"The collection’s blocks of texts are like small windows on to the world at once real and consistently shone through with a sanctifying light. Plainchant is almost a screen of icons, each offering a pathway through to some other world of meaning. The poet stands waiting, like the seals in Seals off White Strange, Renvyle, “patiently for something, anything –/anything in either world – to happen”. — Seán Hewitt, The Irish Times
Eamon Grennan’s new collection, Plainchant, shows once again his powers of close, patient, plainspoken observation. He reveals how any specific detail can glow with the truth of its own unrepeatable self. Set mostly in the landscape of coastal Connemara, these poems can also bring to vivid life a family walk, a painting by Bonnard, a childhood memory, a brief encounter or the sight of a man scything a field. Through the repeated justified-margins format of these poems (each poem’s line width determined by the chosen length of its first line) Grennan aligns accident with design and choice with chance.
Plainchant serves to sharpen our own habits of attention, renewing our sense of the often unnoticed worlds around us.
The first thing we can safely say about the latest volume from Eamon Grennan is there is nothing plain about these chants. The title of this volume evokes the plainsong of the Roman Catholic Church, and, of course, the word chants itself carries the connotation of a sacred song. Through this means Grennan evokes the sacred roots of poetry, its ancient relation to prayer, liturgy, ritual, and rite. This is not to turn off the secular reader, or a reader disenchanted with the claims and actions of the institutional churches. But rather to strike out for something primal and buried deep in our personal and collective subconscious. In this way Grennan’s poems can be meaningfully read as secular prayers, a reverent homage to the beauty, majesty, and sheer awesomeness of unadorned nature.
And this is where we might locate his justification in choosing the word ‘plain’. There is nothing bombastic, verbose, or overly reverential or trembling in Grennan’s acute presentation of nature in this collection. As one might fear from a project titled as this one is. Grennan has long been a devotee of the West of Ireland, where he’s had a second home for many years. And so, place names that recur here include Inishmore, Omey, and Renvyle. In these poems we encounter gannets, several hares, cows, curlews, swallows, sandmartins, and ants. The German language poet Paul Celan is a presence, alongside Beckett. Painting is the sister art, suggested in poem titles like ‘Self-Portrait with Yellow Raincoat’, ‘With Curlews and Starlight’, just as Vuillard is evoked in ‘Room with Misia’ and Bonnard in ‘Nature Vivant: Just Looking.’ And Philosophy, rather than Theology, is the discipline conversed with, through two references to Heraclitus, and a penchant in the diction for words like ‘ontology’ and phrases like ‘this one space-time absolute.’
But this leaning never sees Grennan disappear into an abstract, opaque territory that leaves the reader or poetry lover searching for an ordinance survey map or GPS to find their way. Grennan is too wily and able a poet for that. Every poem in this volume keeps a clear and steady eye on concrete objects, clearly caught in its perceptive gaze. Above all else, these are poems of sharp-eyed observation. ‘Two Hares’ presents life and death unsentimentally, as simple facts of life, observed first in a dead hare sprawled at the edge of the road ‘in an attitude of sleep’ beside ‘the ragged verge of grass, buttercups and weeds.’ This sight seems to wring ‘all the good light out of everything.’ This vision is presented alongside the recollection of a young hare seen earlier that morning nibbling ‘the fresh parsley sprouts,’ with ‘infinite delicatesse.’ The connection between both hares is their mutual possession of ‘onyx-like eyes’; the first hare’s were ‘gleaming’; the second, ‘bright, live, ready-for-anything.’ Both hares are each given a long sentence, which never tires and is masterfully controlled. Two sentences, two hares, two worlds; one alive, the other dead. Like two rooms sitting side by side. One thinks of ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ by Wallace Stevens.
This is not to say that animal figures are the only sentient presences in this collection. If we can include the ghost of Grennan’s mother, who reappears in at least two poems, ‘Sieve’ and ‘Anniversary Mother.’ ‘Sieve’ is the type of poem built around a concrete object that Grennan is a master of. He thinks of his mother’s sieve whilst sieving his own Carrageen sea-weed sludge for ‘health-giving honey-coloured juices.’ This moment, and object, like a talisman, brings him back in memory to his mother sifting ‘whatever mash of potatoes, carrots, stewed onions and a sprinkling of thyme she’d serve as that day’s soup.’ The second half of the poem, contemplating the fact of her ‘simple solid nearness’, ‘a body of flesh and blood’, ends with her glancing into the oval mirror over the dining-room table, ready to serve dinner, a ghostly presence in the mirror even in real time at that time, but for certain she is that now, recalled to memory and framed within this poem. There is wonderful humanity in the poet’s recollection of his mother, her special care and regard for her young son, as we hear her speak: ‘Mind your hand, love’; ‘There now’; ‘It’ll be ready soon; think you can wait.’
Eamon Grennan is one of Ireland’s finest contemporary poets, one who celebrates the richness and vibrancy of the natural world with a fresh directness worthy of a gannet plummeting into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Ireland’s west coast. All of it captured in these slightly oddly-shaped meditations. Eamon Grennan is a very able craftsman of finely sculpted verse, as attested in earlier volumes like But the Body and Still Life with Waterfall. For this collection he has relinquished his hammer and chisel, presenting the poems in singular blocks, their width and breath governed by the poem’s first line. To this reader this method does seem like an odd choice. At points, certainly initially, it was odd to not be able to locate an immediate rhythmic footing in the poems, but once you let go of this need or desire, and read the poems like a rather blockish prose-poem, the poems do move along gracefully, and freely enough. This is really my only question about this rewarding collection. We must look forward to the day, which can’t be too far away, when The Gallery Press present to the poetry world a Collected Poems from Eamon Grennan. Rather like the recent celebratory volume from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. And, hopefully, many more poetry readers and lovers will come to appreciate the many virtues and talents of Eamon Grennan in this way.
— Derek Coyle, The High Window
New poetry: Romany culture celebrated and moments of magnificent solace
Like the unaccompanied singing of its title, the poems in Eamon Grennan’s Plainchant (Gallery, €11.95) reveal moments and encounters that create or reveal their own sanctity. Each is held together in an unusual form of prose poetry. The first line of each poem determines the length of all its subsequent lines, so the poems appear as blocks, justified to their own margins. This ingenious collaboration between shape and line creates a form in which Grennan can move skilfully between the understated and the sacred, and gives him room to experiment with a heightened register without ever appearing purple, or overly poetic. So, swans can be “sailing wide-winged and stately on the name-/less lake of painted blue on which their whiteness/glows heraldic”, and something about the prose form means the reader never recoils from the awe-struck pitch of the language.
The collection opens, memorably and breathlessly, with an encounter between the speaker and a hare. Given in one near-perfect sentence, Grennan earns his full stop like few others.
Knacky keen and swift was the flighty hare
That flitted almost up to me in Fogarty’s
near field where I tried to stand still as a
post so he might stop and stare at me with
his basalt-black burning eyes…
The collection’s blocks of texts are like small windows on to the world at once real and consistently shone through with a sanctifying light. Plainchant is almost a screen of icons, each offering a pathway through to some other world of meaning. The poet stands waiting, like the seals in Seals off White Strange, Renvyle, “patiently for something, anything –/anything in either world – to happen”.
This almost-tangible otherworld creates an elegiac tone for the collection; the poet as witness to a world that approaches and encounters him, but is still distinct and wholly itself. There are ghosts and remembrances, sudden manifestations, and images of gorgeous clarity.
A lark, for example, has “long silver ribbons of song the bird/braids as if binding lit air to earth”. Above all, this collection – one of the best Irish collections of the year – offers moments of magnificent solace. It is in the lines of the final poem, Hare at Dusk, that we see, perhaps, an image of ourselves as reader.
The hare leaps off into the dimming light,
where it can listen to its heart’s quick
insistent little drumming as it gather itself
into the blood-warm cell of itself: its form
and refuge till the big dark blows over.
— Seán Hewitt, The Irish Times
When Eamon Grennan writes of landscape and wildlife in the lee of Tully mountain, he thus revives many snapshots from that first, eager sojourn.
Grennan, a Dubliner, was also swapping cultures when, graduating from University College Dublin (where he met Derek Mahon and Eavan Boland), he went on to earn a PhD at Harvard. The US absorbed him as a professor of English at Vassar College until 2004, when retirement eased his commuting from Poughkeepsie, New York, to his cottage among the fuchsia and stone walls under Tully hill.
Plainchant (Gallery Press) is his 11th collection, adding prizes along the way. The title is an inspired choice for poems which aim, as Grennan has said, “to marry speech patterns to musical language”.
They are not what one may visually expect, each a straight-edged block of text of perhaps a couple of hundred words. Many flow from start to end with only a final full stop. Does this make them poems or compellingly poetic prose, its swinging rhythms hinged on colons and semi-colons?
Whatever they are, they work marvellously, as buoyantly persuasive as Robert Frost or James Joyce. Many share encounters with animals and birds, but quoting from them is like snatching bars out of music.
“Knacky keen and swift was the flighty hare that flitted almost up to me in Fogarty’s near field” begins one breathless event. In another, Grennan wonders what to sing to seals, “those three pitch-eyed salt-slick hound-heads gazing unblinkingly back at me”.
Wrens and jackdaws, cows and horses; each meeting with a fellow creature seeks to reach more deeply into “one life, quick-snatched as it’s passing and in vain snatched at”.
— Micheal Viney, The Irish Times
Year Published: 2020
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 797 3
Cover: ‘Gull Island’ by Patrick Hennessy (1915-1980)