Monday 19 November 2018

Poetry tells you what is in a man's soul -- loneliness, loss and love of animals are themes in Michael D's verse

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Can you know more about a man from his poetry than from his political speeches? Michael D Higgins -- who could well be our next president within a week -- admits that his true soul is in his verse.

He calls his poetry "heartwork" and, even more intimately, "womb poems", since so many of the themes go right back to his earliest experiences.

So while others have been scrutinising his political record, I've been perusing Michael D's poetry, reading the inner man.

A prettily produced collected volume of his verse was published earlier this year by Liberties Press, simply called 'New and Selected Poems'. And indeed, it does tell you a great deal about his most intimately felt experiences.

Ordinarily, his poetry is not of the genre that would always appeal to me: it is free verse which taps into the unconscious, whereas I am more drawn to verse that rhymes, or at least rhythms.

Yet his compositions are thoughtful and sensitive, and there is a strong element of the Irish tradition of country lore, the love of nature and of animals.

He writes tenderly about a donkey in a poem called 'The Ass'.

"I recall the soft velvet of his ears, as he bent in habit for the winkers, the resignation too of his taking the bit past the surrender of his yellow teeth."

There is a flavour of a lonely childhood, as he remembers the dutiful ass that was a companion for a farm child.

There must have been many moments of loneliness in his early years, for he was separated from his parents at six. He is consequently sensitive to loneliness and understands it -- there's a sad poem called 'The man who never had a visitor'.

As a young child, Michael D and his brother were taken off to a farm in Co Clare to live with a childless aunt and uncle, mainly for economic reasons.

His parents were trying to make a go of running a pub in Limerick during the 1940s, and the family decided the little boys would be better off on a farm (his sisters stayed with the mother and father).

Separation often makes a child reflective, alth-ough, as he senses, it also creates a 'wound' -- a theme that appears re-peatedly.

Yet he came to feel close to the tex-ture of rural Irish life -- the smells, the sights and the small tragedies of living on the edge, as so many people did in that time.

There's a melancholy poem on 'The death of the Red Cow', drawn from a real experience in his childhood.

For a milk-giving cow to die could be a tragedy on a small farm: it meant there would be no surplus milk and the family would have to depend on their neighbours' dairies.

The sad little tale reminded me of a letter I once came across in the 'Messenger of the Sacred Heart', when a countrywoman wrote in to ask if she could say a novena for a cow that was unwell; and how touching it was to learn, subsequently, that the prayed-for milker experienced im-proved health.

Catholicism appears as part of the warp and woof of Irish rural life, and yet Mic-hael D himself is semi-detached from it.

It is obvious that spirituality means more to him than institutionalised religion, though he is not unkind about the clergy mentioned and is compassionate in a requiem for a whiskey priest.

If there is any bitterness, it is in the political resonances from the aftermath of the Civil War.

Michael D's father was a Republican, while his mother's people were pro-Treaty Free Staters, and the memories evoked show how deep that division could be in the 1930s and 1940s.

Some Free State Catholics would refuse to speak to Republicans after Sunday Mass, which seems in direct contradiction to the Christian obligation to "love your enemies".

His father's life was dogged by failure however hard the poor man tried, and it is implied that his Republicanism went against him, even in the era of de Valera, about whom there are some acrimonious lines.

"It was 1964, just after optical benefit was rejected by De Valera for poorer classes in his Republic, who could not afford as he did to travel to Zurich for their regular tests and their rimless glasses."

Overall, Michael D's parents lived a hard life, and they never fulfilled their dreams: he confesses that his own driving ambition was to escape from the limitations of their existence.

Yet hardship is not always unproductive: it not only gave Michael D intellectual ambition, it also gave him an insight into privation and disappointment.

Where his own politics explicitly appear in the writing, they sometimes seem naive: few experienced in economic realities would share his admiration for Julius Nyerere, a political leader who beggared his country, Tanzania, with daft Maoist doctrines.

But the political voice seems, mostly, more romantically idealistic than prosaically prescriptive.

The most deeply felt vein is that of Celtic nature-worship and poignant memories of loss.

Watching his father's dogs die in agony from strychnine poisoning (laid down by a neighbour) remains searingly vivid more than 60 years on.

To have a bard at court was a great old Gaelic tradition, and when all is said and done, we should honour the bard.

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