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.”