Irish poet Thomas Kinsella nearly made it to the new year. He died December 22 at age 93.
by Thomas Kinsella
The night was uneasy, the news
adjusting in my ear through the small hours
Up at the first light,
I looked out through the frost on the glass
at the sheets of frost down among the rocks
on the other side of the valley.
The cat was in the kitchen,
folded on herself. Torn and watchful.
I halved a grapefruit
(thin skinned, with that little gloss)
and took a first mouthful,
looking out up along the edge of the wood,
at the two ravens crossing overhead,
talking to each other in the cold.
At the edge of the tundra;
above the old trees, and the crows ignorant
around the old landlord churches;
we have found a halting place.
Thomas Kinsella’s “Natural Life” was first published in 1995 but feels up-to-the-minute, almost as if he had been commissioned just last year to write a poem about common pandemic experiences. Unrestful sleep? Check. Isolation? Check. Feelings of doom? Check. Anxiety? Check and double check.
“The news” which sets the poem in motion is unspecified. It could be political news or health news or family news. Whatever it is, it’s not good. Even the cat is upset. Those ravens and crows, black harbingers of death, do little to lighten the bleak landscape. The one bit of color and sweetness in poem comes from a grapefruit. But of course grapefruit is also bitter—and stings if it gets in your eye.
The “halting place” that ends the poem is hardly a resting spot. It’s just a place his eyes have landed, far from the house, a place to pause, a place between one thing and the other. That term, halting place, will stick with me. It’s just the perfect description for that anxious time between hearing bad news and knowing how to proceed. It’s not a great time or a great place to be in.
But at least he isn’t alone. In the last line someone else comes into the poem, someone who turns an I into a we. Unless we is just the speaker and that dang stand-offish cat.
The title confounds me. “Natural Life”? Any thoughts on that?
Thomas Kinsella was born in 1928 near Dublin. His father worked at the Guinness factory and was a labor organizer. Kinsella went to a school with classes taught in the Irish language, and he continued his education at University College of Dublin. He left to work in the civil service but kept on with his studies at night, eventually earning a degree in public administration. He worked for over 20 years in a government finance department, all the while working on his poetry and attracting notice, until he was offered a teaching position in the United States.
Known for his translations of early Irish poetry, Kinsella published dozens of books of poetry and is considered one of the preeminent Irish poets of the 20th century. His poem about Bloody Sunday, “Butcher’s Dozen,” received blowback from British readers, but his account of the massacre was ultimately vindicated.
He taught at Temple University in Philadelphia. He had three children with his wife Eleanor, whom he considered his muse and who preceded him in death in 2017.
Thank you, Poem Elf, for this absorbing Thomas Kinsella poem.
About its title, “Natural Life,” I went to the idea that immersion in natural life brings respite from the daily irruptions of “news” that disquiet Kinsella, his cat, and presumably the rest of us. Irruptions which pull us this way and that, and which force us to “adjust.” I think the second section of the poem brings this respite to Kinsella (don’t know about the cat) through sensory moments of his being in/rejoining with nature (the taste of grapefruit, the sight of ravens overhead).
And this immersion provides not only respite from having to adjust to life’s intrusions, but the possibility for renewal: an integral part of natural rhythms. The word “tundra” strikes me as hinting at this potential renewal –– sparse tundra (usually permafrost) always containing the seeds of its flourishing should the climate again turn in its favor. In this regard, I think that “the old landlord churches” also evoke this sense of renewal. These secular “churches” are the restorative places given us by the land. These “landlord churches” are the original churches (per the etymology of “church” in Wikipedia): ancient places of solace that existed prior to their becoming the holy places of Christian doctrine.
This sense of solace found in Kinsella’s “being in” nature, and not apart from it, reminds me of two kindred poems: Wallace Stevens’ “A Clear Day and No Memories” and W.S. Merwins’s “Just Now.”
Such a beautiful, insightful reading of this poem. Much more hopeful than my reading. Thank you! Going to check out the two poems you mentioned.