He had heard of the word “selfie” but had never taken one. In his way, he stated this question, “I suppose it’s a photograph you take of yourself?” Moments later Sarah and I took a “selfie” with Irish poet, Micheal O’Siadhail. His very first.
Looking at the result he concluded, “I look tired,” his light Irish accent curbing each word. After seven weeks on the road promoting his new collected works, his observation was accurate.
Sarah and I met Micheal O’Siadhail (in Irish, pronounced, [Me-Hall O-sheel]) as newlyweds in New York City in 2008. We were there for Encounter—the annual International Arts Movement conference—with about 500 other artists and creative catalysts. We had been looking forward to hearing him read his poetry and share his creative insights for as long as we had been dating. Some of Micheal’s poetry from his book “Love Life” had been instrumental in our romance. “Love Life” was a series of love poems he had written about his relationship with his wife, Brid, to whom he had been married for close to 3 decades at the time.
One of the poems we particularly like that we share again and again is his poem “For Real”:
A first gazing at you unawares.
Wonder by wonder my body savours.
The conch-like detail of an ear,
An amethyst ring on your finger.
Could I ever have enough of you?
Juiced cantaloupe, ripe honeydew,
Slack desire so I desire you more.
Laugh as no one laughed before.
Vivid more vivid, real more real.
I stare toward heavens you reveal.
Yellower yellow. Bluer blue.
Can you see me as I see you?
Sweeter than being loved to love.
Sweetest our beings’ hand in glove.
Milk and honey, spice and wine.
I’m your lover. You are mine.
Sarah and I were both content to simply sit in the crowd, at the IAM Encounter, and listen to this accomplished and revered poet share his work with us all and give him and his work, as the Apostle Paul writes, ‘honor where honor is due’; perhaps have him sign our copy of “Love Life”. We never thought anything more than that would happen. But then we met him.
Have you had encounters in your life where you meet someone and there is a mysterious “bond” suddenly present where you feel at ease and that you have known them for a long time even though it is the first time you’ve met?
Micheal came dressed in a brown corduroy suit with professor-like patches on the elbows; about what you would expect from a poet. His self-effacing manner, with moments of wary stuttering belied simple and meaty insights on life and a warm friendly heart. He particularly took to Sarah, which I completely understood. I think it was the fact of her Irish heritage and red hair – perhaps Irishmen are suckers for it. Regardless we knew we had a true friend, and we too wished to return that trust.
Sarah’s fondest memory of him was just sitting silently together before he went onstage to read his poetry; we seemed to share a common spirit of refreshment even though few words were exchanged. This same spirit was present on our last visit to see him when he came to Duke Divinity School to do a reading. We sat down next to him at his table as he signed books and interacted with well wishers. At one moment, during a pause between books, he turned to us, grabbed Sarah’s hand and said, “Thank you for coming.”
My fondest memory of our first meeting was when he had to leave the conference; he approached us both and asked me sheepishly. “Kirk…would you mind…would you mind terribly if I kissed your wife?” I smiled and responded, “Not at all, Micheal, I completely understand.” I liked this Irishman very much.
There is another reason Micheal looked tired that night we took the selfie. Last June his wife, Brid, to whom he had been married for over 40 years finally succumbed to the Parkinson’s that they had both lived with for years. He said in an interview he did recently on his Complete Poems: “It was the most extraordinary moment in my life when I was writing the dedication of the book to my late wife, Bríd. My intention was always to write ‘To Bríd, with love’ and I found myself writing ‘In Memoriam: Bríd’”
We noticed that he looked a little thinner, slightly grayer, and walked like he was carrying a bit more weight on his shoulders. But the same shy authenticity was still there, and the same refreshing spirit that instigated a fondness between us. We told him we regretted not having an opportunity to meet Brid, and he appreciated the sentiment. He asked if we had seen the portrait of Brid that was on his website, done by the same Irish artist, Nick O’Dea, who had done the striking portrait of Micheal that was on the cover of his Complete Poems? When hadn’t , so I quickly pulled the picture up on my iPhone and we both immediately noticed the red necklace, similar in color to Micheal’s red vest he wears in his portrait. He said, “Brid wore that necklace because she knew I liked red.” But we also noticed her eyes. Micheal described Brid’s eyes by quoting how his friend David Ford, a professor at Cambridge University, characterized them in his address at Brid’s funeral:
“Micheal used the phrase ‘That inward outward smile’ about her face, and I think you can glimpse that in the portrait. The inward – Bríd’s thoughtfulness, her inner poise, her memory for the important personal details; the outward – Bríd’s compassionate seeing, alert to what is going on for the other person, silently asking you, ‘What do you need to tell me?’ In the portrait, she could be just about to break into her smile; she might also be about to cry.” (emphasis mine)
When Micheal said that phrase, “What do you need to tell me?”, that was exactly what we saw in Brid’s eyes as well, and Sarah and I both enjoyed knowing Brid a bit more in this moment but also regretted the loss of not meeting her. You can see Professor David Ford’s full address and see the portrait of Brid by Mick O’Dea here:
Sarah and I are now back in Rock Hill and continue to revel and reflect on our second meeting with our good friend, Micheal O’Siadhail. Before we departed, he graciously offered to come to Rock Hill someday and do a reading, something we would value highly—not just for the moments of brilliance as he shares his poetry, but also for the little whiles of quiet refreshment and friendship we’d be accorded in the process.
The night of his poetry reading at Duke Divinity, he read a poem called “Transit” that I think captures those feelings of the comings and goings of friends and loved ones. The video is Micheal reading two of his poems, “Transit” is the second one he reads:
By Micheal O’Siadhail
Urgencies of language: check-in, stand-by, take-off.
Everything apace, businesslike. But I’m happy here
Gazing at all the meetings and farewells. I love
To see those strangers’ faces quickened and bare.
A lost arrival is wandering. A moment on edge,
He pans a lounge for his countersign of welcome.
A flash of greeting, sudden lightening of baggage,
As though he journeyed out only to journey home.
I watch a parting couple in their embrace and freeing.
The woman turns, a Veronica with her handkerchief
Absorbing into herself a last stain of a countenance.
She dissolves in crowds. An aura of her leaving glance
Travels through the yearning air. Tell me we live
For those faces wiped into the folds of our being.