An expressly late poem, this is a dreamlike and oddly peaceful contemplation of last things
Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella has significantly helped shape the course of poetry in Ireland, and beyond. His collections span more than 60 years, beginning in 1952 with The Starlit Eye, and much of his best-known work brings myth and history as living forces into the narrative of the particular or personal.
In his most recent volume, Late Poems, the poet pursues an increasingly meditative path. This week's poem, Free Fall, is exemplary. Neither abstract nor laden with concrete detail, it demonstrates an unerring judgment about what can and can't be dispensed with when carving a hard-edged, archetypal shape from the grey recesses of the subconscious.
The poem has a dreamlike quality. Dreams, whether or not they involve sensations of falling (as they too often do) represent a suspension of logical control. In physics, the meaning of free fall is not dissimilar: the term refers to a fall subject to no interference or resistance to the sheer force of gravity. Kinsella studied science as a young man, and, while the poem seems ultimately metaphysical, the "physics" definition is not inappropriate. Initially, the descent seems unstoppable, the long lines of the first tercet creating sensations of headlong motion.
The tone is that of an anecdote told in plain, authoritative, natural speech. The past continuous tense ("I was falling") adds immediacy to the speaker's recollection, as well as continuity to the actions. Less temporally conclusive than the past historic, it almost suggests that, somewhere, the dream or vision goes on. It helps transport the reader into the story, and suggests that the experience, re-lived, displaces the speaker, too, shifting him out of local time and space.
The imagery is sparsely sketched. We're not told the nature of the "shower of waste" which contributes to the initial sense of devastation. Waste matter from bodies, buildings or even planets may be implied. There's also waste in the metaphorical sense of wasted time, hopes, efforts. All earthly attachment would be "waste" from the Buddhist's point-of-view – a view which may be contributory to the metaphysics of this poem.
The speaker is not alone, and the fact that he is both "helpless" and reaching out his arms "toward the others" implies shared emotion as well as process. This human connection, at least initially, is no stay against chaos. The "disorder" and the unknown but fast-approaching surface signal nightmare. But a "turn" in the second stanza brings transformation. The new rhythmical brevity of these lines acts as a timely block to the pace of descent. The gently complicated assonance of the revelation that "the fall slowed suddenly" almost suggests an air-current which lifts and cushions those falling. Now the nightmare is a dream where everything comes beautifully right. The slower pace suggests the figures might be floating. We imagine something kindly in their faces, replacing a very different earlier look, a despair not described but implied.
The diction remains understated: "unconcerned", "regarding" and "approval" are quiet sorts of word. But the placing of "unconcerned" singly on its own line makes it a perfect point of rest. Echoing "all" in a subtle end-rhyme, the "approval" that's wordlessly shared between the participants seems to offer extended beatitude. The communicative, generous nature of the look they exchange not only seals salvation: it appears to be part of what has made the salvation possible. In common with other poems in the collection, Free Fall finds a hard-won serenity. It's a poem of late-life consciousness, but with none of Yeats's rage against the dying of the light. In fact, it seems to open into light.
Late Poems collects the contents of five recent Peppercanister publications to form its astringently meditative cycle. Free Fall originally appeared in the pamphlet Fat Master published in 2011.
No discussion of a Thomas Kinsella poem would be complete without a word about the press he founded in 1972 and which is so closely associated with his endeavours. Kinsella writes that Peppercanister was "established as a small publishing enterprise, with the purpose of issuing occasional special items from our home in Dublin, across the Grand Canal from St Stephen's Church, known locally as 'The Peppercanister'."
Peppercanister editions have continued as a form of draft publication; collections are issued occasionally in book form, most recently as Late Poems, 2013, Carcanet Press." Let's wish the two poetry presses and their founders a continued happy association in the forthcoming New Year.
I was falling helpless in a shower of waste,
reaching my arms out toward the others
falling in disorder everywhere around me.
At the last instant,
approaching the surface,
the fall slowed suddenly,
and we were all
regarding one another in approval.