Saturday, October 4, 2008


This review of Eamon Grennan, The Quick of It (Graywolf Press, 2005) first appeared in Harvard Review, Number 30 (2006), pp. 179-80.

Toward the close of The Quick of It, a gathering of sixty-six untitled 10-liners, Eamon Grennan presents an explicit elucidation of the art of poetry at work in this highly-satisfying volume. Describing the simple act of raking freshly-mown grass—“your movements slow, deliberate, steady / As rowing”—he concludes: “Caught between satisfactions of rhythm, sound and sight, you see this is how / What you want to say may come clear as you revise (rake the dead away, // Bring the living to light), till you find under a tuft of cut grass a wild bees’ nest / Which you cover again, seeing its tiny golden honey-eggs blaze by daylight.” Acknowledging the intrinsically revelatory nature of lyric poetry, Grennan yet clearly abides by Emily Dickinson’s advice that “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” Accordingly, the poems that make up this volume tend to unfold rather than to explode as Grennan grapples with the inadequacy of his artistic medium to “say it the way it is”; in another poem, likening his challenge to that of the 18th-century French painter Chardin, he writes: “Only you look again, stretch your hand, dip the bristles, risk again the failing stroke.”

For Grennan, the risk here entails in part his choosing a significantly smaller canvas than usual for his brushwork. Having crafted in his volume Still Life With Waterfall (2002) a loose series of 13-liners that afforded him both the discipline of the sonnet and the flexibility of a nonce form, he raises the stakes by shrinking the form in The Quick of It. One result of the concentration of detail into the more compact structure is a concentration of language as well: an opening up to a deep sonic richness—a “rhapsody of rapt cacophony” as he describes the singing of a flock of starlings—hitherto uncharacteristic of his writing. Retaining the supple free verse line that characterizes his poetry throughout his career, Grennan continues to eschew end rhyme but textures his verses with a gratifying variety of other melopoetic devices: internal rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration. Musing on how he has never witnessed “that pivotal single instant” when solid stone gives way to the omnivorously eroding force of the sea, he has sound and sense converge impressively in his imagining of that moment “In which sea-roar and land-groan become a single deafening sky-sound / Before that jawing withdrawal, collapse, that racing after, so foam, stones, / Churn of sand, swirl of seawrack make a wrecked mouth bulging with one // Loud clamour-tongue, which the rock you stood on plunges into, dumbing it.”

Much of The Quick of It involves just such an attempt to capture not only the ephemeral but also the essential: the quidditas of what the poet experiences or observes. In a poem recording his own attentiveness to the attentiveness of a wren he notices in the bushes, Grennan actually discloses a source for this aesthetic in the example of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His strong-stressed lines inherently confluent with the sprung rhythms of Hopkins, Grennan appears to be acknowledging outright the influence on his poetic vision of Hopkins’ notions of “instress” and “inscape”: “It is that nib-specific focus I’m seeing in the bird / And hearing in the music, the in-lit contingent presence things hold // In the moment to moment passage of their happening.” Fully attuned to the natural world, Grennan at times even reflects a Hopkinsesque spiritual aspect. Glimpsing a robin on the wing, for example, “its burnt-orange / Breast, an emblem blown to brightness by the cloudy morning,” he responds: “I almost // Feel it as the quick blink of God’s one eye, the eureka-brisk surprise given / And taken, the echt unmanageable absolute of it in the moment passing.”

Dividing his year between Poughkeepsie, New York and Connemara in the western part of his native Ireland, Eamon Grennan is an altogether cosmopolitan poet. While some of his poems have recognizable Irish settings, the volume as a whole resonates with a capaciousness that transcends place specificity. The Quick of It is an altogether engaging and enriching book of lyric poetry.

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