I live in Dublin, Ireland. Sometimes. Most times I live in my head, quite unaware of my surroundings – if you know what I mean… If you succeed in tracking Sean Walsh, please let me know, ok? I've been searching for him for years…
So long ago?.. ‘Seems like yesterday.
Even now I close my eyes and re-live, re-call
the noise, bustle. clamour,
the sights, sounds, aromas,
the stunning coloratura
of Rome in the mid fifties…
Rome. Ah, yes. The Eternal City.
Citadel of Pius the Twelfth, Pontefex Maximus.
Rome of the Latin Ritual and the Strict Observance,
of sanctity and sin, devotion and decadence,
doctrine and dogma, black and white…
a Rome come alive again within a decade of D Day.
And in the midst of noise – quiet, stillness:
the haven of peace that is Saint Isidore’s,
the College of the Irish Franciscans,
on a hill overhanging the Via Veneto,
not all that far from the Spanish steps…
where I was a student for four sheltered years.
Oh, it was good to climb the steps
to the main entrance,
push past the wrought-iron gates
and so to the inner cloister:
the orange trees in the courtyard,
the gentle cadence of the fountains,
swallows on the wing under an azure sky…
A stone stairway led up and up again,
then around to the Library.
Ah, the Library!
So well I remember that heavy,
inescapable aroma of dusty tomes…
old manuscripts… well-thumbed volumes.
And the silence of the tomb.
There one winter evening in the numbing cold,
straddling a ladder,
I chanced upon a thin, hard-backed volume:
the Notebooks of Michael Angelo,
translated into English by I know not who…
I began to taste it, pausing here and there,
and so came upon the Master’s definition of art:
“… the elimination of the superfluous…”
What? How to make sense of this pithy sentence
delivered with all the assurance of a sage:
“art… the elimination of the superfluous…”
I was still mulling over it
when the bell went for “lights-out.”
I couldn’t wait to get to Saint Peter’s!
Oh, I had been there many times before –
but never with such focus, intent.
Once inside this seat of Christendom,
I made my way to the side chapel on the right –
and Michelangelo’s Pieta…
A masterpiece in marble. A stricken Madonna
holding the lifeless, bloodless body of her Son.
And I scrutinised intently this superb classic,
this work of sheer genius, searching for a line,
a contour, an indentation
that might be deemed superfluous –
and found none.
Sixty years ago, give or take. A young student,
still wet behind the ears, was given a Master Class
from beyond the grave – a lesson
that would guide and support him all his life.
But of course!
Get rid of the dross, the baggage.
Cut… delete… eliminate.
Sheer away the fat to get to the fillet.
The lean meat will only be exposed
by a merciless wielding of the scalpel…
I went through life following one path, then another –
preacher, journalist, editor, producer, director, writer,
facilitator of creative writing workshops…
But wherever I went – whatever task came my way –
the dictat of the Maestro was never far
from the surface of my mind:
a pearl of great price, my vade mecum…
Practise what you preach… Indeed.
Now I must go back over this piece
in search of the superfluous,
a finger never far from the Delete key…
grateful that I work at a P C –
and not a mass of marble…
– Sean Walsh.
(I recorded this for txm on RTE 1 radio
as part of a Sunday Miscellany programme, 90-ish)