THOMAS KINSELLA 1928 – 2021
In 1966 I attempted to put together a poetry broadsheet for distribution in UCD. Encouraged by John Montague’s suggestion but still nervous, I rang Thomas Kinsella’s doorbell on Raglan Road. Eleanor opened the door, took a look at me and asked, “Tell me, young man, are you another poet?” I think I said I had a weakness for poetry. “Well then”, she said, “you’d better toughen up because you have a bloody hard life ahead of you!” The great man then received me, kindly but scary all the same, peering through his big black glasses. He suggested I come around later in the day and bring John Montague with me. Whiskey was provided as the sparring warmed up between the poets. I remember Tom observing, “Do you know what, Montague? Your poetry is like watercress: it leaves me hungry!” Fifty five years later, during my last long session with Tom , when we recalled that first encounter, he said he had just finished reading through John’s poetry, beginning to end, and was taken aback at how highly he now rated it. During a previous session in our house, he settled on Arthur Schopenhauer as the day’s subject for micro-surgery. We began at 3 o’clock and my wife Heeun prised us apart at 11. Prior to another such occasion, he had expressed his interest in learning more about the historical Jesus Christ. For this I asked my old friend, the Jesuit Father Bruce Bradley who in turn invited his friend, Kieran O’Mahoney, the Augustinian Father and mighty scholar of Scripture, Once again, and deliciously, the hours flew by.
In 2007, Tom and Eleanor spent five days in a Dublin recording studio, where Tom read what was to become 12 hours of poems written between 1956 and 2006, from which a double CD was issued by Claddagh Records. I recall the extraordinary perfectionism he brought to every breadth, every syllable throughout, again and again stopping instantly at what he felt to be the slightest imperfection in his delivery. It was intense and gruelling in the extreme, but such was his way. From time to time, his medical condition brought on another slow spasm and, within a heartbeat, Eleanor was there with him to bring him through it and back to us again.
One poem in which, among others, Tom articulates the ultimately purposeless process of all life toward and into nothingness, is The Secret Gardenfrom Nightwalker and Other Poems. Beneath the mild metaphor of the sunlit suburban garden in which children play around him, the reflecting father lightly touches his son, thereby imparting the first stain of the world as lived, into the immaculate, waiting kernel of the child’s brain.
The place is growing difficult. Flails of bramble
Crawl into the lawn; on every hand
Glittering, toughened branches drink their dew.
Tiny worlds, drop by drop, tremble
On thorns and leaves; they will melt away.
The silence whispers around us:
Wither, wither, visible, invisible!
A child stands an instant at my knee.
His mouth smells of energy, light as light.
I touch my hand to his pearl flesh, taking strength.
He stands still, absorbing in return
The first taint. Immaculate, the waiting
Kernel of his brain.
How set him free, a son, toward the sour encounter?
Children’s voices somewhere call his name.
He runs glittering into the sun, and is gone
. . . I cultivate my garden for the dew:
A rasping boredom funnels into death!
The sun climbs, a creature of one day,
And the dew dries to dust.
My hand strays out and picks off one sick leaf.
And now, here, at last, the worker has risen from his desk, and gone away. Throughout his life, and throughout his life’s work, he stared, unblinking, examining and interrogating human existence, and the nature of existence itself. Already, in 1956, he rounded upon the human-like figure of Death, a year before Ingmar Bergman did so through Antonius Block, the fourteenth century Swedish Crusader who challenged Death in the 1957film The Seventh Seal. This short poem from 1956, is called Pause en Route.
Death, when I am ready, I
Shall come; drifting where I drown,
Falling, or by burning, or by
Sickness, or by striking down.
Nothing you can do can put
My coming aside, nor what I choose
To come like – holy, broken, or but
An anonymity – refuse.
But when I am ready be
What figure you will, bloodily dressed
Or with arms held gauzily
In at my door from the tempest.
And, if your task allow it, let
The ceaseless waters take us as
One soul conversing and, if it
Deny, let that civility pass.
Little, now as then, we know
How I shall address you or
You me. Embarrassment could go
Queerly with us, scavenger.
Nothing sure but that the brave
And proud you stopped I will not sing,
Knowing nothing of you save
A final servant functioning.
Following Eleanor’s death in Philadelphia in 2017, Tom returned to Dublin where he lived alongside his daughter Sara and her husband Conor O’Malley. They, and Sara’s brother John, and sister Mary visiting from Philadelphia, ensured that his needs were met, as he read and wrote steadily every day. In addition to poetry, he wrote fascinating de-constructions of poems he admired, including sonnets by Shakespeare and dense poetry by Ezra Pound and T S Eliot among others. We now await eagerly the appearance of this final work by him.
27th December, 2021