Still Life with Waterfall
Eamon Grennan
Graywolf Press
$14.00 Paperback  72 pages

In a tradition that reflects back more that 3000 years to Celtic druids, who "were superior as poets and story tellers," the Modern period of Irish literature ends with the triumph of three geniuses: William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, while contemporary work begins with a host of talented writers, among them the Irish-American Eamon Grennan.

Born in Dublin in 1941, Grennan was apparently educated in a monastery, a time on which he doesn't care to elaborate, projecting it instead as a twilight image right out of Irish magical tales. A "lapsed Catholic," however, he has lived in this country for more than thirty years, teaching English and Irish Literature at Vassar College and Villanova University, while making frequent trips back to his native land for what he calls "voice transfusions." Scholar, critic, translator, "Still Life with Waterfall" is Grennan's fifth collection of his own poetry.

The book begins as "On slow wings the marsh hawk is patrolling / possibility;" then plunges down "on a scuttling minutiae of skin and innards.ripping the bright red strings that keep the blood in check, something that was sure of itself, only a minute ago." Grennan gazes on the material world in "the face of disappearance," a poet of what is and suddenly isn't. Even when engaged in "the shutter-touch of the pulse between her legs," he is yearning to "unlearn myself / but to a few untutored howls."  

Although he practices what the critic Robert Schultz calls a "poetics of accuracy," too much of this apparent accuracy is spent in naming; as if, snatched away, at least they will endure as "after-images on the ghost of ash, as near to nothing / as you could imagine." Practicing a sort of cryptobiology-the search for life-forms not yet pinned down--in reverse, he is not looking to discover something new as much as anticipating its demise. It is a strategy that, if only obliquely, earns him a place in the current ecological agon of species extinction, exhibiting the Irish disposition to always keep one eye on politics, the other on a poem.

Schooled also in the history of painting, Grennan brushes his words across a page like oil pigments that never thoroughly dry. Although one poem in "Still Life with Waterfall"-a poor one at that--is titled "Vermeer, My Mother, and Me, the book highlights French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), whose "Sunset" adorns its cover. In mid-career, Bonnard was interested in how the Impressionist painters of his day worked in the field, directly capturing the 'sensation' of nature. But, as Bonnard's propensity was for the studio, he would seduce nature into going home with him. "Eros erodes us,." Grennan writes, in words that echo each other, as if the psyche itself were being weathered down.

At a time when tempered voices are needed in the public life of our nation, Grennan's meditations are refreshing, "nibbling on the good grass of the present moment.like the souls / I imagined alive on the other side of mirrors."


The Oregonian 2002