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Eamon Grennan's Life Studies

Illuminated Manuscripts


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Grennan's first two collections were published in Ireland, then reprinted in the US in combined form as What Light There Is & Other Poems (Gallery Books, 1987). He compares his first drafts to an artist's life studies, "drawn in situ, the sketchbook side of things." He often starts by jotting a phrase in the small notebook he carries. For a while, he wrote a short poem every day on a calendar page, promising himself that he wouldn't look back till the end of the year, when he "pruned out the deadwood" and started rewriting. "Phrase is the point of entry," he says. "I launch not with the subject or idea, God help us, but with a phrasing of something I've seen. This morning, I watched a deer crossing the garden, and two male mallards and a female swimming upstream. They may make it into a poem."

He hastens to add that his nature poems "aren't merely descriptive, but reflect what's going on in the interior, inflecting it with the emotional consciousness that's your own moment in time." If that sounds abstract, Grennan's 2002 poem "Detail" (see below) demonstrates his approach. As he reads it aloud, the musical cadences are as noteworthy as the poem's conversational tone, unwinding in a single sentence towards the heart-stopping strike of a sparrowhawk "scorching the air."

"A lot of the time when you're dealing with a poem, you're into the technique, making it right, making the music right, when a terrible truth strikes—something literal and metaphorical," Grennan explains. "The best poems occur when the craft is suddenly captured by the emotional truth."

Several of his poems reference painters who likewise illuminate everyday moments, including Bonnard, Chardin, and Vermeer; a critical study of his work is titled "Vermeer in Verse: Eamon Grennan's Domestic Interiors. "The poet selected the Mark Rothko painting on Out of Sight's cover, an untitled abstract that moves though a spectrum of warm colors from blood-red to gold, with a streak of black.

"The book tries to cover a spectrum of what I've felt and experienced, from the natural to the domestic to the erotic to the political, up to a point," he says. "My take on politics is often to do with victims, with things that are cast out, the destruction of some of the things I've celebrated."

Grennan spends part of each year in the west of Ireland, at a cottage his sister found in the village of Renvyle, 65 miles north of Galway. "It's not right on the coast, but I can walk to the sea. That's been hugely important to me and what I do."

So is living near "our magical Hudson." Alongside references to Ballymoney, Connemara, and Tully Mountain, the poems in Out of Sight cite the Catskills, the Mid-Hudson Bridge, northeastern fall foliage ("The hills/ a witch's quilt of goldrust, flushed cinnamon, / wine fever, hectic lemon"), and a virtual aviary of local birds.

"As a transplanted person, I was trying to locate and name my environment, to look at things more closely," says Grennan, who's come to think of his bicontinental divide as a blessing. "I feel it's my virtue, my difference. Not belonging completely to either place is possibly the reason I have anchored myself in the landscape and in the family. It contributed to the way I've turned out as a writer."

Eamon Grennan looks out at the snow-covered campus, appraising its dusky shadows and apricot glow. "Every poem is an elegy, because the moment is gone," he says. "It's also a celebration. I'd like to box those two things together—a celebratelegy. Saying 'This happened' is the kind of thing you might put on your gravestone. And given my character and native instinct, I'd add, "'And it's okay that it did.'"


I was watching a robin fly after a finch—the smaller bird

chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent

in light-winged earnest chase—when, out of nowhere

over the chimneys and shivering front gardens,

flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn

scorching the air from which it simply plucks

like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three

cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence

closing over the empty street when the birds have gone

about their own business, and I began to understand

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.

Eamon Grennan, "Detail" from Out of Sight: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002, 2010 by Eamon Grennan. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org

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