The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993) and Adrienne Rich (1992). This year the award goes to Eamon Grennan for his Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf). Jurors were Andrew Hudgins, Judith Ortiz Cofer and Robert Wrigley, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Dance and Disappear, by Laura Kasischke (Massachusetts); Starting from Sleep, by Charles Martin (Overlook); The Lives of the Saints, by Suzanne Paola (Washington); Bellocq’s Ophelia, by Natasha Trethewey (Graywolf); and Skid, by Dean Young (Pittsburgh).
In the classic or traditional “still life,” that which is represented is, by definition, still. It is usually inanimate, even. Thus the still life will include not only the fruit and the cup, the knife and the cutting board, but the killed pheasants awaiting their dressing out. A wing from one of the birds may sprawl rigorously up and out, but the sensation the painting creates is not one of flight or even of the potential of flight, but of repose and of waiting. Waiting, that is, for the return, the participation, the full involvement of the human being the picture implies. What is often most beautiful about the still life is the feeling that one is brought to a regard far beyond one’s own sensory capabilities. You pause, in a way, and enter another human’s world. You “see” with the artist’s eye that sweat of heavy condensation on the goblet or the pear, and you enter into a stillness in your own life. Time stops. If you’re lucky, you can look up momentarily disoriented by all that has shot by you in that suspended moment. The blessing of the art is in the time we do not spend.
Such a suspension of time is what the lyric poet means to conjure. I am tempted to say “ignite,” for as much as anything else the lyric moment, that free time the painter and the poet offer us, is a kind of arc flash of recognition. We hardly need to elaborate on it; it is simply present and instantly as true as the world at hand. Or better yet, truer, clearer, held still for our taking in, our entering into. The figure of this sort of ignition is also one that the poet Eamon Grennan, in his marvelous book Still Life with Waterfall, recipient of the 2003 Lenore Marshall Poetry Award, is very fond of. Whether it is the future, with its “red eyes whispering,” or a “sun-splash of feathers/falling through the skylight,” what is illuminated is caught and held for a reader to savor. Grennan would have us know–no, would have us see, feel, hear, taste and smell–that the world, moment by ordinary or agonizing moment, lies chock-full with its own clarifications and rewards. That such rewards most often go unnoticed keeps the artists in business, so to speak, and if there is anything more likely to open us to the savor of life than poems like Grennan’s, I can’t imagine what it might be.
Still Life with Waterfall is Eamon Grennan’s sixth collection of poems, and its title suggests immediately the nature of this poet’s enterprise. How delightful and odd to find in the midst of such a production of repose as a “still life” the constant motion of a “waterfall.” In a sense this is the poet’s homage to painters (the book’s cover is a vividly colorful detail from Pierre Bonnard’s Sunset; two poems in the collection speak directly of Bonnard; another features an epigraph by him; still another poem speaks of Vermeer; and there is yet one more titled “Painter’s Diary”); however, the title also implies something of a linguistic trump. That is to say, Grennan proves that his still-life lyrics are indeed capable of movement, or at least that they can pluck from a world, or a life, in blinding motion, a slice clear enough to make us shudder with satisfaction. Sometimes it is the motion in that slice that electrifies.
Consider the poem “Enough.” The speaker, walking along an Irish marsh, spots the very fox he has for days or weeks or months been seeing the tracks of. It is only a “glimpse,” but it is “enough” to see the fox’s “ears, plump sides, rump and bushy tail/vanishing.” There is a seeing-is-believing kind of validation for the speaker in this momentary vision–the imagery of the poem is almost entirely visual–but tellingly, it is Grennan’s abundant sensory details that make the reader see the fox’s tracks, “the marks only/of his absence,” as more than they might otherwise seem. The speaker, after all, comes nearest to the animal by walking in those tracks. This iswhere the speaker takes in, for example, “the smell of him,” followed immediately by the poem’s most remarkable visual image: the fox’s “neat prints filling with sand.” Whether it is dry, windblown sand or wet, heavy, falling sand is immaterial. What we see is the ongoingness inside the static image. It is the motion of the waterfall and the perfect segue out of the lyric poem back into the flow of life and time. The absence of the fox on the page itself is so immediate, the reader too is touched by its passing.
Poem after poem in Still Life with Waterfall is emblazoned with such experiences caught and held and allowed to move on. What also happens as one reads the book is that one becomes aware of what I’m tempted to call the larger lyric moment. The collection suggests something very much like a narrative of a life–complete with love and loss, heartbreak and mortality. Reading this book, one feels the motions and obsessions of a quest: In his seeking after the moment, this poet seeks also something elemental about the human being, about the human soul. The opening poem, “At Work,” describes the flight of a marsh hawk over the grassy fields. When the bird sees “the slightest aberration, any stir/that isn’t the wind’s,” it falls on its prey. What follows in the poem’s second stanza is a graphic description of that prey’s devouring: “severing the head first,/then ripping the bright red strings that keep the blood in check,/then eyes, gizzard, heart, and so to the bones, cracking/and snapping each one.” That the poem is a trope for any sort of animal life, including a human’s, is both clear and commonplace. Of each snapping bone, the poet observes that it had “moved so swift and silent/and sure of itself, only a minute ago, in the sheltering grass.”
By the end of the book, by the final poem, another predatory bird (this one a sparrow hawk) plucks a finch-chasing robin right out of the air. This sort of book-ended framing is risky and important, for in that last poem, Grennan gives us something close to both an ars poetica and an ars vita. “I began to understand,” he says, “how a poem can happen: 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.”
Grennan’s poems are the hawks, and we are the hawks. We are the prey, as is the poet. This is the kind of poetry that makes you more alive, more alert to your own bones and birds. Stay alive, it says. Listen. See.
There is hardly a poem in Still Life with Waterfall that does not offer as its triggering subject or as its structuring imagery the things of the natural world. You will find a field guide full of birds; dazzling meadows full of flowers; sun, moon, stars, rocks and the sea. If you do a little sniffing after reviews and commentary on Grennan’s work, you will almost certainly find him called “a nature poet.” He may be comfortable with the term, but to me the phrase, attached to any writer worth reading, is silly and diminishing. Beyond the implication that there is something unnatural about poets whose work does not include an amplitude of images from the planet we all share, there’s a brand of almost willful nonsense in the term, since most often it seems content to catalogue a poet’s work merely by counting the “things” that show up in it, rather than examining why those “things” are deployed. It is the sort of literary classification an accountant might invent.
Eamon Grennan’s natural world bears a significant similarity to the late, great Theodore Roethke’s. He is less boisterous (or even barbaric) than Roethke, but like Roethke, his attention to the natural world is a way of looking out in order to see inside. The subject may be as personal as romantic loss or disillusionment or nostalgia, but Grennan will find in the natural world the imagery to make such feelings palpable to a reader. He understands the human animal may be little different from the common wild or domesticated animal. It may be that all there is that separates human and animal is less love, for example, than it is the language that makes of love our most powerful abstraction, though Grennan, like Keats, admires and envies, even, the purity of emotion and expression in a bird’s singing. In a poem that deftly conflates two birds singing in a leafless ginkgo and a pair of lovers in a room so cold they could see their breath, Grennan notes that the lovers’ breath “at blood-heat/[frosts] the windowpane,/blinding its clear unlying eye.” It is the window looking out on the singing birds, not the lover’s eye, that does not or cannot lie. And the poem, which grieves nostalgically for such a moment when the lovers were warmed by their love alone, ends with the following line. It is perfectly ambiguous which pair–birds? lovers? both?–the operative pronoun, “they,” refers to, or whether the adjectives are literal and birdly, or figurative and human: “Such sharp songs they had, and clear green throats.”
In 1963, I was 12 when “the British Invasion” accelerated to full speed, with the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Forty years have passed, and my children find the Beatles charming and quaint, “kind of like Bach,” my daughter says. If there has been an “Irish Invasion” in American poetry, it has come at a much slower pace. An “infiltration” might be the better term, though I think I’d prefer something more like “a welcoming.” We are, however, clearly blessed with the presence (or regular presence) of a number of Irish poets of great distinction, from the titanic Seamus Heaney, through the dazzling and urbane Paul Muldoon, to the fierce and passionate Eavan Boland, among others. I would add to this list, as a simple matter of filling out a sort of “Fab Four” of Irish poets in the USA, the name Eamon Grennan. All four are decidedly different: Grennan does not so often employ Heaney’s references to Irish history, and compared with the delirious formal jazz of Muldoon, his poems are restrained. It might be the time Grennan has spent here–thirty years, according to the biographical note in this book–but I would suggest that Grennan is, in a way, the least demonstrably Irish of this quartet. It is not that his poems are less musical than we might expect of an Irish poet (nor of any other English-writing poet with an exemplary ear). They are often lavish with music (“buff-colored heifers up to their bellies in buttercups”). It’s not that he never speaks of Ireland; a number of the poems in this book take place at Renvyle, in the north, where he spends his summers. Nor is it that he speaks any more frequently than Muldoon, say, of this country. Finally, it is not that his poems seem any more “American,” whatever that might mean. Rather, it is that Grennan’s poems, in my opinion, possess a kind of pure and purifying statelessness. They are of the places in which he lives on this planet. They could be of almost anywhere on the planet–momentary, powerful, evocative and rewarding.
In Eamon Grennan’s poems, in his world, we enter a place where “itch begins to rhyme with ache.” These words are something we understand in English, but the concept, I believe, goes all around the world.