Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
from 'Dirge Without Music', Edna St Vincent Millay
Whenever we read together, as we had in Ireland and the UK and the United States, Dennis would joke that the evening might best have been billed as, “Death and Taxes,” what with the day jobs we were each indentured to. Of course, who would show up for such grim diversions? A preoccupation with poetry hardly advances one’s standing in the actual world. Most folks regard a funeral director who does sonnets, I would remind Dennis, as they would a proctologist with a sideline in root canal. Same for a tax man, even one as genteel as Dennis O’Driscoll. Still, for those that knew him, the times, however fleeting, spent in his company are counted as counterweights to the lead suit of sadness that is our lot and raiment since we got the word.
I first got it on St Stephen’s morning, on Facebook, of all places. I was sitting at a desk in the funeral home in Milford and seeing his name in the sentence that read, “so saddened by the news on RTÉ this morning' ... ‘the death has occurred ... suddenly on Christmas Eve', and just as suddenly, Dennis’s name. I remember the air going out of me and the catch in my breath and falling back in the chair as if I’d been hammered in the chest. 'No', I moaned, and my sons came running from an adjoining room, and 'No!' again. I called friends in Dublin who confirmed it. I called Dennis’s Julie and left a message on the machine. Surely I thought, there must be some mistake. I checked on RIP.ie which reaffirmed the cruel truth and added the arrangement details for the coming week. I called the mortuary firm of Murphy Brothers in Naas just to be sure, which of course they were. And wasn’t it, after all, just like Dennis: a man born on the first day of a brand new year, to be buried on the last day of an old one. He’d gotten and given four full seasons of himself, and every hour of the clock’s round face.
I asked my son Michael to arrange my travel. As Hugh O’Donnell said on the night of the Removal to the Church in Naas, it was simply easier to be there, with Dennis’s Julie and siblings and nieces and nephews and colleagues from Revenue and the army of poets, than not to be. Still, until they shouldered Dennis into church and set him at the foot of the altar in front of the manger scene, I believe no few of us were nursing this little hope that someone would step forward to proclaim it all a terrible mix up. I was seated with Philip Casey and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Philip Davisonand the Heaneys behind us and there was this audible and collective sigh at the sight of the coffin and mourners settling into their pews and places.
I think Dennis knew he was working on over time. Truth told, I think he’d known it for years. It is what kept him up nights reading and writing when most of us were abed snoring, kpet him working when others would be at the pub or match or shopping mall. If he seemed driven, it was to complete his work. There is this moment in the middle of Dear Life, his final and finest collection, which he’d sent me last May. 'Valentine', a love poem that turns on culinary and domestic bliss includes an epigraph from Ray Carver’s poem, 'Gravy', which made known that long-suffering writer’s sense that he had outlived all prospects and expectations -- the ten years he had remained 'Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman', so far beyond his and the medics' expectations. 'Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it!' wrote Carver for Dennis to copy. The page facing 'Valentine' holds 'Tests' -- an inventory of x-rays and MRI, sputum and urine samples and blood scrapings -- after which analysis, “Death begins to seem a feasible/proposition, a viable option.”
I am ready to throw my hat
into the ring, fill my parents’ shoes,
follow in a family tradition that
goes back as far as can be traced.
These are not offhand pronouncements. To close Dear Life, the late, and let us stipulate, great poet, Dennis O’Driscoll turns the valedictory screws so tightly that his death -- too sudden, too soon -- on Christmas Eve just past, seems an inevitalble extension of Dear Life’s inexorable trajectory. And though mortality and its mysteries were among Dennis’s constant themes and inquiries, the reader cannot miss the deliberate wave -- hail and farewell -- he tenders in the four-hundred-and-thirteen line title poem and the two brief codas, 'Admissions' and '“Nocturne Op. 2', that draw his dear life’s work in verse to a hushed repose.
A sad air’s best for night as you mope about
the house, closing windows, checking doors.
Slow cumulative strokes of the violin bow,
the most ruminative notes that can be coaxed
from the cello, nocturnes unlocked by black piano keys.
Strains that are trained directly on the heart
when its resistance sinks, like temperatures,
to a day’s-end low: music that tells of how
things stand in the troubled world you now have
in your hands to potter about in on your own.
Music of the kind whose fearful darkness would
unnerve you as a child, but whose darkness
seems the very point, this late night here; a slow
movement’s stark conclusions ringing sadly true.
I worried about Dennis for years as I watched his shirt collars widen around his narrowing neck and sensed the infirmity and frailty gathering in his body. He was, to quote Heaney, 'losing himself'. It was easier to look at the output and brilliance of the work still showing up on the websites and in the quarterlies, in the daily press and on the radio in praise of the newly discovered young poet or the classic poem newly considered. He attended book launches and readings, dinners and coffees, and following his retirement from Revenue, redoubled his output of essays and poems and reviews. (A new collection of essays, his book on Michael Hamburger come out later this year as well as the U.S. edition of Dear Life) He never said a word to me about what ailed him because, unlike poets in general, Dennis would never allow the conversation to be 'about' him. The low-grade, ever-present narcissism that makes most poets the centre of their conversations never infected Dennis O’Driscoll. He could give chapter and verse and scholarly analysis of the Nobel Laureates and the most recently published. His appetite for poetry was never sated by his own. He wanted a sample from every quarter.
My own experience with Dennis, which I long considered one of a kind, turns out, of course, to be typical. I met him in the mezzanine bar of the Abbey Theatre in March of 1992 on the occasion of a reading by the nation’s mightiest women poets in observance of International Women’s Weekend. Then President, Mary Robinson, introduced a dozen of the finest -- among them, Dennis’s partner and paramour, Julie O’Callaghan. I was there with Macdara Woods and had just had dinner in Selskar Terrace prepared by one of the headliners on the night before she cleared the table, changed her sweater and headed into town for her curtain call. When I was introduced to O’Driscoll he welcomed me to Dublin and quoted a fair lengthy section of a poem of mine to me. It had been published in the United States but never in the UK or Ireland. He had found it in his comprehensive reading of publications from around the planet. That Dennis O’Driscoll had found my work worthy and taken it evidently, 'to heart', made me think I should take it more seriously. Of course, my experience was not unique: he carried around with him the archives of art. He took poets and poetry more seriously than anyone I know. As Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin said on the night of the removal to the Church in Naas, 'There are plenty who can write a poem; who can read one?' This was Dennis’s great gift to us. Not only did he write some of the finest poems of the last fifty years, for every one he wrote, he read a hundred more with an intelligence and reverence and reverie beyond the range of the common reader. And for all his expertise and erudition, he remained the the most earnestly self effacing, moral, abstemious and kindly, generous and courteous man I’ve known. As Heaney said that Auden said of Eliot in eulogy: 'So long as we were in his presence, one felt it was impossible to say or do anything base.' And it is true that Dennis was an occasion one rose to, above the fray of egos and begrudgeries, the divas and divos; the feuds and pissing matches did not concern him. He never had time for them. He was a champion of his art. His work in words will long outlive him. The host of poets who joins his family in mourning the death of one of their own, likewise gives thanks for his life and times among us.
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