I first met Dean Browne last summer at an event held by the School of English, UCC.
I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with a miserably, weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.
We were both there to receive the Patricia Coughlan Essay Award for Essays on Irish Culture. Well, Dean got the award, I got the consolation prize of the certificate. We both awkwardly stood in for photos by the grand piano in the Aula Maxima clutching our printed A4 sheets of praise, mine identical yet somewhat the lesser. You might guess. I’m still mordantly bitter.
I wondered at who this reticent, still, prematurely bearded vanquisher, many years my junior, could be? We exchanged a few pleasantries; my smiling words of congratulations sluiced through gritted teeth. It spooked me somewhat that I felt no reciprocal warmth in our brief conversation. The photographer wanted to take some extra shots of us at one point, but Dean had had enough and wandered off. I feigned a similar attitude though as an eternal egoist I craved the camera’s shutter. I was happy with my prize, touched by my family’s heartfelt support in the pews, and rationalised my second place away as just another white lie I’d have to add to my CV. Dean Browne, pah! Even Professor Coughlan must be allowed a misstep in critical judgement every now and then surely? If I were ever a wrestler, I’d certainly play the heel.
Owing to the fact both Dean and myself were on scholarships, awarded again by the School of English (thank you, thank you, thank you) our paths crossed again on a number of occasions whilst we fulfilled our supervision hours during the first semester in-house examinations. UCC is quite a small place. It leads to regular bumpings-into, and brief exchanges of small-talk. We maintained a passing acquaintance, welcome on my part for no other reason than to quell my inquisitiveness as to the critical character of the guy who beat me. How welcome my small talk was to Dean I’m still none the wiser. I began finding old library dockets with Dean Browne’s name on them constantly bookmarking books of poetry I was reading. Montague. Ashbery. Heaney. Auden. Muldoon. I wondered at whether I had seen such dockets last year without remarking on the name, it then being unfamiliar to me. He was reading what I was reading. Or rather, I was reading what Dean had already read. In the lee of the library one evening both happening to be smoking at the same time he suggested we go for a pint. “Why not?”
It was immediately apparent that my pique at coming second in that prize, exaggerated here yet still real, was to be rightfully added to the list of post-facto causes for mortification. One of those things you feel in a moment of recollection and quickly press to the back of your mind. Quiet, reticent, particular in speech, Dean had a vast knowledge of poetry, contemporary, Modernist, Romantic, Classical. As the pints of porter were sunk in their turn, it bested me to spar my part of the conversation, offer equivalent insights to those which seemed for him to come so easily.
Hmm, maybe Professor Coughlan got it right? Oh self hate.
I realised that in the time I’d been studying English in UCC, I had believed myself superior, certainly equal, to anyone I encountered studying in the School. Necessary self belief, or hubris? There you are. After numerous nights of pints and poet-talk, as well as what you might term correspondence (if such a term exists any longer), I have come to new perspectives; been criticised and given criticism; been introduced to new poets I never knew of, not least of all Dean himself; in effect, I’ve come to see the value of that second place. I’ve come to know Dean as both a good friend and a valued academic peer.
He knows more than I do. We’re very happy together. I’m hoping for a summer wedding.
Here’s one of his poems, first published in Southward magazine, and what I think of it.
He remembers the telescope most on winter nights –
a cheapish starter model this, but it let him go
to Mare Imbrium and back in minutes;
then he’s that nine-year-old who wheels it to the window,
dusts it down, and finds this keyhole in the hemisphere.
Sometimes the lens reflects his own myopic squints,
trained on whatever might chance to constellate
especially for his look – the soft blur
of the Pleaides, or Cassiopeia
he liked to picture rocking on a blue verandah;
or that god who, deaf to his charades, hints
nothing of himself and declines to comment
and is nobody’s business for the moment
unless he means to say Sorry, you’re too late.
Words. Many, sundry, endless. Must be chosen however. Reduced. Polypheme can be read in two ways then. The universe of language which a bare etymological reading of the word denotes, as if it is a creation of the Critical Theorists, is immediately reduced by meaning: the Classical allusion, the one-eyed man, and all those who have made reference to such through time up to this point, this poem. The cracking open language for the purposes of the inspection of constituent parts is countered at once, in one word: how I, or you, receive it, its communication. The Cyclops imagery is continued in the motif of the telescope: the search of for something outside of the self. The “I” is narrated in measured lines until the reveal of the cosmic joke, the nihilist turn as the hot tap runs cold at the poems finish. The awkward use of “this” contrasts to the sweetness of phrase of, “keyhole in the hemisphere”, “constellate”, as well as the pairing of “soft blur” with the startling construction of the “blue verandah” of stars. There is a sureness in the choice of words which leave us in no doubt as to the intent of each echo and contrast. The distance between poet and subject, and the traversing of that liminal space through narration of remembrance is the key here: the astronomer who feels the final rebuff yet is accepting of his place in the universe, its limitation not seen as a cause for despair but universal, is not the poet: in the telling, the remove, something is lost. I prefer when poets play both Citizen and Narrator. I’m slow to make such a criticism here, maybe the mapping of the remove is the point.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.