Plainchant

11.9518.50

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Eamon Grennan’s new collection 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. The book serves to sharpen our own habits of attention, renewing our sense of the often unnoticed worlds around us.

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 is 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
Details: 72pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 797 3
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 798 0

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