"Station" is a poem written in free verse by Eamon Grennan, an Irish poet who has spent most of his adult life in the United States. It was first published in 1991 in Grennan's collection As If It Matters (Dublin, Ireland, 1991; St. Paul, MN, 1992). It is also available in Grennan's Relations: New and Selected Poems (1998).
In "Station," the speaker and his young son are at the Hudson Valley train station in upstate New York. The boy's parents are divorced, and he is about to leave his father and go to visit his mother. The poem describes the scene at the train station and the thoughts of the boy's father, who knows this is a turning point in his relationship with his son; not only is the boy going away, he is also about to enter adolescence. This is a stage, a "station," along the boy's path to adulthood, and the father knows that things will never again be the same between them. He also realizes that he cannot find the right words to say to his son on this occasion.
One of a number of prominent Irish poets who live in America and teach at American universities, Grennan has written nine books of poetry. He has a growing reputation as one of Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poets. Grennan's work is notable for its concern with personal relationships, particularly within the family. His poems often describe the small details of domestic life, and a number of them explore the poet's relationship with his three children.
Eamon Grennan was born November 13, 1941, in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Thomas P. (an educational administrator) and Evelyn (Yourell) Grennan and was raised in middle-class suburban Dublin. Grennan's interest in literature was first awakened by a young teacher named Gus Martin, at a boarding school run by Cistercian monks that Grennan attended. Martin managed to communicate to the adolescent Grennan his own enthusiasm for Shakespeare and other writers.
Grennan studied literature at University College, Dublin, where, as Grennan later wrote, he was fortunate to have teachers who nurtured his literary interests. Grennan was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in 1963 and a master of arts degree in 1964.
In the late 1960s, Grennan attended graduate school at Harvard University, where he continued to be inspired by what he described in the preface to Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1999), quoting Edmund Spenser, as "the brightness of brave and glorious words." He had a particular interest in Shakespeare and wrote his dissertation on Shakespeare's history plays. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1973. The following year, Grennan became a member of the English faculty at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Grennan went on to become the Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Professor of English at Vassar. He also taught Irish Studies at Villanova University.
In 1972, Grennan married Joan Perkins. They were divorced in 1986. Grennan's subsequent partner was Rachel Kitzinger, a college teacher. He has three children, Kate, Conor, and Kira.
Grennan's first three collections of poetry were all published in Ireland: Wildly for Days (1983), What Light There Is (1987), and Twelve Poems, Occasional Works (1988). With the publication in the United States of his fourth collection, What Light There Is and Other Poems (1989), Grennan began to gain a reputation among American as well as Irish readers. This collection was followed by As If It Matters, published in Ireland in 1991 and the United States in 1992, which includes the poem "Station." So It Goes was published in both countries simultaneously in 1995. Relations: New and Selected Poems followed in 1998.
Grennan received a National Endowment for the Arts award in 1991 and a Guggenheim fellow-ship in 1995. He won the James Boatwright Poetry Prize from Shenandoah magazine in 1995.
Other publications by Grennan are his translation of Selected Poems of Giacomo Leopardi (Dublin, 1995; Princeton, NJ, 1997). This book won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Facing the Music is a collection of Grennan's previously published essays, spanning the years 1977 to 1997. His other works include Selected and New Poems (2000) and Still Life with Waterfall (2002). The latter was awarded the 2003 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, which annually honors the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States.
We are saying goodbye
on the platform. In silence
the huge train waits, crowding the station
with aftermath and longing
and all we've never said 5
to one another. He shoulders
his black dufflebag and shifts
from foot to foot, restless to be off, his eyes
wandering over tinted windows where he'll sit
staring out at the Hudson's platinum dazzle. 10
I want to tell him he's entering into the light
of the world, but it feels like a long tunnel
as he leaves one home, one parent
for another, and we both
know in our bones it won't ever 15
be the same again. What is the air at,
heaping between us then
thinning to nothing? Or those slategrey birds
that croon to themselves in an iron angle
and then take flight—inscribing 20
huge loops of effortless grace
between this station of shade and the shining water?
When our cheeks rest glancing against each other,
I feel mine scratchy with beard and stubble, his
not quite smooth as a girl's, harder, a faint fuzz 25
starting—those silken beginnings I can see
when the light is right, his next life
in bright first touches. What ails our hearts? Mine
aching in vain for the words
to make sense of our life together; his 30
fluttering in dread
of my finding the words, feathered syllables
fidgeting in his throat.
In a sudden rush of bodies
and announcements out of the air, he says 35
he's got to be going. One quick touch
and he's gone. In a minute
the train—ghostly faces behind smoked glass—
groans away on wheels and shackles, a slow glide
I walk beside, waving 40
at what I can see no longer. Later,
on his own in the city, he'll enter the underground
and cross the river, going home
to his mother's house. And I imagine
that pale face of his 45
carried along in the dark glass, shining
through shadows that fill the window
and fall away again
before we're even able to name them.
"Station" begins with a simple sentence announcing "we" are on a railway station platform and are about to say goodbye to each other. The train is waiting, ready to depart, and the speaker is already imagining how he might feel when his son is gone. He is aware, in a regretful sense, of all the things he and his son have never said to each other. The implication is that there may be no more time or no other opportunity to say such things.
The boy puts "his black dufflebag" on his shoulder and shifts his weight "from foot to foot," perhaps indicating his discomfort with the prospect of saying goodbye to his father. The son is impatient to be on his way, and he looks not at his father but at the windows of the train. His father imagines him sitting in the train and staring out of the window at the play of light ("platinum dazzle") on the water of the Hudson River.
The father wants to give his son some encouraging, uplifting words before he leaves, but he is also conscious of his own mixed feelings. Although his son is about to enter the big, wide world, it seems to the father that the boy is about to go into a "long tunnel." The boy is leaving one parent for another, and father and son both know their relationship, as well as the boy's life, will never be the same again. The air between them seems thick with thoughts that ought to be expressed but then suddenly thin again, as if the moment has passed. The father's attention goes to the birds that "croon to themselves" in the angles between the iron girders at the top of the building ("iron angles") and then fly off gracefully over the river.
In the third stanza, the moment of farewell comes. Father and son embrace, their cheeks resting against each other. The father is conscious of the difference in their skin, his unshaven and bristly, his son's smooth but also showing the first signs of growing hair ("faint fuzz"), which reminds the father that his son is on the verge of puberty and adolescence. The father also realizes neither he nor his son is happy at this moment. His heart aches because he cannot find the right words to say to his son at this moment of departure, and he knows his son dreads an emotional scene in which his father does find the right words.
A sudden rush of people moving around them and announcements over the loudspeakers indicate that the train is about to depart. The boy says he has to be going. He and his father touch quickly, and then the boy gets in the train and vanishes from the father's sight. A minute later the train departs, and the father walks alongside it, waving, even though he cannot see where his son is sitting. He imagines his son's journey to his mother's house. The train will go underground to cross the river, and the father imagines the boy's face visible through the reflections that fill the window and disappear before they can even be identified.
Life Journey and Transition
At the literal level of the poem, the journey the boy takes is from his father's home to his mother's home. But this journey also symbolizes the boy's journey in life, from childhood to adolescence and beyond, which is clear from the father's reference to the "faint fuzz" growing on the boy's face. The father sees this first sign of adolescence as a "beginning," the visible evidence that the boy is about to leave childhood behind. The significance of this beginning is conveyed by the father's use of the phrase "his next life." In other words, the coming change is so radical it will seem as if the boy is living a different, entirely new life, not merely an extension of the life he is now living, such is the gulf between childhood and adolescence. The images in the poem reinforce this meaning of a journey to maturity. The boy is like a young bird preparing to fly from its nest, and the train is a symbol for the process of life that carries him inevitably into adolescence and adulthood, and away from his father.
Each stanza emphasizes that this scene is an awkward goodbye between father and son. Much is felt but little is said. The father is keenly aware of all the things that should be said now, in this moment of parting, and of all the things that, when opportunity was there in the past, were never said. He may be referring to words of love or appreciation or understanding. It is a common experience in human relationships: when the time comes to part from a loved one, either for a short while or permanently, words fail. Feelings are deep and words cannot rise to the occasion.
The second stanza further emphasizes this fact. Father and son are both aware of the significance of the occasion, that things will never again be the same between them. The air is thick ("heaping between them"), which suggests it is full of unexpressed thoughts, but then the air goes thin again ("thinning to nothing") as the thoughts disperse. There is a sharp contrast between this scene and the actions of the birds that croon to themselves contentedly, unconcerned with things unsaid and able to fly at will, making effortless loops in the air. The father's growing confusion in this moment is suggested by the fact that he frames his thoughts not as statements but as questions, as if he has suddenly found himself in a situation in which nothing really makes sense anymore.
The third stanza is even more explicit about this gap of silence. In the case of the boy, there is only a fluttering of "feathered syllables" in his throat; actual words are a long way off. The word "fluttering" suggests the ineffective struggles of a young bird trying to fly from its nest and reflects the previous stanza's image of crooning, effortlessly soaring birds. The father feels only confusion; he is unable to find the right words to say in the present moment, and he can no longer understand the nature of his relationship with his son. It is as if in this moment of departure everything is falling apart.
Topics For Further Study
- Divorce is common today. Research and report on how children are affected by divorce. What factors should be considered in deciding with which parent a child lives after a divorce? Why?
- How does a free-verse poem differ from prose? Is free verse more effective than rhymed verse? Why or why not? Why are most modern poems written in free verse?
- Why do parents and adolescent children sometimes find it hard to communicate with one another? Do parents often want to know too much about their children's lives? How do good parents strike the right balance between guiding their children in the right direction and letting them go their own way to learn from their own mistakes?
- Compose your own free-verse poem about an incident in which you and one or both of your parents were unable to communicate something important to each other, something that really needed to be said. How did this incident affect your relationship with your parent(s)? What did it tell you about yourself or about your parent(s)?
The fourth stanza brings further attention to the inadequacy of the farewell between father and son: "One quick touch / and he's gone." In spite of the awareness on both sides of the need for words, it appears that nothing at all is said. Instead one quick touch—not even a hug—is left to carry all the weight of meaning that cannot be summoned in words.
The poem has many contrasts between light and dark. These contrasts suggest the mixed feelings the father has about his son's departure. Light is first suggested by the phrase "platinum dazzle" and the phrase "he's entering into the light / of the world." This imagery continues when the father feels the first growth of down on the boy's face, which he knows he can see "when the light is right." He refers to it as the boy's "next life / in bright first touches."
These images of light are opposed by images of darkness, like the "long tunnel," which implies darkness and enclosure. The phrase "long tunnel" expresses the father's gloomy thoughts about his son's departure. Also the railway station is a "station of shade" (contrasted with the "shining water" on the river). "Shade" can also mean "ghost," which would link it to the line "ghostly faces behind smoked glass" (referring to the passengers in the train), as well as to the insubstantial, fleeting shadows evoked at the end of the poem.
The poetic device used most frequently in the poem is alliteration, which is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. The most sustained example is stretched over three lines at the end of the third stanza, when the father imagines what is going on in his son's mind, as he, the father, tries to find the right things to say: "fluttering in dread / of my finding the words, feathered syllables / fidgeting in his throat." The repetition of the "f" sound gives the impression of a stutter, of words about to come out but not finding a way. The image of a young bird about to fly from its nest is appropriate, since it suggests the boy who is on the verge of a new stage in his life, on the way to adulthood. Another example of the sustained use of alliteration comes in the final stanza, with the repetition of the "g" sound: "ghostly faces behind smoked glass—/ groans away on wheels and shackles, a slow glide."
The lines quoted above also show the use of assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds occurring in nearby words. This can be heard in the long "o" sound in "ghostly," "smoked," "groans," and "slow," which emphasizes the slowness with which the train begins to pull away. Another example of assonance, again with the long "o" sound, comes in the second stanza in the lines "and we both / know in our bones it won't ever / be the same again." The identical vowel sounds in the words "both," "know," "bones," and "won't" give way sharply to the vowel "e" in "ever"; the sudden change in the vowel sound is in keeping with the sense that something will not "be the same again."
A further example of assonance is the long "i" sound in the lines "when the light is right, his next life / in bright first touches." The sequence "light," "right," "life," and "bright" brings out the positive nature of the father's thought at this point. These lines are also notable for the internal rhyme (a rhyme that occurs within a verse-line rather than at the end) in "light," "right," and "bright."
Divorce in America
The experience of the boy in "Station" dividing time between divorced parents has become increasingly familiar to American children during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The divorce level first began to rise in the 1960s and continued to rise even more sharply in the 1970s. In 1975 projections from statistics supplied by the Current Population Survey suggested that about one-third of married people between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five would end their first marriage in divorce. By 1996 this figure had in fact been exceeded, with 40 percent of people in that category then divorced. The divorce rate peaked in 1979 and 1981, when 5.3 per every 1,000 couples were divorced. The figure dropped somewhat to 4.7 per every 1,000 couples in 1989 and 1990. In 1990, 16.8 per every 1,000 children under the age of eighteen were affected by divorce.
The rising divorce rate produced new challenges for the courts, which had to decide which parent was to be awarded custody. According to a report prepared by the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1990 the mother was awarded custody of the children 72 percent of the time, in divorces in which custody was awarded. Joint custody was the second most common arrangement (16 percent), while fathers were awarded custody in only 9 percent of divorces.
The increase in the number of divorces also steadily changed the nature of the American family. The number of single-parent families increased, as did the number of "blended" families, in which divorced parents remarried and created a new family unit with children from their previous marriages.
Many research studies in the 1980s examined the effects of divorce on children. The studies showed that effects varied according to the age of the child and that there were short-term as well as long-term effects. In the case of teenagers, research showed that parental divorce was correlated with lower academic performance, dropping out of high school, use of alcohol and drugs, and aggressive or promiscuous behavior.
Contemporary Irish Literature
Grennan is a notable contemporary voice in a long line of distinguished twentieth-century Irish poets. The most prominent of all was W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. After Yeats, the best known poet in Ireland was Patrick Kavanagh, although two Irish poets in exile in England, Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt, also produced notable work.
Around the time of Kavanagh's death in 1967, a new generation of Irish poets began to make their mark. The most renowned of these poets is Seamus Heaney (born 1939), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 and who is widely considered the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. Heaney was raised in Northern Ireland, and like most Irish poets of the time, his work was affected by the social unrest and violence that began in that province in 1969. From 1969 until the late-1990s, the Irish Republican Army fought a terrorist campaign to end British rule over Northern Ireland. Over 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, which pitted Protestants against Catholics. Heaney's volume North (1975) directly confronts the issue of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Other Irish poets whose work was influenced by what were called the "Troubles" are Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane, and John Montague. Montague's epic poem The Rough Field (1972) explores Ireland's past and incorporates material drawn from the "Troubles."
Heaney is one of several Irish poets (including Grennan) who have spent at least part of their careers living and working in the United States. Although Heaney is a resident of Dublin, Ireland, he also teaches at Harvard University. Thomas Kinsella, who was born in Dublin in 1928, went on to a teaching career in the United States. His Collected Poems appeared in 2001. Since 1989 John Montague has regularly taught fiction workshops at the State University of New York at Albany. Eavan Boland, whose Collected Poems appeared in 1995, taught at Stanford University. Another leading voice in contemporary Irish poetry, Paul Muldoon, has lived in the United States since 1987; he is a professor at Princeton University, and in 1999 he was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
The dispersal of Irish poets over a wide geographical area has stimulated a debate about how to define Irish literature. In the case of Grennan, the fact that he was living in the United States when the "Troubles" first broke out may explain why his work, unusual amongst his generation of Irish poets, is apolitical. Reviewers have suggested that his work is less easily identifiable as Irish than the work of some of his contemporaries.
Although "Station" has not attracted specific comment from reviewers, the poem exhibits many of the qualities that typify Grennan's work and have won praise from critics. As Ben Howard writes in a review of As If It Matters for Poetry: "Grennan examines the tensions and banalities of middle-class life, the dynamics of marriage and parenthood, the trauma of divorce, the pain of separation from a son and daughter." Howard notes the influence on Grennan's work of Seamus Heaney and concludes that "his poems reflect a sensibility tempered by experience but ready for the next uncommon moment."
In an appreciative review of As If It Matters for Hudson Review, James Finn Cotter observes that Grennan "seeks for order in the ordinary world," and finds "Grennan's poems at their best possess … [a] sense of permanence and serious purpose. Here is poetry that will last, that will be read long after the present shadows have passed."
In a review in America of Grennan's Relations: New and Selected Poems, Robert E. Hosmer Jr. describes Grennan as a "master in his prime." He also makes a comment that could be directly applied to "Station": "Grennan's poems maintain a delicate balance of line and tone, filled with tender feeling, but never lapsing into embarrassing sentimentality or unbecoming bitterness, as he catalogues events in an ordinary life."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses "Station" and other poems by Grennan in the context of the poet's interest in silence and stillness.
"Station" is one of a number of Grennan's poems that deal with family interactions, both happy and sad. Some of these poems are directly about Grennan's three children, Conor, Kate, and Kira. As If It Matters, the collection in which "Station" first appeared, is framed by two such poems. The first poem in the book, "Two Climbing," is as much about fulfillment between father and son as "Station" is about awkwardness and loss. The poet and the twelve-year-old boy climb Tully Mountain in Ireland. Just as in "Station," not many words pass between them, but in the climbing expedition the silence is one of pleasure and fulfillment, not of confusion. Man and boy are pleased with themselves for having done "some dumb male thing," and this time Conor has no difficulty in finding the right word: "adventure."
Grennan's poem "Two Gathering" is about a trip made by the poet and his then nearly sixteen-year-old daughter Kate to gather mussels from a seashore in Ireland. It is a poem of celebration, both of Kate and of the beauty of the landscape. Once again, few words are exchanged between father and child. It seems that words are hardly needed as they go about their purpose: "In our common silence we stay / aware of one another, working together." As in "Two Climbing," the silence is broken not by the poet but by the child, who exclaims about the variety of colors in the mussels. The daughter's voice also breaks into the "wide silence" of nature earlier in the expedition. Both "Two Climbing" and "Two Gathering" are poems in which spoken words emerge out of contented silence and express the joy of discovery. How different is the silence between father and child in "Station," which describes a silence of suppression, of the word stopped in the throat, paralyzed in the mind, not flowing out sweetly on a bed of silence as in the happier poems, both of which, incidentally, are set outside, in nature, rather than in the enclosed stifling space of a crowded railroad station.
Grennan is a poet sensitive to silence and stillness, two words that appear often in his work. In his observation of nature, this perception of still moments in the midst of ongoing natural processes sometimes has an almost Wordsworthian or Keatsian quality. Grennan's appreciation of the deep meanings inherent in stillness and silence also draw him to paintings, especially those by the Dutch masters and the French painter Pierre Bonnard. It is Bonnard who supplies the inspiration for "The Breakfast Room," a poem in which the still life is presented as a kind of nothing on the verge of becoming something: "this stillness, this sense / that things are about to achieve illumination." And typically, since Grennan is a poet of family and ordinary domestic moments, he extrapolates from the painting into real life, suggesting that in anyone's kitchen at breakfast time there might be "a pause / on the brink of something always / edging into shape, about to happen."
It is this moment of "pause" in which there is silence that holds Grennan's attention. He is highly attuned to it and finds it in a wide variety of situations, often simple, domestic ones. In "Weather," for example, after the weather changes for the better after days of persistent rain, "the house is spinning / its own sure silence round your lives." In "Song," the poet listens to his daughter singing solo at her junior-high-school graduation and manages to access a still point within, which they both share, and in which he is able to communicate with her: "while into / our common silence I whisper, / Sing, love, sing your heart out!"
These silences are always positive. They suggest the connections between people and between people and things. They point toward a kind of ground of being that all life shares and that is apparent in moments when people cease their perpetual busyness. In an essay on the work of his fellow Irish poet Derek Mahon (in Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century), Grennan writes of Mahon's "recurrent preoccupation with silence," a phrase that might equally well describe Grennan's own work.
Perhaps the best example of this aspect of Grennan's poetry comes in the poem "Morning: the Twenty-second of March." The scene is once again the family home. On a spring morning, the poet listens to the various natural sounds outside, in particular the sound of a dove that sings and then falls silent. Something about the silence makes it transformative; it suddenly shifts the poet's consciousness into an object-less, timeless dimension of being:
—our life together hesitating in this gap
of silence, slipping from us and becoming
nothing we know in the swirl that has
no past, no future, nothing
but the pure pulse-shroud of light, the dread
here-now—reporting thrice again
its own silence. The cup of tea
still steams between your hands
like some warm offering or other
to the nameless radiant vacancy at the window,
this stillness in which we go on happening.
There are, then, two kinds of silence in Grennan's poetry. The first might be thought of as silence-as-being, a silence in which all life is embedded, even as it lives in its world of flux ("this stillness in which we go on happening"). It can be discerned in the most ordinary moments of the day by those who happen to be alert to it. It is a "regenerative silence" (again, this is a phrase used by Grennan to characterize Mahon's work but applies equally well to his own), which promotes life, union, happiness.
What Do I Read Next?
- Grennan's Still Life with Waterfall (2002) is filled with observations of the natural world, animal life, and human relationships. Some critics have identified a feeling of foreboding in many of these poems, as well as a search for continuity. Other critics have remarked on the subtle eroticism of some of the poems in this collection.
- Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology (1995), edited by Patrick Crotty, includes selections from Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Durcan, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (in translation from Irish), and others. Crotty argues that much twentieth century Irish writing can be interpreted as a quarrel with the dominating figure of W. B. Yeats.
- Seamus Heaney's Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996 (1998) is a large, representative selection of poems made by the poet himself. Heaney includes poems from his previous twelve books of poetry, as well as some previously uncollected poems. The book also includes his Nobel lecture, "Crediting Poetry."
- Paul Muldoon is one of the most celebrated contemporary Irish poets and his Poems 1968–1998 (2001) illustrates the rich variety of his work, including the erotic as well as the political, and notably also his hundred haiku about suburban New Jersey.
The second kind of silence is a negative one. It is the silence of suppression, the silence that marks a breakdown in the flow of life between people. Instead of a kind of fullness-in-potential there is emptiness, a gap, an absence. Something should be there—speech, communication, continuity of life—but is not. It is a silence of desolation. It can be heard in Grennan's several poems about family separations, the radical breaks that occur in the lives of two or more people. These poems include "Station," as well as two poems Grennan wrote about divorce. (He was divorced from his wife of fourteen years in 1986.) In "Women Going," Grennan writes of the aftermath of divorce as "this absence beating its stone wings / over every ordinary corner of the day." One can imagine the father in "Station" feeling the same way after the departure of his son. In fact, he feels it even before the son steps on the train (the waiting train fills the station "with aftermath and longing," the word "aftermath" suggesting the desolation that will immediately follow the parting).
The second poem about divorce, "Breaking Points," is a searing examination of the despair felt by the husband (or anyone in a similar situation) as he leaves the house for the last time following the divorce: "we say / What now? What else? What?" It is as if life has come to a sudden halt. Everything stops, or seems to, in this void. The arrangement of the poem on the page emphasizes this blank void, since the next line containing only the two words "And now" is so deeply indented on the page that the unanswered questions in the previous line seem almost to hang in the air, alone. How different is this silence-as-void from the moments of generative silence and stillness that the poet experiences in calmer, more serene moments.
Both poems about divorce emphasize the pain and desolation of parting. These feelings are also apparent in "Station," although the implications of the final lines of the poem need some elucidation. In the last sentence, the father imagines his son sitting in the second train on his journey:
that pale face of his
carried along in the dark glass, shining
through shadows that fill the window
and fall away again
before we're even able to name them.
The alliterative music created by the phrase "shining through shadows," in combination with "fill the window / and fall," which further develops the play on the "i" and "a" as well as "f" sounds, is typical of Grennan's style. As far as meaning is concerned, at the literal level the observation is simple. As the train rushes on, the father imagines seeing not only his son's face in the window but also all the fleeting reflections from whatever the train is passing outside. There is surely an under-tone of regret and even melancholy here also. The use of the word "shadows" recalls the earlier occurrences of "shade," "ghostly faces," and "pale face," all referring to the train station or the people inside the train. It is as if the father is losing his son to a realm of shadows, where nothing has substance anymore. The switch from singular to first-person plural in the last line expands the thought from the personal to the general; the shadows vanish "before we're even able to name them," just as earlier the thoughts that should have been expressed were not; they too were like shadows in the mind and heart, felt but never articulated, never finding proper form. Also, the vanishing shadows in the last line suggest the frustrated human desire to categorize things and thereby to understand life. And hovering behind this meaning is perhaps yet another: the father's wistful feeling that his son has departed before he has been able to get to know him fully. There is a sadness in these concluding lines, however obliquely that sadness may be expressed. As such, it is a rather untypical conclusion from a poet who usually tries to emphasize the positive things that can be retrieved from daily existence and relationships. The situation of the father in "Station" is that he wants something to hold onto as he says goodbye to his son, but he cannot do it; he finds only shadows.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Station," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following review, Howard praises Grennan's attention to the nuances and melodies of language and cites a commonality between Grennan and James Joyce.
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Source: Ben Howard, Review of As If It Matters, in Poetry, Vol. 161, No. 4, January 1993, pp. 233–34.
In the following review, Tillinghast praises Grennan's spiritual openness and places his work within the context of Irishness.
Reading for the first time Eamon Grennan's "Men Roofing" in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, I experienced the same sense of unqualified assent I felt at the age of seventeen when I first read Richard Wilbur's great lyric, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" in the Untermeyer anthology. It would be extravagant to claim that Grennan's poem was the best I had read in thirty-five years; but "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is a touchstone for me. Since no one reads Matthew Arnold anymore, it might not be out of place to quote William Butler Yeats's version of what Arnold meant by a touchstone (I ran across Yeats's sentence in Seamus Heaney's essay, "Sense of Place"): "The final test of the value of any work of art to our particular needs, is when we place it in the hierarchy of those recollections which are our standards and our beacons."
Why Eamon Grennan's poetry reminds me of Richard Wilbur's is that both poets have a largeness, a generosity, an unforced openness to experience that affirms what we have in common rather than the barriers we erect to divide us. The conventional wisdom of the moment is, to quote Wendy Steiner in the April 5, 1992, New York Times Book Review (though the sentiment may be found in practically every contemporary literary-critical forum), that "the path to a common voice nowadays runs through the partisan."
Grennan's inclusive, non-partisan embrace of "the things of this world" hints at a spiritual openness reminiscent of the early Chinese Buddhist teachers, whose attitude is summed up in P'ei Hsiu's preface to a ninth-century text by Huang Po: "To those who have realized the nature of Reality, there is nothing old or new, and conceptions of shallowness and depth are meaningless …. That which is before you is it." Aware that meaning inheres in that border zone where the "scrubbed exactitudes" of our world give way to that "dimmer thing," the ambient world that haloes what is perceptible to our senses, Grennan dwells sometimes exuberantly, sometimes grievingly, but always intently, in both worlds.
"Men Roofing" is first of all a poem about work. Why is it that the activity in which we expend most of our lives has been the subject for so little poetry? The great examples of this genre that we do have, come across with the force of inevitability, with a levelness of tone not found in poems about, for example, love and ambition. Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time" glows with a healthy physicality:
Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
As does Seamus Heaney's "Digging," with its "Under my window, a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father, digging." The same poet's "Thatcher" exudes a great sense of pleasure derived from craft: "Bespoke for weeks, he turned up some morning / Unexpectedly, his bicycle slung / With a light ladder and a bag of knives." "Men Roofing" is dedicated to Seamus Heaney, and I take the dedication as encouragement to think of this poem as an homage to "Thatcher."
First an extended meditation on air and sky, where "Overhead / against the gentian sky a sudden first flock whirls / of amber leaves and saffron, quick as breath, fine / as origami birds." How light a touch the man has! "What a sight between earth and air they are," Grennan says of the roofers, "drenched / in sweat and sunlight, relaxed masters for a moment / of all our elements!" Again like Heaney, he gives us figures of mastery. Important because all of us, whether we think about it often or have grown to take it for granted, concern ourselves with the question of how we will get along in this world.
Men working. But not only that. The poem shows us the essence of their activity: "men roofing, taking pains to keep the weather / out …." If one sympathizes with Gary Snyder's belief that "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic," one is struck with the realization that the provision of shelter must surely be one of the most ancient human endeavors. Paradoxically the "brink" between earth and heaven also suggests a metaphor for the unseen frontier between the physical and the spiritual, and this is the frontier to which this poem takes us: "Briefly they stand balanced / between our common ground and nobody's sky." What is, I suppose, most "Irish," if one cares to venture out into that treacherous bog, about this poem is its startling illumination of ordinary action as a form of ritual. We feel ourselves gently nudged in the direction of seeing the "plume of blue smoke" which "feathers up / out of a pitch-black cauldron" as ritual censing, like the bonfires lit in the British Isles on All Hallows' Eve, or the American Indian's offering of tobacco to the spirits. "Odorous," the poem concludes, "their column of lazuli smoke loops up from the dark / heart of their mystery …." The mention of "lazuli," associated in one's mind with the mystical Byzantium evoked by Yeats, transports us into a world of liturgy and acts of propitiation. By this point in the poem the men have become mediators between earth and sky, between the physical and the spiritual: "they ply, they intercede."
Eamon Grennan has justly been praised as a poet of the domestic—and of the domestic in its fullness, including a place for eros within the complete domestic configuration. Another poem from What Light There Is, "Jewel Box," delves into the contents of the poet's wife's jewelry box:
Morning and evening
I see you comb its seawrack tangle of shell,
stone, wood, glass, metal, bone, seed
for the bracelet, earring, necklace, brooch
or ring you need.
The various ornaments, from Africa, Nepal, the Mediterranean, are talismans of the woman's exotic appeal. The bathroom, where the jewel box—a treasure-trove of more than material value—is kept and where the couple perform their ablutions before going out into the world, becomes in the poem a sort of nest from which they issue forth. Her washed bras, hung up to dry, look oddly like "the skinned Wicklow rabbits I remember / hanging from hooks outside the victuallers' / big windows." The comment that follows is worth pausing over: "We've been domesticated strangely, / love, according to our lights …." The poem catches the poised instant of departure, where the man and the woman stand balanced between their private, erotic selves and the identities they must assume in their workaday lives. The moment of departure is, like many a moment in this poet's work, epiphanic and luminous: "Going down the dark stairs and out / to the fogbound street, you light my way."
In "All Souls' Morning" the day dawns rainy, and the scene inside the poet's house comes into focus so perfectly that we recognize at once where we are, aware at the same time, perhaps, of having the scene evoked for us with a remarkable ease: "Rain splatting wet leaves; citrine light; the cat / scratching the sofa; the house dead quiet / but for the furnace thumping in the cellar …." A scene so familiar we are startled to see it evoked so deftly. As a man passes by, out walking his dog in the rain, suddenly "my father comes leaning as he always did / up Clareville Road, not far from where he's buried, bent / against the bitter wind … " Here's how the poem ends:
you said when we wakened warm by one another, I was
seeing shapes widen round the room, hearing them whisper in the wall. And now my hungry children come
clattering to the kitchen for breakfast. The house quickens.
The dead appear—as they are perhaps more likely to do in Ireland than in the United States—but they appear within the context of the family and the home, which is where almost everything happens in Grennan's poetry. Everything is contained within the nest. Even the dream about the dead is narrated "when we wakened warm by one another" and when the children were about to appear for breakfast. Perhaps it is these two qualities that make Grennan a palpably "Irish" poet: the hearth as the focus for life's dramas; and the willingness to admit the existence of presences other than the human.
Earlier in this essay I invoked Buddhism. "Morning: the Twenty-Second of March," another poem from What Light There Is, again opening itself to a moment when, though seemingly nothing is happening, Grennan's alert senses are able to register an essence:
our life together hesitating in this gap
of silence, slipping from us and becoming
nothing we know in the swirl that has
no past, no future, nothing
but the pure pulse-shroud of light …
While this bit of metaphysics is being spun out,
The cup of tea
still steams between your hands
like some warm offering or other
to the nameless radiant vacancy at the window,
this stillness in which we go on happening.
These lines come about as close as anything I can think of to capturing the moment itself, the essence of what we call for lack of a better word, life.
Again like Richard Wilbur, Grennan is at home in the natural world. Moving from his first American collection, What Light There Is, to the 1992 book, As If It Matters, here are lines from "Cows":
I love the way a torn tuft
of grassblades, stringy buttercup and succulent clover
sway-dangles towards a cow's mouth, the mild teeth
taking it in—purple flowers, green stems and yellow petals
lingering on those hinged lips
foamed with spittle. And the slow chewing sound
as transformation starts: the pulping roughness
of it, its calm deliberate solicitude, its
entranced herbivorous pacific
grace, the carpet-sweeping sound of breath
huffing out of pink nostrils.
Listen to the word-music at play here: how the short u's in "love," "tuft," "buttercup" and "succulent" create a looping melody, separated as they are by differing vowels that intervene, reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins's rhythms. "Sway-dangles" gets the sloppy motion just right: there's nothing prim about a cow's table manners. Not just description, though, as the idea-word "transformation" tells us. One feels how intent an observer is at work here in the almost passionate accumulation of adjectives: "its / entranced herbivorous pacific / grace," suggestive of something Elizabeth Bishop wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson on the subject of Darwin's journals. "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration."
In As If It Matters, observations of the physical world sometimes open out into analogies to the world of the emotions, as in "Breaking Points," where the poet watches a friend chop a huge maple into firewood, "hoisting / the wedgehead heavy axe and coming down with it / in one swift glittering arc: a single chunk, / then the gleam of two half moons of maple / rolling over in the driveway." The tree being split triggers a remembrance of the time his earlier marriage and family broke apart:
… this is the way it is
in the world we make and break
for ourselves: first the long green growing, then
the storm, the heavy axe, those shining remnants
that'll season for a year
before the fire gets them …
The eye of these poems is not averted from breakage and loss. The jumble of unstacked firewood "from this Babylonian distance looks like / a pattern of solid purposes or the end of joy."
One feels the losses recorded in some of these poems suffered and sustained, but never relished or displayed to advantage, as in Confessional Poetry. In "Compass Reading" the poet rescues a cat from the jaws of a bird, "the broken neck, closed eyes, the tuft, / the ruffled wings—the chest / still soft and warm—and placed them / out of harm's way, as if it mattered … " And it does matter in the larger balance, one feels, because the cat, "tasting a salt smear of blood / across tongue and teeth," becomes in the economy of the poem an emblem of death writ large: "And she will not /—for all her satisfactions— / be appeased."
Let me now go into more detail as to what there is about Grennan's poetry to distinguish it as Irish rather than American or English. Perhaps the distinction is ultimately not important. But I have already mentioned three emphases: a sense that life approaches at times the significance of ritual, which readers will be familiar with from Yeats; the centrality in Irish life of the hearth, which links Grennan to poets of the land, most notably Patrick Kavanagh—still not widely known in this country, but revered by Irish readers and considered by many Irish poets to be, rather than Yeats, their true progenitor; And thirdly, the weather eye that the poet keeps out for presences other than the physical and earthly—an orientation that links him to the entire history of spirituality without which it would be impossible to conceive of Irish letters from the earliest folk tales of the supernatural and saints' lives, to the aisling or dream vision poems of the Irish-language tradition, the otherworldly terror of Sheridan Le Fanu, Joyce's "The Dead," the spirits Heaney evokes in Station Island, and on and on.
Starting with the Irish nationalist movement that began in the 19th century, Ireland went from being, in Shaw's words, "John Bull's other island" to a country very much aware, often in an excruciatingly self-conscious way, of its unique history and culture. Nationalistic pride and self-assertion still of course flourish: a foreign reader of The Irish Times or a listener to the cultural programs on Radio Eireann will often find himself amazed at the Irish passion for self-definition. Things are changing, however. Anyone who reads widely in contemporary Irish literature or who visits the island and gets some sense of its cultural life, will know that Ireland no longer experiences the isolation that fostered many of the myths that have defined it both for outsiders and for the Irish themselves. While finding itself still culturally entangled, often unwillingly, with Britain, Ireland now looks east to continental Europe and west to the United States.
Membership in the European Community has meant not only an influx of tourists and development money—much of it to be used for cultural projects—but a greater respect in Europe for Ireland as an autonomous country and people than it was traditionally accorded under British rule; at the same time, Ireland has become more susceptible to continental European trends. As for the United States, Ireland has a tremendous vulnerability to American culture—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Immigration, often to America, has been a fact of Irish life ever since the Famines of the 19th century. Many Irish people are culturally mid-Atlantic, and this is especially true of Grennan. A round dozen of the poems in As If It Matters appeared first in The New Yorker. Irish poetry, despite its many excellences, is not really so "foreign" as what comes to us from Poland, Latin America, or even Britain, for that matter, where ever since Larkin there has been a retreat into provinciality in the face of the "global village" mentality. There is in addition the phenomenon of the Irish poet in the American university—with Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Eamon Grennan all teaching part- or full-time in the States. Perhaps these sociocultural factors have at least something to do with Grennan's accessibility to the American audience.
"The Cave Painters" seems to me typical of Grennan's ability to tap into experiences that compel the assent of a wide range of readers. "They've left the world of weather and panic / behind them," he writes of these imagined prehistoric artists, "and gone on in, drawing the dark / in their wake …." Living as we do in a culture that positions the human being at the center of the universe, it is good to be reminded of a time when the balance of power was differently disposed. The "one unbroken line" of the cave painters' art encompasses
the speed of the horse, the bison's fear, the gentle arch
that big-bellied cow throws over
its spindling calf, or the lancing dance of death
that bristles out of the struck buck's
flank. In this one line they place
a beak-headed human figure of sticks
and one small, chalky, amputated hand.
That hand, seen here as amputated, has disappeared into the picture it has painted. The modest position of the human, the artist, within the economy of observed life in this picture has immense appeal. Though I have just claimed that Grennan typifies a generation of writers where "Irishness" is less determining than it was in the past, one might go so far as to say that nothing is so Irish as the craft, the care, the lack of egocentricity evident here. These artists "must have had," the poem concludes, "one desire we'd recognise," and this is a desire with whose intent every artist, every writer will concur:
they would, before going on
beyond this border zone, this nowhere
that is now here, leave something
upright and bright behind them in the dark.
Source: Richard Tillinghast, "Eamon Grennan: To Leave Something Bright and Upright Behind," in New England Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 189–95.
Cotter, James Finn, Review of As If It Matters, in Hudson Review, Vol. XLV, No. 3, Autumn 1992, pp. 524–26.
"Eamon Grennan," in Salon, at archive.salon.com/weekly/grennan.html, (last accessed May 17, 2004).
Grennan, Eamon, Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Creighton University Press, 1999, pp. xiv, 262–63.
——, Relations: New and Selected Poems, Greywolf Press, 1998.
Hosmer, Robert E., Jr., Review of Relations: New and Selected Poems, in America, Vol. 180, No. 11, April 3, 1999, p. 23.
Howard, Ben, Review of As If It Matters, in Poetry, Vol. CLXI, No. 4, January 1993, pp. 233–34.
Brophy, James D., and Eamon Grennan, eds., New Irish Writing: Essays in Memory of Raymond J. Porter, Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Sixteen essays cover various aspects of modern Irish literature, including poetry, drama, and short stories. Grennan contributes an introduction and an essay on the poetry of Paul Duncan and Paul Muldoon.
Campbell, Michael, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
This guide to contemporary Irish poetry covers major figures such as Heaney as well as his precursors, including Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh, as well as other leading contemporary figures such as Thomas Kinsella, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, and Paul Muldoon. The book includes cultural and historical backgrounds, a chronology, and guide to further reading.
Fleming, Deborah, "The 'Common Ground' of Eamon Grennan," in Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 133–49.
Fleming discusses a wide range of Grennan's poetry, examining his treatment of universality and the ordinary.
Tillinghast, Richard, "Eamon Grennan: 'To Leave Something Bright and Upright Behind,'" in New England Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 189–95.
In this review of Grennan's collections What Light There Is and As If It Matters, Tillinghast discusses Grennan's concern with family, home, and the natural world; his spirituality that sometimes resembles Buddhism; and the presence of epiphanies in the ordinary moment. Tillinghast likens Grennan to American poet Richard Wilbur, but he also discusses what makes Grennan's poetry Irish rather than American or English.
Wrigley, Robert, Review of Still Life with WaterFall, in Nation, Vol. 277, No. 8, December 1, 2003, p. 38.
This review of Grennan's most recent collection is one of the most substantial treatments of the poet's work to date. Wrigley has nothing but praise for Grennan's artistry in presenting the natural world.
sta·tion / ˈstāshən/ • n. 1. a regular stopping place on a public transportation route, esp. one on a railroad line with a platform and often one or more buildings. 2. a place or building where a specified activity or service is based: a research station in the rain forest coastal radar stations. ∎ a small military base, esp. of a specified kind: a naval station. ∎ a police station. ∎ a subsidiary post office. ∎ Austral./NZ a large sheep or cattle farm. 3. a company involved in broadcasting of a specified kind: a radio station. 4. the place where someone or something stands or is placed on military or other duty: the lookout resumed his station in the bow. ∎ dated one's social rank or position: Karen was getting ideas above her station. 5. Bot. a particular site at which an interesting or rare plant grows. 6. short for Station of the Cross. • v. [tr.] put in or assign to a specified place for a particular purpose, esp. a military one: troops were stationed in the town a young girl had stationed herself by the door.
Hence, or — F. stationner, station vb. XVIII. stationary XV. — L. statiōnārius. stationer (-ER2) †(hist.) bookseller, †publisher XVI; tradesman who sells writing materials (at one time part of the stock-in-trade of a bookseller) XVII. — medL. statiōnārius tradesman having a regular ‘station’ or shop (i.e., not itinerant), whence stationery articles sold by a stationer, writing materials. XVIII.
1. Stages of the Passion, often placed around the walls of a church or in the cloister, sculpted, painted, etc., usually 14 in number.
2. Stock farm.
3. Fixed stopping-place, e.g. railway station, so the buildings of such a station.
4. Local office, depot, or headquarters for a specific purpose, e.g. fire station, police station, ambulance station, etc.
5. Place of assembly.
Station ★★ ½ 1981
A Japanese detective's love affair is corrupted by his ruthless search for a bloodthirsty cop killer. With English subtitles. 130m/C VHS . JP Ken Takakura, Chieko Baisho; D: Yasuo Furuhata.