Saturday, October 4, 2008


This review of Eamon Grennan, Still Life with Waterfall (Gallery Books, 2001; Graywolf Press, 2002) first appeared in The Irish Literary Supplement, Volume 22, Number 1 (Spring 2003), p. 14.

Ironically, given the density of its prose, the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses may provide crucial backshadowing for the vision informing Eamon Grennan’s truly luminous—at times even numinous—book of poems Still Life with Waterfall. “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” Stephen Dedalus muses to himself: “Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” In many respects “Proteus” reads as James Joyce’s own musing, by way of G. E. Lessing’s Laocoon, on the relationship between the world apprehended Nebeneinander—that is, spatially, objects side by side—and the verbal artist’s necessary expression of that world Nacheinander—that is, temporally, through words presented one after another: “the ineluctable modality of the audible.” Of course, Joyce himself contests Lessing’s categorical distinctions in the ensuing episodes of Ulysses, constantly complicating the reader’s expectation of the linear nature of narrative.

More broadly, however, “Proteus” involves what may be the intrinsic enterprise of lyric poetry: the attempt to acknowledge—through the attempt to capture in words—the truly protean character of human sensation, emotion, intellection. Robert Fitzgerald’s rendering of Eidothea’s advice concerning the sea deity Proteus that Menelaus shares with Telemachus in Book IV of The Odyssey describes this enterprise: “If you could take him by surprise and hold him, / he’d give you course and distance for your sailing / homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.” Tellingly, the opening poem of Still Life with Waterfall opens with a powerful image out of nature that embodies symbolically the undertaking of the lyric poet: “On slow wings the marsh hawk is patrolling / possibility.” Titled “At Work,” the poem reads readily not just as a graphic recording of brutal beauty but also as a metaphorical representation of artistic pursuit and execution—of a literary capturing and reconstituting of (in effect) “that scuttling minutiae of skin and innards, / its hot pulse hammering . . . / that moved so swift and silent / and sure of itself, only a minute ago, in the sheltering grass.”

Pursuing such “possibility” in poem after poem, Grennan even evokes at times a defining stylistic feature of the “Proteus” episode. In “Grid,” for example, recording how “A deer in the field of morning, tan coat gleaming— / . . . stares till he sees what you are, then a huge / expulsive whufff and he’s dolphining green waves / to a safer distance,” he could almost be invoking Joyce’s glossing for his friend Frank Budgen of his coining the word “almosting”: “That’s all in the Protean character of the thing. Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change, too. Adverb becomes verb.” Observing in “Cold Morning” how “the eight o’clock light change[s] / from charcoal to a faint gassy blue, inventing things,” Grennan—like Joyce before him—seeks both the language and the complementary form by which to register the endless changeability of outer and inner worlds: of phenomenal experience and of the individual’s reception and processing of that experience.

In fact, Grennan finds—or invents—the very form for containing the ever-shifting potency of language: an unrhymed and rhythmically supple nonce stanza of thirteen lines that itself proves “protean” in his hands. Indeed, the effect of Grennan’s twenty-two thirteen-liners (interspersed among the fifty-two poems in the volume) resides quite literally between that created by Paul Muldoon’s countless deconstructive renovations of the classic fourteen-line form of the sonnet and Seamus Heaney’s forty-eight innovative twelve-liners which constitute “Squarings” in Seeing Things. Sometimes (like Muldoon) breaking down the formal structure into discrete strophes to reinforce the rhetorical structure of the poem, Grennan yet consistently achieves (like Heaney) that ideogrammatic compression idealized by Ezra Pound: the presentation of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” A single sinuous sentence, the final poem of Still Life with Waterfall both articulates and illustrates the efficacy of Grennan’s newfound form; observing a robin’s bullying of a finch cut short by the lethal attack of a sparrowhawk, Grennan concludes: “and I began to understand / how a poem can happen to you: you have your eye on a small / elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth / strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.”

For readers familiar with Grennan’s poetry through his four previous volumes published in North America (five in Ireland), the relative uniformity of his thirteen-liners may seem at first a radical departure for a poet whose trademark pieces (“Wing Road,” “Men Roofing,” “Two Gathering,” “Wet Morning, Clareville Road”) incline toward an organic expansiveness. But these poems, like the others that make up Still Life with Waterfall, actually share with his earlier work his characteristic attentiveness to the details of the natural world, to the subtleties of domestic relations and familial bonds, to the mirror images of art and life—in short, to what Yeats referred to as the “mere complexities” of being human. As the book’s title promises, Grennan finds a way to hold in words, to embed and to embody in stable poetic forms, the protean flux and flow of the world, the signatures of all things he is here to read.

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