Saturday, August 17, 2013

`Ordeal Succeeding Ordeal'

Forty years ago in Cleveland a friend and aspiring poet (one with whom I made a Hart Crane-inspired pub crawl of the city) was reading the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella with devotion. Kinsella was born in Dublin in 1928, and now is eighty-five years old. My friend was reading and imitating his most recent collections, Nightwalker (1968) and Notes From the Land of the Dead (1972). I read over his shoulder, so to speak, but Kinsella left me cold. His poems are often fragmentary and highly compressed, like misbegotten aphorisms or traces of language on shards of pottery or papyrus. The mythic material feels undigested and portentous. Meaning is forced to do the work of sound in such lines: “The Hag. Squatting on the water, / her muzzle staring up at nothing.”

My friend gave up writing poetry years ago, so far as I know. Last I heard, he and his wife were making woodcrafts in northernmost Maine, where they homesteaded in 1977. Partly out of a wish to rekindle fond memories, I’ve tried to read Kinsella’s Collected Poems 1956-1994 (Oxford University Press, 1996). To say I’m disappointed is not quite correct because my expectations were minimal and exploratory. I’ve discovered a few pleasant fragments. In “Phoenix Park” from Nightwalker, a poem about leaving, I find this in the third section: 

“Love, it is certain, continues till we fail,
Whenever (with your forgiveness) that may be
--At any time, now, totally, ordeal
Succeeding ordeal till we find some death, 

“Hoarding bitterness, or refusing the cup;
Then the vivifying eye clouds, and the thin
Mathematic tissues loosen, and the cup
Thickens, and order dull and dies in love’s death
And melts away in a hungerless no dream.” 

That phrase – “ordeal / Succeeding ordeal till we find some death” – is memorable, and reminded me of another writer, also Irish.  In 1985, Kinsella published a brief book-length poem, a pamphlet in his Peppercanister series (thirteen pages in the Collected Poems), Her Vertical Smile. It concludes with two three-line stanzas titled “Coda.” Here is the second, referring to an orchestra conductor: 

“I lift my
baton and my
trousers fall.” 

This confirms the earlier echo: Beckett, the final scene in Waiting for Godot: 

VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
ESTRAGON: You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR: Pull ON your trousers.
ESTRAGON: (realizing his trousers are down). True.
He pulls up his trousers.
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.      

[Go here and advance to 2:48, then go back and watch the whole thing.]

No comments: