Why Micheal O’Siadhail is an epic poet for the 21st century

Photo: Julia Hembree Smith

“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the Chinese blessing, a wish that functions equally well as a curse. Though its actual origins are uncertain (it seems to have no equivalent in Chinese), the adage was invoked by the British statesman Joseph Chamberlain in the late 19th century and President John F. Kennedy in the mid-20th, both “interesting” eras by any standard.

The Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail (pronounced mee-hawl o’sheel) adds our own epoch to this list. “In the 21st century we are facing the first global era in history. Given our world with instant electronic communication, immediate media reaction, and constant and rapid travel, all our cultures, economies, politics, sciences are more interwoven than ever before. How do we orient ourselves? Where have we come from? Have we a vision for the future?”

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O’Siadhail raises these provocative questions in the introduction to his new poetry collection, The Five Quintets, and then sets about answering them in the poems that follow. In the course of 357 pages and over 13,000 lines (by my unofficial count), O’Siadhail offers a tour-de-force reckoning of the times we find ourselves in and the story of how we have arrived here, a sweeping dramatic narrative conveyed in stately formal verse, making it a work of art that defies the tastes of our times and yet is meant for our moment.

The Poet’s Work
This, of course, is what poets do, particularly a poet like O’Siadhail: They give us the news we need in a form that challenges us to see old truths in a new way. I first met Micheal at a poetry conference some years ago. I had just delivered a presentation on the intersection of poetry and religion when the Q. and A. session began with a voice from the back of the room (O’Siadhail’s, it turned out) posing a curious question about the story of Adam and Eve: “Couldn’t the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge have been, say, an apricot, as easily as an apple?” We had just been talking about the symbolic value of the mythic apple, considering hundreds of years of Western artistic representations of Eve handing it to Adam, when the scene was suddenly transformed for the 50 people in the room.

As we all imagined the first couple indulging in a delectable dish of apricots, the first sin not only made a great deal more sense to us but also became more understandable and, inevitably, more true. Knowledge is delicious, especially forbidden knowledge, so the fruit of its tree ought to be delicious, too. For those of us lucky enough to be present that day, we would see the fall from grace differently thereafter—a measly apple would no longer suffice.

In the course of 357 pages and over 13,000 lines, O’Siadhail offers a tour-de-force reckoning of the times we find ourselves in and the story of how we have arrived here.

This is the kind of reinvention O’Siadhail accomplishes throughout his considerable body of work, which includes some 16 collections of poems published from 1978 to the present: He transforms the reality that we think we know, enabling us to see its visionary, miraculous and, ultimately, sacramental nature. In an early poem, “Morning on Grafton Street,” O’Siadhail describes his native Dublin coming awake in terms that are sensual, grounding the reader firmly in the physical beauty of the here-and-now, yet it is a sensuality that bodies forth an invisible spiritual dynamic:

Grafton Street is yawning, waking
limb by limb; jewellers’ steel
shutters clatter upwards; the sweet
doughy smells from hot-bread
shops steam the frosty morning,
warm our passing; disc-stores’
sudden rhythms blare an introit,
launch the busy liturgy of day.

His is a radically incarnational way of seeing, personifying a busy market street as a waking woman setting about the business of ministering to our human needs (for food, for warmth, for music), enacting a humble, streetwise version of the ritual of the Mass. All is blessed and a blessing in such a world, and over and over again in his poems, O’Siadhail enables us to bear witness to this generous vision.

Such vision is one of the hallmarks of a Catholic imagination, conveying an abiding faith in the goodness of creation and the ways in which the natural world is suffused with the supernatural, the secular informed by the sacred. O’Siadhail credits the “sound grounding” of his Catholic education, his admiration for the work of Catholic artists (especially Dante, Sigrid Undset, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver Messiaen and Denise Levertov) and his appreciation of the lives lived by holy people (including St. John XXIII and Jean Vanier) for shaping his imagination. These are some of the influences that have led him to his vocation as poet, whose role it is, in his words, to carry out a “ministry of meaning which is both public and personal.”

The Poet’s Life
O’Siadhail, like most poets, writes about many subjects, but his greatest theme is the transformative power of love. In my first conversation with him after our initial meeting, he introduced himself by asking me a question: “Do you know my story?” I confessed that I did not (though many people in the poetry world are familiar with it, given his fame), so he obliged me by sharing it. And what a story it is.

Born in 1947 and educated at Clongowes Wood College (the famed Jesuit boarding school young James Joyce attended and made mythic in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Trinity College Dublin and the University of Oslo (where he fell in love with Scandinavian languages and literature), O’Siadhail acquired seven languages (in addition to his native English and Irish) and thereafter worked as an academic, holding positions at Trinity College and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He continued this life, dividing his time doing research, teaching and writing poetry, until 1987, when he decided to leave the academy and devote himself full time to poetry.

“I don’t remember when I didn’t want to be a poet,” O’Siadhail confessed in an interview; thus, taking on the title and role to the exclusion of all else was the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. This marked a major turning point in his career, paving the way for what the poet describes as “a quantum leap” in his development as a writer. Even so, the defining event of O’Siadhail’s life was his marriage in 1970 to Bríd Ní Chearbhaill (pronounced breed nyee khyarule), the woman who would be his wife and muse for the next 44 years until her death in 2013.

In the succeeding decades, O’Siadhail would write hundreds of love poems to Bríd, celebrating her beauty, her spirit and the powerful yet tenuous bond all lovers share:

Sliding into the rhythm of your silence, I almost forget
how lonely I’d been until that autumn morning we met
...My desire is endless; others ended when I’d only started.
Then, there was you: so whole-hog, so wholehearted
...In the strange openness of your face, I’m powerless.
Always this love. Always this infinity between us (“Between”).

Their marriage was a happy one but also one beset by sorrow. For the last 20 years of their life together, Bríd suffered from Parkinson’s disease and Micheal cared for her. His poems about her illness are frank and deeply moving. In his collection One Crimson Thread (2015), a series of poignant sonnets, the poet chronicles Bríd’s decline, his loss of her and his widower’s grief as he tries to come to terms with life without his beloved:

A priest anoints you, binds us all in prayer.
I stroke your brow and bending from above
Am startled by your sudden flickered stare—
I snatch up your last fleeting act of love.
The crimson moment cries for you, my bride,
Yet I’m so glad that I have caught your eye;
You’ve seen me here and know I’m by your side,
I’m grateful for the gift of your goodbye.

The poems faithfully narrate a dark night of the soul, taking the reader on a journey through his own suffering, guided along the way by Dante, John of the Cross and Gerard Manley Hopkins, poetic masters who traversed such terrain before him.

A priest anoints you, binds us all in prayer.
I stroke your brow and bending from above

Micheal’s story, fortunately, did not end with the loss of his wife. In 2014, what O’Siadhail regards as a miracle took place: He fell in love again, this time with Christina Weltz, a surgeon from New York City. In our conversation that day of our first meeting, he could barely contain his wonder that he should be so blessed to know great love twice in a lifetime—a circumstance for which he credits “the God of surprises.” And so began a new chapter in O’Siadhail’s life, wherein he married again and moved from Dublin to Manhattan. Here, in a city largely built by Irish immigrants, he again took up his work as a poet.

The Five Quintets
During the time he was caring for Bríd and writing poems about love, loss and daily life, O’Siadhail had been steadily working on a longer, more ambitious project—a project to which he would be able to devote himself more fully after his second marriage and resettlement in New York. This would be a poetic venture both public and personal in nature, one that would connect the microcosm to the macrocosm, engaging the large forces of history and culture and their impact on individual souls.

O’Siadhail was no stranger to this kind of writing. In 2002 he published The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust, a powerful book that took years of research as well as painful imaginative accompaniment to tell the stories of individual people who had been silenced by death in the concentration camps. The work O’Siadhail undertook to prepare him for the challenge of taking on a subject as looming and brutal as the Holocaust also prepared him for the challenge of trying to tell the tale of human history.

The work paid off. The Five Quintets accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an epic account of the ways in which the human endeavors of art, economics, politics, science, philosophy and theology originated and evolved over the centuries to bring us to our present circumstances. These disciplines are the focus of the five “quintets,” or sections, that make up the book-length poem: Making, Dealing, Steering, Finding and Meaning.

Deeply learned, meticulously crafted and obsessively engaging, O’Siadhail’s poem teaches us many things, chief among them that not only do we live in interesting times but that all times have been interesting, that human history is the struggle of flawed beings in search of truth and that the ultimate solution to our unhappiness is love. This love takes many forms and is enacted (often imperfectly) by a host of historical figures the poet resurrects from history and brings to life upon the page, from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt, Galileo to Einstein, Martin Luther to John XXIII, Louis XIV to Mary McAleese, and in the realm of art (which lies closest to the poet’s heart), from Dante to fellow Irish writer Brian Friel.

O’Siadhail’s poem teaches us many things, chief among them that not only do we live in interesting times but that all times have been interesting.

In the end, O’Siadhail’s book itself is an offering of love. After guiding us through the throes of history, he concludes the poem, as does his master Dante in his Commedia, with a vision of paradise—a heavenly banquet wherein the saints teach him their wisdom, where he is greeted by his beloveds (both the living and the dead) and where nature’s creatures and artists spend their days enacting “a daily choreography of praise.”

While it is true that O’Siadhail’s poem concludes on a note of celebration, the joy of paradise is hard won. In keeping with the Christian comedy, the overarching story that gives shape to the book tells us there can be no resurrection without crucifixion. Thus, we are given a tour of dark places, descending into the hell of history before we are led to heaven. Each quintet (so named because each consists of five cantos) serves as a single act in the drama of human salvation and presents a parade of personalities, each painstakingly drawn and given his or her own voice. The poet serves a choral function, stepping back to narrate, contextualize and also to interrogate and pass judgment on his characters.

It is often the case, as in his response to one of Karl Marx’s monologues, that we hear not only the poet’s judgment but the judgment of history:

Mesmeric Marx, ideologue
Who bridles when we speak and brooks
No antidote or answers back,
You can’t conceive a compromise
Where conflicts could be reconciled—
For you the tactic is attack.
No time to keep, no time to heal,
No baron bargaining like Mill;
All government their instrument.
A time to tear, a time to kill.

Though born of idealism, Marx’s ideas and influence will ultimately lead to suffering on a grand scale, leaving the poet to sum up his legacy thus:

Your know-all coldness casts its spell
And in your wake such wanton pain.
How dreams of heaven end in hell.

O’Siadhail’s characteristically shrewd assessment and economy of language is evident here and in all of his portraits. We come to know the virtues and foibles of the history-makers, to see them as human beings and to realize the degree to which the grand events that have unfolded across the centuries have been shaped by the personalities, preferences and peccadillos of ordinary people with extraordinary power.

Debts and Inspirations
Given its topicality and mission—to address the current state of the world—O’Siadhail’s poem is recognizably contemporary, yet it is also a poem born of a long and rich literary tradition. The Five Quintets owes much to Dante and T. S. Eliot in its form and inception as the poet builds upon structural elements and conventions borrowed from the Commedia and Four Quartets. In addition, O’Siadhail’s grand, public, prophetic voice channels Milton, Walt Whitman and the Psalms. The poet is a truth-teller, a universal voice whose vision is omniscient and unlimited in scope. The Five Quintets also owes much to 18th-century poetic tradition, wherein the poet serves as the moral conscience of a culture and scourge of corruption. Reading through these pages, one hears echoes of Samuel Johnson’s satire “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and Alexander Pope’s verse essays.

The Five Quintets is a narrative we need, a jazz concert performed by hundreds of instruments, a single symphony sung by many voices.

Finally, The Five Quintets channels the voices and visions of a variety of modern poets, including Seamus Heaney (who was a friend of O’Siadhail’s, as well as a fellow Irishman) and Czeslaw Milosz. In Heaney’s version of Dante’s “Inferno,” Station Island, the poet calls forth the ghosts of Ireland’s past. O’Siadhail broadens the scope of his poem, giving voice to revenants of the whole of Western civilization as well as a few from the Far East. While his poem constitutes a history—part narrative and part drama—it is primarily a lyric utterance, taking its cue from poets like Milosz whose chosen vocation is to bear witness to the sufferings (and, occasionally, the joys) of humanity. O’Siadhail combines elements from the work of all of these writers (and more) to create a poem that shares a kinship with the literary past but is entirely new.

O’Siadhail is conscious of his debt to his poetic masters and acknowledges this throughout the volume, as he does in this moving poem in the opening quintet, spoken to the poet by Dante himself:

But seven centuries beyond my theme,
You’ve chosen to pursue the selfsame path
And summing up an era work the seam
Between the modern and its aftermath.
You’ve climbed from hell to heaven’s vertigo.
I’ll be your guide!

In this witty twist of literary history, Dante, who was led through hell and purgatory by Virgil, will now lead Micheal. Thus Dante becomes O’Siadhail’s Virgil, even as O’Siadhail serves as the reader’s Dante, as we are all pulled into pilgrimage together. In addition to Dante, O’Siadhail engages in conversation with dozens of other writers and artists in the first quintet who have served as his guiding lights, all of them poignant exchanges that demonstrate the poet’s affection for these makers, affinity for their work and appreciation of their legacy.

There is something wonderfully bold and quixotic about The Five Quintets. (It is no accident that the first personage we encounter in the poem is Don Quixote’s inventor, Cervantes.) In an era in which people communicate by means of Twitter and texting, in a world in which our attention is fractured and fragmented in myriad ways, O’Siadhail offers us an epic poem. That alone seems an act of literary madness. Add to this the fact that it is carefully crafted (O’Siadhail regularly invents new poetic forms as well as using tried-and-true ones), demanding the reader’s attention to form as well as content. Who is the audience for such a poet and such a book?

The answer, of course, is us—as is the case with all of O’Siadhail’s books, whether they are about love or loss, Ireland or America, the past or the ongoing present. The Five Quintets is a narrative we need, a jazz concert (the poem’s muse is “Madam Jazz”) performed by hundreds of instruments, a single symphony sung by many voices. T. S. Eliot once wrote of his own epic poem, “The Wasteland,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” So, too, with Micheal O’Siadhail. Out of the shards of the past and the soundbites of the present, the poet has assembled a saving story of himself and of our interesting times—times, as it turns out, we are blessed to live in.

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