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The Man Made of Rain
Brendan Kennelly

The Man Made of Rain
Brendan Kennelly
Newcastle upon Tyne 1998

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The reader come to this long poem uncomfortable with the knowledge that it has been born from death, or rather, as the work itself lays claim, ‘out of the shadowlands between life and death.’ Kennelly’s latest muse, the rainmaker, finds him after a quadruple bypass and stays with him until satiated with his panegyric, forty-three sections later. Although their journey together proves to be as comforting as it is confrontational, lit it be understood: this is not cheery stuff.

The undaunted reader is not likely to emerge undeterred from the remainder of Kennelly’s prefatory remarks. Always distrust what a poet has to say about his own work. Be particularly wary therefore of a writer who purports to be able to show the ‘dreamenergised English of pure being.’ Thankfully Kennelly seems to distrust his contrived ‘creative’ stance, admitting that ‘It is odd or tricky when you try to speak of…[vision]… afterwards.’ Can cliché become the tool of the dream-visionary? Kennelly, making a similarly grating rhyme-scheme his accomplice, would have us believe so:

It is my stricken guess
that more men die of caution
than excess.

The dreamsurrenderer’s chief preoccupation is with his own morality. It is only natural that he should deal with all manner of matters arising; the past, the present, sex, love, alcohol, mushrooms and, of course, blood. Kennelly’s grim humour:

‘It’s mine,’ I said. ‘That blood is mine
and it’s running all over the bloody place.

can leave one as uneasy as the bitterest truism:

Some men never see their blood, is it
any wonder they’re so keen to shed the blood
of others, some of the worst evil is spread
by men who’ve never seen their own blood

The dreamnarrative is anchored in the specificity of the Ireland of the poet’s child- and adulthood. Though the two landscapes are frequently fused with potency, it is while on a journey through his ‘hacked body’ that the central facet of Kennelly’s philosophy actually becomes acceptable. The tangible can, simply by virtue of its inanimate nature, unlock the meaning of the intangible. It becomes as understandable for a mushroom to symbolise the afterlife, as it is for a ‘festering scar’ to be a lost ‘love in a yellow house on a hill.’ Thereafter Kennelly’s obvious talent for revealing the sacred in the absurd (and vice-versa) becomes more than enjoyable, it becomes exciting:

‘Many a man carries a lunatic asylum
on his neck and shoulders
and has the gumption to call it his head.’

Colours and textures are described both for themselves and as the essence of feeling and of being in such a shape-shifting universe as this. Drowning can be as comforting as the lethargy of every day’s routine:

drifting in a sea of warm blue oil,
I’ve been drifting for years, mushrooms
at my side, whispering

The beauty of Kennelly’s poem lies not necessarily in its coherence as a whole (the man of rain motif can, in truth, get a little wearing after the fiftieth page), but in its willingness to be broken down into fragments which (like the life and death Kennelly has chosen to describe), are in themselves gilded and lilting and more than a little bit frightening.

Reviewed by Mari-Hughes-Edwards


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