The poetry and the pity

IT is impossible to read these poems by Sean Dunne without pity and anger at his death last year at the early age of 39

IT is impossible to read these poems by Sean Dunne without pity and anger at his death last year at the early age of 39. In the final ten years of his life, Sean Dunne's work as a poet was developing from strength to strength, as he shed unnecessary defences and mannerisms to become one of the country's finest lyric poets. The imaginative shift - which took him from his first collection, Against the Storm (1985) to The Sheltered Nest (1992) was one of poetic concentration and confidence in his own limitations. Scan Dunne knew what he wanted to do with his poems and worked hard to achieve an artistic ambition which was strangely selfless. His death was a terrible shock to those who had watched this work of progress.

I first met Sean Dunne many years ago when, under the chairmanship of John F. Deane, we were involved with several others in laying down the foundations for what was to become the present Poetry Ireland. We travelled between Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Galway and Athlone. I particularly recall Sean taking me through Waterford and talking about his hometown with the kind of gritty critical knowledge he displayed on other matters - as well, particularly poetry. He had an extraordinary care for poetry, and wrote about it and defended it from what he saw as freeloaders and bounty hunters, is critical prose was incisive and never self serving. His article, "Growing into Poetry", published in 1994 in Heidelberg, is as sharp as a tack when it comes to viewing the world of poetry into which he had grown, a world "where a poverty of anecdotes often passes for a wealth of literary comment ... [and] eloquence is often an evasion."

There was throughout Sean Dunne's artistic life a kind of old world graciousness which enchanted his steadily growing audience.

His poems are liked cut glass: crafted, ceremonial and full of prismatic light. As Thomas McCarthy remarked in a memoir of his friend, the influence of Derek Mahon was central to Sean Dunne's poetry. Time and the Island takes a further step into aphoristic clarity and many of the poems read like versions of Japanese:


I have given up doubt,

That old, worn out coat.

All that's constant

Is the fact of change;

Pearl of love, grit of pain.

Sean Dunne was nothing but willing in his poems to try out different kinds of, form. He handles the poem as note or as letter; travelogue, epigram, prose poem and translation (from Anna Akhmatova and Paul Eluard).

Time and the Island is the most self consciously crafted volume of poems I have read for some time. In it a meditative calm surrounds issues of faith and hope. He summons Thomas Merton, Simone Weil and Francis Ledwidge to his side of an argument about what it is we are doing here in the first place, as in his poem to the French martyr, Simone Weil:

You spread books across the floor

And peered as if words were ants

Teeming on the page as in a crack

Where meaning, like light, might fall.

When you died starving, waiting on God,

No realm of words could call you back.

The "realm of words" which Sean Dunne sought to inhabit enclosed the intimacies of family life, of which he writes with quiet reverence, and the possible lives imagined elsewhere, such as Lafcadio Hearne: Like an artist painting on rice grains, /He tried to trap Japan in a story.

Death overshadows several of these poems. Indeed, its shocking presence inspired Sean Dunne's long uncollected poem, the Audenesque, "Letter from Ireland", in which the figure of an Indian woman lamenting the death of her son, killed instantly in a bombed plane, throws petals to the waves:

Often I think other on that rough shore

And leave her with you now as I end,

Her hands filled with flowers and more

Meaning in the gesture than I can understand,

Sean Dunne's poetry retains the "meaning" of gesture as he dramatises the way people live their lives and lays it before his reader without the self regard we have come to expect of much contemporary poetry.

There can be little doubt that, had he lived, Sean Dunne would have written with the authority of real and lasting artistic achievement behind him. As a poet, he was finding a language and tone unmistakably his own; as prose writer, he was discovering another form; as editor, he was second to none; and as critic, he said what he had to say, without fear or favour. It is terrible that Sean is gone.