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Kevin Cullen

His peace in poetry

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 19, 2007

Brendan Kennelly is one of the world's great poets, and for the last few months he has lived among us, playing hide and seek with muses on Chestnut Hill.

He has a highfalutin title: the Burns Scholar in the Boston College Center for Irish Programs.

And in academic circles, such sinecures usually translate to a respite from the rigors of a life of letters. Kennelly is 71 now, and he can appreciate the idea of slowing down.

But a funny thing happened when Brendan Kennelly left Dublin for Boston. Everything he saw was new. Every voice triggered memory. Every leaf that fell spoke to him.

He started writing in a spiral notebook and couldn't stop. In just a few months, he has written some 80 poems, more than enough for a new collection.

"I have written more in the last three months than I have in the last 20 years," he says, sitting in a house on Priscilla Road near BC, shaking his head, as if he doesn't believe it himself.

He has been lonely here.

"I understand loneliness," he says. "I think of the old people I knew as a boy. Feeling a bit lonely here unleashed a flood of poems. I exploited my loneliness."

He has walked every inch of the BC campus, hills, and valleys. He has found places to sit - a bench in a small garden next to St. Mary's Hall, a table at the Hillside Cafe - where he overhears the students, the teachers, the groundskeepers.

He has watched the leaves change to shades he'd never seen before.

He has gone for walks at 4 in the morning, when the loudest sound is the quiet.

His favorite walk is from the Heights down to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

"You walk through trees and water," he says. "Nature caresses us. Like our mother."

He is a Kerryman by birth if not disposition, and he now understands why the old people in the west of Ireland call Boston "the next parish over."

He met a BC professor named James Smith here, got talking, and figured out that his mother, Bridie, and Smith's grandmother, Josie Kehoe, were sisters.

"We never knew," Kennelly says, amazed.

He has found a kind of peace he has not experienced since he sat in gardens in Pavia, in northern Italy, many years ago.

On Sunday mornings, he goes to the 8 o'clock Mass in the chapel in St. Mary's, where 102 Jesuits live.

He retreats to the chapel at odd times.

"I sit by myself in the darkness," he says, "and I think."

He thinks of a farmer in Ballylongford, where he grew up. The farmer drank away his land. Kennelly was a boy when he bent down to help the farmer, who had fallen.

"No one knows what's going through a man's head," the farmer told him.

Kennelly has been sober for 21 years, but couldn't resist popping into some of the city's myriad Irish pubs.

He nursed bottled water and listened to the accents, the stories, the craic.

"I still miss it," he says of a drinking life he gave up so he could live.

He misses Dubliners more than Dublin. He recalls the old woman who sidled up to him on a sidewalk after his 70th birthday had been noted with considerable publicity in the Irish media.

"God bless ye, perfesser," the woman told him in a thick Northside accent. "Ye don't look a day over 70."

He sits on a couch, a red tartan scarf around his neck. The afternoon light has faded, and the room on Priscilla Road is almost in darkness.

He is reading one of the poems. It is called "Prayer," and it is the voice of a prayer speaking and it ends like this:

Certain forces work hard to betray me.
I go beyond. There you are. I am your words.
Say me.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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