Criticism

Silence and Stillness

“Station” is one of a number of Grennan’s poems that deal with family interactions, both happy and sad. Some of these poems are directly about Grennan’s three children, Conor, Kate, and Kira. As If It Matters, the collection in which “Station” first appeared, is framed by two such poems. The first poem in the book, “Two Climbing,” is as much about fulfillment between father and son as “Station” is about awkwardness and loss. The poet and the twelve-year-old boy climb Tully Mountain in Ireland. Just as in “Station,” not many words pass between them, but in the climbing expedition the silence is one of pleasure and fulfillment, not of confusion. Man and boy are pleased with themselves for having done “some dumb male thing,” and this time Conor has no difficulty in finding the right word: “adventure.”

Grennan’s poem “Two Gathering” is about a trip made by the poet and his then nearly sixteenyear- old daughter Kate to gather mussels from a seashore in Ireland. It is a poem of celebration, both of Kate and of the beauty of the landscape. Once again, few words are exchanged between father and child. It seems that words are hardly needed as they go about their purpose: “In our common silence we stay / aware of one another, working together.” As in “Two Climbing,” the silence is broken not by the poet but by the child, who exclaims about the variety of colors in the mussels. The daughter’s voice also breaks into the “wide silence” of nature earlier in the expedition. Both “Two Climbing” and “Two Gathering” are poems in which spoken words emerge out of contented silence and express the joy of discovery. How different is the silence between father and child in “Station,” which describes a silence of suppression, of the word stopped in the throat, paralyzed in the mind, not flowing out sweetly on a bed of silence as in the happier poems, both of which, incidentally, are set outside, in nature, rather than in the enclosed stifling space of a crowded railroad station.

Grennan is a poet sensitive to silence and stillness, two words that appear often in his work. In his observation of nature, this perception of still moments in the midst of ongoing natural processes sometimes has an almost Wordsworthian or Keatsian quality. Grennan’s appreciation of the deep meanings inherent in stillness and silence also draw him to paintings, especially those by the Dutch masters and the French painter Pierre Bonnard. It is Bonnard who supplies the inspiration for “The Breakfast Room,” a poem in which the still life is presented as a kind of nothing on the verge of becoming something: “this stillness, this sense / that things are about to achieve illumination.” And typically, since Grennan is a poet of family and ordinary domestic moments, he extrapolates from the painting into real life, suggesting that in anyone’s kitchen at breakfast time there might be “a pause / on the brink of something always / edging into shape, about to happen.”

It is this moment of “pause” in which there is silence that holds Grennan’s attention. He is highly attuned to it and finds it in a wide variety of situations, often simple, domestic ones. In “Weather,” for example, after the weather changes for the better after days of persistent rain, “the house is spinning / its own sure silence round your lives.” In “Song,” the poet listens to his daughter singing solo at her junior-high-school graduation and manages to access a still point within, which they both share, and in which he is able to communicate with her: “while into / our common silence I whisper, / Sing, love, sing your heart out!”

These silences are always positive. They suggest the connections between people and between people and things. They point toward a kind of ground of being that all life shares and that is apparent in moments when people cease their perpetual busyness. In an essay on the work of his fellow Irish poet Derek Mahon (in Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century), Grennan writes of Mahon’s...

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The Nuances and Melodies of Language

Eamon Grennan’s considerable resources include an eye for the elusive detail and an ear for the most reclusive sound. Like many Irish...

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Eamon Grennan: To Leave Something Bright and Upright Behind

Reading for the first time Eamon Grennan’s “Men Roofing” in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, I experienced the same sense...

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