In May, I discussed the poems of R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), an Anglican minister in Wales whose poetry reflected his faith, his Welsh nationalism, and his love for rural life. Taking a short trip across the Irish Sea to Dublin, one finds a contemporary Irish poet who has often been compared To Thomas – Padraig Daly (1943- ).
Daly is an Augustinian priest in the Dublin parish of Ballyhoden. He’s published several poetry collections and translations from poets writing in Irish and the Italian poet Edoardo Sanguineti. In his own poetry, and especially The Last Dreamers: New and Selected Poems, the reader sees the similarities to Thomas, but also sees something that is uniquely Daly’s.
In these poems, Daly is focused on faith and how it is expressed, in the importance of daily life (be it in Ireland or Italy), in rituals, in loving and comforting, in prayer. The poems are wrapped in simplicity, but they are as deep as they are simple. Consider the poem “Errand:”
Carrying his knapsack,
He shuffled out in his boots
To where the stars hung burning.
The winds of space assailed him.
He was a speck
Smaller than a sootflake.
Dejected by vastness,
He wrapped himself in himself,
Hugging his own warmth;
Till the immense God,
Waking from his dream,
Brushed time and distances aside.
Daly paints a picture here, and you think you understand it on the first reading, until you read it again to find the meaning may actually be something different. So who is carrying the knapsack? And what’s in it? Assume it is a man, and the shuffling implies an older man, who moves outside. If he sees the stars, then it must be night. He’s assailed by winds, finds himself a small speck, is dejected, and can o nothing but wrap “himself in himself,” hugging his own inadequate warmth. And then God wakes from a dream, and brushes “time and distances aside.”
Nothing else is said, but that last line implies something profound has happened. God transcends physical reality, and the man carrying the knapsack is changed.
All of the poems in The Last Dreamers are like that – deceivingly simple. A particular favorite is “Prayer:”
We gather at the river’s edge;
One by one in the darkness
We place our flames in the darkness.
We watch them drift,
Out to the unsleeping ocean.
We fear at first that they will sink;
But the water carries them past every hazard
As if it loved them.
It’s a beautiful image to liken prayer to flames, tiny flames in the overwhelming darkness. They are fragile, and they drift almost as if meaningless on the ocean’s surface. But they are carried past the hazards, “as if the water loved them.” And, of course, the water does love them.
The Last Dreamers is a moving, thought- and soul-provoking collection, inviting us to deepen our understanding and faith.