The motif of cuts and mutilations runs through Kicking the Black Mamba, Robert Welch’s memoir of his son Egan. Bob’s departure at age 65, in January 2013, is a cruel cut to IASIL, including IASIL Japan which twice hosted him, though consolation may be found in the lasting achievements of this much-loved man of letters, who brought such rich human qualities to our field of study. The memoir of Egan’s decline and death is an extraordinarily painful work, yet also a remarkable piece of literature, prompting comparison, in this difficult genre, with C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Having reflected on the work from a theological and pastoral perspective for The Furrow, I should like now to study its literary aspects, focussing on its dialogue with poetic tradition, its subtleties of composition, and its handling of ‘the autobiographical pact.’
Literature against Death
Those who would prefer to have seen Bob deploy his wit and learning around a sunnier theme need look no further than to a book written twenty years earlier, which he dedicated to his four children. Changing States (1993) is a delightful excursion among Irish writers, and shows Bob fully in command of his theme, tackled with unfailing grace and energy. The infectious quirkiness of his pen is more evident here than in his more authoritative and professorial history of the Abbey Theatre (1999). Averse to ponderous theory, he converses about and also with the texts, letting them move him, reacting with admiration, almost never with prissy ‘critical assessment,’ summoning the reader to share his enthusiasm; the reflective critical clarifications and comments lodge in the interstices of this affective engagement. He lectured as a poet who loved poetry, somewhat as his teacher Sean Lucy did, or in the spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: ‘Works of art are of an infinite solitude and nothing is more incapable of reaching them than criticism. Only love can grasp and hold them and do them justice.’
None spoke more wisely and warmly of literature, with the works of his favourite writers, in all his houses, lining three walls of a cosy, hospitable room, recalling those rare humane libraries where literature is given space to breathe rather than being coldly classified and processed. I recall one beautiful room, long gone, in University College, Cork, where the English classics in fine editions, assembled by a loving hand, looked down benignly as one turned the pages of Marlowe or Spenser, Donne or Gray. The spirit of IASIL owes much to its poet-critics who never forget that literature is literature, not fodder for hollow academic games.
The forty or so poets discreetly cited in Kicking the Black Mamba have a fraternal presence. One does not expect literary critics to fraternize with their subjects, but reading Robert Welch makes one realize what they are missing. He is friends with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Yeats and Rilke, as much as with living poets such as Heaney, Kennelly, and Geoffrey Hill. Once, as a muddled teenager strolling in our parish of Ballyphehane, Cork, and trying to make sense of The Waste Land, the first avant-garde text I had encountered, I bumped into Bob, then relishing his studies as a UCC freshman, and asked him for light on the cryptic verse. He took the book, read the opening lines, and said: ‘Isn’t that just great!’ So a poet responds to poetry. One summer day, as we strolled along the disused railway track, he expressed puritan unease about Keats peppering his throat to intensify the taste of claret, by such means feeding the synaesthetic prowess of the nightingale ode. On a later occasion he enthused about Moore’s Hail and Farewell, teasing me with its irreverent treatment of Cardinal Newman and his prose style. Such conversation was a precious vaccination against dreary academic approaches to literature.
At that time he was a mature young man, upright, intense and reflective, a sound judge of character (as my father noted), alert to many dimensions of culture from Cuchulainn to jazz, from Shakespeare to Castaneda, and also, often, hilariously funny. The matter of Ireland held him in its grip: in West Cork and Kerry he and his friends looked for meaning ‘in the old trees, the mossy smells, the stone-built houses in remote mountains, clear streams, well-water, flagstones outside the houses leading to the aromatic secrecies of a hay-filled outbuilding. And up in the hills, auburn, peat-stained water flowing over granite’ (7-8).
He was at certain points inarticulate, as if he had not yet found the language for what he wanted to say. The struggle toward full speech was a long one; he calls his verse in the early 1980s ‘slack, obscure, and frightened’ (124), suggesting that like T. S. Eliot ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ was a spiritual no less than a verbal ordeal. I hesitate to quote two lines of his teenage verse which have jingled jollily in my mind across the years: ‘Your eyes, my love, are pools/ Where Time is drowned’ and ‘I sat out my childhood in a wallflower room/ With walls of flowers.’ Looking at his mature poetic work, one is struck by its keen sense of place, even capturing the faint individuality of back roads where I’d delivered newspapers and that I never thought to see named in verse. In my first year in Maynooth, I invited Bob and four other Cork poets to recite to the student body, giving proof that poetry could be distilled from the rain, the pubs, the sad lanes of our native city.
In later, darker times, what comfort can poetry provide? Most people would lock the terrible experiences the memoir recounts in the back of their mind, rather than rehash them in all their brutal detail. Bob’s faith in the healing and illuminating power of literary expression gave him the resilience to take up his task, to make mourning creative. ‘He teaches us to stare down death’ (Marianne McDonald). Literature has always been an intimate neighbour of death, and death offers the supreme opportunity for a man of letters to deploy the resources of his profession.
A word of empathy or human understanding may be treasured by the bereaved, breaking the spell of lonely confusion. Thus his parish priest Charles Keaney provides Bob with an eloquent phrase to name and articulate grief: ‘He asked me how we were getting on; I said, fine, that the constant pain had gone. “Yes,” he said, “but it will come up on you; you’ll get the unexpected shock of it, the gunk from nowhere”’ (131). Now literature is a vast repertory of such empathetic words. Bob finds that ‘gunk’ again in Wordsworth’s lines: ‘But she is in her grave and, oh,/ The difference to me.’ The poet becomes a brother in grief. Many a professor of literature has found tears coming to his or her eyes in reading lines like: ‘There was a Boy; ye knew him well ye Cliffs/ And islands of Winander.’ Unlike so many careerist academics, Bob is not on his guard against sentimentalism, but reveres the poet’s depth of feeling: ‘All Wordsworth’s feelings for the dead boy rise up again in the language as I read it from the lectern. His feeling for the nameless child who died in Windermere is mixed up with my own terrible emotion about my son; and the language releases this potent amalgam’ (178). Quoting the end of the poem:
On summer evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute – looking at the grave wherein he lies!
Bob utters a grateful profession of faith: ‘These are some of the greatest and simplest lines in English poetry, itself probably the greatest poetic tradition the world has known’ (179).
Literature not only confirms and illumines the feelings of the bereaved. It positively drafts them into a process wherein what Wordsworth calls ‘our moral being’ is brought to ripeness. By the light of literature, Bob traces this process in Egan’s woes and in his own grief. Beckett provides phrases such as ‘all mashed up’ and ‘a washout’ from his ‘lexicon of misery’ (163), and these phrases enter the texture of Bob’s narrative of dispiriting visits to hospitals and treatment centres. Yeats becomes a ‘samurai-poet’ (66), teaching the discipline of the ‘cold eye,’ and linked with the maxim of a Japanese feudal lord, Naoshige: ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly’ (65). Bob’s sensitivity to this Japanese aesthetic goes far back; I remember listening with him to a young poet’s exquisite Japanese-inspired compositions around 1970; the love of Japan that he passionately professed on his visits here was more than a tourist infatuation. Reading ‘The Cold Heaven’ to students allows Bob to ‘dramatise my own turbulence and grief’ (48). An unmarked quotation from Yeats’s great elegy, ‘Easter, 1916,’ again steeps his painful, all-absorbing love for his beautiful, vulnerable son in the healing tradition of poetry: ‘This excess of his was, amongst other things, an excess of love’ (197).
Joseph Conrad reinforces the fatalism that is one of the strands in Bob’s philosophical piety, the idea that our destiny is ‘graven in imperishable characters upon the face of a rock’ (quoted, 3). Certainly, if character is destiny, Bob himself was all of a piece, pursuing the same existential project from his early days. Raging against the pettiness of academia, he invokes the Greeks: Fate will visit complacent academics in their later years, ‘when ease recedes and the academics begin to realise, to their horror, how blind they have been to the frantic shears of life and how right the ancient Greek tragedians were’ (174). Literature is not a source of hyperbole in this book; the tragedy recounted is too painful for that; rather literature lifts language to make it adequate to the pain, providing grief with fit words.
An Irish Tale
Another dimension of literary wisdom concerns the ‘otherworld,’ which looms large in Bob’s imagination, nourished by his long familiarity with Celtic lore and Gaelic poetry. ‘A technical and emotional problem for the artist is getting the right angle on his material. If it’s a botched stroke then the stone will split all kinds of ways revealing sheets of useless contours, interesting maybe, but distracting’ (Changing States, 241). Beckett’s circling approach refrains from ‘usurping the secrecies of the centre’ but Heaney ‘wants to speak of the source’ and that is Robert’s angle also. Like Heaney he wants ‘to search out the connections between the personal world of feeling and the larger cultural and tribal one’ (245).
Thus the son’s agony is set against a series of Irish landscapes, often in a stark contrast between their ancient associations and their modern drabness. The personal threnody is seconded by the voice of an older Ireland condemning the vulgarity and violence of the present. Perhaps it is the curses of Irish poets that inspire the heights of apocalyptic fury to which Bob rises as he contemplates modern society and its betrayals of the young. Egan himself has a Lawrentian vision in the aftermath of his suicide attempt: ‘it was pure fear: the fierce horsemen riding directly at him, he shrunk down in terror, seeing the great hooves of their steeds, a dark-grey turbulent agitation of noise, wind and rain. He could see the horses’ flared nostrils, the corded muscles in their necks’ (Mamba, 26-7). That Egan had a visionary sensitivity into which his father could enter, and that he was attuned, like his father, to Ireland’s historical wounds – ‘He drank in the sorrows of Ballingeary, its long rainy days, its lonely nights’ (129) – is a conviction that provides the axis of the elegy, its chief element of apotheosis along with a stark Christ-symbolism.
The most effective use of the Irish background is in the account of the trips to and from the Swinford Treatment Centre. Egan in spring 2005 was in a state of Coleridgean ‘dejection,’and Elvis Costello’s ‘God Give Me Strength ‘screamed silently in the back of my mind at this time’ (37). On Good Friday morning (25 March) Egan and his parents set off. Thinking of Raftery’s poem of spring in Co. Mayo, Bob imagines they are ‘travelling back into what remains of traditional Ireland’; in Derry, ‘I looked at the soft light of the mild day,… the faces staring at us as my son vomited. I saw his tortured face as the sour bile burned his throat and the drool came from his mouth’; at Strabane, ‘I see a lone fisherman standing midstream in the Foyle, waders up to his waist, casting the fly delicately across the placid water’ (41); Egan cries, thinking of a lost Strabane girlfriend. They pass through Sligo, Tubbercurry, Charlestown, and on the road to Knock stop at a fairy fort: ‘Those raths, in their inscrutable isolation, mostly left alone over the centuries for fear of what may be unleashed if you usurp them, hint at the irrelevance of human beings’ (44-5). Drink, legend has it, is a door to that alien world. Egan is caught in a symbolic posture, ‘looking about to see if there was any way he could get over the wide and fast-flowing stream’ (45). They spend two days in a house near Claremorris where Egan is detoxified, Bob leaving for Sardinia on Easter Sunday while Angela (his beloved, heroic wife) takes Egan to the centre; Egan is in good form: ‘Joy just poured out of him, as if it were a kind of interior radiance… I am convinced he was the best person I have ever encountered’ (47).
Swinford has ‘an air of having been left behind, as if the Celtic Tiger of the 1990s has slunk past this town of empty warehouses and woebegone drapers’ shops’ (55). Things do not work out, and the return journey, on 6 June, is a nightmare: near Claremorris Egan throws himself out of the car; coming into Sligo, ‘suddenly Egan hits me in the jaw from behind’ (62); at Bundoran, seen in the most dismal style of T.S. Eliot or Graham Greene: ‘a noisy kaleidoscope of lurid bars, slot-machine gambling joints, takeaways, souvenir emporia selling plastic leprechauns with snowy beards and knowing smiles, DVD rental stores, “select lounges,” and many fish-and-chip shops’ (67), Egan makes a dash for a drink; back home in Coleraine he goes berserk, hurling a computer at the TV and begging his father to hit him. ‘Against Angela’s wishes, I call the police. This was a bad move’ (69). The next day Egan climbs into the loft space above the garage and has to be brought down by the fire brigade. ‘It has been ceaseless turmoil for about fifty hours since I got that call from Ray to tell us that he was raving in the streets of Claremorris’ (74). All of this is borne with, enfolded in the humane perspective of the father’s helpless compassion.
The Double Realm
The great poet of the Doppelreich, the ‘double realm,’ of life steeped in death, and of a world of death that lies open to Orphic poet, as if the dead were in a neighbouring room, is Rilke, who appears to Robert in a final consolatory dream, bidding him to let grief go: ‘The challenge is to avoid, in a world so full of mystery, endless sorrow, memory, lamentation’ (199). This is the world of Joyce’s ghost-symphony, ‘The Dead,’ and of Seamus Heaney’s Station Island. Rilke experienced the death of another, a Thou, as opening a rift in the opacity of the beyond (see Hennig). Experience is deepened by the enigma of death, and in the end it becomes the condition of integral poetic transmutation of experience:
Nur wer die Leier schon hob
auch unter Schatten,
darf das unendliche Lob
Erst in dem Doppelbereich
werden die Stimmen
ewig und mild
(Only the one who has already raised the lyre even among the Shades can dare to render, forebodingly, the infinite praise… It is in the double realm that the voices first become everlasting and fair; Sonnets to Orpheus I, 9).
In Christian understanding the commerce of realms becomes the Communion of Saints. The Christian dimension of musings is again enriched by reference to the poets. When he confesses that Egan is his key to Christ, ‘the means whereby the reality of love was revealed to me’ (20), what risks becoming a heavy superimposition of Paschal imagery on the son’s woes is offset by a generous reaching out to the resurrection visions of great poets, Dante, Donne, Hopkins.
A Triumph of Style
Bob’s reflections on the art of narrative prepared him for his last narration. Of Joyce Cary he wrote: ‘He did not write his novels straight through from beginning to end; he built them up, constructed them, bit by bit, working from the end to the start, then to the middle, then to climax, and so on,’ which ‘gives his writing a curious sense of presence, of life unfolding in the moment of apprehension’ (Changing States, 125). Bob wrote his memoir straight through, but worked over it, loading every rift with ore, in something like the ‘literary pointilism’ he finds in Cary. His own writing, like Cary’s, is ‘full of intense, alert attention to the specific moment’ (129).
The memoir is raw, confessional, spontaneous, unvarnished – that is, in its first inditing in the year following his son’s death. But, in accord with Sean Connery’s advice in Finding Forrester, ‘You write your first draft with your heart, but you rewrite with your head,’ a further three years of work on the text kept this basic spontaneity while adding set pieces that are almost prose poems and that in their slow literary rhythm act in counterpoint to the warmly oral character of the basic style. Some of these are in the line of nature writing, others are gentle reminiscences contrasting with the main narrative, others again are Dickensian scenes presenting the low types that made Egan’s life a hell.
‘Simon Dedalus “kept the ball rolling anyhow,” which is what a storyteller does. Narrative is the movement of the “ball” along a line, its movement shifting as it encounters different things along its path, its impetus in response to fresh directions and impacts… a peripatetic multifaceted mirroring of things in time by a moving presence’ (Changing States, 103). Keep moving! is Bob’s watchword. In Ireland and Japan there have been ‘long periods during which an art will not develop at all, or develop only slightly, so strong and powerful are the attractions of the rapture of stasis’ (6). The cult of Celtic roots could conduce to that rapture, but Bob approaches Irish culture above all as a space of transformation. In his memoir, the ball is kept rolling by a to-and-fro between the colloquial and the literary, reminding one of what one critic said of Salman Rushdie, that he was the only writer who could use the words ‘lassitudinous’ and ‘rutputty’ in close proximity and with equal necessity.
The to-and-fro continues between the thrust of the main narrative, which is far from transparently linear, and the metanarrative about the composition of the book and about the mind circling back over the events and reaching back to events from a more distant past. As in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the elegy charts its own composition. The book may be divided as follows:
Section I: Chapters 1-3. Egan’s suicide attempt, 27 November 2006. Composition begun in the City Hotel, Derry, 7 April 2007 (1) and continued ‘a few weeks later’ in ‘our small house in Co. Donegal’ (7).
Section II: Chapters 4-8. Egan in Swinford and in Ross Thomson Psychiatric Unit. February to June 2005. Composition: the Co. Donegal house in August 2007 (63); September 2007 (77).
Section III: Chapters 9-10. Egan beaten up by thugs. Divination in Sardinia, Summer 2004.
Section IV: Chapters 11-13. Egan’s stays in Norfolk and in Cuan Mhuire, October to early December 2004. Composition begun 4 January 2008 (105).
Section V: Chapters 14-16. Egan’s disappearance, 28 January 2007. Composition begun 11 February 2008 (131).
Section VI: Chapters 17-19: Egan’s stay at St John of God’s 7 March to 7 April 2006, when he is discharged and succumbs to the temptation of drink on the train home.
Section VII: Chapters 20-24. Discovery of Egan’s body and his funeral, 1-12 February 2007. Composition begun May 2008 (172), interrupted 8 June (193).
Conclusion: Chapters 25-26. Composed 29 October 2008, recounting a dream of 29 October 2007.
The temporal movement of the narration is as follows: Late 2006, 2005, early 2004, late 2004, 2007, early 2006, 2007, a pattern that might reflect the ‘zig-zagging rushes and halts’ (57) of Cork’s jay-walkers.
The leitmotif of ‘cuts’ begins with the ‘four cuts or tears’ that disfigure the quality notebook in which the son wrote a message to his parents before attempting suicide. A picture of the Sacred Heart, ‘the spikes cutting into the red and bloody flesh’ (20), leaves Bob cold in childhood, but is an emblem of what he will encounter in Egan. Egan’s magnetic beauty cuts many hearts: his ‘good looks, she has said, would cut to her heart whenever she saw him’ (5). A gracious moment in his life ‘has cut itself into my memory, as acid will cut into an engraver’s plate in the process of intaglio, where the image to be printed is burned into the metal and the fissures filled with ink’ (51). ‘I cut in’ (90), in a scene trying to protect his son from ‘laceration’ (91) by dangerous companions. Egan has physical ‘cuts’ in a violent scene of Holy Thursday, 2006 (168), and he suffers a moral mutilation that becomes part of and emblematic of the moral mutilation of Irish culture in general. The quest for Corkery’s ‘hidden Ireland’ has soured: Ballingeary is ‘a culturally mutilated place and community’ (125), and Egan is condemned to explore ‘the mutilations visited upon his character by certain extreme conditions within the Irish experience to this day’ (121). Bob himself grieves that ‘my acts and words have, time and again, in sickening repetition, inflicted deep cuts on those I love, and who have had the misfortune to have loved me’ (130). The creative cuts of sculptors become a riposte to traumatic cuts: the gravestone is the work of ‘one of the few remaining stonecutters in Northern Ireland,’ as opposed to Chinese imports ‘quarried and cut by computer-controlled chisels’ (105), and the oak tree that Egan saves when it is ‘cut down’ (110) is sculpted into a mysterious monument to him: ‘when, in his workshop, he cut into the lower part of the trunk where it branched out into the root system, he found, buried deep in the tangle of roots, this head-shaped stone’ (114). Of the sculptor himself we read: ‘The face is finely cut, with a firm jawline and high cheekbones. The eyes, alert and probing, are blue-grey’ (112). Perhaps a less successful motif, because made to bear too much weight, is the phrase ‘something else,’ taken from the suicide note quoted at the beginning (‘If I die it’s not alcohol that killed me, it’s something else’).
The seamless articulation and communication achieved by great poets is in contrast to the broken sentences and choppy exchanges of ordinary life. The communication between father and son was not entirely happy. Are not all elegies born of lack, guilt, dissatisfaction, a nagging sense of things left unsaid? There are no accounts of long philosophical and literary conversation with Egan, the conversations that Bob’s friends enjoyed so much. Rather the son, who is a mathematician and computer wizard, shows the alien cut of his personality as he explains the arcana of science and technology to his fuddy-duddy humanistic dad, who foreswore even the typewriter and wrote this book with a fountain-pen. The suicide note is as alien and as cutting as can be: ‘I have taken the first of three ground up glasses of valium approx 1000 mg and roughly 0,9g of propranolol, also ground up in a pestle and mortar’ (4). Yet as he manfully embraced his son’s alien interests so does he weave an admiring account of them into the fabric of his elegy. What cannot be articulated and communicated in life can expand in posthumous reflection, like the happy visions of the dead son in his dreams. Sculpting the stuff of memory, he parries its cuts with pen-strokes, naming them exactly, but shaping them into beautiful pattern.
The Uses of Autobiography
The theory of autobiography as a literary genre has been much developed in recent decades (see Lejeune). Ireland’s rich autobiographical lode is still poorly explored: George Moore, Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Oliver St John Gogarty, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, and on the Gaelic side An tAthair Peadar O Laoghaire, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Peig Sayers, not to mention Joyce’s autobiographical Bildungsroman and its first draft, Stephen Hero. Moore launched Irish autobiography as high-level literary gossip, and that tradition percolates down to Bob, an heir to Daniel Corkery and Frank O’Connor. As a critic, his approach was biographical in the sense that he never separated the writer from the living man, or woman, always embedded in a precise geographical and historical context. In his memoir he applies all this to Egan and to himself, their story becoming a new chapter in the history of wounded Irish identity that his critical books composed.
Bob embraces the clause of the ‘autobiographical pact’ most emphasized by Rousseau, namely the obligation to tell all. He gives a complete account of his relationship to his son, sparing the reader nothing. One must regret that his autobiographical vein had to await so terrible an occasion. The rare sunny and entertaining pages in this book reveal that he could have written the Hail and Farewell of our time.
Two years after Egan’s death, and a year after completing the first draft of this memoir, his own cancer was diagnosed. He breathes not a word of this in the text, but this silence is itself a shaping presence. Autobiography is a referential genre, fully appreciated when we bring in all our extra-textual knowledge of the author. But it remains a self-shaping, an artistic intervention in giving pattern to one’s own life, rounding off its project. The raw and naked chronicle of emotions and thoughts, prayers and hopes, doubles back on itself to constitute a careful portrait of father and son, each a question to the other, but held together in a deep bond. The transformative work of (auto)biography does not need to lie; it suffices to bring out the essential dignity of a character and destiny, to trace its lineaments amid the messiness of life.
‘Art,’ according to George Moore as quoted by Bob, ‘has no other end but to make life possible, to help us live’ (Changing States, 35); thus to narrate one’s life artfully is not an embalming, but recovers the quick of existence, in an exhilarating augmentation of the adventure, and such is in fact the tonic effect of this memoir. A memoir that makes its subject live for the readers with such intensity, and in which the spirit of the author is so immediately and vibrantly present on every page, is a triumph of humanity and of art. Though shaped by death into a farewell, the book leaves us not with Owen’s mute ‘glimmers of goodbyes,’ or Yeats’s ‘gay goodnight,’ but with tremors of resurrection hope – ‘Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear’ (Newman) –, with ‘the constant blazing renewal of the fire of hope in us, generation after generation, in spite of all’ (7).
Hennig,John. ‘Zu Rilkes Gedicht “Todes-Erfahrung.”’ In: Rüdiger Görner, ed. Rainer Maria Rilke. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987, 227-44.
Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
O’Leary, Joseph S. ‘A Son’s Death.’ The Furrow 64 (2013):200-7.
——. ‘Processing the bitter to a durable, beautiful form.’ The Japan Times, 7 April 2013.
Welch, Robert. Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing. London: Routledge, 1993.
——. The Abbey Theatre 1899-1999: Form and Pressure. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Welch, Robert Anthony. Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2012.
From: Journal of Irish Studies 28 (2013):7-16.