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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 157-158
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No Earthly Estate: God and Patrick Kavanagh by Tom Stack, pp 179. Dublin: Columba Press, 2002. Distributed by Dufour Editions, Chester Springs PA. $30.95.
Tom Stack's No Earthly Estate: God and Patrick Kavanagh, a new edition of Patrick Kavanagh's religious poetry, is both anthology and biography, a volume of poetry and a scholarly project. Stack's familiarity with Kavanagh's poetry and person informs the volume; his long introductions provide thematic analyses of several long poems and the work as a whole, and they place Kavanagh within a religious tradition that he ultimately challenges. The book divides into two main sections, the first containing the shorter religious poems and the second the two long poems The Great Hunger and "Lough Derg" as well as a poem called "Father Mat," distilled from a longer, earlier poem, "Why Sorrow." Each section demonstrates in its own way the distinctive features of the poet Kavanagh, which Stack claims rightly is inseparable from the religious poetry.
In the short poems, nature is alive with incarnation, and religion's tenets often serve the truth of sexuality, denied by the prudery of Catholicism in Kavanagh's era. In "A Prayer for Faith," Kavanagh pleads not for the presence of faith merely, but to "be / Alive when April's / Ecstasy / Dances in every / White-thorn tree." God-in-nature—or, rather, "God is nature"—exists for the poet-observer to appreciate. In another poem, "April," Kavanagh refers to "the green meadows / [in which] the maiden of Spring is with child / By the Holy Ghost." These short poems with their equally short lines underscore the vehemence of Kavanagh's position, what Stack calls an "aspect of mysticism. . .God's creation as a source of rapture." True to his comic spirit, which he identified as "abundance of life," Kavanagh also includes human flesh in God's creation. The poem "Sensualist" opens with the commanding lines, "Realise the touch kingdom / Do not stray / In the abstract temple of love." Though his position may reflect a sense of alienation from his own faith, it also lends the poet a sense of belonging, as seen in "October": "Something will be mine wherever I am. / I want to throw myself on the public street without caring / For anything but the prayering that the earth offers." This mysticism registers elsewhere in a sensitivity to the feminine attributes of God— a decidedly non-Catholic idea. In one of two poems titled "In Memory of my Mother," Kavanagh praises her because "Through you I knew Woman and did not fear her spell." In "God in Woman," the poet declares [End Page 157]
Surely my God is feminine, for Heaven
Is the generous impulse, is contented
With feeding praise to the good. And all
Of these that I have known have come from women.
Stack's long introductions to The Great Hunger and "Father Mat" place the poems in their important social contexts by highlighting Kavanagh's role as a social commentator, albeit detached. Both these poems contain characters who, as Stack notes, "jolt the conventional assumptions and pieties of [Kavanagh's] time." The poet seems not to speak directly, so revelation comes slyly. However, these longer, later poems also reveal the strain of mysticism, which is worth noting. Patrick Maguire, the persona of The Great Hunger, withers away and dies unfulfilled, not only from working the land but also from a lack of sexual pleasure. Tied to his work on the farm and his aging mother, Patrick can only imagine women in "lust nearness." By the end of the poem, his "mattress [is] rotted," and Kavanagh prefigures his physical and spiritual death by a startling juxtaposition: "The bedposts fall. No hope. No. No lust." Not even the earth provides rapture in the absence of the natural rapture of marriage and sexuality.
In "Father Mat," the priest at confession is distracted by memories of nature; he murmurs pieties with his "human lips" but the other voice in his head is not strictly Christian, certainly not Catholic. In the...