultural heritage as the source of certain conflicts within my own character, and then later, as a strength". This is an important statement, not least because it reveals the extent to which being American, for Tillinghast, implies a profoundly complex understanding of identity, place, history and home.

Although he may be described on one level as an American poet, in other words, Tillinghast is a writer who has always appreciated the complexity of national categorisations. Reading through the contents of this Selected Poems, one has the sense of a writer who is a true citizen of the world. His work not only records the experience of travelling through and living in various regions of the United States – Louisiana, California, Vermont – but also describes his encounters with places as far removed from each other as a village in the Indies where “A cow munching newspapers / wobbles in traffic” to “a steep street in Pera / where a dead-drunk woman in a cotton house dress / lies passed out on the sidewalk”. Tillinghast’s poems often appear to have a clearly “American” accent and tone, and they are wholly at home in and with the forms of Anglo-American poetic modernism. Nevertheless, they are compelling in their chronicling of a wide world beyond the poet’s native homeland, if such a place can be said to exist.

In several poems, in fact, Tillinghast seems to suggest that his concern as a poet has less to do with place in itself than with the sense of displacement that is suggested by the titles of so many of the poems in this selection, including In the Country You Breathe Right, " Come Home and Be Happy", Southbound Pullman, 1945, Exiliumand How to Get There. In the latter poem, from the 2008 collection The New Life, he begins by suggesting that the reader will be taken to a particular location: "Take the old road out of town". From the third line of this poem, however, it is clear that the poet's quest is for an unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable place. "Keep driving", the final stanza advises, "through the gap that opens between two novice heartbeats. / Before decades, before skies, before the first summer, / before any knowledge of roads and weather". Reading a poem like this makes you realise how little knowledge about a poet's background, personal life or social or historical context matters at the end of the day. For the poet, as this poem makes clear, all that matters is the sense of "open-mouthed" wonder. What matters for the reader, consequently, is what the poet says when s/he finds the words to give that sense of wonder life in language.

The fact that he was taught by Robert Lowell, or that he now lives in south Tipperary, do not matter much, then, to our sense of what happens in Richard Tillinghast’s poems. His work, as O’Driscoll argues in his excellent introduction, is the product of “a lifetime’s devotion to the craft”.

From the earliest poems gathered here, written in the 1960s, through to poems first published in 2008, Tillinghast has crafted works of great beauty on a wide range of themes and subjects: they “Archaeologise the ordinary”, as he puts it in one late poem, but he is also a poet who “Sing[s] songs of the Machine Age”.

Readers of this newspaper may already know him as an astute reviewer of other poets; this volume of Selected Poemsfrom the Dedalus Press is the perfect introduction for those who have not yet become acquainted with his own work.


Philip Coleman is a lecturer at the school of English at Trinity College Dublin, where he is course director for the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme