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Still life through eyes of a poet


I want to stand on that rock which tells no lies,” writes Desmond Egan in a poem. Only a poet would have such gall, an echo even of Jesus himself -- upon this rock I will build. And true enough, the poetic and holy have been first cousins since the druids and shamans, since Solomon and all that wild-eyed breed searching the stars or the entrails of pet chickens for a hint of what really counts.

I myself don’t know what a poem is. But this did not stop me from publishing other people’s poetry in my callow youth. No doubt I stumbled betimes, but I got lucky betimes, too, because Desmond Egan tells me now that I was the first to publish his poems.

Not that I ever met him. An outrageous number of years passed. Then, a year ago, I ran into him in, of all places, Little Rock, Ark. And discovered he had become a famous poet, engaged in what Robert Southey called “the arts babblative and scribblative” -- he not only writes the poems but travels the world reading them and expounding on heavy-duty stuff such as life.

Now a movie has been made about him, “Desmond Egan: Through the Eyes of a Poet.” Producer John C. Hunter of Washburn University, Topeka, Kan., hopes it will soon be aired nationally on public television. It is a beautiful film, a work of art.

Foreigners from France and Greece and Scandinavia and America vie for superlatives in praising Egan. “Piercing intelligence,” one says. Another says he has “transcended the Irish culture unlike any other modern Irish poet.” That’s mighty praise for a lad who went to St. Finian’s High School around the same time I attended its great rival, St. Mel’s, a few miles down the Irish midlands.

For a Finian’s man, Egan has maintained a beguiling modesty. He gets up in the morning, he says in the film, and goes to his study and tries to be a poet. “The creative process is something I’m not altogether in control of,” he goes on, so he searches, explores. Unlike most poets, who take the safe road of a day job, Egan, who has a wife and two teenage daughters, risks everything on that search.

“My soul without ambition is trying to open a door on a street or two,” he intones. He writes of himself and the search and his town and his family. He wrote “Epitaph” for his father, greatly missed. “Tom Egan does not lie here,” it begins, “here” being the grave.

“I’ve thrown my life into the waste paper basket,” he says, because some days the words don’t measure up. Egan was for 25 years a friend of Samuel Beckett, who had the same problem with the words not making it. Like Beckett, whom he calls an inspiration rather than an influence, he has pared down the language and dropped the punctuation, all of it, period. And this is a fellow who reads grammars. But if you’re writing about famine, for example, “any word that wasn’t carrying its weight had to go”:

the stink of famine
hangs in the bushes still
in the sad celtic hedges ...
you can catch it
down the lines of our landscape
get its taste on every meal
there is famine in our music
famine behind our faces ...

Egan, who, the film says, walks a lot with nature, hears its scream. I’ve heard a large crowd catch its breath at the brief, shocking jolt of a poem about Northern Ireland:

two wee girls
were playing tig near a car ...
how many counties would you say
are worth their scattered fingers?

What gradually emerges from “Through the Eyes of a Poet” is that this is one gritty, obsessed, walking, talking conscience jetting from Russia to Japan to a town near you, calling on people to quit the stupidity and torture and try kindness. He writes of “too many shantytowns on the outskirts of life.” He follows the pain. When Benjamin Moloise, a South African activist and poet, was hanged, Egan wrote that “the world’s silence runs like blood.”

Outside the world is pulsating, inside the poet goes to his room, searches for a thought, a word, and if these come up trumps, people will take notice and cross boundaries to hear. A regular man from a small town I know casts a shadow. He has to his name 14 collections of poetry, is the subject of a couple of books and he won awards ranging from that of the National Poetry Foundation of the USA to (I’m not making this up) The Farrell Literary Award. He gave me a copy of his latest book, Famine, and wrote “Up St. Finian’s” in the dedication. Them’s fighting words where we come from.

But I have the last word on Egan. I can read between his lines. When he writes of his mother the schoolteacher rowing to her school on an island on Lough Ree, I see my own mother, who grew up a few islands away on the same Lough Ree and, a child, rode the rough waves to school past magic places in search of precious learning.

When Egan writes of his father, so long ago, giving famed singer John McCormack a lift to somewhere, along with “the Blacksmith of Ballinalee,” I am one of the few who know he means Sean McKeown, a true blacksmith who became legendary fighting the British for what they used to call Irish freedom, at whose side my father vaguely claimed to have fought, and indeed I remember my father standing to wobbly attention in a guard of honor when the blacksmith ran for president of Ireland, a race he lost.

And when Egan tells of Sam Beckett’s amusement, in a bistro in Paris, at a reported marijuana bust in the rustic village of Ballymahon, neither of them knew or cared that on more than one dark night, before I was a teenager, I helped my father drive wild, unwilling cattle to the fair of Ballymahon, where, more often than not, nobody wanted to buy them in those hungry years.

That’s the trouble with poetry. It grows wings and you don’t know where it’s going to land.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR. The Egan video is available for $24 within the United States, $28 internationally, from: Eyes of a Poet, P.O. Box 4114, Topeka KS 66604.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999