Thomas Kinsella, Marginal Economy

review by Michael Peverett

Reviewer beware! Here is Kinsella noticing an old adversary at a funeral and listing their past clashes:
    Recently, and sharpening
    our exchange across the grave,
    his finding the occasion
    in the press of public affairs
    – debating his fixed viewpoints
    in a three-piece colonial accent –
    for a murderous review :
    a flow of acid colloquialisms
    dismissing a main thesis
    based on a misreading
    of the images off the cover. . .

The review may have been murderous, but it can't have been more deadly than this. Copying it out, I count the strikes on my fingers, savouring that bit about the mock "debate", performed solo by the possessor of those fixed viewpoints. This is from "The Affair", one of the best of the dozen or so poems in this pamphlet; from the middle part of that poem, when it's in full flow. But very soon afterwards the poem breaks out of its rage and subsides:

    – his thick back moving off
    familiar among the others.
    Under a shadow, forming
    and descending, unfamiliar.

"Familiar" is an important word for Kinsella, but here it's the word "descending" that catches the ear. Here's the ending of another poem:

    The soul confined,
            her face pressed against the lattice.
    Looking out at the day and the bright details
            descending everywhere, selecting themselves
            and settling in their own light.

It begins to be clear that there's a common pattern in these poems, a pointed abbreviation that puts a distance between the poem and the kind of writing (confiding, oracular, lyrical, or whatever) that it seemed to consist of.

So "First Night" leads us round and about, building up to an encounter with a famous bar-room narrator, like the frame of a short story. But when, finally, the encounter is made and the narrator starts talking, the poem ends without us hearing a single word. This is abrupt, and of course a good way of making you read the poem over to try and guess what's missing. But then the fact of it being missing is important too. There's no local colour in the pamphlet, not a single Irish name or turn of phrase, Dublin is only "the city". Kinsella in his seventy-eighth year writes with the energy of a younger man, the interests however go beyond a local setting; their sternness and pessimism suggest what is only reasonable, a sensibility formed in the 1950s. "Blood of the Innocent", "Marcus Aurelius", "Songs of Understanding" are all variations on the image of liberal humanism surrounded by a barbarous darkness which nevertheless is confessed to be in some sense more true to the realities of existence and thus a limiting critique; it registers a pressure-point that to younger writers no longer seems critical. Not that the problem has been resolved, such problems are never resolved, but it's drifted out of our focal range.

Still, you couldn't mistake this for the poetry Kinsella wrote in his formative years. Long gone are the terza rima and the blank verse, their refined spirit a potent residue in broken prose and intensely worked space.

This I think is meant for the reader:

    picking the works of my days apart,

    will you find what you need
    in the waste still to come?

Waste takes centre-stage elsewhere, too. The ecological accent in this shit-stirring and in the slash-and-burn title poem has pulled the preoccupation with liberalism into some different shapes.

For the past thirty years Kinsella has committed himself, admirably and presciently, to the pamphlet form. The burning desire to publish a "full-length" collection – ultimately this is a publisher's conception, not a poet's – used to be fuelled by the belief that books broke into market-places where pamphlets didn't, but that doesn't make any sense now. Unless you live in a very privileged spot indeed, it's not possible to buy interesting books of new poetry from a shop. The pamphlet is therefore no less available than the book and is as often as not the more credible artefact; what I mean is, we more easily believe that it has a purposeful shape, a topicality, an intention. And besides, it marries better with the wave of online publishing that is giving us everyday access to large samples of what current poets are doing, which will certainly lead to a generation of better-informed purchasers who aren't at all moved by the publisher's implication that "this is a real book, therefore the author must be worth reading".

In Marginal Economy the economy is also assured technique: things are said once. Thus the brief final poem, "Rhetoric of Natural Beauty", describes a marine sunset, and nothing grows from the minutely troubling resonance of that title, until in its last words the affirmation that's forming becomes (so swiftly you can miss it) an ironic glitter and another baulking descent.

Marginal Economy (Peppercanister 24, February 2006, ISBN 1 904556 46 9) is distributed in Ireland by the Dedalus Press and in the UK by Carcanet.

Great to see you review this. Like the blog overall as well. Will pass it on to my friends.
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