John Greening, review of Familiar Strangers by Brendan Kennelly,
in Times Literary Supplement (22 April 2005)

Details: John Greening, ‘Guff and Muscle’, review of Brendan Kennelly, Familiar Strangers, in Times Literary Supplement (22 April 2005), p.22.

To be one of the writers featured on Dublin’s “Literary Pub Crawl” is to have achieved a special kind of poetic celebrity. Brendan Kennelly, following the Wildean adage, has created his own mythology and become “a name” to people who have never read a line of his poetry, but have seen his Toyota ads or heard Charles Haughey’s puff. Those who have heard him perform, however, do not forget it in a hurry. The question is: what of Kennelly survives the performance, the fame, the uproar caused by Cromwell, The Book of Judas and Poetry My Arse, the “cultural phenomenon” whose “fabulous smile” flashes from Bloodaxe’s 1996 Festschrift? This 500-page “selection” does not include much from those epic sequences, but offers work from well over thirty other books. It is not chronologically arranged, but divided into nine loosely thematic groupings of work. The result is like a volcanic plain scattered with lava bombs, smoking and sizzling: impressive, spectacular, but at times monotonous.

We move from work about poetry and language, through explorations of the link between religion and violence, to a long section chiefly about women. Then comes the whole of The Man Made of Rain (1998), Kennelly’s strange forty-three-part dream poem written after his quadruple bypass operation: part Crow, part Under Milk Wood, part Divine Comedy. The section about women is balanced by “Guff and Muscle”, which focuses more on men and their lives (and includes Islandman, 1977); then a brief Dublin grouping and one called “History”, which leaps between the Troubles, Cromwell, Eámon de Valera and the Famine and incorporates the fine Kerry sequence, “A Small Light”. The penultimate section is largely made up of monologues by animate and inanimate speakers, many from Kennelly’s book of “personifications” The Singing Tree (1998). Music plays out the book, with titles such as “Sing and Be Damned to It’.

The most successful Kennelly performances are those in which the patter is fluent and the sleight of hand is deft. Often this occurs when he adopts a (very un-Yeatsian) mask, such as this voice of a three-year-old girl:

And will the flowers die?
And will the people die?
And every day do you grow old, do I
grow old, no I’m not old, do
flowers grow old?
Or he imagines himself to be, perhaps, a bolt of lightning:
I am a mere moment
Between this and that
Yet so much that moment,
Illumine the sky ...

On other occasions, Kennelly drops the mask and lets feeling guide him through an anecdote or narrative: “The Kiss”, for example, or “Night Drive”, about going in a storm to see his dying father, or “The Names of the Dead Are Lightning”, where Kennelly handles his distinctively uncommitted terza rima with flexibility and conviction.

Sometimes his emotions lead him to be prolix and self-indulgent, or to make the kind of empty gestures we find in “Moments When the Light”, which describes but does not re-enact a vision. Yet he can make a simple observation effectively (“Pram”, “The Big House”), and is succinct in his savagery in the many sonnets, about the casual slaughter of animals, about human atrocity. Violence threads and marbles this book: of childhood and school life, in love, in war, throughout Irish history - the extracts from Cromwell (1983-87) reminding us just how many taboos that volume broke. One of the virtues of this “New and Selected” is that it puts a sonnet like “Nails” in a different context, so that the link between crucifixion and nail-bomb is still in our minds as we read the sonnet next to it, “Innocent”, about a child pulling wings off a fly. The disadvantage of the chocolate-box arrangement is, of course, that some of the early poems show their age and the entirely different registers of, say, “James Joyce’s Death Mask” and the brilliant Swiftian satire of “The Dinner” shift the “drunkenness of things being various” towards disorientation.

Because he writes so much, Kennelly seems permanently alert to the world, always ready to snatch his perception and turn it to verse - a conversation, an overheard remark, an encounter. Inevitably, this means that much of his work lacks a more concentrated and repeatable magic. “Dream of a Black Fox”, one of his touchstones, is good, but hardly a Thought-Fox, still less a “shape with lion body and the head of a man”. Kennelly is always looking for (or lamenting the lack of) the visionary, a Muse, some unpriestly guide to the underworld: his Virgil (“the man made of rain”) has as much of the craic as any other Dubliner, and his “glimmering girl” is most convincing when she is flesh and blood.

Yeats said that “sex and the dead” were the only two decent topics for a poet, and Kennelly takes him at his word: he is funny on the former and moving on the latter. He is not a great inventor of images; his strengths are in his formal variety, his ideas and feelings, the games he plays with language and his readers’ sympathies. Poems such as “The Habit of Redemption” show him at his best, riding the swell and backwash of his tercets to suggest, a doubt embraced by two certainties, or a hope hedged about with fear. He has translated Euripides, Sophocles, Ovid and Lorca, but also from “Nightenglish” to “Dayenglish”, from podium notes to pub talk. Kennelly is above all a storyteller, a Chaucerian talemaker and raconteur (see “Phone Call”). True, he depends on fairly conventional imagery to tell his tales of love and war - flowers, stars, shadows, hair and blood. But he knows how to express “what oft was thought”, whether speaking as a willow who has learnt to escape “apathetic clay” and “be rid of the slow death” by standing out in the storm; or as any citizen shocked by an environmental catastrophe when “Three men / On a morning in early summer / Tipped a lorryload of poisoned whey / Into the Line river” (“Milk”). This Kennelly uses a reinforced sentimentality - that is to say, he is unafraid of the tender moment; but there is a rod of intellectual steel that prevents the poems from crumbling. Another Kennelly is clown and conjuror. Yet another is on a quest like Seamus Heaney’s, finding hope in “a passionate and gentle voice / Authentic as a patch of sunlight”. And then there is the teacher, Professor Kennelly, the familiar stranger who writes rather tortuous prose introductions, but who is always wanting us to ask questions and think for ourselves: What I am given is not a means of escape

But of confrontation,
The truest education
That I know.


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