When Clodagh Beresford Dunne sent me these poems, I found “The Kindness” right away, but couldn’t find “T-shirts.” None of Jan Beatty’s books were at my library, and I couldn’t figure out which book the poem was in, anyway. I emailed Clodagh to ask if she could send me a picture of the poem. She replied, “I’m afraid I don’t have a book excerpt of T-shirts, and I can’t seem to find the name of the collection it comes from, either. All I know is that it was sent to me by my friend Thomas McCarthy just following my own father’s death. A poem I sent him, about finding my father’s spectacles a month after he died, prompted Thomas to send me the Beatty poem.”
Jessica Hudgins: Both of these poems begin with a physical object—the elk, the bag—that gives Jan Beatty a starting point. She describes where these things are, and where she is as she looks at them, and then why she’s looking at them. It’s a really simple, really expansive way of approaching a poem. When you write, do you begin in a similar way? How has Beatty’s work influenced yours?
Clodagh Beresford Dunne: This is a really good observation, and you’re right, it’s a wonderfully expansive way of entering a poem. I believe it stems from the brilliance and sincerity of Beatty’s grounded narrative.
This entrance mechanism is beautifully filmic if you think about it—it instantly creates a sense of place, of truth, of measured step – the essential components of the perfect poem. With Beatty’s poetry there’s always a sort of reassurance that she’s a poet who has properly experienced life—that she’s been in a familiar place, that she has taken the time and care to accurately record its dimensions, that she can constantly triangulate the what, the where, and the why if you like.
There’s a brilliance in the clarity of her imagery, in all of her work. The precision and concision of her language generates a real and physical force.
In terms of my own approach to writing, I suppose, yes, I sometimes begin in a similar way – not that it’s ever a conscious decision, of course. I think the storyteller in each of us will always take the same beaten path. Sometimes, the clarity of the narrative won’t be straightforward, to begin with, though—I’ll notice, after a few drafts perhaps, that the strongest entry point might be hidden in the middle of the poem. I have a habit of “throat clearing” when I begin to write a poem and it’s almost a given that I’ll scrap early lines or stanzas as I begin to edit. I find it really helpful to leave poems for weeks or months or even years and go back to them when I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say. Your inner ruthless critic is great at locating the cleanest line from A to B.
In terms of how Beatty’s work has influenced mine, I would say that it’s her fearlessness and the breadth of her voice that I’ve been inspired by the most. She’s given me the confidence to write with courage—to say what I feel, to avoid my self-censor, to write from my heart, and, at all times to be authentic and human. She’s taught me that to write is to be engaged in a warfare of sorts – that you must endure through the pain, and make it to the other side – that there will be momentary peace, that there will be full-on battles, and that it’s perpetual.
The poems I’ve chosen to record for you, are tender poems—two poems that mean a lot to me, but Beatty is probably best known for her kick-ass poetry (I’m thinking of her work in The Switching/Yard, in particular—poems like Dear American Poetry, Letter to a Young Rilke, Why I don’t Fuck Intellectuals, for example). I’ve been privileged enough to hear her read to packed audiences in the U.S.—to witness her, in her own inimitable, gentle way, instill a crowd with a fire and energy like I’ve never seen before. And that’s what I love about Beatty and her work – that she addresses subjects like suicide, abortion, misogyny, kindness, love, grief all with the same precise and balanced pen. Her lyric is so wonderful, too, of course, and, for me, she symbolises the excellence that women writers should continually strive for—the courage to speak up.
The dedication in Beatty’s most recent book, Jackknife reads like this:
“For women everywhere
who are told to be nice
and to shut up.”
JH: These poems are gentle with their subjects. Especially in “The Kindness,” when the poet describes the calves, “as they bend to eat grass / look up / at the mother at the same time.” Can you point out a few other moments that you admire in these poems, and describe what you admire about them?
CBD: I admire so many moments in both poems. They’re both so intricate and work on a multitude of levels, yet both have this wonderful accessible ordinariness about them, too.
Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “The Kindness” by Jan Beatty:
In “The Kindness,” what I might admire most is that one might think that Beatty has been gentle with her subject, yet, the reader has, in fact, unwittingly, been taken on a terrifying, physical, reverse-journey with Beatty, and, by the end of the poem, they end up being equal beneficiary of the small act of historic kindness, that Beatty has been shown.
This physical pull is created in lots of very clever moments in the poem. For example, Beatty instantly places her juxtapositions on common ground, if you like: calf and mother, city dweller and rural dweller, fragility and strength, looking up, looking down, liberty and preclusion … so, with the mere mention of football fields, we’re off! And the poem becomes a rapid and physical episode.
The language used creates moments of beautiful unification with the scene and the movement: e.g. “run into each other” “hold” “steal” “bumping” and I love the moments of false peace that emerge in the poem—e.g., the gentleness of the title and the bucolic opening scene of “The mother elk & 2 babies” that is quickly toughened up and cancelled out by “sniffing / the metal handle of the bear-proof trash bin.” and again when the poet dwells on the elk babies’ beauty, only to be jarred into the realisation that she’s still not at a safe enough distance from the elks.
There’s remarkable effectiveness in the three indented sections of the poem, too – where the kindness actually occurs—and where Beatty captures the physical pushing-in of the door, within the poem’s architecture.
“a hand on the door,
I was walking in”
“a hand on the door
from around my body”
“a hand on the door
& the bottom of me
Beatty also has brilliant pacing and distancing in this poem and she guides the slide and reversal into memory with her use of movement:
“I’m backing up slowly/”
“The sloping line of their small snouts & /”
“…backing /into the woods past the lodgepole pines”
“The bottom of me
I read recently that Solzhenitsyn once said that courage and kindness were the greatest virtues. It’s as if “The Kindness” is a lesson in both. It’s a very real and very beautiful poem.
In “T-Shirts” I really admire the moments where Beatty offers her reader the specifics of what she’s retained and what she’s given away. It creates a heightened sense that although the subject matter is universal, this is a unique and individual experience. We’re told exactly how and where the T-Shirts are stored in her apartment, their size, the slogans they carry, how they’re speckled, stained etc. We’re given precise colours, fabrics etc. of the items she’s given away, too.
“I keep my father’s T-Shirts
in a brown bag in the hall
in between the bathroom and the bedroom.”
“They are big, extra large”
“One says ‘The Best Beer Drinkers Are From Whitehall’”
This sort of detail is so brave and honest and we’re given a calm and composed, yet deeply sad, explanation as to why the poet is keeping the T-Shirts, how they were a huge part of her relationship with her father, how her engagement with them or attention to them, since he has died, is much the same as the way in which one encounters grief: a mere glance or a fixed stare, depending on the day.
What’s particularly lovely is how Beatty so simply gets a hold on one of the most difficult aspects of grief—that part of loss which is so personal to the bereaved; the texture and touch of the loved one, their smell.
“Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep,
I go to the bag and sort through them,
hold them to my face
and say hello”
Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “T-Shirts” by Jan Beatty:
JH: “The Kindness” is such an interesting title because it at once points to the specific gesture in the poem, and elevates it by referring to it more generally as kindness. We would expect “Kindness,” or “The Act of Kindness.” Obviously, the one Beatty chose is a better title. With “T-Shirts” it’s the opposite. The poem is about grief—why title it “T-Shirts”?
CBD: It’s an indelibly perfect title, isn’t it? The simplicity of what Beatty chooses as the tangible in order to illustrate the intangible is what makes the title so effective, I think.
T-Shirts are such universal and light items of clothing—they’re garments we’d normally wear on sunnier days, in casual, home-life, relaxed settings and this instantly suggests the familiar, something with which the reader can immediately connect and feel at ease, and the grief becomes so painfully understandable, almost unbearable, as a result. There is no longer any use for the T-Shirts here—there are no more T-Shirts to be purchased, to be worn, to be speckled with paint, “There is no place for them since he has died.”
There’s nothing extraordinary about a simple speckled, sloganed T-Shirt, yet when its owner dies it becomes an irreplaceable item connecting this daughter with her father, the only remaining evidence of the love that existed between the two, a holdable item that carries the essence of the departed, in every sense of that word.
The T-Shirts are suddenly rendered surplus, defunct, useless after death. If one thinks about the word T-Shirts, they’re so-called because of the shape they make when laid out flat—(t-shirts would be incorrect) and there’s a poignancy in that, too—a surrendering to death, and to grief, in a way.
Clodagh Beresford Dunne is an Irish poet, living in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in the southeast of the country. Her poems have appeared or are upcoming in Irish and international publications including Poetry (Chicago), The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Stinging Fly. Her work has also been recorded for broadcast in Ireland and the USA. She was the recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland Emerging Writer Award, in 2016, and her poem “Seven Sugar Cubes” was voted Irish Poem of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. A former lawyer and award-winning public speaker, she is currently working towards publication of her first full collection.
The poet Thomas Mccarthy has said of Beresford Dunne: “She is a writer of immense seriousness and purpose. Her poems announce a new vision to us, a new vortex of energy that localises human experience and domesticates genius.”
Jan Beatty is an American poet. Her books include The Switching/Yard (2013), Red Sugar (2008), Boneshaker (2002), and Mad River (1995), published by University of Pittsburgh Press. She is a recipient of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and the Creative Achievement Award in Literature. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.