A stark honesty and daring riskfulness burst through Micheal O’Siadhail’s poems as they bear bold witness to a deeply intimate relationship with the Divine. “Now in my mid-seventies, I dare to be more open,” declares the poet. He explains, “Though from the first belief suffused my poetry, when I was younger I was reticent about naming it… Now I feel a deeper need to give testimony to a source that has sustained my life.” The resulting Testament suggests that for O’Siadhail (pronounced O-Sheel), daring to be more open entails nothing less than the complete and glorious nakedness of a soul revelling in the presence of its maker. This volume proffers a re-imagining of 150 psalms and fifty gospel stories. Into them, O’Siadhail breathes rich and ineluctable pathos, praise, and adoration for God, and the picture of lifelong faithfulness that emerges is seriously a marvellous thing to behold.
This was my first encounter with O’Siadhail’s poetry, and I was not prepared to be so deeply moved, and indeed convicted, by the poet’s perspicacity and skill. In both the Psalter and Gospel sections of Testament, O’Siadhail’s poems demonstrate careful attention to the inner landscapes of universal human feeling, from bewilderment to loss, loneliness and surprise, while simultaneously re-directing attention beyond them to the presence of God that sustains as it revives. These poems are a lifeline for anyone who feels that the presence of Scripture has become sore in their spiritual lives. They are vivacious and sensitive, and some of them might break your heart with beauty or sorrow. They’re also poetically brilliant.
Particularly in America, where free verse still reigns dominant in our poetic sensibilities and tastes, O’Siadhail challenges the perception that adherence to poetic meter compromises spontaneity or even authentic creative expression itself. Like jazz, his verse has the sound of something inexorably regular, then bursts out of regularity only to arrive back at rhythmic regularity again. Indeed, O’Siadhail’s constant Muse in the Psalter section of Testament is “Madam Jazz”, an endlessly inventive and source of love and sustenance for the poet. In one of O’Siadhail’s finest odes to Madam Jazz he addresses her directly, divulging:
“You’re the drumbeater whose lead hand I hear,
You’re the high hat whose fixed rhythm I still heed.
You’re the pacemaker, the throb I tap to,
Rapping closed cymbals to match my heart’s beat.
Yes, the back beat you catch on your snare -
Startle me, catch the first beat on your crash,
Shock me with kickdrums that can pound out the pulse,
Play a fill knocking two beats on the toms.
You surprise, thrill me above and beyond
Still the firm beat of your love’s metronome.”1
Notice how rhythm here serves indispensably as a container for the depth, breadth, and extraordinary irreducible quality of the poet’s surprise and joy at being led - no wooed - by God. Rather than inhibiting the unexpected and the creative, it is precisely the fixity of form and rhythm that contains and indeed animates his articulations of pain, surprise, hope, or chagrin. And it’s endlessly interesting.
Yet, while O’Siadhail’s formalism hearkens towards that old Athenian ideal of the perfect marriage of form and content, this body of work is indebted just as much to Jerusalem - for these are just as much psalms as they are poems. While the echoes of the old masters like Donne, Hopkins, and Elliot can be felt pulsing underneath the poems in this slim volume, it’s the voice of the psalmist that rises to the surface and sparkles thereupon with ephemeral mystery and grace. Thus, one does not need approach O’Siadhail’s poetry armed with the prerequisites of a sharp intellect or a formidable literary or theological education. One needs only unhurried time and a heart open to bearing witness to the poet’s encounter with God.
All O’Siadhail’s psalm-poems ring out from the broken but blessed middle in which the two realities of timebound human finitude and infinite love kiss. For O’Siadhail, it is a capacious space where grief, praise, decay, and regeneration all have their place, all enwrapped by the first and last posture of overwhelming gratitude for the excessive goodness of it all. Thus, while O’Siadhail’s formality is what makes his poetry in Testament an artful enterprise, it’s his gratitude that also renders it a prayerful one. Here, he pleads with God:
“Never allow me, God, to turn back clocks
Let me still yearn for all that’s to come.
Happy to feed with praise as I was fed,
Let me so bless as many once blessed me.
Youth will renew what we must now bequeath,
Rumours of you among your heirs of love.
Give new hunger for truth I know we leave
Trusting to younger dreams to mend your world.”2
Amongst much great good, I think that one of the greatest gifts O’Siadhail is bequeathing here, especially to the young, is an invitation to participate in the practice of unconditional gratitude for one’s life and a hopeful disposition toward what comes next. Even as his hair greys fast and his “salt and pepper years” approach, the poet repeatedly insists that he is not so much hurtling towards death as he is falling more in love with life as he lives it in praise and in thankfulness for all that has been, that is, and that is yet to be.
“As though when ebbing life accelerates,
You show so much that must have passed me by,
Holding back what’s most intense till last.
Aware how my genetic tape runs down,
I risk this bliss which I didn’t dare before –
Could paradise be half as good as this?”3
It sometimes seems that the young are unschooled in the practice of gratitude that O’Siadhail bears witness to in this stanza. One doesn’t have to be chronically “online” to ascertain the notes of quiet despair that waft through the layers of irony and inanity that define zillennial iconoclastic meme culture. Bombarded by the deathful realities of climate crisis, capitalist greed, and structural alienation from the good, we are oft, following Keats, more “half in love with easeful death” than many of us might care to admit – not only more skilled in seeing bleakness but less able to see also the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But in starkest contrast, O’Siadhail is so enamoured with life, even as (because?) his cognisance grows that he is no longer a young man. Through his re-imaginings of the psalms, he shows us that gratitude is more than a mere affective response to some favoured or even serendipitously unexpected happening. It is a foundational disposition to one’s being in the world, a disposition that in a sense is entirely non-contingent upon fortuitous circumstance or even internal feeling. Like all virtues, gratitude is a habit to be cultivated with discipline and attention. It’s not something that merely happens to a person. And time and again, in weal and in woe, O’Siadhail falls, not by dint of clenched-fisted effort, but instinctively, compulsively, into praise:
“I do and ask you, God, to give me more,
To let me live more fully day by day
Although I’m in, not of this mortal world,
I am, you see, still so in love with life.”4
Rather than hearkening misguidedly to the perceived safety of an imagined past, or recoursing to an unreal utopian future, O’Siadhail takes in what is and praises God as he learns to let be. The way in which some of us can’t help but lament or fixate on what is not, O’Siadhail sees the faithfulness and grandeur of Goodness, and he cannot but praise and praise some more. He offers remedial correction to young eyes that more readily see cause to despair by allowing us to borrow his thanks-tinted lenses.
“You are the great astonisher, the keen
Creator of surprise ambushing me
With love that dares its sweet and dangerous jazz.”5
Micheal O’Siadhail invites us to hear that sweet though far-off jazz that hails a new creation in our midst. The music may be faint at times, but it plays on. Listen.
- O'Siadhail, Micheal. “65.” In Testament. Baylor University Press, 2022.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 4.