Friday, November 16, 2018

from 'A Man Made of Rain' - Brendan Kennelly (1998)



‘What is my body?’ I asked the man made of rain.
‘A temple’, he said, ‘and the shadow thrown
by the temple, dreamfield, painbag, lovescene,
                          hatestage, miracle jungle under the skin.

                        Cut it open. Pardon the apparition.’

                        ‘What is my blood?’ I dared then.
                        ‘Her pain birthing you and me,
                        the slow transfiguration of pain
                        into knowing what it means to be

                        climbing the hill of blood, trawling the poisoned sea.’

                        ‘Where have I been when they say I’ve returned?’
                        ‘Where the beginning and end
                        combine to make a picture, compose a sound
                        reminding you that love is a singing wound

                        and I could be your friend.’

                        from ‘A Man Made of Rain’


                        A man made of rain.
                        Nobody intended that.
                        Yet he had to happen.
                        When he happened my world outgrew itself.

                        He is not born of intention.
                        He is what might happen.
                        He never heard of reason.
                        If he did, he pities it.

                        How do I know that?
                        Is the rain longing to be human?
                        Is there a human somewhere
                        longing to be rain?

                        A human being
                        to flow forever,
                        to pour forever, yet be contained,
                        to fall on houses anywhere,
                        on first love, last words,
                        plans hatched in darkness,
                        bloody murder, fields of wheat
                        ripening through summer days

                                    longing to fall
                                                like blessings

                                                            like praise.


                                 When I see a word
                                    into the rain of his hands
                                    I see a hand
                                    shaping the word
                                    My eyes of a man
                                    of flesh,
                                    explore the eyes of a man
                                    of rain
                                    and I see
                                    there is no beginning,
                                    no end.
                                    There is now,
                                    that cannot be grasped
                                    so let me invent
                                    my past
                                    my future
                                    to stop me knowing
                                    the radiant nothingness
                                    of now
                                    the drugged pain
                                    of now,
                                    the terrifying speed
                                    of now
                                    all through my slow carcass,
                                    my slow soul.
                                    This little now
                                    is so beyond me
                                    I’d better make haste
                                    to invent
                                    Stranger at my door
                                    help me.


                     Hacked, bruised, foul. ‘What is flesh? I asked the man made of rain.
                        ‘A kind of everything waiting to be nothing’, he said.
                        ‘Great worker, but servant on earth, dustpoem,
                        lovething, vivid presence in the process of vanishing.’

                        ‘Where do I vanish to’, I asked.

                        He smiled, started walking.

                        I wanted to rise and follow quickly
                        but something heavier that the world prevented me,

                        whispering, Stay, you cannot do without me.


Brendan Kennelly is a much-loved poet in Ireland though also, strangely, under-appreciated in some regards. I wanted to look at these poems from his collection A Man Made of Rain of a piece since they come from a long sequence and explore similar themes and ideas throughout. In a way, the poems operate through a kind of mutual refraction and augment each other through this process. (Unfortunately, the standard dips in places, but the high notes are very high indeed.)

What interests me here is Kennelly’s exploration of consciousness in, and of, the body. I have vaguely attempted to examine this subject in some unsuccessful poems which try to get at the point where consciousness and the physical being meet. This is a clear elaboration of the notion of presence which extends from the inanimate world of stones and rivers, on to the animal world (Hughes, Rilke, Montague), and finally to the place in ourselves where these two meet – the body (Kennelly, Sexton, Boland).

The whole idea of presence (to echo the French poet Yves Bonnefoy and theorist Gaston Bachelard), is to see the reality behind the surface of things, to somehow be aware of the deeper structures which remain hidden and obscured by mental habit. It is a question of concentration and in these poems, by Kennelly, this concentration is turned towards his broken body (the visitation of the man made of rain comes after a triple heart by-pass operation) and lives, for a time, in the blood and arteries that could fail at any moment. In a way, the entire sequence relates a near-death experience and the man made of rain is really a manifestation of pure spirit (‘to flow forever, to pour forever, yet be contained’) who has cast off the physical body, becoming a body of energy. Perhaps it is better to say that it is not so much a question of ‘casting off’ the corporeal but the necessity to let it go, a letting go that the poet wishes to make but can't quite:

                        I wanted to rise and follow quickly
                        but something heavier than the world prevented me
                        whispering, Stay, you cannot do without me.

Here, the body is the nesting ground of the spirit (the “bone-house” as Heaney calls it echoing that beautiful Anglo-Saxon word 'banhus'). It must not be reduced to mere flesh as it has been in most religions. Presence is the quiet sublimation of all that is considered other, including in the end the body which is often (particularly in a Judeo-Christian framework) seen as 'fallen' or, in Oriental traditions, as 'illusory'. The world is not absence. The absence is in ourselves. The world is an echoing chamber waiting for us to speak. We stay silent. “The spirit, if anything/ is first flesh” as Thomas Kinsella once put it.

It is also a question of first origins - the way the theory of evolution locates our birth out of the mire and muck of the physical, the animal. We were not simply posited in an already formed human reality. We struggled towards it. Yet, we don’t necessarily have to go back to the primordial beginning in an anthropological (Hughesian) sense. Each moment relives this struggle towards becoming. Obviously, some moments make this more apparent and sharply realised than others. For Kennelly (and Sexton and Plath for quite different reasons) it is the possibility and immanence of death.

The challenge is to climb inside, to see the presence wrapped in the blood-cell, bound in the chromosomes, to transmute the knowledge of science at that level into something that cradles the hidden, mysterious meaning at the centre.

What is the body?

                        ‘A temple’, he said, ‘and the shadows thrown
                        by the temple, dreamfield, painbag, lovescene,
                        hatestage, miracle jungle under the skin.
                        Cut it open. Pardon the apparition.’