Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Quincy R. Lehr

Going Birding


Matter of Fact by Eamon Grennan. Graywolf Press, 2008.

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          Eamon Grennan’s latest collection, Matter of Fact, is a solid collection of poems that, in general, take an image, spin it out for a while, and don’t make a complete hash of it. While cast in free verse, or in some cases, that strange animal “prose poetry,” Grennan’s poems display a good amount of prosody, with internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance tying them together. It’s the sort of collection one would expect from a senior poet born in the 1940s who has racked up his share of literary prizes and appeared in a whole array of leading journals.

            And that’s the problem here. All of the aforementioned elements, which should be subjects of praise, instead congeal into a feeling of monotony. There are no obviously bad poems, but the book is an utter slog. One wants to like it, but I, at least, cannot. One frequently feels that Grennan is phoning this stuff in while on vacation somewhere well within his comfort zone. (The use of two clichés in one sentence is deliberate.) This collection has “sixtysomething Establishment type” all but stamped on the cover.

            On the most basic level, I began to feel what one might call “bird fatigue” as the collection dragged on. We get cormorants, phoebes, kestrels, robins both Irish and American, blackbirds, hawks, ladybirds, herons, woodpeckers, doves, thrushes, and geese. This could potentially be a strength in the collection if Grennan developed the idea of birds standing for something, forming a consistent motif in the collection as a whole. But no. Quite the contrary. The frequent, often specific and evocative descriptions of birds instead comes across as something that Grennan knows he can do and that will get him into the magazines. So he does it. A lot. To where they’re just a stock image of his.

            While this might seem like nitpicking, the problem extends to the collection more generally. The poems too often resemble each other too closely. This might not be a big deal when the poems are scattered over a series of magazines with different subscription bases, but in such close proximity, it becomes a real problem. Compare, if you will, the opening of “In Passing”:

It could be the glide and slide of traffic

over wet streets—funereal, with headlights on—

or some more minute distraction, looking

for the woodpecker on a bare branch: black and white

plume braid, scarlet head, indefagitable beak. 

with the opening of “Innocence of Things” on the very next page: 

Driving north. Shivers of valediction.

Tweed-folds of the Catskills in abrasive light;

risen flame of a redtail riding a thermal;

two geese through blue immensity… 

No, they’re not two poems about the same thing, exactly. “In Passing” is generally about the transitory nature of things, “the brief love affair that great burst of steam,” while “Innocence of Things” concerns… well, the transitory nature of things, though, ultimately, through the prism of a dead friend evoked in the poem’s last two stanzas and a bit.

            There is, of course, nothing wrong with a collection of poems that has poems grouped around a single theme or a cluster of them (i.e. love poems, say, or poems about dentures or cars or loneliness or the search for the perfect döner kebab). Nor is there a problem with a series of poems that employ similar formal devices (a crown of sonnets, for example). But Grennan’s collection is not so systematic as that, and one gets the feeling that he’s simply milking a fairly small number of ideas for all they’re worth. And in a poet of his seniority—and skill (both of the stanzas quoted above are, on the face of it, well-crafted)—this is Not Good.

            And really, the sense of having read the same thing before comes not only from Grennan’s tendency to recycle images and rhetorical strategies, but from his whole style. One can pick up a given issue of Poetry Ireland Review (or, for that matter, a great number of leading mainstream American little magazines) and find poems that have a remarkably similar feel. While I know I haven’t seen the lines:

Tormented and melodious,


someone once said of Celan, the way the robins were yesterday

in their flutterjazz between branches….” 


I know I’ve seen lines like them. The poem is one of those poems about winter where all is frozen on the surface, but there’s life and stuff burbling underneath. You know the kind of poem I mean. But what’s poor Paul Celan doing in there? His torment and melody have a radically different source. One almost feels Celan was thrown in as a sort of “we need a literary allusion about now” gesture. It doesn’t especially deepen the phrase “tormented and melodious” to know that some unnamed figure used the words to describe a Holocaust survivor. Nor does an awareness of Paul Celan’s story deepen the poem. No, it simply lets us know that Grennan knows who Paul Celan is, too, and seems to have read at least one book or article about him.

            And anyway, Grennan’s muse is almost obsessively quotidian in orientation. At times, he rounds this off with a sort of summary of what he’s written, as in “Photo of Matisse,” where the artist ponders a dove he is holding “like an open book.” In the end, we get: 

Silence. A matter after all

of life and death. A poise

perfected; a third thing made:

to be looked at, looking back.  

But while it’s an interesting enough notion, the photograph being neither the bird’s reaction nor Matisse’s to the moment, but a silent, inert amalgam of both, we’re still in the photograph. And Grennan’s talent for description, while prodigious, can, by the same token, become rather relentless at times.

            What one really wants, or at least what I want and haven’t gotten from this collection, is one or several standout poems that vary from the rest, whether through length, complexity, form, or subject matter, that might heighten the reading of the book and give the more standard Eamon Grennan circa. 2008 poem something to play against. Unfortunately, the homogeneity extends to the poems being a series of free-verse lyrics of one to two pages semi-regularly interspersed with typically over-busy prose poems running between one and three pages. Divided, naturally, into three parts, because, for some reason, we expect collections to be in several sections.

            With a younger, or at least newer poet’s collection, one might be a bit more forgiving. Much of the purpose of an early foray is, after all, to fly one’s flag, to alert the reader to the possibilities that a particular poetic intelligence might follow at some point in the future. But once one has cleared the tenth book to one’s name, as Grennan did some time back, one expects more than hints and promises. And this collection, which comes across as a somewhat nature-fixated version of that collection of lyric free verse that we have all read scores of times, thus stands as a profound (if not unexpected) disappointment. Eamon Grennan’s Matter of Fact is not a bad collection—far from it. But it is a dull collection.


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