For most people, the name Brian Coffey doesn’t mean much. I imagine for most Irish people the name might not mean much either. Even if one knows something about literature, Brian Coffey may still not be a very familiar name.
My first introduction to Coffey was in the late 60s. I discovered a translation he did of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard or Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance. At the time, I was going through a French Symbolist-Surrealist phase which has remained with me ever since, but the book remained one of my favorites. The translation was impeccable in both form and substance and that discovery led me to other works: I recall reading a 1975 article by James Mays in the Irish University Review in which Mays wrote, “Anyone who admires Brian Coffey’s poetry is a member of a minority and must be aware of that fact. The knowledge is disquieting because it makes one ask, frequently at first, if one’s standards have dissolved in some strange enthusiasm. Has one’s mind be taken over by a cult or is one being stubborn into sticking to one’s convictions? Such questions trouble me but, on reflection, I cannot find that I have been misled.” That became apparent to me as well. What I didn’t know at the time, but should have, was Coffey’s relationship to Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin and Beckett (a kind of Irish Gang of Four) and what I had no inkling of at the time, was that Coffey would, eventually, be the person responsible for connecting me to Beckett.
Fast forward to 1977. I had completed my master’s degree in Comparative Literature at Indiana and began working on a novel. In between the decision to advance to a doctoral program or decline into the abyss of a writer’s life, I moved to the Monterey Bay area where I continued working on the book while sending out applications to doctoral programs in the U.S. As a flyer, I applied for an International Institute of Education Scholarship to Oxford. As I recall, it was one of those summer semester programs, but I had always wanted to see what the Oxford experience was like, so it was worth the postage. Apparently, the postage worked and I was awarded a scholarship. At the same time, I was accepted into the doctoral program in Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, but since that didn’t begin until the fall, my summer was my own. And so I left for Oxford.
As I recall, I was accepted into Exeter College, off Turl Street, around the corner from the Bodleian. The accommodations were Spartan, but I wasn’t there for the accommodations. I was there for the Oxford experience. I recall I took at least one class with Valentine Cunningham, who was a professor at Corpus Christi College. I think it was a course on Conrad, but that was neither here nor there nor important. What was important was meeting another student who hailed, I think, from Mississippi. For the life of me, I cannot remember his last name, his first was Wellyn I believe, but in the course of our conversations three things became prominent: Django Reinhardt, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett. Wellyn was very fond of Reinhardt and coming from Mississippi it was axiomatic that he’d be fond of Faulkner. It was a bit like coming from Indiana and talking basketball. He talked about them all the time. As I recall, he certainly seemed more interested in Reinhardt and Faulkner than he did in Oxford and, I think, was there for the same reason I was; namely, the Oxford experience.
I can’t remember how Beckett’s name came up. I think it was because I had this preoccupation with his work and imagined what it might be like to meet him. Wellyn listened intently, but volunteered no information until at some point in our acquaintanceship when he felt as if volunteering some information would not be abused, said to me, “You should talk to my father-in-law.” Which prompted the obvious response, “And that would be?” “Brian Coffey.” I guess one could attribute that meeting to serendipity or to some kind of confluence of cosmic coincidences that a decade after discovering Brian Coffey in Bloomington, Indiana, I’d discover his son-in-law in Oxford. Be that as it may, the opportunity to talk with Coffey was one of those things I couldn’t ignore, especially since I reminded myself of the time, as a graduate student, I hadn’t the courage to introduce myself to Borges in an all-but-empty Bloomington café and tell him how much I admired his work. Carpe diem and all that jazz.
Wellyn actually set up a time when I could speak with Coffey on the phone. To say the least, I was frightfully anxious since Coffey was not only a brilliant translator and poet, but a brilliant mind. Perhaps he recognized my trepidation on the phone since he tried to move the conversation to things I might have been interested in. In that regard, he was much like Beckett. I told him how much I admired his work, how I especially delighted in what he did with Mallarmé, and how I’d like to read more about him. He suggested a correspondence and I thought that was a champion idea especially since it took me off the hook in trying to discuss something with someone who was light years beyond my intellect. In the end, I asked the question I had to ask and that was if he thought there was a way I might be able to meet Beckett sometime in the future (the future being 1980). To that question he merely said something to the effect that he’d send me his [Beckett’s] address and told me to use his name. Needless to say, I was moved and deeply appreciative and, in fact, it was because of Coffey’s graciousness that I eventually met Beckett.