'Blitzophrenia: Brendan Kennelly's Post-Colonial Vision
McDonagh, John, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
The poetry of Brendan Kennelly is principally characterized by various degrees and notes of resistance. From his earliest poems in the late 1950s to his latest collection Martial Art (2003), Kennelly has sought to establish a poetic independence that aggressively resists generic categorizations. At his corrosive best, Kennelly epitomizes a post-colonial Irish poetics that exists on the margins, eating away at a monolithic cultural centre by consistently voicing those whose very presence begins to erode the edifice of Irish identity. From the probings and musings of Oliver Cromwell to the carnal reflections of a bus-driving Black-and-Tan, Kennelly's poetry acts as a cultural correlative, highlighting the complex historical, social, and sexual undertones that are constantly seeking an elusive expression. While he eschews overt politicizations of his work there is a discernible politico-cultural forcefield within which his poetry appears to operate. Principally it involves often disturbing dialogues with a variety of both real and imagined characters who are free to explore their scapegoated roles in the fabrication of what Ernest Renan referred to as 'the spiritual principle' of the nation. (1) Kennelly's own description of 'Blitzophrenia' is the closest to a quasi-theoretical framework to which he will admit and it provides a searing and provocative lens through which an increasingly fragile and disparate contemporary Irish culture can be viewed. (2)
In 1991, Bloodaxe Books published a selection of Kennelly's poetry called A Time for Voices and this title can be viewed as a further explication of the blitzophrenic modus operandi favoured by Kennelly. The selection ranges over an incredibly productive thirty-year period (1960-1990) and Kennelly's feeling of poetic liberation through the articulation of a myriad of voices permeates the introductory note. He declares that the 'use of the first person is a great distancer' thus freeing him from a potentially claustrophobic relationship between the self and the articulated voice. (3) Consequently, the poems are suffused with many different voices 'many of them in vicious conflict' (A Time for Voices, p. 12) and this blitzophrenic device energizes the poems with an often ruthless passion. The self to which Kennelly refers is a diffracted, decentred, and deracinated entity, experiencing and expressing the blitzkrieg of, amongst others, childhood, education, latent desires, and masked fears. Far from being the articulator of a secure personal voice, he portrays himself as the owner of a myriad of voices, writing in a state of blitzophrenia, juggling a multitude of personalites, both real and imagined, and struggling for some kind of expression in his poetry. Whatever consistent poetic voice emerges from this exhausting process is thus described by Kennelly: 'If there is "an authentic voice" it is found in the atmosphere deliberately created so that the voices of uncertainties may speaksing their individual stories' (A Time for Voices, p. 12).
In the introductory essay to Irish and Postcolonial Writing--History, Theory, Practice, Glenn Hooper appositely notes that a good deal of contemporary Irish literature operates within 'unstable and erratic' boundaries'. (4) The application of post-colonial theory to the complexities of the relationship between history and nationhood has led to the emergence of literary texts, according to Maria Tymoczko, 'that question, shift, subvert and recreate cultural norms, linguistic norms and poetics' (Hooper, p. 182). Within these mobile parameters, Brendan Kennelly's poetry ranges over the contemporary and the historical with little concern for the temporal integrity of either. The characteristics Buffun experiences in those around him, and the national characteristics to which he is exposed, elicit the connections with Cromwell and others in his dream-imagination. Two crucial questions now arise: if an individual can have such a vibrant, personal dream-imagination, could a collective national dream-imagination also exist and to what degree would it contain images and icons of nationhood? Terence Brown has noted the literary effects of this chronological and temporal distension: 'An art ... which eschews chronology is by definition a long way not only from the simple consolations and deceptions of narrative but also from any kind of stable text or unmixed mode'. (5)
It can also be argued that Kennelly's poetics, exemplified in Cromwell, offer a far more exciting and vivid picture of the manifestations of postcolonial theory than the theory itself. Glenn Hooper notes the importance and influence of Homi K. Bhabha's theoretical interventions and refinements of post-colonial theory in the 1990s; Kennelly, however, was exploring similar territory almost a decade previously. In his essay 'DissemiNation', for example, Bhabha states that the 'political unity of the nation' is predicated upon the formation of 'a signifying space that is archaic and mythical' (6) whereas in the first poem of Cromwell, Buffun, the central figure, observes that his concept of national identity is built upon 'a mountain of indignant legends, bizarre history, demented rumours and obscene folklore' (p. 15), all recognizable constituent elements of national mythologies. (7) Kennelly's eclectic and often surreal exploration of the role of Oliver Cromwell in the formation of the Irish psyche takes him precisely to the liminal spaces Bhabha identifies as the sites of putative national signification. Indeed, in many instances in the collection, Buffun transcends both spatial and temporal boundaries in his exfoliation of sell witnessing, for example, the burning of dozens of houses by one of Cromwell's soldiers, Lieutenant Girders, noting in the process 'I was not born yet. But I suffer it' (p. 88). The freedom to roam at will through both his personal and national histories gives Buffun the practical opportunity to explore the contentious, liminal areas of Irish identity and to examine the originary moments of iconic figures in the Irish consciousness. Kennelly develops this investigative strategy in later epic collections, such as The Book of Judas and The Man Made of Rain, collections that interrogate the myriad manifestations of history and language and purport the necessity for some difficult and often disturbing self-analysis. Judas's acknowledgement early in the …
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Publication information: Article title: 'Blitzophrenia: Brendan Kennelly's Post-Colonial Vision. Contributors: McDonagh, John - Author. Journal title: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies. Volume: 33. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2003. Page number: 322+. © 2008 Irish University Review. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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