THE Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail has written at ambitious length, and in penetrating depth, about defining concerns — love, death, the Holocaust, and language itself among them. In The Five Quintets he explores modernity, the philosophical currency evaluating Western thought for the past four centuries. From its demise emerges the insistent question: “What follows?” O’Siadhail brings a lifetime’s reading and analysis across many disciplines, together with formidable lyrical enthusiasm, an expansive linguistic palette, and a restless imagination, to suggest an answer of philosophical artistry and spiritual grace.
His ambition is encyclopaedic. It incorporates defining pioneers across the arts, and also economists, political theorists, and scientists, whose verbal portraits are painted, and whose theories are sieved and set to his poetical music. His ambition is daunting: to follow Dante and Milton in continuing the spiritual epic, and effectively to complete the gospel of modernity’s high priest T. S. Eliot with a quintet beyond Eliot’s own Four Quartets.
O’Siadhail, whose enthusiasms include sailing, is a swashbuckling navigator across this literary ocean. A disciple of form, he is at home in “seven or eight” languages, and his stanzas are disciplined but varied, ranging from near page-length to haiku. Throughout the thousands of lines, over 357 pages, there is a yearning for consensus, a re-drafting of post-modern relativism into exploratory conversations, sometimes transcending geographical and historical boundaries.
Presiding over the Quintets is Madame Jazz — muse and literary mistress within many of his 13 poetry collections. Here she appears further re-imagined, both as God’s spirit within the burning bush of the Hebrew scriptures, and as the Holy Spirit of metaphysical energy and reconciliation. She is invoked in the book’s opening line, and cements its conclusion. Poetry enacts pilgrimage.
O’Siadhail weaves other threads, including parental and historical influences, through his verbal tapestry. While he celebrates “those I admire most”, particularly “my Dante”, he does not hesitate to draft boundaries between a heavenly “paradise”, and the hellish. Coruscating portraits include capitalists devaluing humanity, such as Richard Arkwright, and Karl Marx whose “know-all coldness” chilled his communism. Margaret Thatcher — “Queen of confrontation . . . shrill and smug . . . ravenous for power”— receives bracing assessment, sandwiched between Hitler and Bin Laden.
O’Siadhail, instead, admires disciples of synthesis. He is censorious of “fundamentalists of every faith”, arguing, rather, for the diversity of “rainbow truth” that “allows us variants Of another side’s pure gathered light”. The book’s ambitious conclusion gathers five multi-faith modern “saints” to confer about convictions in one of the many mansions of John 14. This group becomes “our paradise quintet”, as the theologians discuss beliefs in jazz phrasing. O’Siadhail’s answer to life after modernity is ultimately faithful: “surrendering to the wonder, I just praise.”
Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.
The Five Quintets
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18