On April 1, 2004, Michael Coady received the eighth annual poetry award of the Center for Irish Studies. The award bears the name of the Center’s distinguished benefactor, Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy of St. Paul. It was presented in a private ceremony at the University of St. Thomas. The following citation was read on that occasion:
On this spring evening, we gather to welcome the poet Michael Coady to the University of St. Thomas and to the campus that Kilkenny’s John Ireland founded nearly twelve decades ago. More specifically, we welcome our guest into the company of O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award honorees: Eavan Boland, John F. Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, Moya Cannon, Frank Ormsby, and Thomas McCarthy – names that have since 1996 borne witness to the abundant talents of Irish poetry in our time.
Our guest this evening is a man of many parts: a teacher, a local historian, a photographer, a genealogist, a journalist, a memoirist, a trombone player – and, of course, a poet. It is Michael Coady, the poet, who has given us four books of thoughtful, distinctive verse: Two For a Woman, Three for a Man (1980); Oven Lane (1987); All Souls (1997), and One Another (2003).
Coady’s first book won the 1979 Patrick Kavanagh Award. Looking back a quarter-century later, a reader will be struck by the ways in which his early lines announce themes that preoccupy Coady throughout his career: the dignity of humble lives; thankfulness; and the enigmas of human nature and human destinies.
In these poems, too, we sense Michael Coady’s love of passing things, of pub talk and small-town gossip, and especially of music, that most ephemeral yet indestructible art. What Coady best loves, however, are the links that bind our lives together: a poet who knows both the richness of community and the sorrow of its breaking.
Oven Lane, Coady’s second collection, probed more deeply its author’s intuition that we live in a great web of time and circumstance. These poems help us to understand that part of a poet’s job is simply to appreciate creation, to catalog “the music of what happens,” or -- most distinctly in Coady’s vision -- the music of a past that never quite goes away. “I love the abandon /of abandoned things,” he writes. “I love the openness / of things no longer viable / I sense their shameless/ slow unbuttoning… ”
Oven Lane also begins Coady’s reflection on the role that America has played in his own life. An unadmitted wound has followed his family for generations, dating back to the day when his own great-grandfather abandoned his child and disappeared into the slums of Philadelphia. Coady’s healing of this family trauma begins in a poem called “The Letter”: “if there can be some / redemption in the word / then let this telling reach / across the silence/of a hundred years / in Oven Lane.” In time, Coady would turn this reckoning across generations into a luminous essay titled “The Use of Memory.” In other poems, Coady tells of his sometimes awkward visit to Connecticut, to meet cousins and to revisit the sites where his father had once worked in a typewriter factory:
Fifty years on
he’s nine Septembers dead
and a tourist in sunshine
by highway 84
is photographing a factory
which is no longer there
assembling the parts
of the mundane mystery
Michael Coady writes out of a fundamental sense of life’s abundance. Someone else’s country can be his country as well; absence becomes just another form of presence; and in many of the ways that matter most, the dead are not really dead.
In 1997, Coady extended the range of his work by publishing All Souls– an ambitious, multigenre volume bearing witness to the author’s sense that life is too varied to be contained simply in verse. The poems of All Souls are interleaved with fictional vignettes, memoir, essays, and even documentation and photographs.
In reading this collection we fully realize that Coady cherishes the spoken word – for instance, in a catalog poem titled “Things They Say (Besides Their Prayers)” which gathers together a series of aphorisms and quips. These phrases may strike us as no more than idle words lost into the wind; at the same time, they bear pungency of epitaphs. The long title poem at the center of All Souls briliantly asserts Michael Coady’s conviction that, under the eyes of eternity, no human voices are lost. All Souls records a simple night walking home after the close of a pub:
Then I’m on my own and heading toward
the town clock salmon swimming above
the West Gate that’s seen every soul who ever
set foot in this place for a thousand years
As the poet walks, he grows acutely aware of the vanished faces and voices that surround him, and declares that “… on this grounded night I meet them all.” When he crosses the stone bridge in the center of his village he is, of course, crossing another sort of bridge -- one that links the living and the dead. The poet conjures and names a litany of departed citizens:
For Garret Russell the basket-maker
and Jim Hayney the boatman
for Mary Sullivan the midwife
and Thady Meehan the porter
And so on, down through centuries. Finally, the poet reaches his own home, where he looks in on his sleeping children and, as he slips into bed, his wife asks, “Were there many below in the town?” We know that the town below swarms with presences. And we know, too, that every human community -- even this unremarkable village asleep in the Irish dark -- in some way prefigures the communion of saints.
Like All Souls, Coady’s most recent book carries a communitarian title: One Another. This volume, too, knits together many forms, and, indeed many languages; there are prose entries in both Irish and Welsh. Coady’s playful side spills into these pages in a suite of poems about jazz, and, especially, in a mischievous send-up of academic jargon called “The Carrick Nine.”
But there is another voice in these pages. The author of One Another is a man now retired from school-teaching, one recovering from bypass surgery, one who has already lost many friends and family – a man who in his wisdom has grown more aware of both his own frailty and of his own good fortune. Stopping by a country graveyard in Ardmore, Coady gazes at two Victorian stone angels and reflects upon “the heart of the thing”:
set aside from the main road,
the elemental grace
and constancy of stone,
marking the mystery
of flesh and blood and bone
for it comforts me always to know
of the angels there in winter dusk …
“It comforts me to know….” In so many ways, One Another proves to be a book about our search for solace. The collection’s first poem concerns the ways we put grief behind us, the slow, awkward, communal process of finding a new sort of normalcy. Coady calls this “the beginning of forgetting,” reminding us that “it is remembrance / that allows us / little by little / to forget.” And One Another closes with a long poem, “Munster Aisling,” narrating the author’s return from the hospital where he has undergone open-heart surgery. He returns to the small town in which he has lived all his life, and names it with the Irish word for “harbor”:
Here is my cuan,
where I began and where I live
this settlement of souls at the tide-head of the river
all its living or lost hearts in place and time
under the abiding breast of Slievenamo
This is, in the end, the voice of a poet at home in the world. For having made the intimacy of his world a shared intimacy; for having listened so attentively to humble voices, past and present; and for having given us a poetry of gratitude, tonight we have the honor of presenting the Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Michael Coady, of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary.