“He gave the art a good name,” remarked the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney of the Irish poet Dennis O ’Driscoll, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve at the age of fifty-eight. Dennis was the author of nine collections of graceful, civilized verse and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Irish letters. I am saddened by his early death, as are many of his fellow writers, Irish and American, who remember him as a true gentleman and a generous friend.
I first met Dennis at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin in the mid-nineties. We struck up a long conversation, which grew over time into a warm, collegial friendship. Whenever I was in Dublin I would ring him up, and we would meet for lunch at O’Neill’s, a Victorian pub with an excellent carvery. I brought news of American poetry. Dennis brought wit, a playful spirit, and a keen awareness of the Irish literary scene. The Irish novelist Belinda McKeon has described Dennis as a “walking encyclopedia of poetry,” and that he was, but unlike many encyclopedias he was never ponderous or dull. And unlike most modern poets, he had little to do with academia. Trained in the law, he had worked in the Irish civil service since he was sixteen. In our last conversation, in June, 2009, he casually remarked that I had “all the qualities of a good lawyer.” Considering its source, I took that as a compliment.
Dennis was known as a poet of the present tense. Acutely aware of the manners and mores of affluent, 21st-century Dublin, he portrayed and sometimes pinioned the culture of “fast-moving, computer-clock-watching, speed-dating / Ireland.” But like many Dubliners of his generation, he was not a native of the city. He hailed from the town of Thurles (pop. 8000) in Co. Tipperary. And in his poem “Bread and Butter,” he recalls the fare of a bygone time:
Irish taste buds configured in the bread-and-butter
era, the donkey-cart-to-creamery age that no longer
dares to speak its shabby name, shamefully hunger
sometimes for the old values of the ham sandwich
in a scruffy lunch-hour pub: fat-framed meat in oval
slices, pink folds arrayed on greaseproof paper,
ready, at the half-twelve rush, to be sandwiched with
a wedge of processed cheddar, a slobbery tomato ring
lobbed in for good measure, a tattered lettuce leaf
revived under a cold water tap; white-sliced pan
of pre-focaccia, pre-tortilla days, buttered up incautiously
by the wheezing, plum-faced, sleeve-rolled barman;
cracked plate slapped down—take it or leave it—
on a sudsy Guinness beermat.*
Recalling this humble but savory lunch, the narrator finds himself remembering “a Tipperary meadow, cows / flinching from insects, fly-whisk tails / patrolling dung-encrusted hindquarters.” That image prompts him to recall the “moulded cups / of mushrooms” presenting themselves at his feet.
As the narrator readily admits, he is being nostalgic. He is a long, long way from Tipperary, and his remembered images bear the patina of fond recollection. But unlike the soft nostalgia for which we of a certain age are notorious, the tone of Dennis’s recollections is as objective as his images are precise. Evocative though it is of a vanished era, his poem is set in the present. And though its narrator may go on about ham sandwiches and sudsy beer mats, he never forgets where he is presently living. To be sure, his reference to such fashionable imports as focaccias may be faintly disapproving, but he does not denigrate the present or place the “old values of the ham sandwich” above the values represented, elsewhere in his poem, by a healthful regimen of “frosty fruits / smoothie, organic Caesar salad wrap, plastic tub / of watercolour melon chunks, detox glass of wheatgrass.” Rather, he views the two contrasting eras with a balanced eye, as might a seasoned judge or professional historian. Neither era is superior. Neither is to be prized above the other.
To see the past in this balanced way was one of Dennis’s gifts, and it is also one of the aims of Zen meditation. Zen teachings exhort us to live in the present, but that injunction should not be construed narrowly to mean excluding the past. As the essayist Chris Arthur notes, “To conceive of ‘now’ merely as some kind of perpetually isolated instance, shorn of all its interrelationship with other moments, seems more impoverishment than insight—an invitation to superficiality rather than to genuine engagement with the texture of the present.”** And in his commentary on the Bhaddekaratta Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh admonishes us to admit the past into our awareness of the present moment:
The present contains the past. When we understand how our internal formations cause conflicts in us, we can see how the past is in the present moment, and we will no longer be overwhelmed by the past. When the Buddha said “Do not pursue the past,” he was telling us not to be overwhelmed by the past. He did not mean that we should stop looking at the past in order to observe it deeply. When we review the past and observe it deeply, if we are standing firmly in the present, we are not overwhelmed by it.***
Rereading Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition in the aftermath of Dennis’s passing, I am aware of the all-too-human urge to “pursue the past.” I have little doubt that the next time I visit Dublin and stop in for lunch at O’Neill’s, I will miss my friend’s hospitable company, his cultivated voice and gentlemanly demeanor. But I am also mindful of the need to stand “firmly in the present,” and I am newly grateful for Dennis’s enduring poems, which so skillfully integrate the present and the past.
* Dennis O’ Driscoll, Reality Check (Copper Canyon, 2008), 9-10.
** Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge (University of Iowa Press, 2012), 118.
*** Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 32-33.