Saturday 15 July 2023

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Last Poems" by Thomas Kinsella

There’s something daunting about a first encounter with a poet through a volume called Last Poems, especially when the back cover identifies him as "one of the great poets of the last century." I began towards the end of the book, with poems not previously published (some revisions of early work but many from the last year of Kinsella’s life). The poem "Our Home" is short and undated:

           Our Home,
           Pearl blue and far, small,
           small in the dark.
                                    A pearl,
           I can scarcely believe what goes on there.

In only twenty-one words, two of them repeated, Kinsella has achieved a poem that, with its combination of marvelling and questioning, lodges in the mind. It evokes the first colour pictures of Earth from outer space and, by simply expressing incredulity, gestures towards large questions of ethics. 

Ethical questions are at the heart of many of Kinsella’s poems – raised but left unresolved. "Retrospect" is a history of warfare, its craft and its rituals including the recent opening of opportunities to a wider cross-section of the population, as:

           the craft of warfare opened its embrace
           to the base-born, excluded until now
           or butchered by the way.
                                                 Allowed at last
           an equal role in serious affairs,
           the humble multitudes were drilled – skilled – 
           in dull disorder, uniform and drab,
           to slay each other over the long term.

The poem offers no solution but concludes with an image of greater destruction that suggests both rapture and, disturbingly, play.

Beside Kinsella’s concern with ethics lies a serious interest in metaphysics that is unafraid to use terms such as "grace" and "God." Grace, which in "Love  Joy  Peace" is described as "a light cast from the world to come" may be an aid to the poet’s own work:

                                                Grace as routine.
           The lone artificer loosening the charged facts
           from an imagination arguing with itself
           until the ache is eased

but is also found in human desire when flesh says "all it can of love." 

Illness and death are an unsurprising theme of many late poems. "Delirium" ends with a longing for escape from a screened-off bed where unwelcome visitors: "Come to see me sick / that would not see me well." By contrast, one of the very last poems Kinsella wrote looks from past to future:

          Fingers caress and bent brow is is cooled
          forever in a music
          of a world beyond this world.

These are not poems to be read swiftly, relished once and set aside. They are often, for all their music, discomforting. Their uncertainties, questionings and images lure the reader to wonder and return.

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell’s recent poetry publications include the collection Disappearances (Sheostring, 2021) and the pamphlet Do You Know How Kind I Am? (Leafe Press, 2021). She has also published several short stories. Kathleen lives near Nottingham and enjoys leading creative writing workshops and giving readings. She is currently obsessed with the life and times of James Watt (1736-1819).

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