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A journey with depth

September 24, 2006|Nick Owchar

"TOGETHER, both as one, / We lifted our dripping blades in the dying light ... " -- the haunting, Dantean river journey of Thomas Kinsella's "Downstream" makes other poems inspired by the brooding Tuscan seem like homework.

And when the poem's imagery of a skiff moving under starry skies effortlessly shifts to stark visions of a concentration camp's "tall chimneys flickering," one wonders why this Irish poet isn't as revered as Seamus Heaney.

Wake Forest University Press' "Collected Poems" (380 pp., $18.95 paper) makes the case for this singular poet of enormous depths. Born in Dublin in 1928, Kinsella gave up a job in the Irish civil service to pursue a poetry career in the United States. This collection is truly an event, enabling us to follow him from his early sensual lyrics ("Before I woke there entered in / A woman with a golden skin") to harsher, visceral images of existence. "My heart shrank / at the smell of disused / organs and sour kidney," he writes of visiting a dying relative in "Tear." What we take away isn't a lulling rhyme, a pleasing sound, but the reek of human ends.

The volumes Kinsella published in the 1970s with his Peppercanister Press are the books of a poet refusing easy categorization: "Butcher's Dozen" uses furious doggerel to criticize the British government's response to Bloody Sunday, John F. Kennedy is remembered in "The Good Fight" and Kinsella's interest in Irish history and Jungian psychology finds release in "One" and "Songs of the Psyche." "I came to myself / in the middle of a dark wood," he writes in the latter, "electric with hope."

Heaney is the one most people think of when they think of Irish poets today, and, sure, he deserves his laurels -- not a few times he's rescued this tired mind with invigorating images of hearth and bog. But with each new book, there's less confidence of finding anything new, anything that he hasn't already said. Kinsella, however, constantly surprises. He seems unwilling to rest or repeat himself. The version of "Downstream" in this collection, for instance, isn't the one he published 40 years ago. But why should it be? Should he ignore the fact that the truths uncovered when he first wrote it have been altered by his experiences?

Late in the collection, the poem "Littlebody" suggests a changing attitude to his career as Kinsella nears 80. Ostensibly about Irish lore and an encounter with a gold-carrying dwarf, the poem ends with a moment of self-recognition:

I left him to himself.

And left the purse where it was.

I have all I need for the while I have left

This homely declaration of satisfaction is stirring, for it seems to ask us all: Can you say the same?

-- Nick Owchar

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