The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me, Brendan Kennelly and Neil Astley (eds). Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 352 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1852244408
The publication date of this book, April 17th, 2022, would have been Brendan Kennelly’s eighty-sixth birthday. This collection, therefore, serves as both a Kennelly memorial and a Kennelly gift. Brendan was one of the Heavy Bears certainly, in a line of Heavy Bear poets: Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Brendan Behan: larger than life poets who filled every bar or lecture theatre with the fierce, unpredictable energy of their lives. Wilder than the average poet, they taught us all with the insistent honey of their wildness. The idea for this inspiring teaching anthology arose from conversations Neil Astley had with Kennelly as far back as 1996. In his preface, Astley recalls Kennelly reciting poems aloud to Kate FitzPatrick in his cottage by the beach at Ballybunion: “As the waves crashed and sizzled outside, Kate sat listening to him reading the poems aloud, always the best test of poetry with staying power”’ In a very real sense this anthology, the feel and soul of it, has everything of Kennelly’s warmth, bigness of heart and generosity of spirit. In July of 1996 the Kerry poet wrote to Astley: “I’m enjoying the reading a great deal, and loving, as I always did, that passion that can exist only when form insists on coming into being. It’s impossible, then, to tell the difference between them, in fact they both seem to vanish, and what is left is poetry.” And a year later, having survived a quadruple bypass operation, the idea of this anthology had resurfaced in Brendan. By July of 1997 Kennelly was thinking in terms of love, death, land, hatred, sickness and health, family and “the experience of being haunted”.
Over the years Kennelly’s health deteriorated further, to quite a serious degree of breathlessness. But the ideas around this anthology kept stimulating the weakening poet. The number of poems was cut from 170 to one hundred, but the likelihood of Kennelly writing a commentary for each poem had dimmed. Astley dealt with this deficiency of comment in a brilliant manner, by searching the archives for earlier comments on specific poets and poems by Kennelly. Necessity became the mother of invention. I think a much wider and more interesting book has been made out of Astley’s detective work. An exemplary anthology has been created here, a teaching instrument, but also a Rescue Remedy for every wilting soul in the world of poetry. But what of the poems? The Heavy Bear himself, Delmore Schwartz, is here, pride of place given to his “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me”:
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all …
Kennelly’s response to this is marvellous, instinctive, true. He understands that need to talk to somebody about things only partly grasped or understood at all, things hurtful and pressing, violating sleep, miscolouring daylight’s encounters and images. He understands that sense of suffering as an appetite that can never really be fed. The dreamlike understandings, the barely, or subtly articulated self-loathing, all of this is instantly understood by Kennelly and he does his human best to describe the indescribable unhappiness implicit in the poem’s lines. Schwartz’s work is soon followed by those two courtiers, two soldier-poets, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Sidney’s “Thou blind man’s mark” elicits a typical Kennelly response, colloquial and wittily insightful: “For a man with a reputation for nobility and virtue Sir Philip Sidney was a dab hand at cursing. His ability to curse gives this poem its enraged energy, its abusive conviction.” Of Spenser’s
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
he gives a more gentle response, merely repeating the movement of the poem’s argument, accepting the poet’s belief that the glorious name will, after all, be written in the heavens. Astley’s counter-note, as it were, reminds us that this gentle Spenser is the author of that hardly gentle tract, A View of the Present State of Ireland, a thesis that recommended the starvation of the native Irish and the eradication of their language. These poets selected here are a salutary reminder that under the Tudors it was far more likely that a poet would be hanged, drawn and quartered rather than published. Saint Robert Southwell had to wait four centuries for his heavenly reward; he was canonised by that gentleman-courtier Pope Paul VI in 1970. Kennelly is awe-struck by the striking visionary boldness of Southwell’s “The Burning Babe”
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes, shame and scorns,
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilèd souls.
And then there is Thomas Campion, between Nashe and Donne. Kennelly is impressed by the arrangement of Campion’s misery-myth, remarking that “in this case, the magic of Campion’s song transforms the misery-litany into a moving, memorable work”. Then we arrive at that towering figure, the first Puritan writer in American literature, Anne Bradstreet. Her “A Letter to her Husband, Absent upon Publick Employment” is a crowning love poem and an inspiration to all who might wish to write of love’s endurance in marriage:
Return, return sweet Sol from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
“This is naked writing,’ Kennelly writes, and he is spot on. The sheer modernity and contemporariness of Anne Bradstreet’s voice is massively, unexpectedly, impressive. Placed here she strides with authority among all the bears. From Bradstreet we can trace an intense line through this anthology, the meridian running through Elizabeth Barrett Browning “How do I love thee?” to Emily Dickinson’s masterful “Because I could not stop for Death” to Alice Meynell’s gorgeous line “I must stop short of thee the whole day long” to Marianne Moore’s haunting “the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave” to Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” to our own national treasure, Eavan Boland and her mysterious poem “The Journey”:
My eyes got slowly used to the bad light.
At first I saw shadows, only shadows,
Then I could make out women and children
And, in the way they were, the grace of love.
Kennelly’s notes on Boland, the last poet of this anthology, are heart-rending and deeply moving, as intense as anything else in his writing: “I first knew Eavan Boland in the early 60s when she studied English at Trinity College. She was brilliant and beautiful, with a mind fiercely her own, a gift for talking which I’ve rarely seen, or heard, equalled, a riotous sense of humour, an aggressive conviction that Dublin is the only really worthwhile spot on earth …” He goes on to write brilliantly of “The Journey”, “one of the most intensely visionary works I’ve read in years”. His admiration for the younger poet, his one-time student, is total and absolutely convincing. In addressing the importance of this work all play-acting is over: seriousness of a high order has entered the Kennelly room. “The Journey” was an inspiring choice to close the anthology.
There are other fine poets in this selection, Auden, Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Edna St Vincent Millay, Plath and Sheila Wingfield of this parish:
I am those Fates with scant hair and red eyes
And brittle bones, who so disdain the young;
I am the thread that stretches to be nicked.
Kennelly selected the above from Wingfield’s Beat Drum, Beat Heart, which was published in 1946, the most ambitious work by far of this voice from Roedean School that spoke passionately, and with fierce literary ambition, across the flower-strewn terraces of Powerscourt demesne. In selecting her, Brendan must have been determined that she’d be remembered, and honoured, among her Irish peers. With unexpected poets like Wingfield within this powerful assembly, this anthology gains immense power and importance. It has the energy of bears, and the propulsion of poets with bear’s yearnings. In completing the task first begun with his old Irish friend, Neil Astley has given us one of the most inspiring teaching instruments that writing teachers could ever hope to have as they stand before a class, wondering how to begin. Well, they can begin here.