Reading: Be faithful to your dreams

BRENDAN KENNELLY THE VOICE BOX LONDON

ONCE UPON a time not so long ago, that sixtysomething-year-old Irish poet Brendan Kennelly was a raucous, joyously blaspheming sort of an individual who was in the business of ruffling feathers - remember the one about James Joyce having dinner with the Holy Family, for example? This week, he seemed altogether different - calmer, more subdued, more ethereal somehow, as though you might be able to put your hand straight through him. What happened?

In October 1996 he underwent triple heart-bypass surgery. Immediately afterwards he began to have dreams, if not visions. A man made of rain was beckoning to him, inviting him to journey at his side and talk with him about this and that. The experience turned into a long sequence of poems.

The way in which a poet reads is always a guide to what he is reading. In the past Kennelly has thrown down his words like a challenge, an indictment to rude literary behaviour. At The Voice Box he is turning over the pages of his book in a pernickety, chastened, ruminative way, and reading the words as if, though having written them, he is still in pursuit of their significance. He is presenting us with a journey along roads which he is still walking.

Before a section called "Flowers and History" he pauses, flinging off his spectacles, to talk about something wondrous that happened during one of these spectral conversations. The face is fleshy, the cheeks a scoured apple-red, the grin companionable, the filmy eyes a delicate, cornflower-blue. One arm of his spectacles is heavily swathed in clear Sellotape.

The anecdote, once it begins, seems to take you by the elbow in some warm snug. It could go on for ever. And you would probably want it to - had you time. "It's all about our being walking graveyards," he says. "About the exhumation of memory - which is as much a part of writing a poem as it is of writing a piece of music. These voices were coming at me, some from when I was as young as three or four..."

He recalls one in particular, the voice of Mary Ann, a neighbour. Well, it is not so much the voice he remembers, as the way she used to laugh - throwing her head back until her false teeth fell out, as she bragged about her pension.

Then, finally, the man made of rain, ever serendipitous, invites him to visit the grave of his father, and to dandle his father's bones in his hands. Kennelly recalls his father with gentleness and affection. "He was such a lovely, intelligent, lazy man," he tells us, "who always used to say that the streets of Ireland were never well aired before 11 o'clock." Then his mood darkens. "He was also an example of the far and against mind, the idea that we have an enemy, and that there are no complexities. He was a Collins man himself."

Then down he goes, into that blue Shannon light of his father's grave, peering about for those marvellous speaking bones. "The thing is not so much to explain the dreams as to be faithful to them," he adds, shouting up to us.

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