Life Affirming


Late Poems, Thomas Kinsella (91pp, £9.95, Carcanet)



Dennis O'Driscoll's 'The Poetry of Bureaucracy: Thomas Kinsella's Two Careers' (The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays [Gallery Press, 2013]) is a great way into Thomas Kinsella's life and unusual poetry - with its quirky, matter of fact, often abrasive tone. Kinsella's years in the Finance department as assistant to T. K. Whitaker (voted 'Irishman of the 20th century' in an RTE poll 2001 for spearheading Ireland's transformation into the Celtic Tiger of the nineties) aided his work life balance. Kinsella explains: 'After a day in the civil service and an evening meal, I'd simply take it up in the same way one would take up a hobby'. O'Driscoll describes the resulting poetry as similarly 'efficient' triggering a marmite debate with Peter Sirr noting that he: 'uses personal material with the flinty objectivity of a Tribunal report', while Kit Fryatt finds his 'chilly and mock-verbose' manner 'unlovable' (p. 289). Clearly enough people love it, given Thomas Kinsella's (b. 1928) international reputation, numerous awards and honours including freedom of the city of Dublin 2007.


Late Poems is a repackaging of the fifty poems of Kinsella's latest five Peppercanister pamphlets (his press founded in 1972 for long and occasional poems). Within the pamphlets' discrete themes Kinsella expresses fascination and dismay at warfare's officialdom in the endless recycling of swords into ploughshares. His bureaucratic tone makes for an authoritative public voice that walks a fine didactic line: his attitude to religious faith is ambiguous, while art and philosophy as restorative gifts to future generations is clear. He also includes diurnal narratives of isolation where in the course of the telling little glimmers of humanity flicker. These are complex poems that reward several readings.


The opening poem ('Untitled', 'Marginal Economy' (2006)) is prologue to the whole book. Kinsella wakes from a desperately lonely dream where he wanders the corridors of a derelict hotel. From here his cryptic description of his thoughts as 'mental smell' and 'night facts' before personifying them as women workers, conveys both the futility of human improvement - with 'waste' a loaded word indicative of mass destruction - and his moral responsibility to think about it anyway:


picking the works of my days apart,

will you find what you need

in the waste still to come?


This caustic pessimism continues fairly unabated but with little hints of human exchange. In 'First Night' the aging barfly with his unwanted stories are mixed in with icy descriptions of the isolated nighttime city ('Our voices unforgiving, exchanging refusals'), yet the speaker genuinely wants to learn from the man's stories. Kinsella is just so 'on the button' with human encounters such as this unavoidable meeting with a disliked colleague ('Standing, watching, on opposite sides of the grave, / we exchanged nods in old dislike'), whom he is nevertheless very close to: 'It was time for us to go - his thick back moving off / familiar among the others' ('The Affair'), that skilled choice of 'thick' suggesting both familiarity and the solid presence of him being there whether the speaker likes it or not: work relations in a nutshell. Yet what is so odd at times is the mixture of the familiar with the strange which then catches us unawares. Everyone knows that momentary awkwardness at the start of a wedding service: 'over-aware / where we sat. Looking across / at a number of other guests. Looking at us', which makes the laconic, disciplined lapidary lines which follow all the more unexpected: 'The Bride comely. / The Groom steadfast / Their hands primal.' ('Wedding Service'). This transformation of the individual into the generic prepares us for the formality of the processes of war soon to follow. 'Blood of the Innocent' is a puzzling poem which suggests a loved daughter being brought up ultimately for human sacrifice but from here he moves to his core message: 'leave to those behind us / with Acts of Hope and Encouragement, / a growing total of Good (adequately recorded'. ('Blood of the Innocent')


His second pamphlet, Man of War uses bureaucratic language for strong satirical purposes occasionally edging into a dark humour. He opens with as superb concise survey of the history of mankind noting of 'the brutal basis' of man: 'we must accept; / indifferent cruelty - a lack of pity - '('Argument'). From here in 'Retrospect' his matter of fact step by step analysis of the procedures of war in the days of hand to hand battles is a powerful way of emphasising its absurdity: 'attacked each other in a place appointed, / and by agreement, on chosen day.' He goes on: 'These specialist, part-orderly excesses / of mutual self-slaughter would endure / the whole day'. Then in 'A Proposal' he gets heavily sarcastic as he offers various practical alternatives to the mass carnage to solve the problem - one obvious one being to just make the leaders fight it out:



if needed, I could offer my assistance

behind the scenes, with the administration:

preparing the site; preparing the instruments;

consoling the victim on the night before.


From here his sequence 'Notes' provides a mix of poems and translations of extracts from the Bible, Homer and others to home in of the historic recording of bloodshed. Kinsella's active verbs create assertiveness and momentum to persuade the reader with a sense of giving us the facts: 'A cancer wakens when the human creature / musters together' and 'the warriors of Christ found satisfaction / beyond fulfilment of their passing needs.' (3. Sleeping Cancer')


In the final three pamphlets he continues to delve into the same subject matter, along with a number of personal poems out and about in the city or in hospital. He explores such subjects as sexuality - the carnal versus the mind and includes a number of poems on art. 'The Fat Master' in particular is a long poem in tribute, we assume to J.S Bach. Increasingly he makes use of religious terminology and includes poems that are prayers giving the illusion that he is in fact a religious poet. However, ultimately his attitude to Christianity is made quite plain in his fine concluding poem: 'Love JoyÉ Peace' where with characteristic bureaucracy he tracks historical records of Christ's personality: 'The records differ in detail, but all are agreed / on His nature as a man: compassionate and precise / in his judgement of men's conduct;' In the midst of respect for the historic Christ Kinsella does unusually go on to note the explosive nature of his characteristics: 'arrogant and gentle in fatal combination'. After then tracking the violent history of the church through the Reformation, condemning in particular various notions of 'the chosen' he concludes with lines that encapsulate what he has been consistently driving out throughout this whole collection with his own modus vivendi:


I rest my faith in the orders of earthly genius,

the day labourer: Michelangelo

manipulating immensities of mind and matter

into great shapes of monumental might;

Ben Johnson's mortal Beloved

Éthat must sweat to write a living line

Bach working to the lordly need

- the occasional requirement - daily, methodical,

into the heart of the matter.


Carcanet have done a good service in collecting these pamphlets together with densely packed poems reward repeated re-reading similarly giving the reader - somewhat ironically given his bleak outlook - a life affirming modus vivendi also.


© Belinda Cooke 2014