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New Hibernia Review 7.2 (2003) 152-154

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Still Life with Waterfall, by Eamon Grennan, pp. 72. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2002. $14.

Temperate in tone but charged with verbal energy, the poems of Eamon Grennan cast a contemplative eye on the present moment. Reminiscent, by turns, of Bishop, Hopkins, and Traherne, they reflect a meditative mind attuned to the flux of immediate experience. "Thereness / is all," Grennan declares in "Aubade," a recent poem, as he observes "the way // this day keeps coming on." And in their stately but kinetic sentences, their contained but insurgent lines, his poems strike a felicitous balance between solidity and fluidity, presence and disappearance, stability, and change.

Still Life with Waterfall is Grennan's sixth collection of poems and his first since Relations: New and Selected Poems in 1998. In theme and style the fifty-two poems gathered in this collection resemble their predecessors, though the sense of incipience so evident in Grennan's earlier work, the radiant evocation of things edging into being, is shadowed here by a prominent sense of loss. Cast in free verse but ghosted by the metered line, these finely nuanced poems examine subjects as diverse as a marsh hawk ("patrolling / possibility"), wind chimes ("querulous in their immense / present instant"), a dancing child, sexual encounters, a hare nibbling "the good grass of the present moment," the remembered sound of a mother's voice, and the poet's spiritual longings, which he likens to "agnostic smoke" rising from a chimney. In moods ranging from reverent to elegiac to resigned, Grennan hews and delves, discovering with Hopkins that things looked hard at "start to look back." But even as things reveal their suchness, they also disclose their impermanent nature, masked by their apparent stability. Thus, in "Man Making the Bed," Grennan depicts his subject "stopped / between the solidity of things as they are and the huge white peace / of the sheet-sail flapping from his hands for a matter of seconds // and subsiding . . ." Here as elsewhere, the ojbect of contemplation is at once emphatically present and subject to dissolution.

Depending on whether the primary context is human or nonhuman, Grennan's keen sense of impermanance can occasion sorrow or joy, a cri de coeur or a hymn of affirmation. More than half of the poems in Still Life with Waterfall are set in the natural world, where impermanance is a visible reality, more to be [End Page 152] acknowledged than elegized. "Lethal-lipped, honey-tipped," notes Grennan in "Current Events," "the little / monstrances of sundew await their shining moment: // they sip, swallow, glinting in cloudlight." And in "In the Dunes" he listens, as if with a stethoscope, for sounds incipient and present:

I keep my eyes shut fast in this pure nothing
where sand and hedges are still in no wind at all
(almost a miracle on this sea-round tip of things)
and hear nothing at first, nothing, and then—as if
out of the egg of silence—small sounds hatching:
thin fluting of a goldfinch; song sparrow's single note
of warning; in the distance a hawk's cry broken off;
crackle of one twig slipping free of another; the tide's
perpetual faint susurrus, no end to its run-on sentence,
and that dry whisper as the sand in sleep keeps shifting.

With precision and restrained exultation, these lines affirm the phenomena described. The mood is one of intelligent curiosity, the attitude one of respect.

Quite another mood prevails in Grennan's laments for lost or broken relationships. In "Why?" a woman's departure causes "space . . . to [take] the shape / of her absence" and leaves the narrator wanting "to climb down into the mound / of dead leaves steaming and darkening / into November." In "Amputation" the narrator speculates as to why a relationship foundered, citing fear, anticipated boredom, and emotional pain as probable causes. And in "To Grasp the Nettle," a man bereft of his lover struggles to "shake off" the memory of her body, the "cool indented shell of flesh / at the base of her spine." Viewing such memories as threats to his...