One Crimson Thread
Bloodaxe Books £12
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (use code WISEMEN)
IN 2005, the Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail published his collection Love Life, celebrating more than 30 years of marriage to his wife, Brid. One Crimson Thread is the tragic sequel: 150 sonnets, and 13-line near-sonnets that trace the last two years of her life, through Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Celebration becomes requiem.
The new collection takes reference from the old. “Crimson Thread” names one of the four sections in Love Life, and the final sequence of three sonnets linked by two haiku. There is shared imagery of a sumac plant, and there are quotations from the Song of Songs. “Parkinson’s” is the title of a three-poem sequence in the earlier book.
O’Siadhail continues to honour Brid, with heartbreaking honesty and a bared soul, even through the literary archaeology of desolation. He argues for the unrelenting supremacy of love, even when illness curdles Brid’s response, to O’Siadhail, and his writing, into rejection approaching cruelty. “I feed on gratitude in spite of grief,” he writes.
There is continuing interplay, after more than 40 years of marriage, between “Brid” and “bride”. Her packing, when preparing to enter residential care, remains for O’Siadhail a “trousseau”.
While lacking the factual backing of his Holocaust collection The Gossamer Wall, or the linguistic dexterity that the multi-lingual academic showed in Tongues, One Crimson Thread reveals a new spiritual intensity and engagement.
The book opens with brave searching:
I ask and ask but do I ask in vain?
Have I received a stone instead of bread,
A nightmare that no waking will relieve?
It follows Brid’s journey through developing dementia, and reprieve that could be medical, or spiritual, or both. Wheeling her to mass, “half-humming hymns I know from childhood days”, O’Siadhail both connects with, and interrogates, surrounding faith: “In this belonging warmth we’re not alone.” You sense continuing debate and negotiation.
Towards the end of the 30 sonnets he wrote after her death, we read:
My Brid, I throw
Life’s dice — God knows where it may dare to fall.
In all of what’s to come no comfort zone;
I only know I don’t know how to know.
O’Siadhail seems to rise to a new intensity of writing and analysis in this collection. This is both a searing and a beautiful interrogation, as shown in his deft movement from supermarket shopping to including roses to personifying the roses into their shared physical and emotional suffering.
If this collection understandably lacks resolution, it offers immense compassion and consolation.
Dr Halsall is a poet and journalist.