Red Hen Press / 2022 / 72 pp / $15.95 Paperback
Reviewed by Maud Welch / January 2023
In his gripping new poetry collection Plainchant, Eamon Grennan weaves a revelatory narrative, rich with precise detail, layered symbolism, and evocative imagery. Plainchant is a powerful compilation of personal reflections. Through his keen observations of the natural world, Grennan captures earth’s vibrant creatures, great and small. An undeniable master of his craft, Grennan is the author of more than ten poetry collections and recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. His words transport and transcend, inviting readers not only to palpable landscapes across the world, but also to intimate places deep within. His lyrical voice and authentic tone lead the reader down a path of contemplation, introspection, and self-discovery.
Grennan launches into his collection with the encounter of a hare, who becomes a recurring figure in his intimate, plaintive poems. His gift is refashioning the world through the eyes of this hare, so that his readers might experience their ecosystem with newfound wide-eyed attention, admiration, and respect. Whether Grennan is investigating "Rain Cows" in the “mucky black mash of the field path” or a honeybee “among the bright yellow and / white ‘pouched- egg’ flowers,” the poet’s environment is alive and tangible. Reading this book is like taking daily delicious afternoon walks, partaking in the childlike wonder of the world we inhabit.
The term “plainchant” perfectly captures Grennan’s nimble prose poetry. His straightforward, plainspoken language almost allows his creatures to walk directly off the page. In describing a horse “On the Far Side of the Thornbush,” Grennan writes,
His language in this poem pulses with energy: “electric,” “twitch,” “sudden-gallops,” “fire,” “madcap.” This moment captures one of Grennan’s greatest strengths—he paints images that are simple and vivid, so readers feel they are living within his animated poems.
Grennan’s fully justified poems in this collection appear as either blocky chunks of text or as more slender columns with line breaks imposed by the spacing. They are visually contained episodes of singular moments. In a narrow, pivoting poem, titled “Dance,” Grennan describes the mating ritual of butterflies. Due to this slim, restricted structure, the reader gains momentum at each fully justified line break. The poem’s constant circulation reflects its motion-filled content. Readers dance from line to line, mirroring the butterflies’ “common / unwidening gyre, in which they / have been turning and turning.”
In contrast, Grennan’s poems with a boxier, prose-like format offer slower, more meditative content. “Near High Tide,” for instance, describes a stranger’s sketch in the sand of a mare and her foal. The speaker considers the transience of art as the tide rolls in. Rather than rushing from line to line, Grennan allows the reader to slowly take in these sentences that linger into wider margins. The poem then turns introspective as the speaker likens his own shadow to the transient sketch. He writes:
This poem is a great example of Grennan’s artful, strategic reveal that his speaker not only observes, but often interrogates. He pushes past the visual world, encouraging self-reflection from his readers.
While Grennan marvels at the living, he also grapples with the constancy of death in his poems. In “Burial,” the speaker mourns a recently killed hare: “unbridled wild energy (part fear, / part ecstasy) alight in its two quick- / bright almost perfectly knowing eyes.” The speaker not only grieves the death of the creature, but the perspective that creature had of the world, seen through its “almost perfectly knowing” lens. Readers might interpret this poem as a carpe diem narrative; they are being asked to embrace the “part fear, / part ecstasy” reality in which they live. “Two Hares” similarly exemplifies the poet’s understanding of loss; he describes a dead hare on the side of the road in juxtaposition with a living hare from his garden. Once again, he concludes his poem resolutely focused on the eyes of the living:
It appears Grennan has trained himself in the art of “onyx-bright, live, ready-for-anything eyes” as he strives to illustrate the earth with fresh perspective. As he walks among graves in “Return to Inishmore,” he maintains the balance of both life and death existing simultaneously. He describes the graveyard as a “place steady as ever / in its own becoming—urgent and / withholding and ordinary and / unlikely as ever.” Even in a landscape scattered with “dead-silent” gravestones, Grennan deciphers the marvelous in the mundane. This poem serves as a gentle suggestion to his readers that life is brief, but there is much to live for. He is quietly, but consistently, asking his audience to open their eyes to the ever evolving, extraordinary ecosystem that they partake in.
As alluded to in the title of this musical collection, these poems offer chant-like reminders to examine the natural world. Grennan does not force his philosophy onto his readers, but rather offers window after window into a dynamic, thrilling, alert environment. He is wide awake in his revitalizing, refreshing observations. His luminescent poetry offers a beacon of hope to a troubled pandemic world, “the way, after a / solid week of driving rain that shakes / everything to the bone, comes the sudden / intervention of a sunny upright cluster of / tall foxgloves, trim and jaunty-purple, / coming into blossom.”
Maud Welch is an MFA candidate at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. Her work has been published in Rust + Moth, New Ohio Review, New Delta Review, and Appalachian Review. She is a recent recipient of the Matt Clark Award in Poetry.