Toward the end of Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail’s new and almost unimaginably ambitious book The Five Quintets, we encounter a final, synthesizing vision, one that attempts to accommodate the world—its history, its physics, its ontology—in full. In the last canto of the book’s last section, the speaker spends time in paradise in “the company of saints.” (Like I said, it’s ambitious.) More specifically, the speaker is introduced to, and overhears the conversation of, five figures from philosophical and theological history: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hannah Arendt, Said Nursî, Pope John XXIII, and Jean Vanier (the only one of the group who is still alive).
This blessed conversation, conducted over tea and “bubbling in an ease of trust and chat,” leads the speaker to a new vision of the world and all it contains:
[…] leaves half-roof the gap to form a pair
and every bole and limb begins to dance;
the universe’s light-fantastic prayer
now lauds a wooer taking still a chance
on just this cosmic ballet’s elegance
where nothing is decided in advance,
where hadrons jiggle in their resonance
while galaxies bebop and flowers blaze;
in cedars and wild animals I glance
a daily choreography of praise.
As poetic craft, this is superb. In this section of the book, O’Siadhail employs terza rima—an interlocking, three-line stanza form most associated with another work of almost unimaginable ambition, Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s a difficult form to pull off in English, a language with far fewer rhymes than Italian. The play of forward movement and formal order here is exquisite. To use a description from an earlier section of the poem, O’Siadhail takes “joy in what freewheels and intertwines.” The reader, giving herself over to the lines’ dancing rhythms, does the same.
But what’s most striking in this passage is the dynamic vision of the world that this dynamic form expresses. In these concluding lines, the poet sees the universe, all of it, as dance, as movement and interchange. We think of the atom as stable, but O’Siadhail reminds us it’s really jiggling, its smaller, excited parts resonating with and vibrating against one another. We think of the cosmos as unchanging, but it’s actually bebopping, one part picking up the tune from another, complex harmonies emerging from the exchange of material and information. We think of trees and foxes and all forms of natural life as merely surviving, but they’re really praising without end. Listening to the conversation of the saints leads the speaker to see the world as itself constituted by conversation. Hadrons talk with hadrons, galaxies with galaxies, the whole cosmos an unbroken, chattering chorus. If we only listened truly, the poet suggests, we’d come to know that reality is itself “bubbling in an ease of trust and chat.” At one point, O’Siadhail’s Arendt claims that “good politics is endless interplay, / discourse where all is never said and done.” So too, this book asserts, is good art, and good science, and good theology, and good living.
On almost every page, The Five Quintets praises conversation’s endless interplay—“those evenings when time’s rigid arrow bends,” as we dance from one topic to another. So it’s appropriate that, when I came into New York to discuss the book with O’Siadhail (pronounced “O’sheel”), I first spotted him on a street corner, leaning into a conversation. The seventy-one-year-old O’Siadhail is hard to miss. He has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including his eight-hundred-page Collected Poems in 2014, and he looks every inch the poet: tall and handsome, with a craggy face, deep-set eyes, and a hawk-like nose. And there he was, a few blocks from Commonweal’s offices, where we’d agreed to meet, asking a woman where he might grab a bite to eat. He was “feeling a bit peckish,” he later told me, and was thinking about getting a snack. He wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk first and then eat or have lunch and then talk.
It turns out that we talked while walking to the cafeteria, and we talked while waiting for our sandwiches, and we talked during lunch, and we talked after lunch. We talked about our mutual frustrations with the hyper-specialization of academia. (Before committing himself full-time to poetry in 1987, O’Siadhail was an accomplished linguist, holding positions at Trinity College and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.) We talked about Scandinavia, where the Dublin-born poet studied folklore and language and which he describes as his second home—“or,” he corrected himself, “I suppose now, my third,” since he currently lives in New York City. We talked about the late poet Richard Wilbur (“a fine, fine man” who slapped his leg when he laughed) and about scandals in the Irish church (O’Siadhail is Catholic) and about how much his life has changed in the past few years. (Since moving to the United States, he’s learned both how to ski and how to speak Spanish.)
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a poet and professor at Fordham, told me, “Micheal does nothing halfway. Just eating lunch with him is an exhausting experience—in a good way!” That’s exactly right. O’Siadhail is an exhilarating conversationalist. He speaks rapidly but lucidly, with a gentle Dublin accent and from a seemingly limitless fund of anecdotes and gossip and speculations. He riffs and zigzags—comic one moment, telling a story about a poet getting off at the wrong airport when visiting O’Siadhail in Ireland; then suddenly serious, even introspective, wondering aloud how Protestantism and Catholicism differently shape the political imagination.
O’Siadhail has led a full life. He is an absolute Irishman, having attended Clongowes Wood College (forever associated for the literary minded with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and having written his first three collections in Irish. But he’s also absolutely cosmopolitan, speaking nine languages, including Welsh, Icelandic, and Norwegian. For three decades, he was married to Bríd Ní Chearbhaill. As he put it in Love Life (2005), a book-length meditation on their love, Bríd was a “coy, bold, knowing, insolent, outré” woman who served as muse for much of his work. His friend, the theologian David Ford, has joked that she is “the most written-about woman in Ireland,” a Beatrice of the Emerald Isle. Bríd suffered for years from Parkinson’s, an experience that O’Siadhail wrote about in a book of sonnets, One Crimson Thread (2015), which Angela Alaimo O’Donnell describes as “pure heartbreak, made bearable only by his skillful use of the sonnet form.” Bríd passed away in 2013. The loss devastated O’Siadhail: as he wrote in One Crimson Thread, “My routines mourn for the messiness of two; / A sweeter mayhem in me yearns for you.”
But then, in 2014, he fell in love again, this time with Christina Weltz, a New York City surgeon. They’ve since married and live in Manhattan. (After our meeting, O’Siadhail was going to meet Christina for their regular Pilates class.) “If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be living in New York…but it’s the God of surprises, I suppose.”
It’s partly this embrace of surprise that makes O’Siadhail such a delight to talk with. The Five Quintets opens with an invocation to Madam Jazz, a muse of improvisation and “syncopated peace” whom O’Siadhail has invoked before, and about midway through the book the poet describes the universe as exhibiting “the generous yes, the jazz of things.” O’Siadhail’s jazz-like talk, like his poetry, says yes to different topics and tones. To be in the presence of such charisma and generosity (unlike many superb talkers, O’Siadhail also listens eagerly) is a singular experience. After spending several hours with him, I wanted to return to his earlier poetry and read more Patrick Kavanagh and listen to more music. I also needed to take a nap.
The Five Quintets, the result of nine or so years of nearly consistent work, is a fitting capstone to the career of a poet with such capacious interests and such an open sensibility. The introduction announces the book’s ambition in its first sentence: “How would we describe the contemporary world?” We all sense, O’Siadhail notes, that things feel different now than they’ve ever felt before. Ours is a time of social, political, economic, and ideological instability. Where are we, really, and where are we headed? In order to answer these questions, O’Siadhail suggests, we need to know where we’ve been, and that’s the task The Five Quintets sets itself: to offer a history of modernity in poetic form.
The book is divided into five major sections called quintets: “Making,” which concerns itself with the arts; “Dealing,” which centers on economics; “Steering,” which considers politics and statecraft; “Finding,” which focuses on scientific discovery; and “Meaning,” which explores philosophy and theology. Each quintet has five subsections called cantos, and each canto engages with a major figure from the past. “Making,” for instance, features artists like Miguel de Cervantes, John Donne, Willa Cather, and T. S. Eliot. In “Dealing,” we find a broad historical and ideological spectrum, running roughly from Adam Smith to Amartya Sen; in “Steering,” we meet, among others, Thomas Jefferson, William Gladstone, and Margaret Thatcher; in “Finding,” we hear from Lamarck, Einstein, and other famous scientists; in “Meaning,” we encounter such figures as Immanuel Kant and Karl Barth.
I say that “Making” features Donne, Cather, and others, but a better verb might be “channels”—or, even better, “chats with.” Take O’Siadhail’s engagement with Donne. First, he offers an italicized haiku: “Array of coverts, / Spangling flared out green-blue eyes; / A peacock’s fantail.” Then he writes a sonnet to Donne: “Are you that wanton Jack or Doctor Donne / Or both, becoming every part you play, / A lover chiding the unruly sunne / Or preacher warning all who disobey?” Then, he responds by writing a sonnet from Donne’s perspective, and in Donne’s voice: “Why can’t you fathom all my reasons why? / My tortured brother gave his chaplain’s name, / Then died in jail of fever and of shame— / A strutting youth I didn’t want to die.” Then we get another sonnet to Donne before ending with another from him, so that the artist gets the final word: “Three-personed God is battering you to see / What was and is now shaping what’s to be.”
Those last two lines, like much else in the book, are remarkable. There’s the cinching rhyme of “see” and “be”—appropriate for a poem that is so concerned with how right seeing might lead to right being and vice versa. There’s the unshowy plaiting of Donne’s language (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” begins one of Donne’s most famous sonnets) with O’Siadhail’s own. And there’s the way this linguistic blending embodies the poem’s broader argument about the nature of history: how our current moment is constituted by an interweaving of earlier moments; how we, despite our sense that we stand apart from and beyond history, are in fact “players in the interplay, / enmeshed within a nettedness of things.”
Every quintet has moments of similar brilliance, describing and embodying the kind of conversational interplay the poem celebrates. At times, O’Siadhail seems less a poet than an orchestral conductor, playing the music and ideas of one time against another:
A host, I’m busy working to include
my guests who come from these communities
of thought that talk across our drifts of moods
and, brokering between the centuries
in conversations, try to understand
how tone and mode can change by slow degrees
to move in stranger ways than ever planned,
how time ahead has depths we never plumb;
for unseen worlds we write our ampersand.
A thought we think can shape so much to come.
Tone and mode change throughout the poem; so, too, does form. In the first quintet, “Making,” O’Siadhail uses what he calls a saiku form: a haiku followed by a suite of alternating sonnets. As wonderfully effective as this is, he doesn’t use it again. Instead, each section employs its own distinct form, and part of the pleasure of reading The Five Quintets comes from seeing where and why O’Siadhail switches things up. Indeed, the forms are so varied, and the voices so numerous, that O’Siadhail had to have a sheet of notes in front of him while we discussed the book. I don’t mean to suggest that The Five Quintets is particularly difficult. As O’Siadhail told me, “I’ve always wanted to be intelligible. Anybody who wants to read poetry, I would like them to understand my work.” Despite its occasionally esoteric subject matter, The Five Quintets is a marvel of lucidity. It’s hard to imagine a poet writing more clearly about, for instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity.
For all the shifting of tone and form, a few things are consistent across the quintets. Each is conversational, with O’Siadhail talking with—and as—significant figures from the past. Each grounds its figures’ ideas in biographical detail. As O’Siadhail writes in his introduction, “I wanted to try to tell what happened, at least where possible, through lives and personalities.” O’Siadhail’s vision of the world is incarnational, and so is his vision of intellectual history: ideas emerge from the material world and make themselves felt there. So, when we encounter Marx in the “Dealing” quintet, we get a sharp summary—in rhyme, no less!—of surplus value: “Workers work beyond their wage / And so give more than their subsistence worth; / Yet caught inside the owners’ iron cage / Their surplus time will guarantee a gain.” But we also get a sense for how such a theory interacted with Marx’s own life of penury (he had seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood): “Throughout your London years you live / In debt and squalor squandering / Whatever money Engels sends, / While holding bailiffs just at bay.”
Finally, each quintet praises what O’Siadhail described to me as “the jazz factor, a willingness and embrace of uncertainty.” In this book, the best artists are those who, like the poet Patrick Kavanagh, love “the giddy flight / Where angels bless what’s ancient and banal.” The greatest scientists are those who find delight in doubt, “knowing there are things we’ll never know” and never confusing their last word with the last word. The best thinkers generally are those who recognize that “No one has monopolies on truth. / Rather, like a prism’s dispersed side / Rainbowed truth allows us variants / Of another side’s pure gathered light.” By contrast, the poet’s sharpest criticism is reserved for the monologists who think they know everything and refuse to be challenged or changed by others. It’s an exceedingly liberal view of the good, eschewing absolutism and praising instead the free and generous contestation of ideas.
Sometimes this valorizing of liberal compromise and the “cut and thrust” of conversation can itself become worryingly absolute. Concluding his section on John Maynard Keynes, for example, O’Siadhail writes, “You walk the third, the both-and way. / Most paths to paradise are slow.” But is the “both-and way” always the best way? Yes, Marx could exhibit what O’Siadhail calls a “know-all coldness.” But when it comes to the inherent brutality of capitalism, I’d say Marx saw at least as clearly as Keynes. Whether or not you agree with O’Siadhail’s take on every figure (and you almost certainly won’t), you have to admire the unifying vision of The Five Quintets—a unifying vision that finds aesthetic, economic, political, scientific, and theological meaning in difference and openness, in the soul that replaces the solo act with the communal bebop.
At over 350 intricately structured pages, The Five Quintets is every bit the epic poem, and it’s unafraid to place itself in august poetic company. Dante is the most important precursor, providing O’Siadhail with an overarching structure. Each quintet first charts a descent into Hell. (For Dante, that Hell was literal; for O’Siadhail, it’s more figurative—the aesthetic withdrawal from the world into the self in late Romanticism; the political embrace of fascist violence in the mid-twentieth century). But then, each quintet ascends, moving toward and residing within, if only for a moment, Paradise. The conversational model, where the poet encounters and talks with figures from the past, is a Dantean inheritance, too: O’Siadhail chatting with his precursors—Eliot, Donne, Rilke—echoes Dante talking with Brunetto Latini and Virgil.
As its title indicates, The Five Quintets also wants to recall T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. But O’Siadhail doesn’t just gesture piously toward that great poem. He wants to offer a gentle but deeply felt corrective to it. “In Christian terms [Eliot] somehow missed out on the resurrection,” O’Siadhail told me. “He gets the selflessness, he gets the sacrifice, he has the fire…. But he is not quite into the paradise of absolute celebration and joy.” O’Siadhail, by contrast, is into this kind of paradise, and his book is filled with the joys of eating and drinking and singing and loving. “Let’s dance across creation’s dancing hall,” O’Siadhail writes toward the end of the book. It’s hard to imagine Eliot writing that line—or, for that matter, dancing. But to ignore the dance, The Five Quintets suggest, is to ignore the way things are and should be.
David Mahan, a lecturer at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music who has written on O’Siadhail’s work, recalls meeting the poet while working on his dissertation. Mahan was first struck by O’Siadhail’s appearance: “With his tousled, black-and-silver-speckled hair and intense eyes, I first thought: ‘Now, there is someone who looks like an Irish poet!’ And something else impressed me then, which I still find remarkable through my many conversations with him since: Micheal O’Siadhail is a man who loves.”
Love, in all its varieties, has been central to O’Siadhail’s poetry from the start. Of course, there’s the Bríd-influenced love poetry, poems that are both unabashedly erotic (“O Eros ravish and enlarge us. / Just to gaze, to listen, to mingle. / Sweet fusion. Carnal relish”) and lovingly attentive to the daily experience of companionship: “A life’s canonical rhythm, / Monk-like tempo of days”; “We wear our habits of love. / Even keel of our ease.” But even when O’Siadhail is writing about a topic as grim as the Holocaust—the subject of his 2002 book The Gossamer Wall—he centers his vision on love. In that book, O’Siadhail remembers Nazi savagery while bearing witness to those who died. If those responsible for the Shoah tried to erase their victims’ humanity—“Shorn and striped biped, / A tattooed number who’d once been someone”—then O’Siadhail tries, as best he can, to restore flesh and blood and voice to the forgotten.
In a very different way, love is also central to The Five Quintets—love for all the things a mind can do in community with other minds, love for science and art and theology, for the “push-and-pull” of conversation. We can see this most clearly if we again return to the book’s first quintet. Each of the first four cantos of “Making” has five subsections. Canto 1 engages with Cervantes, Donne, Rubens, Milton, and Handel; canto 2 with Goya, Goethe, Beethoven, Wordsworth, and Baudelaire; and so on. But then we get to the fifth and final canto. It’s subtitled “Abundance,” and it imagines a paradise of making where we listen to those artists who, as O’Siadhail writes in the introduction, “embrace in amazement the dazzling profusion of being.” It’s the most joyful of the cantos, and it’s also by far the longest: instead of five artists, we get fifteen. This artist’s heaven is filled to the brim; unlike Eliot, O’Siadhail wants to linger not in the purgatorial fire but in the paradisal light. The artists in this fifth canto, O’Siadhail told me, “are my friends, and I want to spend time in their company.” Their art is a sign of their love for the world; their presence in the poem is a sign of O’Siadhail’s.
In “Making,” O’Siadhail always gives the last word not to himself but to his interlocutor. After criticizing James Joyce’s narrow focus on the mind’s inner workings (“The dreamlike doodling of an introvert / For me a microscope too small in scale, / The Hades of your endless blab and blurt”), he lets Joyce offer a final retort: “Still once at least, though in a woman’s voice, / I didn’t pun or try to be opaque / But spoke my shortest playful word of praise: / And yes, in Molly’s yes I did reJoyce.”
So let me end by giving O’Siadhail the last word. After describing the “daily choreography of praise” that the hadrons and wild animals perform, he again appeals to two of the poem’s organizing figures, jazz and dance. Like Joyce, he ends with a yes:
O suitor never holding us in thrall
but trusting to the ragtime of our ways
as in our brokenness we only fall
to rise where all who’ve come have come by choice;
let’s dance across creation’s dancing hall.
In shadows of your wing will I rejoice.
Sound now the bird of jazz’s trumpet call!
“O Micheal, Micheal!” cries a lover’s voice.
Yes, here I am, my Madam All in All.