Jun 132017
 

Jane Clarke

 

Promise

After the talk with the palliative nurse
over cups of tea in the kitchen, my mother
tells me she’s already asked my father

to promise he’ll make it through the winter –
it’ll be sixty years in April, Charlie.
Sixty years since she walked down the aisle

in her dress of pristine lace, beaded bodice
and tiny satin-covered buttons at the nape,
a full skirt of tulle falling from her waist

to red and black tiles. Ballymoe Church
is tumbling now, stone by stone,
beneath the weight of brambles, ivy, ash.

I was eager and silly as a suck calf, she laughs,
as she readies his tablets, a whiff of silage
rising from the coats drying by the stove.

 

When he falls asleep

at the kitchen table and drops
another cup, my mother bends
without a word, sweeps up

the broken pieces in her hands,
looking out for shards in case
he wanders bare foot in the night.

 

Planting Trees

Dad taught us that paper
comes from trees and the word for book

comes from beech. He showed us
the olive-grey bark, smooth as river rocks,

how to tell the light hues of young wood
from the gloom of the old

and how to count the rings – starting
at the centre, working out towards the edge.

He’s unable to move from his bed,
but when we ask about the row of beech

beside the bridge, he’s clear as a bell,
my father’s father’s father planted them,

a shelter-belt for a nursery, when the British
were giving grants for planting trees.

Tomorrow, I’ll get dressed,
we’ll go down to see them again.

 

I’ve got you

Through days of morphine,
tidbits to tempt his appetite,
there’s nowhere else to be,

I hold his teacup to his lips,
wash his face and the hands
I rarely touched.

During the night old hurts
and worries surface
like stones in a well-tilled field.

What time is it now? he asks
on the hour. He sings to himself
and murmurs lines he learned

as a child, ‘All we, like sheep
have gone astray, we have turned
everyone to his own way’.

When he asks to get up,
I hold his wrists,
brace my weight against his.

For a moment he’s confused –
it’s ok Janey, I’ve got you,
go on now, you can stand.

 

Respects

From Roosky, Creemully, Louglyn,
Kiltoom, Kilbegnet, Moyliss,
Brideswell, Lecarrow, Creggs,
Athleague, Ballinleg, Carrowkeel,
they came to pay their respects.

They shook hands with us,
stood by his body and bowed
their heads. Cattle men,
sheep men, carpenters, teachers,
foresters, nurses,

mart managers, vets;
they said prayers, laid their hands
on his chest and blessed
themselves, then filled the kitchen
with the man they knew,

a grand man altogether,
always out early, a hardy hoor,
a good judge of a bullock,
fierce man to work, a man of his word,
he had woeful hands.

I slipped out for a while to see
the flawless orange globe
hung low over the Common
and a flock of whooper swans
feasting on the last of the winter grass.

 

Dunamon

i.m. Charlie Clarke

They dig slower as they go deeper,
taking turns to heave shovels of clay,

throwing bigger stones and rocks
up into the tractor box.

Son, grandson, nephew, neighbours,
they’ve already gone down five feet,

when they lay their tools aside,
drink tea, light up for a smoke

and agree they couldn’t have
a better day for digging a grave –

not a cloud to be seen,
sunshine melting last night’s frost,

and, from the woods behind them,
a chaffinch singing his heart out.

—Jane Clarke

x
Jane Clarke’s first collection, The River, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015. Originally from a farm in Roscommon, Jane now lives near Glenmalure, County Wicklow. In 2016 she won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award and the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry. She was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature 2016 Ondaatje Literary Award. www.janeclarkepoetry.ie

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May 132017
 

Denise Blake

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The Beaching

The pod of whales beached themselves on Rutland Island,
chose the isolated sweep of the Back Strand to come ashore.
My grandmother in her final years would have understood.

Those long-finned pilot whales suffered some trauma,
became distressed and confused. And so for her that winter
when told her grownup daughter had died suddenly.

Three years later, hearing that her eldest had also
passed on threw something within her off-kilter.
Sent her mind homing towards the Back Strand.

The whales had wandered together, over thirty of them,
swam through Scottish waters to the Sound of Arranmore,
heading towards the crescent of shoreline and their ending.

She would have understood, the Rutland-born woman
who had long left the island but yearned for that place; called
for it constantly, rose from her sickbed in the middle of the night.

I need to go now. They will be waiting; it will soon be low tide.
She wanted to journey, follow those already gone,
float ashore, let grief beach her there on the Back Strand.

x
Circus Days

You don’t have to run away to join,
it comes to you around their thirteenth year.
You hadn’t even noticed they were in-training
until you sense excitement,
strong as fumes, building up in your home.

Music gets louder, nights and mornings confused,
every room is taken over as the friends, arriving
in single file, increases to friends of friends
to claim every available seat, even yours.

The circus builds around one son, then the next
and the next until soon, three rings are running
full flow. You try to become the ringmaster,
the one in control, while you collect tickets at the door,
take further bookings, supervise training, do the laundry,
provide meals for the performers, refreshments
for the audience, try to watch all that is happening.

And just as you notice that one son is putting his head
into the lion’s mouth, the other is walking a tightrope
without a net, you look over to the furthest ring
at the clown juggling madly. He makes the slightest
gesture, out of sync with his act, and your heart stops.

His show has become the riskiest. He is juggling
frantically, the big smile really is painted on,
his hands are shaking and he is about to drop
everything, as those who you thought were his friends
are not laughing but jeering. You clear the ring,
silence the noise, take him into your arms and hope
that he will begin to talk, tell you what is wrong.

You watch when he starts to go back to his ring,
lifts a club, two clubs, four, until he is juggling well again.
While in the distance, his brothers are starting to pack up.
The show goes on until the troops move to another city.
Your house has become calm, you miss the circus days.

x
Mother Goddess

Demeter: mother of Persephone, goddess of the harvest
and the cycles of life. The Universal mother whose daughter
went missing, who did not drink, eat or bathe until she found her.
Mother of grain and crop, the bountiful gift, blessings on
those who looked after her own. The curse of unquenchable
hunger on those who brought harm to the ones she had borne.
Mistress of the home, producer of life, she sent her cubs
through a darkened cave into immortality and a blessed afterlife.

As it was with her, it was with my grandmothers and my mother.
Good mother, blessed mother, working mother, fairy godmother.
Guardian angels; tooth fairy, baker of birthday cakes, lovelorn healer,
soother of hot fevers, stitcher of torn hems, night-time story teller
who taught us how to walk, talk, sing, dance, cry a river and then smile.
Mother Nature full of fresh berries, wild roadside flowers, lilac
filled fields. A lioness, black bear, white vulture, all-present mother.
Watch over my clan, watch over their future, watch over their care.

The Goddess mothers: Anu, Gaia, Toci , Rhea, Durga, my own;
a Cailleach and Bríghde, Glinda the good witch, moody woman, crazy
kitchen-dancer. Mommy, Mummy, Mum, Ma, Granny, a Mháthair.
Creator of cycles, unconditional love and hurricanes. The core of peace.

Give me guidance, nourishment and strength. Help me to hold on
and let go, be present and absent, wise and foolish, the past and future.
Help me to be the mother my own sons need, the person they will cherish,
and the woman who will warm a hollowed soul in those who need a mother.

x
The Dream Turns

Everyone sees what happens on the front porch,
we were lucky to have a swing-set in the back yard.
I was going to be a ballerina, until I saw how much
practice it took be left standing on my tippy toes.

Holy smokes Batman. My mother saw me belly-flop
off the high diving board. She was stuck behind the fence.
There were birthday parties on picnic tables in the park,
lightning bugs and fireworks on the fourth of July.
The Yellow Submarine was just one long cartoon.

I was thrilled when Oswald was shot. Hated LBJ, Nixon.
How could they ever trump that? They should have seen
when the Cuyahoga River went on fire,
that pollution takes a long time to implode.
How are things in Glocca Mora, will you go lassie go?
We used to throw the cat down the stairs, to prove he would
land on all fours. We wondered why he turned vicious.

x
Aboard

Wave-beaten pier, a leap into the craft, lap of sound against the boat,
gurgle of bilge pump, life jackets, life saver, the punt propelled in motion,
surge of cloud on sea-blue heavens, rudders through the harbour, thrash

of buoys, tangle of ropes, crush and curl, swell of turning white waves
washing back to the Port. The growing roll of engine denotes
a journey has begun, anchors long lifted, our spirits buoyant, emotion

crests with the plunge and surge, waves of wind. Grey seagulls splash
into bottle-green depths, rise above the stern, fly overhead and behave
as victors, irritate the vanquished with shrill calls from sea-scorched throats.

The ferry passes. Dorys slop, splash, roll and fall in our southwesterly vision.
Sweep of air, taste of salt, tinge of marine, flounder of foam. Wave-wash
lifts the hull, turn of spring tide, sink to low tide as seafarers brave
gales: small craft warning Sea area Erris Head to Carlingford Lough.

Oar, tiller, winch and moulding, bulkhead, portside, aft and mooring.
Crab nets, lobster pots, leap of dolphins, slink of seals, diving oystercatchers,
mackerel, herring, hook and sinker. A cuckoo calls. Light abounds as we follow
the coastline, the full flow of seawater in our blood, head to the open ocean.

x
Seaweed and Rotten Potatoes

This ridged inlet of shale and rock facing the Atlantic
contains a cruel, cragged beauty and a fierce knowledge.
Its history holds a summer’s day when a white fog stole
up the sides of these cliffs, over the hills, in a cold trail
that left a black blight in its wake and a terrible odour.
A bank of shingle covers the coastline and my boots shift
as I try to walk along the shore. I can’t hold my balance.
I think of that question, why did they not eat fish?
Some whose lineage survived still question their resilience.
But boats were stripped to bare bones and pawned off.
Makeshift fishing gear was sold for bags of meal.
Fragile currachs smashed off the savage shoreline.
Fish rotted putrid if left sitting out for any length.
Men rowing home drowned in sudden squalls
and when the ocean stilled, what remained was silence.
Others who edged along the sheer cliff-face searching
for black tar lichen and kelp trails met brute-force waves.
So they came to this beach in their droves. Whole families
climbed steep rocks, barefooted through jagged shingle,
searching for limpets, periwinkles and seaweed,
scraped out what minuscule nourishment could be found
inside a small shell and ate it raw. They fed from barnacles
and salt-soaked bladderwrack straight from the shore.
They scavenged until the limpets and bárnachs
were depleted, until the bare stones could give no more.

—Denise Blake

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Denise Blake’s collections, Take a Deep Breath and How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, are published by Summer Palace Press. She is a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1. Her poems have been published in many poetry journals. Denise facilitates creative writing in schools and with adult groups.

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Apr 102017
 

Afric McGlinchey 500px

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I, a travelling country of windows

All the bony roads,
spokes shaking off a mouthful
of sleet, and you
further forward than me, or inward perhaps
– a heaped bush – stop.
Fleeting shock of silence;
and then the rattling again,
struggling past the cages. Say one lunges
from above, tipping its point
like a Damocles sword – dare I?
I know what is in that box
stiffly packaged in white canvas
– the first of the seven sorrows –
this, then the next to come tumbling
will be – no, let’s
travel back, round the coastline up north
where the mattress groaned under
our bouncing feet and feathers flew
from the bolsters – wait!
Was that the creak of a door, pink
glow of the landing wallpaper?
He’s here! And fast as the smallest
laughing fury, we’re under the sheets:
one on the floor, pretend-sleeping
the silence intense as the thickness
of snow set across pillows
and pillows of fields.

.

Cha
after All my Friends,
an electronic composition by Edan Ray

Laugh! I nearly ran to the riptide
confluence where stories
are peripheral, and simply water
works. Only you know
the notion of it. Only you keep me
laughing. Only you rush
into the pedal of the music
or crossover
silence that smacks
up against wayward torques
squeaking liquid and you and you
and you, my friends, run backwards, slow
motion as the ocean. Shhh…
or bass it. Strobe-light-fix
each gesture in distortion,
loose-wristed, star-fired, brainless
with excitement. Cha.

.

Nine ways to identify an alley cat

l
Her lashes are upstart
ravens’ nests;
serrated shadows.

ll
Her coquettish circling
is accompanied by a throaty,
insistent growl.

lll
She sets a flat rock
with found risks,
until others hanker too.

IV
She cadges guts
from harassed butchers,
then lays them in the dirt.

V
She almost always
escapes the bolt.

VI
Yes, she’s scratched, but still,
quickens with the music.

VII
She rattles
in a crowded corner.

VIII
Her hooping, toppling,
wounded movement’s like the lick
of a failing candle.

IX
Her thought-ghost proves
that death’s mutation’s
merely a ruse.

.

Faith is the thing with feathers

Beneath the vaulting,
the elderly, deeply-kneeling

and kyphotic,
rock like a pendulum.

In each radiating chapel, a candle
forest is offered up to souls.

The choir’s complex
harmonics echo across pews.

Incense is a series
of hovering exhalations,

visible as umbrellas
in the narthex.

Prayers flutter, three
hundred breaths a minute.

Lungs, rain-licked,
hum white; each tongue

an edelweiss. Leadlight
vignettes glitter

in the clerestory: an angel’s
wing-lashed fire,

in twenty-one-gram
refractions, holding all this.

.

End of the blessing

To me you were the heart’s X
against my Guernica wall,
drowning out calamity.

I was addicted to your trip trap
words, lush as ferns,
all the way to fractal.

And the tandoor of my body grew
wide awake; tongue, a fire
racing through the field.

You seduced my mind,
till it was perpetually
undressed.

What’s left inside me, now
you’ve drifted off,
taking all the alleluias?

.

Montage

The old philosopher is sharp as ice in winter,
fracturing all the wicked weights,

the resonance of his voice, lacerating
so-called safe spaces,

until they are ripped and sewn again,
upright as trees.

His words are gateways to the sublime,
conflating human agency

with the natural order, the body
of shared memory with the vanished sign.

There should be flowers, he tells us
in a clear-cut voice, simple as ink.

Every night, his teachings turn to the blue
laws, or stallions

or the book of hours. Come dawn,
he reaches the double zero

in a landscape of confession – luminous
and ferocious, divine and apocalyptic,

inviting invocation and resistance
to those overpouring

toward war – that avenue
lined with little lamps of snow.

—Afric McGlinchey

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Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland. She grew up in Southern Africa, moving frequently between countries, and received degrees from Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town. She has also lived in London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. She returned to Ireland in 1999 and currently lives in West Cork. Her début collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, published by Salmon Poetry in 2012, was translated into Italian and published by L’Arcoloaio. Among other awards and honours, in 2011 she won the Hennessy Poetry Award, and in 2012 she was nominated for a Pushcart prize, commended in the Magma and shortlisted in the Bridport competitions. In 2015, she won the Poets Meet Politics prize and was awarded an Arts bursary to complete her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry), which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2016. Runner up in the 2014 Sabotage Awards for best reviewer, she is also an editor. www.africmcglinchey.com

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Mar 012017
 

Amanda Bell

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When my grandparents retired they built a house in Mayo. It was tucked into the purple-veined crook of Lurgan’s elbow, gazing down over Lough Conn, with Nephin Beg rising up to the left – its mist-swathed summit a reasonably accurate gauge of the weather sweeping down towards the lake. If the top third of the mountain was hidden in cloud or mist it was a sure sign of good weather. ‘Good’ weather was showery and overcast, with a stiff but not too strong breeze – perfect fishing weather. Bad weather, on the other hand, was hot, still and sunny, peachy-scented with blossom, the air full of the sound of grasshoppers scraping and the sporadic popping of dry sun-ripened gorse pods spitting their black seeds outwards in ever-increasing circles. On bad weather days even the dogs were too hot to go rabbit hunting, instead throwing themselves down in exhausted hairy heaps in the shade of the porch with their pink tongues melting in coils beside them.

1. Nephin MountainNephin mountain 

‘Try and make those stupid dogs drink’, my grandmother would say. ‘They’ll get dehydrated’, and I would sprinkle drops of water onto their tongues for a while, watching their sides heave and their tails wag languorously. Because bad weather days were good for nothing else they were usually designated work days – days for brambling in the herb bed where my grandmother grew parsley and dill, cutting wood to thin the surrounding hedgerows, stripping and painting boats, or raking the gravel around the house. Such days usually ended in a barbecue. When evening fell we would congregate at the back of the house, sit on seats made out of old wine casks, and boast about our aching muscles, smearing ourselves with midge-repellent, and my grandfather, in his blue and white striped apron, would cook the dinner. Usually he barbequed steak, which he served with mushroom sauce – ‘grandpa’s special’. The recipe was a secret and only I, his pet lamb, was allowed to accompany him to the kitchen and watch while he sliced little piles of mushrooms, turned them in buttery meat juices in a pan, scraped the bottom with some brandy, and added a stream of cream and some white wine; other times he cooked fish, pink trout wrapped in tin foil. Mine would always be opened for me, the firm flesh peeled away from the bones and the steaming slippery skins thrown out onto the grass for the dogs.

Amanda Bell and daughter near summit of Mount Nephin_1Amanda Bell and daughter near the summit of Mount Nephin

One bad weather day, tired of brambling and of splashing water onto the dogs, I decided to help my grandfather, who was building a boat-house. This boat-house was to be built half-way up the lane, and would have a lean-to shed at the side for stacked logs and turf. I had watched my grandfather drawing the plans for it himself. Now he was working on the foundations, and would have to go down to the boat bay. The boat bay was where we kept our two boats – the blue one and the orange one. The women preferred the orange one because they could see it easily through the window with binoculars, and know when to put the dinner on. The men preferred the blue one because the fish couldn’t see it from the bottom of the lake, and so they caught more.

The boat bay was fringed with hazel scrub and thorn trees, and purple loosestrife and blue scabious grew in the coarse yellow sand. It was a very good place to catch grasshoppers and daddy-long-legs for dapping, and because I was small and moved quietly I was the champion hopper-catcher.

‘Mummy’, I called, running to where she lay reading in a deck chair, ‘I’m going down to the boat bay with grandpa, can I wear my yellow dress?’ The dress had been a present from my brother when he came home from the hospital, a thank you for letting him be born and an apology for distracting my parents’ full attention from me. It had a flared skirt and the bodice was ruched with elastic cross-stitches and dotted with tiny rosebuds of pink and green cotton. For a second the thought of washing the dress yet again flickered in her eyes, but Dr Spock’s advice about not alienating your first-born won out and she came into the house with me, leaving her book spread-eagled on the dusty canvas of the striped deck chair. I wriggled as she pulled the dress over my head, blinked while she caught my hair back in a slide to keep it out of my eyes. Then I tore up the drive, gravel shooting up from beneath my feet, shouting ‘I’m ready now, let’s go.’

Author 1971-72 doorway 480pxAuthor 1971 or 1972 

My grandfather opened the car door and I climbed in gingerly, careful not to let the sun-heated leather car seats burn my thighs or crease my skirt. I loved sitting in the front of the car – they never let me do it at home, only on holidays, because everyone drove slowly and there were no other cars around, only old tractors, rusty red with no safety frames. When we arrived at the boat bay I did a tour to see if I could find any dragonflies, then came back to supervise my grandfather as he threw shovelfuls of sand into the trailer, stopping occasionally to light a Players from the butt of its predecessor. My grandfather even smoked in his sleep. His pillowcases were patterned with brown-rimmed holes from the occasions when he’d failed to wake up in time to take the narrow pillars of ash from his lips and extinguish them in the scorch-marked scallop-shell on his bedside table. My grandmother had long since moved into a separate bedroom for fear of being set on fire. This year, I was allowed to share my grandfather’s bedroom because the baby was in with my parents. I loved it. We stayed awake late to listen to the long-range weather forecast and I watched him blow slow, looping smoke-rings towards the ceiling without taking his eyes off his book. He was a better smoker than my uncles, and his hands were yellower. I preferred cigarettes to cigars, or the cheroots my father smoked.

The author Pontoon 1972The author at Pontoon, 1972

They made his breath sour when he kissed you good night, and in the car it made you sick – worse than reading. My grandfather always asked about what you were reading. Our beds stretched out side by side with the bedside locker and his scallop-shell in between. I went to bed before him, because the grown-ups stayed up after dinner to play bridge, but I always stayed awake waiting for him. To undress he sat on the side of the bed furthest from me, his back turned, and slipped off his trousers and long white drawers while still seated, then pulled on his baggy pyjamas and buttoned them up before turning around and getting under the covers. The blankets smelt musty sometimes, if it had been cold and the radiators weren’t on, but in summer they were fine. I lay in my bed just like he did, with my book leaning on my thighs, and concentrated very hard on watching him smoke. I loved to watch the ash slowly lengthening and bending in his lips, waiting until it was just about to fall. ‘Grandad’ I’d whisper, thinking he was asleep. Then his eyes would snap open, watery blue without his glasses, and he’d take the butt between finger and thumb and lower it to the shell. An inch of ash usually fell on the carpet. ‘Just having a little think,’ he’d murmur, ‘not asleep yet. Good night pet lamb.’ Then he’d turn off the bedside light and we’d go to sleep.

Author's grandfather and brother collecting turfAuthor’s grandfather and brother collecting turf

When the trailer was fully loaded and the sand slid in tiny streams over its edges we got back into the car and drove back onto the road and up the lane towards the house. ‘Let me out here – I’ll race you.’ The hot leather scorched my legs as I slipped down and out the door. The lane was planted with tiny gorse bushes to either side, which my grandmother had transplanted from big thickets in the field – they were small enough to jump over. The blossoms smelt like peaches but they were too thickly surrounded by prickles to pick, unless you had gardening gloves and secateurs anyway. My mother said that we were lucky to have orchids in the field, but we mustn’t pick them because it took four years for them to flower again. I skipped along beside the car, hopping in and out of the field, singing to myself ‘red and yellow and pink and green…’ I leapt high into the air with each word to see my skirt balloon out around me as I descended, jumping higher each time to see how full I could make it spread. I could see my father’s bare back over the hedge where was sawing planks for the boat-house. It was shiny with sweat. In the car my grandfather had begun to gain on me now – even the trailer was ahead. I stopped my leaping and ran as fast as I could, till I was even with the end of the car, overtook it, strained to run faster still, then my shoe hit a stone and I fell headlong over the tow bar. The lane was bouncing up towards my face – baked clay to either side, clover in the middle, sheets of dried and flattened cow dung matting blades of grass together.

The author and her brother_1The author and her brother

I hung on tightly – my ribs crushed against the bar. I heard my father roar, then the car stopped and everyone came running, their sun-pink flesh bouncing, their mouths big black Os. I felt my grandfather catch me under the armpits and lift me off the bar but without looking at him I broke away and ran, over the gorse bushes, around the cattle-grid, and into the house. The tangle of dogs in the porch scattered, yelping in surprise, as I ran through them, down the corridor, not into our bedroom but into my parents’ room. I slammed the door behind me and crawled in under the cot with my eyes closed and my heart racing until I heard voices in the corridor. They murmured for a while, then the door opened and my father came into the room, eased me out from under the cot, lifted me up, and held me gently against his shiny shoulder. The hairs on his chest were matted with sweat and the cheroot smoke smell was hardly noticeable. He sat down on the bed and rocked me for a while, then took off my hair slide, which hung loosely near the end of a strand of hair, smoothed my hair behind my ear and replaced the slide. Then he asked me to come with him and apologise to my grandfather for frightening him. But I was the one who was frightened, so frightened that I didn’t want to see anyone, just stay in the bedroom until bedtime and then it would be tomorrow and it would be a good weather day and the men would go fishing and I’d stay in and watch the rain patterns on the window and do jigsaws with my mother, or we’d put on wellies and go out looking for flowers to pick, or maybe collect some eggs from the neighbour in my little blue bucket, and everything would be the way it always was.

4. Mayo roadMayo Road

But no, I had to go to the living room, because my grandfather was very, very upset, and I had to say sorry, so he’d know that I was alright.

We went to the living room hand-in-hand. My grandfather was in his chair by the fire – it was a tall-backed easy chair with a badly strung seat, and a little tray with spring-fasteners attached to the arm for balancing glasses and ashtrays. The fire wasn’t lit because it was bad weather. My mother smiled at me from across the room – she was pouring him a gin and tonic. My father pushed me gently forward and I climbed onto my grandfather’s knee, mumbling a barely audible apology with my chin down on my chest. I could see the rusty mark the tow-bar had left across the middle of my yellow dress. ‘There there pet lamb, that’s alright now,’ he said. But his blue eyes were looking out the window towards the lake, and that night in bed he kept them open while he thought, and he listened to the radio way after I’d fallen asleep, tipping his ash on the scallop shell.

—Amanda Bell

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Amanda Bell’s collection Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haiku and haibun, was published by Alba Publishing in 2016. Her illustrated children’s book, The Lost Library Book, will be published this spring by The Onslaught Press, and a debut poetry collection, First the Feathers, is forthcoming from Doire Press. She is the editor of The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work: An Anthology of Poetry by the Hibernian Writers (Alba Publishing, 2015) and Maurice Craig: Photographs (Lilliput, 2011). Amanda is currently completing a middle-grade econovel. She works as a freelance editor and indexer. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie/publications/

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Feb 092017
 

Billy Mills

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It’s a pleasure and honour to present these lines of verse from the Irish poet Billy Mills. This is the second section from Four, a work-in-progress, a seasonal poem with elements of the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, the four dimensions and the Pythagorean tetractys — a mysterious triangular figure made up of four rows of dots increasing from one at the top to four at the bottom (all sorts of marvelous hermetic and mathematical wisdom attached thereto).

CaptureImage via Digital Ambler

As Four follows the old Irish year, this is the spring section. Four is a collaboration with the composer David Bremner, who will set the complete cycle for soprano and instruments. To give you an idea of how such a collaboration works, here is video excerpt from an earlier Mills-Bremner piece, Logical Fallacies. The performers are Andreea Banciu (viola) and Elizabeth Hilliard (soprano).

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§

one small bird
whose note’s heard
sharply pointed
………….yellowbill

whose notes fly
on Loch Laig
blackbird’s branch
…………..yellowfilled

.…..

  ……..  *

the buds signal
& sugars rise
plane of each leaf
opens slowly

unfolding its curved
surface to air
& dawn
ever earlier

& vivid with
life erupting
listen: it is
sun on the grass

crisp & flat
‘with all her hues’
that moment between
shower & shower

when nothing happens
but life itself
stirring the green
this sudden spring

sap flows
answer ascending
ask what it is
light eases through

the surface of things
as they awaken
as they arise
imperceptible heat

not heat but not
its absence
a softening
slowly thawing

earth.. water.. air
of which it is
the time not yet
the third is this

new surface stirring
tentative & alive
a mould supports
air’s burden

which is one
& many streams
converge the oak
draws in

that which it needs
is what it will
an aura defined
by light embodied

this morning low
glow cloud around
the far plane
glimmers everything

breathes again
blackbird sings
high in the trees
each to its

other catch then
now wind from
the east chills
incipient life

itself becomes
& is contra-
distinction skim
the skin of things

stretched fine
& breathing light
suffused flat just
as day breaks again

face it feel
the grain of air
refract the early
beam of life

ascending spring
it is now
softly smooth
it spreads itself

pushing through
earth’s meniscus
breaking green
the vivid air

—Billy Mills

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Billy Mills was born in Dublin in 1954. He has lived and worked in Spain and the UK, and is now living in Limerick. He’s the founder and co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed poetry and the Journal. His books include Lares/Manes: Collected Poems (Shearsman, 2009), Imaginary Gardens (hardPressed poetry, 2012), Loop Walks (with David Bremner) (hardPressed poetry, 2013), and from Pensato (Smithereens Press e-book, 2013).

Since 2007, Billy Mills been a regular contributor to the books section of The Guardian website, including the popular Poster Poems series http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/billymills. He blogs at https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/.

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Jan 022017
 

Author photo by Robbie Fry

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In the evenings, the prostitutes hang out along the canal. At that time, there weren’t any exotic creatures from Central Europe or Africa, so picture the indigenous variety instead. White girls dressed in short skirts and heels. Hair bleached or permed, faces painted just that little too much.

Picture Susie. She leans forward, weight balanced on her toes. Legs thrust up to her ass which in turn thrusts back, creating a firm shelf of arse that mimics African girls’ booty. Her back is as rigid as a tabletop. Her head curves round to transact with the man in the car. One hand on the car door, the other on her hip, fingers splayed inwards, bringing attention to the product; the means of reproduction.

.

Too much kohl. A shower after every sale.

.

‘Isn’t she sore from the scrubbing?’ said Dave. Not getting it, I almost asked him to repeat it. And maybe he wanted me to. Except—

Unh, I said instead, a second too late. Stared out the window, feeling my face burn.

She’d come and gone five times in two hours. Five times the sound of running water, the door slamming. Each time it slammed, there’d been an echo ten minutes later. ‘See,’ said Dave. Patient, as if explaining to a child. ‘First slam – guy leaves. Second slam, it’s her, going back to the job.’ Through the top-floor window at the back of the house, we watched her. Just the two of us, me and Dave. Matt was out working his Burgerking shift; wouldn’t be back till two. Dave had binoculars. He’d laughed when he’d realised he could follow Susie all the way to her spot.

‘Fuck,’ he’d said. ‘We’re living with a prossie.’

I hadn’t believed him, so he handed me the binoculars. I saw her white jacket bobbing between the tired green leaves of the trees. Her skirt was a darkish colour. Short. Flesh-coloured tights, not black opaques like the girls in college. Stilettos.

I’d bumped into her earlier, on her way out. She’d looked like a secretary making ready for a night of fun. Except that the skirt was just that bit too high.

How much is too much? A finger’s width? The span of a hand, seven inches above the knee? Is that much always too much?

.

It was a beautiful September evening. We stayed at the open window. Cracked open some beers, talked about football.
Slam.

‘Ssh,’ said Dave. His hand tapping my leg, involuntary almost, the way you’d still an animal. ‘That’s six. Jesus.’

The shower, again.

Then, a little while later, the washing machine, down in the basement.

‘Sheets,’ I said.

Dave glanced at me.

I felt uncomfortable. ‘Think about it.’

He kept looking at me, let his face change slowly, from fake-puzzled to mask of disgust.

Later, we heard music drift up from her flat.

Keyboard, schmaltzy as a game-show theme tune. Dave started to sing along. Nights in White Satin.

I got the giggles, then he did too. The lady of the night playing music. Not, like a geisha, for her clients. Just for herself. And the snake, of course.

.

The house was in a long Georgian terrace in Ranelagh. Its windows were on an east-west axis. Dave, Matt and I had the whole top floor, so we got light all day long. Susie was on hall level; one room, at the back. By afternoon, the sun would shift its weight round to the front, throwing the house’s silhouette over itself. I imagine Susie sleeping in on those autumn mornings we got up early to cycle over to Belfield. I see her clinging to the fresh smell of her laundered sheets and waking, eventually, to shadows. Padding to the window, peeking out through the curtain, at the weeds and rhododendron in the overgrown back garden.

I never thought of her then, in that way, from the inside. But now—

How did her days pass for her? Was she busy? Did time flow or drag? What did she do, those shortening afternoons before the night’s work started?

Her snake coils in its cage and watches. I see its eyes, yellow glints in the darkness.

I can’t remember who started the fabrications. Matt, maybe. ‘A hooker? No! How do ye know, lads?’ A question, triggering

responses, leading to a riff, exploding out into a story. There was a guy who came to the door in the daytime, during her non-working hours. Her boyfriend, I suggested. The others scoffed. ‘You dick,’ said Matt. ‘No self-respecting lad would have a hoor as his bird.’

‘Actually, Matthew,’ said Dave, doing one of his about-takes. ‘You’re the dick. All that expertise. Who wouldn’t want a free sample of that?’

There was another day-time guy, thin and sleazy, blouson jacket, Brazilian strip of a moustache. Dave reckoned he was her pimp. And then there was the kid, but only on the weekends. Sweet-looking. He wore glasses. I thought he was around eight. Dave reckoned older. ‘Undernourished. Because he’s a knacker.’ A sly sidelong at Matt, who came from a working-class family. Matt took a long toke, spoke through the spliff-smoke, exaggerating his Limerick whine.

‘Technically, David, you’re not insulting me there. Knacker’s only for Dublin scumbags.’

Dave came up with the first name. The son’s. Dylan. Matt named the ex. Pat. Pah, he said, dropping the t the way they did in Dublin. Steo, the pimp, was my contribution. Dave started laughing.

‘Oh, that’s good. That’s dirty.’

‘Steeeeo,’ I said, emboldened, making my mouth mean and long, flattening the word. Matt laughed too.

‘Who do ye think he lives with?’ I said later. ‘Dylan. The kid?’.

But they were already talking about the match that afternoon, losing interest.

.

Her flat was immaculate. We’d get a glimpse of it sometimes on our way up the stairs, or if we were passing to go out to the back to the miserable garden. I imagine her now, scouring the bachelor fittings in the lean-to kitchen, rubbing Jif along the ancient draining board until her hands stung. Spraying Pledge on the shelves, plumping up her cushions from All Homes, arranging them prettily on the bed. Polishing his cage, rubbing the bars until they shone.

His name I knew, though I didn’t tell the lads. She’d shared it with me the week after we’d moved in. I’d been passing, saw her standing at her window, looking out, the python wound around her body like a weight-lifter’s belt.

‘Oh.’ She turned, catching me. Her face was soft and pale. Brown eyes, longish lashes. No make-up. Her mouth small, delicate, the colour of a winter rose, fading.

‘Hi,’ I said. A blurt. My hand stuck itself out, like I was playing bank manager.

She looked down at it, my silly hand. Looked up. Her gaze seemed bored, unreadable. ‘You’re one of the students.’ The snake shifted, raised its head. Its tongue appeared.

‘This is Kaa,’ she said, stroking his scales.

I must have blinked, surprised she had the same references I did.

Her head tilted. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, like it was a question, or challenge. ‘He’s the real king of the jungle.’

Trust in me. Just in me.

.

Ugly wallpaper. A green floral motif; hard and embossed, like a skin disease. A dull no-colour carpet, the type country landlords used because it didn’t show the dirt. She’d added touches. Three Anne Geddes posters; dimpled four-year old Californians sucking on lollipops, hugging teddies. They bother me now, those images. Did she choose them to throw the landlord off the scent, to make the place not look like what it was? Or for her own sake, to make her feel innocent again, or remind her of her son? Were they for her boy, when he came to visit? Or were they part of her shtick, a deliberate choice – along with the prim secretary get-up and the pale, featureless face – a sop to the men who fucked her there, that really, what they were doing to her and what she was letting them do was okay?

Maybe she got them to make the men feel bad, like when they were fucking her, they were fucking innocence too.

Maybe she just wanted herself to feel bad.

‘Nice,’ I said, nodding at them, that evening she introduced me to Kaa.

All the time backing out, arse first, like a toady at a Renaissance court.

Her window was long and dusty. Floor-length velvet curtains either side. Dark red, starkly vaginal. Knocking Shop 101.

Those were the words I used when I described them to Dave. He didn’t react. He seemed preoccupied. I felt myself panic.

‘Do you think she bought them?’ I said. ‘You know, like a thing? Like the snake? Or the posters—’

‘What posters?’ said Dave.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘You know…’

Dave shrugged. ‘No idea. Ask Matt.’

But Matt wasn’t there. He was staying out again, with the girl he’d met from the College of Commerce, the one who had a bedsit off Camden Street.

‘Or maybe.’ Dave had about-faced again. Was looking at me, suddenly alert. ‘They were Steo’s idea.’

‘The posters?’

‘What posters? The curtains.’

My mouth opened itself. ‘Yeaaaahhh.’ There I was, doing Steo’s voice again. ‘Steeeeo, branding mastermind. Knocking Shop 101.’

Dave laughed, like he hadn’t the first time I’d said it, and I did it again, and we riffed then, about asking the powers-that-be at UCD to bring Steo in as a guest tutor on the marvels of the marketing mix.

‘I bet you he’s given her a name,’ said Dave. That slightly hyper look in his eyes. ‘Suzanna. Her real name is—’

‘Susan.’

‘Yeah. But—’

‘Clients don’t want a Suuusan.’ I was doing Steo again. ‘Suuusan’s their mot’s name. They want something exotic—’

‘Something with a Z,’ said Dave, in a Steo’s voice that under the Belfast, was way more dangerous than mine. We stopped and looked at each other, and because there was nothing else to do, we laughed, though it had an odd, uneasy sound to it as it came out of our mouths.

.

I wonder. Was she ever renamed, the real Susie? Suzanna for work, Suzanna with a Z, the one spied on by the elders?

Would she have liked that name, or been upset by it? Felt like it took something away from her, scraped away at a piece of her soul, made whatever she had left less hers, more theirs, the men’s; his, the pimp’s, the one we called Steo? I find myself asking her these questions. I find myself imagining a friend for her, like an Imelda, from Cork, who will answer them. I picture them together outside office hours, two young women sitting on a park bench on a Saturday afternoon sharing a fag. They are discussing the Z. Imelda tells Susie not to argue with Steo about it. Yerra, girl, he’ll only do something on ya.

i.e., Glass or cut her.

Or maybe Susie was okay with it. Felt the Z gave her something. Protection. Yeah, Steo. I like it. Thanks.

Maybe the Z was hers all along.

Hey listen up, Steo, you little worm. I’ve an idea. I want a Z in me name… and I realise I’m doing Susie’s voice this time, but out loud, and nobody is listening.

.

I’ve begun to take the Luas to Ranelagh. Two, maybe three evenings a week, after work. The tram bells trill and a voice tells me we’re there, and I get off. I walk past the house and look at the ground-floor window, the one at the front that wasn’t Susie’s. I can’t get past its black glass. I want this woman’s history to surface for me – god knows why – a wooden saint emerging from the painted doors of our shared astronomical clock. But all that surfaces is me.

I think of the black eyes we saw her sport; twice, each time the same eye. Was it Steo who gave it to her, like Dave said? Or the ex, Pah? Was it a punter? How did she get away with it for so long, working there? I picture our landlord, poised on the landing, fist raised to knock for the rent. I feel her furniture crash to the floor. I hear her shouting.

.

It’s easy to make up lives for other people. Dave created a therapy group for Susie. He hated that stuff, thought it was soft and meaningless, useless in the face of real problems happening to real people, like wars. He gave her a facilitator. A book. Heal Your Life. He had me say the title, in the well-meaning Dublin accent of our dinner ladies at the college canteen. Together we cobbled up a Bad Thing that had happened to Susie to justify the therapy. ‘Maybe she killed someone,’ said Dave. ‘One of her men.’ Maybe she tried to kill Dylan, I thought, but didn’t say. Thinking of my mother, the unspoken-about darkness that fell on her after my sister was born.

Dave invented Susie’s family too, a big horde of Cabra Dubliners on her mother’s side. I gave her a Belfast father. ‘Cliché,’ said Dave. ‘She’s not remotely northern.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Think about it. His name’s Jack. A violent bastard. Used to beat her mother. That’s what put her on the game.’ ‘Fuck off,’ said Dave. ‘What do you know about any of that? Here’s what it is.

She loved Jack and Jack loved her mother and her mother loved her and none of them–’

‘None of them,’ I said, getting it.

Loved the one who loved them.

But who, who, I think? Who, apart from her child, was her family? Where did they live? Did she have parents who were still alive? Siblings? Aunties, uncles, grandparents? What did they know of what she did, those shapeless relatives? What could they know? If someone from the fringes of my family had been a working girl at that time, would I have known?

I picture her not on the canal, but across the city, on the other strip; the Golden Mile near Heuston train station. Sun slants over the low roofs, striping the Liffey gold. A man pulls up in his Punto, winds down his window. Another girl is nearer but the man beckons to Susie, smiling his slow, investigative punter’s smile. Susie leans over. A waft of fag smoke, sweat and Magic Tree.

‘Christ!’ says the man.

Susie retracts. The man grabs her wrist. ‘Susie.’ She falters. He takes off his shades.

Recognition.

Things like that can happen.

.

She kept her earnings in the flat. A biscuit-tin.

1991. I’m guessing: handjob fifteen quid, blowie thirty, full package somewhere between fifty and a ton? Six a night, average five nights a week, and Steo took his cut of (I’m guessing again) sixty percent. If my sums are right, and they’re probably not, on good weeks she would have made almost a grand. Maybe I’m overestimating her earnings. The thought makes me sick.

.

She came up one night, in late November. The others were out, Matt at his girlfriend’s place, Dave on the tear. It was very late. Two or three. I couldn’t sleep, was sitting in the kitchen, reading Stephen King, the one about the boys and the body.

A knock.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know if….’ She was in a dressing-gown and slippers. Shivering. Her face was bare. She looked worried. ‘I heard a noise at the back. I think there’s…’

Someone in the garden, I thought. It was an old house, spooky. It backed onto a lane; easy enough for someone to climb over the wall and in.

‘Would you come down?’ she said. ‘Just to keep me company?’

I remembered my mother, not letting go my hand. Not letting go my hand and all me wanting was to get away.

The stairs swallowed us.

‘What age are you?’ she said.

I didn’t want to answer. My mouth moved. ‘Twenty.’

‘Ahh. Where are you from? Wexford?’

Not a bad guess. That surprised me. But then, I thought. All those men.

‘Waterford.’

‘Nice there?’

I shrugged.

‘The good-looking lad that lives with you.’ She was peering down at the steps, carefully, as if she’d never walked them before. ‘The fella from the north.’ I felt my skin itch. ‘Is he a friend?’

The stairs swallow us.

‘I don’t think there’s anything there,’ I said, stopping on the landing.

‘Please.’ She held out her hand, drew me down.

.

The biscuit-tin was on the top of the Super Ser. The Super Ser wasn’t switched on. Its back door was an inch open. She asked me to stay, till her mind was settled, like, and would I want a cup of tea. I can’t remember if I nodded but she made me one anyway.

‘Can I have a biscuit?’ I said.

She looked at me and I thought I saw pity in her eyes and there I was, the fat kid again.

‘I don’t have any.’

I must have glanced at the tin and she must have looked and blinked or something because then I knew.

Steo, financial wizard. Here, Suuusan, don’t give your money to the fucking bank. Keep it somewhere safe.

I made my face into nothing. I do remember that moment, the mask coming over me. Its tightness on my skin, warm as scales.

She must really have been frightened, I think now, to leave the tin like that, not take a moment to hide it after taking the money out and stuffing it down her pants or bra or wherever she stuffed it.

‘They eat people,’ she said, nodding at Kaa. ‘I heard about a fella who had one. He forgot to feed it. Left it for a week and one night it swallowed him.’

Is he part of your act, I wanted to ask. Is he your surrogate baby? How old is he? Is he ancient, older than you and me combined?. How old is Dylan? Your son, I mean. What is his name? Do you love him?

Something rattled at the window. She jumped.

‘That’s just a tree,’ I said. I was feeling angry and I didn’t know why.

‘I don’t have biscuits,’ she said. ‘But I can make you toast.’

A smell was on her, rich and loamy as leafmould.

I didn’t want her toast. I didn’t want her kitchen, or anything. ‘Okay,’ I said.

.

This is what I would like.

She keeps him hungry for a week, then another, and another again. It hurts her to do it. She still risks the occasional caress, but she no longer takes him out to wind around her body, or brings him into bed with her, balancing him against her palms while she lies back and tries to sleep and maybe dreams.

This might happen: One night, servicing a client, she might hear him, rustling in his cage behind his curtain. Trying to move the hunger out of him. The client might hear too. Complain. She’ll say Kaa’s part of her act, but he’s sick that night.

Another night, another rustle, another complaint. Word reaches Steo. Here Suusann, what’s the story? Susie tells him she’s planning to get rid of Kaa. Having a snake, she says, wasn’t as good for business as she’d hoped.

While he starves, she plays knife-games on her kitchen table, spreading out the fingers of her left hand and stabbing the wooden spaces in between. She’s good at that game; I’ve given her my skill with it, though I’ve kept the beginners’ scars on my fingers for myself.

The stabs make a rhythm, like drums. She thinks of Dylan.

She thinks of Pah, and Steo, and her clients. Each time the knife makes contact, she pictures it jabbing a face. She sees the shapeless relative, the man I imagined for her at Heuston Station. She sees the father I invented, Jack, from Belfast. She sees Matt. She sees Dave. She sees me.

Yerra, girl, you’re terrible quiet these days, says Imelda, the fabricated friend from Cork. Are you eating enough?

Kaa’s skin is dull; his eyes are baleful. The uneaten mice in the cage are fat and complacent. The room fills with the stab of the drum.

Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.

She stops playing the keyboard. It hurts Kaa’s ears and makes his mouth open. She misses the keys just like she misses his scales. They both give under her fingertips.

.

I began to go back home at the weekends. The bus was cheap but the smell of other people made me feel sick, so after the first weekend, I hitched. My da was worried, but he didn’t know what to ask. My sister was cramming. For the Inter. What a profound waste of time, I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t have those words. I walked the People’s Park and up the hill, to the bad stretch of Barrack Street where the winos and the tough boys laughed and called each other names. I didn’t want to drink. I didn’t want to do anything. ‘Have you lost weight?’ said my sister, and it was an accusation.

One Sunday evening nearing Christmas, I came back to Dublin and the house in Ranelagh had changed. It looked brighter somehow, as if someone had turned on all the lights, though they hadn’t. Susie’s door was closed. Sounds were coming from behind it, but they weren’t sex. I passed it quickly. Dave was on the landing, just out of the bath. Hair wet. A towel around his neck.

‘There he is. Returned traveller!’

He gave me a rough hug and I smelt sweat, warm, on the damp towel.

‘She’s leaving,’ he said, pottering around, opening beers.

‘Who?’

He stopped. ‘Who d’you think? She was robbed. Friday. Came back late, found her room in pieces. Furniture smashed.

He’d taken her money.’

How do you know, I wanted to say. ‘Is the snake alright?’

‘You know who it was? The fucking landlord. He knew where her money was, right? She kept it there. In a tin. How stupid is that?’ He shook his head, frowning. ‘Trying to get rid of her. Wanted a different type of tenant.’

I see her room again, the Super Ser on its side, the biscuit-tin open. My trouser pocket stuffed.

I laughed.

Dave looked over.

‘Jesus, Dave,’ I said. ‘That’s a fucking good one. Best so far. You had me convinced there, nearly.’

Dave laughed too, but he was still frowning, his fingers starting to work the sugar-spattered surface of our kitchen table.

His fingers, stained with nicotine near the tips, pushing at the grains. Little spirals, figures-of-eight. Christ, I thought, I could sit here for ever.

.

Warm sweat. Under it, a perfume; clean and new, like spring.

.

Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.

Her knife lands.

The tram bells trill. A voice tells me to get off.

.

This is what I want.

I enter the room.

Kaa’s hungry eyes register. His body coils, his head lifts.

I don’t see him, his opened cage.

I reach for the heater, unclick the back door.

A rustle. I turn. Too late.

He flings forward, all open.

I am gone. I am in him, and he is around her, pushing his musculature into her strong-soft flesh, and they are one, and she is playing Nights in White Satin and I hear it through her skin, and his and my own, as it dissolves, and upstairs they’re laughing with their girlfriends, Matt and Dave, doing Steo as best as they can without me and wondering where I’ve got to, the fat boy, wondering where I’ve gone.

—Mia Gallagher

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Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007; and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), recently long-listed for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize.  Her prize-winning short fiction has been published internationally and her non-fiction has been published in print and online. She was guest-editor on the Stinging Fly’s special ‘Fear & Fantasy’ issue (Winter 2016-17) and has received several Literature Bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland. As a performer/deviser and playwright, her theatre work has toured widely in Ireland and abroad.

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Dec 072016
 

eamonn-sheehy-use-on-top-450pxEamonn Sheehy

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The Killing (Listowel)

The narrow lane was once a main road that wound its way into the north Kerry market town of Listowel. But at this stage, it was carpeted in green overgrowth with chaotic brambled verges, and abandoned to us. My cousin in his late teens walked ahead. While me and my other cousin sharing the age of nine, followed behind nervous and excited in the early morning sun. We stopped by a wooden shed at the side of the laneway. In here, behind some chicken wire, lay the ferrets buried in the warmth of their straw nest. My older cousin handled the small fiery creatures with care. He wore stiff metal-like gloves. We stood back cautiously. Two ferrets, one black and one silver-grey, were eased in turn into a sturdy timber carry case. The ferrets were animals we knew demanded respect and they had ours without question. They were not to be messed with or to be trusted.

A warm and fresh country breeze carried the dense smell of grass as we walked on. Coming off the laneway, we climbed over a ditch and into the field on the other side. The three of us then entered a valley, sunk deep and hidden between the mountain folds; moving through the scrub until the sky overhead disappeared. We then found ourselves standing under a canopy of twisted, dark green branches. Running uphill over rough ground and past small streams, we meandered through the small forest. Birds sang above us in shrill competition; an orchestra in surround sound. The large burrows were badger dens; wide oval openings in the ground. Their dark tunnels ran deep into the earth. We peered in cautiously. Then one of us crawled in to see how far we could go, hoping to find a secret world hidden from sight – and hoping the badger was out to lunch. But in no time fear started to grip, and we retreated back out of the burrow in a panic. We have all been told. Badgers go straight for your nose when they attack.

The smaller burrows are rabbit holes. These are visible everywhere as we continue toward the exit of the little forest. Emerging out of the shade and into the sun, we continue the trek towards the top of the field. Bees buzz amid sunburnt red ferns now dried and limpid. Here, another ditch is again dotted with small rabbit burrows. I look back at the tangled jungle of thick nature. Downhill, beyond the little forest, I can see the small green laneway leading back to the house which looks like a delicate miniature from this height.

My older cousin lays out the nets at an angle from the ditch. He then carefully lifts the black ferret from the carry case. Its slick immaculate coat shines in the sun. The Ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. The ferret burrows while eating into live flesh. The main strategy is to flush the rabbits out into nets, club them, and then sell them at the Saturday market. But sometimes, during these blood rabid home invasions of sorts, the ferret claimed its prey first. I stood back towards the centre of the field, stepping away from the sound of the killing. My older cousin reached for the carry case, bringing the second ferret out into the sunlight. Lean and muscle-primed, its slick silver hair glistens while its snout flavours the smell of the country air, freshly tainted by the scent of drawn blood.

§

The Nineties (Abbeyfeale)

T

he crystal sharp cold blasted across my teen’d tender face, while I tried to stay on the tarmac between rumbling trucks and tractors. Each morning I straddled my Raleigh racer and peddled like hell down the weathered, half crumbling road to school. There I had a small network of friends; offbeat, misaligned, marginal. For each of us, everything in some way was slightly collapsed. And we each had our clashes to contend with.

The gang of overexcited school boys came pounding down Main Street on a mission; and it was all because of me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. I was in a bit of a state. My stomach was light with nerves; a sickening adrenaline rush had me nauseous. Denis had been a splinter in my side for a good while. He was a tall teen, a year younger than me. Pushing and punching his way through school in a botched attempt to find place.

I wasn’t exactly sure how it all came about, but we were set to fight at four o’clock in the basketball court behind the primary school. Perfectly chosen. It was well away from passing eyes. A fight was always planned in advance of around two days. Just to give your teenage brain something to mull over. Something to tear yourself up about and wrestle with; before it came down to some real tearing and wrestling. I was well psyched by fight time. I had a plan mapped out in my head. Denis was a boxer. And with that came his long reach, trained fists and a vague semblance of strategy. I planned to go in swinging. Right into his torso and leave him no room to pick me off with fast punches. I was going to dig deep into his side and stomach, wind him, and get the whole thing over with. I had hoped we could ‘reason’ it out. But reasoning was a non-runner. When it came to a fight, it was a case of carrying it through to the end. Reasoning meant losing face. Fighting it out, even if you lost, would in some way cement your worth; bolster your standing. That’s what this was really all about. Rites of passage or some shit like that. And I was stuck with it.

The fight managed to bring everyone together. Whether you were a pacifist, a fighter or a thinker; everyone came to watch. Small nerdy John stood on a bench trying to secure a clear view through his thick glasses. Next to him, stood his bully, Kevin – swelled with excitement, going foot to foot with his usual droopy smile. Padraig was perched behind them. An academic-minded young man, he was greatly respected by everyone in the school from the rascals to rejects. On a higher bench for that sweeping view, he stood with a frown; quietly concerned, taking in the whole shambolic nature of the event.

Denis now stood out in the blazing sun of the basketball court in fight mode. And as my focus shifted onto him, the rest of the crowd became an abstract vignette. Denis circled, fists held high to his smiling gob. The gradual first moments of the scrap had stirred up a hot reeling tension; an unyielding growing momentum. The excitement of the forty to fifty boys had now broken into an all-out war cry. A staggering chanting teen-machine mob of testosterone and flailing limbs frantically circled Denis and myself.

A few missed swings and some spinning punches from the hungry crowd, and we were off. I rooted myself in the arc of Denis’s ribcage as much as I could; punching as quickly as I could. The line of vision became tunnel. Sounds into muffle. And my punches seemed to fall dull. I heard no squirms of pain. I wasn’t sure if I was making an impact. A bunch of bare knuckles connected with the side of my face and I was back out in the open yard again. Denis didn’t miss the chance. Some fast, long jabs to my head, and a fist of hard knuckles hit me square in the face; left and then right, one after the other. His height was making things difficult, and I began to crumble.

An avalanche of pain came down across my forehead. It was followed by a swift gush of blood running straight to the top of my nose. ‘Keep your guard up! Keep your guard up!’ came the taunts from Denis as punches came over his cracked beaming smile. Another jab connected with my jaw, and I hung again out in the open; a glorified punch bag. I ran straight for him, barging through awkward hands, and scored a punch to the head. I then raised my elbow forward and pushed back his long lanky arms. I swung a fist into his stomach and forced his weight backwards onto the ground. Lying on his back, blood flowed from his nose. I could kick him into the head or square into the stomach. But that would be bad form right? I wanted him to know I now had the chance to take him out, to hurt him and win. ‘Are you going to stay down!?’ I shouted. I was all tense; frazzled and red faced. Shaky voice. ‘Well?!’ I said it again, except harder this time, crunching out the words through gritted teeth and teary-victim eyes. Denis looked up nodding; squinting at me, humiliated. A gob of red spit lands on concrete.

I step back breathless and stupefied, and the crowd around us began to came into view again. I turned for my school bag in the corner. The evening sun washed through the metal grey sky and onto the yard. Then came the shard through the newly won calm; a hard crunching smack into the back of my neck.

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Risk (Limerick)

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n the city, the rush of the wind propelled our tripping highs as we sped down the street on our bikes. In the warm summer evening, the sky above formed a tight hood over our electric cloud of humid euphoria. Our feet light on the turning peddles. We turned up some time in the late evening. Dropped our bikes outside in the gravel, and then stood in the boiling chipper in front of the menu for ages. Fresh young faces with large darting eyes; heads cocked up to the bright listings of snack boxes and meal deals. The mind was flooded, reaching bubbling. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Our expressions had all timed out.

Dave stood tall next to me, his mouth agape looking up at the glowing menu and lanky in his dark green army jacket. He had a brown envelope stuffed in his pocket, with magic mushrooms recently picked from the hills around his native Dingle. Dave was off his head at the best of times, a bit of a punk but he could be a bit of a prick too. We tolerated him though. James stood next to him. Shorter and nerdier; and very stoned with his ‘Where’s Wally’ striped hat hanging off his crown. Ellen and Donal were next to him, holding onto each other, in love and beaming with smiles. And I rattled away on my usual dose of LSD, little square tabs of cartooned paper called Tasmanian Devils. Potent, precious and long lasting. What a bunch she had to be dealing with.

She came out from inside the counter and asked again with a mock ‘pleading’ tone. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Her voice drifted into my dripping consciousness. The curtains drew back and I came out of the trance. Sweaty brow. It was good she asked or we’d be standing there all night.

Back at the house and deep into the trip, I was now in wild colour. Over powering smell of plums and sweet chewing gums. A dark excitement seizing. Sitting on my bed and looking out the window, a large bus covered in thick brown mud, indicators flashing to turn left, pulled out of my front garden. I smoked to ease the tension. Then a blue train ran through my room.

In the early hours I was on my way home, and I was being followed at a constant, tense pace. The man also on a bike, stayed behind in the near dark at around the three hundred metre mark. I rounded corners and peddled on through a series of sleeping avenues, and he was still pinned to my trial. Home came into view ahead. I dragged the bike through the gate of the house, banged it in through the front door, after eventually getting the key into the damned lock, and quickly looked behind me to see a road empty and quiet. This was me, in a not too uncommon struggle, trying to elope from a stoner evening elsewhere; trailed by shadows. These were the realities of my imagination, and the fictions of my daily life. It took four months of sitting in a darkened room to regain my smile after all that carry on. Breaking glass moments still occurred in my head – less frequent as time went by. Then the summer broke through the curtains.

The bar was in full bloom by 7pm; slightly rowdy with a ragged mob of rockers. The bar staff were barely keeping up with the call for pints, and Carly hung from the end of the bar waving a ten pound note briskly in the air at the nearest barman. She glanced back to us with a cheeky smile, her ass swaying from side to side before us. We sat back on the couches and low stools around a table, swanning pints and filling the ashtray with chain-smoked ciggs. We had only dropped the yokes an hour beforehand, but were all on the train to blitzville. The drink was flowing down easy. Our group was getting more animated in excited conversation. Everyone dreams. And these abstract strands were seeping in quickly to our little corner; taking full form. They fell out of our heads onto the table like gold chunks, which were anxiously picked up, held aloft and analysed with intrigue by the whole group. The rest of the bar bumped and staggered around each other while wave after wave of Led Zeppelin washed loudly over the bar. Drinks splashed softly from generous pint glasses around the table as we whoo’d and haaa’d into the evening.

The lights were dim but the room warm and crowded. Beats pulsed through the smoke machined club of twisting flesh dancing to house, off-beat alternative sounds and dub reggae. We danced on the floor, then took to the pumping heart of the club – a small stage reeking of weed – when the rhythms of a Happy Monday’s acid track burst through the airwaves. ‘The Termight’s Club’ was in full rave. It operated above an old cinema off limerick’s main O’Connell Street, and was the sole alternative to the stagnation of mainstream nightlife. Four flights of stairs from the main entrance, a few more drinks downed, and our heads were in ‘the zone’. I laid on the dancefloor all goo’d out of it, cha-koo’ing confidently, blissed out as others danced in swirling lights around me. Laura laughed while gripping my arms, trying to drag me upright, in order to evade the prowling bouncers. Distracted, she came down to her knees and contended to try and pry some sticky chewing gum from my straggly fair hair. I lay back with my head on her lap. The gum, lime green, was glued into the strands. She pulled at the tangled mess, and a sharp pain came to my scalp. She was well into the challenge of freeing my hair from the gum, ignoring my pleas to leave it – “sur feckin leave it beee!” But our little operation of two was now on the bouncer’s radar. Our bright dilated pupils shined up at him through the disco lights.

I was quickly heaved up from the corner of the dancefloor and slammed through the crowd toward the door. My head glowed on, as we left Laura behind, confused and gum-fingered. “Take it easy I’m going alright.” But the bouncer’s hard tugging and jerking of my limbs went on; waking me up to more pain as we went. As we banged through the nightclub doors he gripped me hard. And as we quickly took the first flight of metal stairs downwards, I knew this guy was going to be a fucker to deal with. He was tall and bald, but not an old man – athletic in his late twenties. Decked out in black bouncer gear, he stopped at the top of the second flight of stairs. His arm gripped tightly around my neck and closed harder on my windpipe. ‘Leave me go you fucking Nazi!’ And then he held me out, kicking my legs free of the steps into the drop below. I swung from his tough muscled elbow, my legs kicking for ground below. The jolt across my throat sent me into a surge of pain. And then he left go, dropping me into the fall of the metal stairs.

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Night Train To Moscow

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he Russian train system is a robust and efficient institution in a country where other basic services barely survive. It is the bloodstream of the nation and an embodiment of the Soviet dream. The sheer number of possible train routes, taking you mostly anywhere across the Russian Federation is a wonder in itself. Down into the Stan countries of Central Asia, into the Russian Far East or up into the anonymous Arctic Circle cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.

Today’s journey was going to be small in comparison. A twelve hour leap from St Petersburg to Moscow. An overnight journey between two iconic cities. This, for many, is the start of the monumental Trans Siberian Railway. But shoe stringing it, I was on board with the cheapest ticket going. It had old, seated style carriages. There were no intimate sleeper coupes with cosy bunks here. And for most Russians this was typical. Seated by the window, I watch the carriage slowly fill up as the minutes count-down to our departure. My rucksack is stashed overhead, with a small day bag tucked underneath my seat, awkwardly making for tight leg movement.

A tall girl with long black hair takes a seat next to me. Long legs in black jeans awkwardly placed in front of her. She nods with a smile and says something in Russian. I nod back unsure. The carriage is now full and everyone is getting organized to settle in. Once bags are put away, head cushions are tucked in to place and tickets lay on laps for inspection. The carriage attendant, suddenly and unexpectedly, throws me a little plastic bag. It hits me on the head. Half startled and with the little bag in my hand hands, I turn to the girl next to me.
‘What is this?’ I ask her.

‘It’s your blanket’ she laughs.

‘Ah yes, I see’ I reply, trying to not look too lost amongst Russian train etiquette. I pull open the packaging and reveal the little blue blanket.

As darkness fell, the train rumbled on. In the half light of the carriage, passing through abandoned suburbs and black forest, a repeating pattern of dark and white washes over the girl. We were getting on well as we navigated conversations in pigeon English and Russian. She was near my age; in her late twenties. After midnight we moved out to the tight space of the gangway. We had bought two beers from the concierge and had slipped quietly out of the sleeping carriage. She towered over me while we stood smoking. Still tied to the language barrier we drank and asked names, countries, jobs, destinations. Moscow, Nina, an office worker. She was coming back from a weekend with her family in St Petersburg to her work in Moscow.

Back in the carriage, she was now sitting slightly turned toward me. Although not really aware of it, I was the same; turned toward her just a little. Flashes of the passing night showed her form. A dark warm shadow with a subtle smile. A face in zoetrope; her eyes looked me over with searching curiosity. As the darkness of the carriage started to merge with the slow embrace of sleep, we started to glide closer together; face to face, bright eyes on bright eyes.

In the morning I watched half-awake through the smudged windows as Moscow’s suburbs drifted past. Swathes of silver industry ran on for miles, with the grey steely sky hanging low over the early hours of the day. I was captivated by the size of the city, a historic sprawl. It was a full-on megacity. Nina guided me out into Moscow’s Leningradsky train station with her long stride in skinny jeans. I followed her towards an open cafe.

‘The metro closed to the city. Not open yet. We can have coffee, here? This is where I get collected.’ Nina said.

I had to wait 15 minutes for the metro doors to open to the public.

‘Cool, coffee it is. Who are you waiting for?’ I asked.

‘My boyfriend, he’s from Kiev, lives in Moscow.’

Standing there in front of the boyfriend, his broadness unnerved me. He was just as tall as Nina, but didn’t have a word of English. She wrapped her arms around his neck in affection. I stood there perplexed and uncomfortable. With a firm handshake, I said hello in Russian, and he smiled back ‘Zdrasvuta’. He was getting an update from Nina. An Irish holiday maker in Moscow… I was on the side-lines for this discussion. I really did feel the need to move on.

Greetings administered, I walked out into the push and tug of the metro. The morning rush hour starts here, in a boundless flow to the city centre. Millions flood towards the start of their day. My rucksack was tied firm on my back. I held my place in the crowd, as everyone squeezed in towards the ticket sellers who were ready with blank expressions behind their windows.

The rucksack felt heavier when sandwiched midway in the shifting human mass. I tried to stand firm. We heaved forward, and then slightly back. The mass staggered as one to the left and then to the right, wedged tight, until somebody eventually popped into the vacant spot in front of the ticket window. As I shuffled slowly toward the ticket seller, I began to feel my rucksack tug downwards. A sudden jolt, spaced by some brief seconds, was followed by another. The pull, too overstated to be my pushy neighbours, had intention. A little boy was working away at the pockets of my rucksack. Barely able to see him, I tried to turn around, arching to get a look, while at the same time trying to stay steady. The little boy moved easily between the shuffling legs of the masses. He had sought out my rucksack for poaching. He stood directly on my blindside. I pushed back to shake him off, which only annoyed those next to me. The boy was focused and he wasted no time. A cap covered his head and shielded his face, and he was now busy trying to break one of the lower rucksack pockets. The zip wouldn’t budge, stuck under the stress of a horde of dirty socks.

He was like a stowaway in my bag, and he was nearly in the pocket at this stage. Seconds later, like a dropped pin in a bowling alley, he went flying across the floor. And at the same time I got pulled backwards through the crowd, spun around and steadied. It was Nina’s boyfriend. He had dug his way in through the columns of commuters; my bright red rucksack in his sights. As he ripped me back out of the scrum my heart sank and I feared for a Moscow-style head-slapping. He then started waving a card in front of my face, swiped the electronic gate and pushed me through the opening into the metro with a laugh.

—Eamonn Sheehy

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Eamonn Sheehy writes nonfiction that jumps into the deep side of travel, culture and counterculture. His work has appeared in YourMiddleEast.com, Kosovo 2.0 magazine, The Sarajevo Times, The Bogman’s Cannon and others. His first book, Summer In The City State – Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe, was published in 2016. He is currently working on his second book, Stealing Life, depicting the grating boundaries of youth, set against the backdrop of travel through Russia. Eamonn also produces The Rockers Guide radio show, exploring the punk-alternative underground, for Clonline Radio in Clonakilty, West Cork, Ireland, where he also resides.

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Nov 072016
 

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival


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In the middle of the night The County Manager called to my door. I murdered him with the ceremonial dagger I always bring when answering my door, whether or not it’s in the middle of the night. I stabbed him in the voice-box. It was an efficient kill, then, although also, with hindsight, in this case something of a mistake. Actually, a big mistake, a major mistake, the consequences of which I am still paying for. He bled to death voicelessly and so he did not get the opportunity to explain to me why he, of all people, had taken it upon himself to call to my door in the middle of the night, a time when both he and I should have been in bed, sleeping. Of course I do not sleep very much, and never have, especially not in the middle of the night. I have since come to the conclusion that The County Manager was also, like me, a light, daytime sleeper, and that when he called to my door he was entirely and – for him – ordinarily awake. There is also the possibility – I don’t consider it much of a possibility – that he was sleepwalking, meaning that, when he died, he died in his sleep, somnambulantly, unknowingly. It’s the kind of lie about a gruesome death that no-one minds telling or pretending to believe. Although we all die unknowingly, don’t we? And I would go further than mere somnambulance, mere automatism in the case of The County Manager. I would say that when he died it was in the middle of a beautiful dream of managing a future county perfectly divided by a canal of his own design, named, in fastening honour of his eternal prestige as The County Manager’s Canal. On one bank lies the district in which it’s always day, and, on the other bank, the district where it’s always night. On the one side the things of the day, on the other side the things of the night. Everyone would, under The County Manager’s constant supervision, have strictly regulated access to both sides, and behave accordingly when in either. No mix-ups. No twilight. I say he died happy then, in a perfection of his own making. It was, if so, an ineluctably joyful death. Nevertheless, the County Manager is dead and surely he has left behind him several close ones, in several kinds of close relationships with him, all requiring that he not be dead, that he be anything but dead. These people must be feeling unhappy, perhaps also guilty, for reasons clear or unclear to them, that The County Manager is dead, or missing, presumed dead, or even worse from the point of view of emotional and, perhaps yet more grievously again, financial complications, missing, presumed alive. I am sorry to be so uncouth as to mention finance here in what is, in effect, The County Manager’s Obituary, but I don’t want to come across as insincere and stupid, as missing something so obvious, no matter what. For posterity’s sake, I suppose, for the sake of my reputation in eternity, I wish to be absolutely clear and complete in my sentences. There is more than my own microbial legacy at stake, I know; it’s to the afore-insinuated associates, colleagues, friends and relatives of The County Manager that justice calls for reparation, for the dead themselves remain forever unreparable. There’s no doubt in my mind about that much, most of the time. I am really writing this not for my own sake but so that interested parties, no matter what their particular species of interest might be, will be able, now and forevermore, or for at least as long as the present lingua retains its presently fading legibilty, to learn exactly what happened to The County Manager on the night of his sudden, unexpected, tragic, and, for certain, horrific demise. Now, consider this in my defense (not that I am seriously considering defending myself for an act so many out there are bound to be steaming in silent envy of): what if I were also sleepwalking at the time of this death? Would that not mean that just as he had innocently died in his sleep then I had innocently killed in my sleep? Would this not mean that, in legal terms at least, the event we are discussing never took place? It never legally took place. Well, whether it was within the zone understood by the law, or outside that ever-indeterminate territory, he bled to death rapidly on the rough ground outside my front door, his blood fleeing copiously downhill from him, a forlorn stream bound to dry out long before it reached the sea, to dry out within sight of its source. It must be the worst result for any kind of stream not to be able to forget that it has a beginning. Imagine if every time you turned around you saw your mother’s open legs, pouring the blood and gunk of your beginning. I live on top of the hill, by the way, in view of the sea, but in no danger atall from it. I have not had to take part in the furious debate about whether our coastal plains, upon which the far majority of our stacked and close-quartered County populace exists, are or are not in imminent danger of catastrophic inundation; and if they are what precisely it’s that he, The County Manger, should be urgently doing about it. Pity whoever the people select to be their saviour from the sea. I suspect – it’s one among many vociferous contending suspicions within me – that he called unannounced to my door in the middle of the night with the idea of apprehending me dozily off-guard and canvassing me to agree to make some personal contribution to The County’s Major Inundation Plan. Whether financially, or, more likely, through accommodating fleeing refugees. The County’s Major Inundation Plan is currently, according to all the media, under intensive review, by County Manager’s Order. Well, I put the dagger through his neck and the request or order or whatever it was never got uttered. Unsurprisingly, even though I may well have been technically and legally asleep, the sudden, unexpected occurrence of a death, and a messy death at that, in my demesne, catapulted me into that anciently inscribed emergency mode we now call panic. When I panic I call P. P is not calm, but he is calming, to me. P keeps secrets. P has a car. He was with me within half an hour, during which I had had the presence of mind, despite perhaps being asleep, to mop the blood and wrap The County Manager’s remains in a blanket. Together, we dismembered the body quite artfully, and rapidly – P was once a doctor and knows his anatomy, and he saws like a lumberjack – and wrapped the bits again in separate plastic packages. In my opinion the bits gain greatly in individual distinction and beauty, gain aesthetically that is, from their dismemberment. In isolation, under the contemplative gaze of the gallery goer, or at least one who understands how to act in a gallery, and separated from the coherent, preprogrammed, utilitarian mainframe of the body entire, hands, feet, genitals, and so on gain a new aura; numinous significances emanate, which nature never intended, and which, from nature’s point of view, are useless. The release from intention and utility is brief, but beautiful, or beauty-making. Rough speech I know, but what else have I? It’s a long time since I sat in a classroom. Or read a book. Or heard one read. Well, it goes to show that there is something at least to gain from being chopped up, and that we all have our own idea of beauty. We drove off, still with hours of dark to come, and distributed the packages in various lots and woods and tips and reservoirs among the scarcely populated uplands hereby; where, by now, nature’s making use again for sure, for nature’s purposes, whatever they are. The best way to hide a body, P told me, (several times – he is so fond of repeating his bon mots, as well as entirely lacking in short term memory, so that it’s never possible to diagnose which of these causes his habitual retellings) the best way to hide a body is to hide it severally. Anyway, he went on, you can’t hide a body on this earth. Bodies are always found, if not by humans, then by dogs; if not by dogs, then by rats; if not by rats, then by ants, and so on all the way down to the bacteria that are patiently devouring the spherical corpse we call earth. When we returned to my house on the hill the light was also returning, the cold, soggy, miserable light of a dawn hereabouts. P said goodbye and drove off downhill into the impenetrable mist that hovers beneath, covering everything everywhere, often for weeks at a time. Back to his wife, whom he informed me, not without shadenfreude, was always overflowing with erotic enthusiasm at this hour of the morning. I inspected the rough ground outside my front door; I inspected the door; the doorstep. No spatters. No suspect material whatsoever. Nothing seemed amiss, either inside or out. I wondered then if the County Manager had called in the middle of the night to launch a surprise, high-level inspection of my premises, with the idea of finding enough irregularity to justify my eviction? Did he want my out-of-way house on the top of the hill for himself? For a command post? Who knows? I went back to bed, and fell into a deep sleep for about seven minutes. I admit that. I know falling asleep means I wasn’t feeling any guilt, or even a mild sadness. But I maintain the possibility and the defense that, before I fell into this deep sleep, I was already deep in another one. I was in a sleep within a sleep then, and therefore was not consciously responsible for either my actions or my emotional disposition. I will, by the way, take the appearance of grief and guilt at any future point, about this or any other matter, as a sign that I am finally, indisputably awake. Anyway, these events are nearly three weeks past now and I still don’t feel guilty, though I am terribly anxious. I am racked day and night by pangs of regret that I did not wait until The County Manager had announced to me his reason for calling to my door so interruptedly in the middle of the night, before sticking him through the neck with my dagger – that overwhelming surprise at the end of his life, that bloody exclamation mark I climaxed his story with. I must allow for the possibility that there was no reason atall why he called, and therefore that he died, and I killed, for no reason atall. Such thoughts condemn me to restlessness all day and all night. I have, like Mishima, considered seppuku. I have the equipment for it after all. And I also believe I possess the necessary high courage, the rigorous and unflinching fortitude for a sacred act of self-punishment. It’s only seppuku if someone we know witnesses it, however, someone who can confirm to others we died honourably, staring oblivion in the eye, welcoming the dark in with more steel in our gaze than in our gut. I don’t know who I could ask to be my witness. Not P. He would only laugh at me. He wouldn’t understand atall. He’d say don’t be thick. Don’t be such a contrary bollox. Disembowelling yourself, ha? You will in your arse. Sure I’ll get you a pill and it’ll be over in no time. You’ll fucking enjoy it my friend. And the worst that’ll happen is that you’ll shit yourself in a happy hallucination like my mother did. She, when the priest came to give unction, mistook him for Donald Duck, and chucklingly farted her last. Instead of seppuku I try my best not to move, not to fidget. TV is the best aid. The best servant. I glue to TV for news of The County Manager’s death. But, there has been no report. No mention whatsoever. No talk of a replacement. No talk of contenders, front-runners, also-rans, or outside chancers for this prestigious, powerful, enviously remunerated, limitlessly influential position; no talk of sideways moves from other departments, nor of messianic reformers transferred from other, even more important counties than ours; no talk of drastic reshuffles in the county offices. Everything carries on as it was, as if the county manager, poor man, and also the esteemed office of County Manager itself, have been removed all at once from the planet, and not one living soul out of all those who, until that point, had been under his constant county manager management has noticed. Except for me, the man who stuck him at my own front door in the middle of the night, while almost all in the county surely were sleeping, or sleeplessly stretched out abed anyhow, awaiting a knock or a tremor or boom that would call them forth anytime now to rise, to kill or to die, at last to end their supine longing.

—Dave Lordan


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Dave Lordan is a multi-genre writer, performer, editor and educator. His latest publications include the short story collection First Book of Frags, the poetry collection Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains, and the Young Irelanders anthology of new Irish fiction, which he edited. He is the researcher for the popular RTE Poetry Programme and is a regular contributor to Arena, RTE Radio 1’s flagship art show. He has appeared at numerous festivals and venues in Ireland, UK, Europe, and North America as a performer, panelist, workshop leader and MC. He edits bogmanscannon.com, Ireland’s alt.culture hub. Last month he launched The Pirate Show, an alt.lit radio show on Dublin Digital Radio. Listen here.


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Oct 052016
 

Catherine WalshCatherine Walsh

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These poems will appear in Catherine Walsh’s forthcoming book Barbaric Tales.

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barbaric tales
looking desire in the eye
xxxxeyeing desire eyeing desire
xxxxxxxxxin the eye
xxxxxxxxxxxof fine
xxxxeyes  ide ides ore
xxxxxis a dor re
xxxxxxxxxxis i dor us
xxxxxis a dora ea
xxxxhis a
xxxxhe’s a
xxxxxxxxeyes a  ‘S
xxbarbaric tales
skeptics looking through
articulate
xxxxmorass
xxtravesty    tangling as
xstruggling  these notions nations
exist their bigness small their
smallness a still silent in
the breadth of flight beyond
xxunderneath through this and
all or any refined concentrate glows and grows
light cellular compactations as particles
waves in crevices on cracks under motorways

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in spans of striding bridges this energy
existing feeds repeats resumes beneath our
gaze out of above temporary horizon
lines fluctuating in time  patterned  ribboned
ululations wares of opaque air we are
there pleasure in this clearly hidden
lugar sound centrifuge of
spatiality humming hub  con  in
re  di  verse (transistor-amplified
vibrations set on top standard 60s’
freestanding cabinet as further amplifier)
(the notice of things)
(accumulated)
echelons  The weeping!  The laughing!
eclectic joys of which might
strum peace navigate superficies
of order resonate magnificently
till all known farthest tangents lay slightly
disordered  bare  approachable
to fend in the world
other becomes  plaisír
as it is voices clarions nascent surge

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and where you cannot look
to the sea you look to the
mountain  flutter in the
montbresia passing by the
third day of mauve hydrangea
vased in black enamel
outside a council door repeat
a step the kerb depletes a necessary
force whistles or that bikes past she
with arms akimbo those white
in-ears wired up  flourishes unaware
in the patternled stream

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this courage to go
beyond  let it be the measure
that we let this be the
measure that we let
be measure this that we
let this be the measure
that we let
binding explosive
sequestered interpretabilities
your fear the door closes as
its noise summons movement
change air light  hefted
currents blighted
with human skin
mould  lacerations
of joy  poignant murmurs
of the hinge  release
insensate reluctance

refusal’s life
this is your dear moment in
capacity motion towards its
beckoning strimming wide

x

x

x

swathes aloud  bee
glade dell hollowed by
wind stroking the palms
of justice  bedrock
glacial implicatory
owl coiffed true
more janus will
ensue  the tale of
the tall ships resuming
telling in order to
be some inspired version
yarn  enigma  how can this
be aimed true our very breaths a shift?

x

§

x

where viewing the stuck in
the possible stealth of evening
overtaking each
endeavour stale
want of more
being heard or being a spectacle
it’s all my eye lost ironic arcs
in trite thrall this
was voice voicing
this ah this was being
heard all my eye or not
replete phenomenological
repressivistic maelstrom of
what  termed
as if complete desire  was
unerringly boxed set stilted
agendas sifted validity
recomposition detritus

x

§

x

roman wall in the evening
gloom Ibero-Grec reinforcement
arches dug in
natural alignment
hill side  which
escarped and cutaway
tails the formality  black
tarmac concrete road
curves shoulders lower
slopes from where I
could breathe just
remember it when
bludgeoning
hate in fear those
eager counting
injury grief as right
indignant lack
indigency
unappeased anger

pained forlorn its

dishonesty which cannot

cherish

x

§

x

I am interested in your precepts
does not mean I have to either
agree or disagree with them

perfect development
all it could be  unless
it were imperfect

is it worth it?
not just that so many
concerns hang round that
hackneyed phrase
for centuries
it’s that inestimable
evaluation in the face
of realities
actualities
precedents
norms

the normative influence at
the conjunction of any
such confluences
taken conjunctively with the
actuality of the precedents
set in relation to
past or known realities

x

§

x

xthis is it
xxis it worth it?
xxthe past
xximperfect
xxfuture
xxperfect
xxpresent
xxcontinuous
xxpast
xxsimple
xxfuture
xxcontinuous
xxconditional
xxto present
xxsimple
xxpast
xx∴ perfect
xx

xI could go on endlessly
xxexcept it would probably
xxbore you needlessly

yes  I’m sure you would
find it boring were
I to keep on trying
to extemporise on the
same point

least you forget it would
prove useful to maintain
the ability to distinguish
such structures if you
were to come across
them in your reading

x

§

x

times
of mind
adjusta-clocks
expanda-frames
allowing abstractions
reside  unmolested
uncontested  at-the-ready
in our heads

on the T-Rex footprint scale
it doesn’t seem like
much of an imprint
granular sand particles
defunct mineral
dehydrated life
embrasured on strand
opinions vary  while
the composite components
structuring bone mass
don’t much

sea come  go
pull away there

carried fro’
any  where push

in here  mast up
cell  carried to

some fruit pull
away

it surprised her  what had been
written  dehiscence of
time  pah  like that
they said this would be a good
title  some said something
else  arbitrary nature
of the ordinary  turn it
over  pah  nothing you
see surprised her  in this
way each day  could be
seen to  fragment

x

x

x

x

(itself)  miscellaneous
phonic locutions and a
monologic episode  your
play  she said  is if
I may say so she
said  episodic
wow  imagine
time past  before my eyes
ears  before my ears
blood beat  we are
carried  so many
wrapt environs  immaculate
xpresence of doubt
xxthen we are
here  where rivers run
time holds in stone
xsoil    sand
xxkept transient
fitful  glancing

—Catherine Walsh

x

Catherine Walsh was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964, has spent some time living and working abroad, and currently lives in Limerick. She co-edits hardPressed Poetry with Billy Mills. Her books include: Macula (Red Wheelbarrow Press, Dublin: 1986); The Ca Pater Pillar Thing and More Besides (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1986); Making Tents (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1987); Short Stories (North & South, Twickenham and Wakefield, 1989); Pitch (Pig Press, Durham, 1994); Idir Eatortha & Making Tents (Invisible Books, London, 1996); City West (Shearsman, Exeter, 2005); Optic Verve A Commentary (Shearsman, Exeter, 2009) and Astonished Birds; Carla, Jane, Bob and James (hardPressed Poetry, Limerick 2012).

Her work is included in a number of anthologies, including the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2001) and No Soy Tu Musa (Ediciones Torremozas, Madrid, 2008), a bilingual Spanish/English anthology of Irish women poets. A section from Barbaric Tales appears in the spring/summer 2016 edition of the Irish University Review.

She was Holloway Lecturer on the Practice of Poetry at the University of California, Berkeley for 2012/13 and was a research fellow with the Digital Humanities cluster at An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University during 2014/2015. Her books Barbaric Tales and The beautiful Untogether are forthcoming.

x

x

Sep 102016
 

Paul McMahon colour

.

Bourdon

I remember my ex-girlfriend
running through a field of sunflowers

as I’m looking at a dead bumblebee
lying on its back on the window sill,
its downy head of battered fluff
as stubborn and bull-headed as a drunk oaf.

Bloated, like a bluebottle in a stripy jumper,
I roll it off the ledge and onto the palm of my hand,
its wings more like frail stained glass windows
closed over a pregnant blob. Woollen arms

with question marks for hands, the hidden tongue,
the gilded eye that sees all in honeycomb,
and again I see Bourdon, but she is waiting
for me to get out of bed. The sun is shining,

the sky is blue topaz. She is at the hotel window,
fretting and stamping her feet. We arrived late
the night before, after a long day driving south.
Get up, she says, as she finally bolts out the door.

    ……………………..*

I slip out from the warm sheets,
walk over to the window
and look out to see her running
through the field of sunflowers,

her hands spread out like wings
skimming off the flower heads
that were the same colour
as the bull-headed drunk oaf,

the woollen blob of fool’s gold
flashing on the lake-bed of memory –
the bumblebee in the palm of my hand
that crashed into the window pane

like Bourdon crashed into a tree.
I touch its downy flank and remember
the sandy dunes of her skin,
the sweet drone of her voice,

silent as the bee’s wings
sleeping in the sunflowers of dreams.

.

Shrouds

1

He was about six or seven, black rubbish-tip hair, big doe-eyes,
teeth driftwood-white, a painted-on ringmaster’s moustache,
outstretched arm and hand held out like a soup-kitchen ladle.

I was standing beside one of the cremation paddocks
at the burning Ghats in Varanasi. A pyre was blazing –
bruise-black smoke rose up into the vacant sky
and the sun burned down over the slow, wide Ganges
and the vast, sandy tidal plain on the far side.

Garlanded chanters in a canoe rowed a dead guru
out for river-burial – the shrouded corpse lay stiffly
across the bow like the firing arm of a crossbow.

The artful-dodger street-child tugged once more
at the hem of my sleeve and I looked down into his hazel eyes
to see that all my ambitions were meaningless dreams,
illusions that would vanish into smoke at the end of my days.
I felt hollow, like a bubble, shrouded-off from anything real.

.

2

As I reached into my pocket, that I kept stocked with sweets
for the street-children, I glanced to the blazing pyre –
a man, a fire-warden, was picking up an arm
that had fallen out and he threw it back on top
of the furnace-orange flames.

When I gave the hazel-eyed street-child the sweet, a chocolate éclair,
he clutched it in his flycatcher-hand and then asked me for money.
I looked away – the day before I saw him hand his coins in
to a lanky teenager who had the stern eyes of an amateur knifer.

The child shrugged-off, examining the shrouded éclair,
its plastic wrapper a black velvety blouse, which he opened,
revealing an inner wrapper, a white geisha-corset
stuck sugar-tight against the treacle skin which he peeled back
and gently released like a dove’s wing onto the air
before he tossed the sallow toffee body into his gaping mouth.

I turned back to the paddock and the burning pyre,
its summit of unquestioning flame –
the detached arm had landed palm up,

the fingertips lightly cupping,
it had let go of all it had given

……………………or been given.

.

A Junkyard Full of Flowers

As she fumbled with the buttons of her jeans
the musk
………….of her warmth

rose from the swan of her neck
and mixed with the fog-wet
………….of the cold alley wall.

The streetlight, covered in a speckled veil of drizzle,
flooded the alley
………….in aquarium-blue light.

The muddy puddles we had just splashed through
settled back
………….into stillness –

tapered with petroleum rainbows, as smooth as her silk eyes –
they lay on the concrete
………….gaping up like apertures,

photographing the wild moonlight and recording it
into the scriptures
………….of riverbed churches.

In her husky voice I heard the rumbling of mad oceans
and I saw stars and trembling bridges
………….walk frail light

to the ledges of the visions beyond the woodland path
as it turns through the forest
………….and out of sight.

A car swerved into view. In its headlight,
the cloudy mirage of her breath
………….lit up in the air,

leaving the rose of its afterimage hanging there
until the car drove on
………….and the darkness snatched it –

its grip pressing out the illuminated perfume
from the wrung blossom
………….which spread through the blue alley,

leaving, in place of the strewn cast-offs,
a junkyard
………….full of flowers.

.

The Hearth-Pit

The fire in the hearth is galloping
through the wind in the flue,
over the highways of ember.

Three hundred years ago,
when this farmhouse was built,
a man stooped and dug a pit
under the hearth – in those days
it was also a grave. I too kneel

at it every day
with black roses
and a shattered cross.

I too feel the hearth-pit
in my stomach
turning unquiet

in these early morning
archaeological hours.

As the flames take hold
there comes a sense of longing,
the gone by, as though waved to
by someone I recognize
but don’t remember – except in

the sound of her laughing
when I told her
there was no film
in the camera.

            *

Before leaving,
I set a scalp of turf
on the fading embers of the fire
and look out the window –

across the boglands,
deep in sleep
below a lullaby
of fresh white snow,

a black cormorant
swoops into view
then glides out
towards the open sea.

— Paul McMahon

.

Paul McMahon lives in Cork. His debut poetry chapbook, Bourdon, is being published this November by Southword Editions. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Stinging Fly, Atlanta Review, The Salt Anthology of New Writing, The Montreal International Poetry Prize Global AnthologyAgenda, The Moth, The Irish Times, Southword, Ambit, and others. His poetry has also been broadcast on RTE Radio. He has won a number of prizes for poetry including The Keats-Shelley, The Ballymaloe International, The Nottingham, The Westport, The Golden Pen, second prize in both The Basil Bunting and in The Salt International Poetry Prize, and Arts Bursary awards, for poetry, from both The Arts Council of Ireland, and The Arts Council of N. Ireland.

.

Aug 072016
 

Ray

.

A complicated wood 

I spend my morning wondering
about your covered wrists,
the long silences, like those left
in the treacherous sounds
between islands after ships are lost.

I watch the precision
as your fingers navigate a paper-clip,
unlock, then remake the bends,
again, again, again.

At night I exhume, re-wind
Klein and Jung and Winnicott.

My grandmother had a music box
her father made; each time I visited
she’d wind it up, lift the wooden
lid to let the mechanism plink
its mournful Hornpipe
as a siren pirouetted on a rock.

It sits above my desk.
She lies beneath the knotted wood
wrapped in a familiar scent.

Diatom1The glass images between the poems are examples of work by the poet Michael Ray. More can be seen here and here.

.

An island turning over on its side

Like insomnia, our meeting wasn’t planned.
She sat opposite the only empty chair.
Madame Bovary lay shut beside her tea.
There was music in the thinness of her wrists.
We talked until the café dropped its blinds,
walked across the city to her bed.
After the tide receded we lay naked.
The gutter pipes were choked,
sheets of rain cascaded.
I watched as she turned over on her side;
the sweep of headlights undoing her youth.
In her left eye, a small red island
floated in a blue unstable sea –
a country I was too young to understand.

 

Livres de la solitude
…….
After Louise Bourgeois

The room is lit
for an interrogation.

The floor, a raised
white platform.

A ring of grey sticks
is growing up –

a cleft fence
or whittled children.

Inside, books of red
cloth are stacked;

the raw edges, bound
with blue thread.

A column
as tall as a woman.

This is love
balanced, sewn shut.

couple

Speed my slowing heart

Outside, liverish leaves are falling
on the lawn, reticulated by the wind’s
bitter this way and salt-flung that.

Autumn has left our picnic spot side-parted.
A bald patch shows the blackbird’s small
white packet and in the air a flick-knife

panic to where he perches in the tree,
and no doubt wonders why dawn and worms
and cats always come in that order.

The thought of breakfast takes me from last night’s
failure, to the cloud gathering above our kettle,
and the sky which couldn’t be more loaded.

Snow begins to fall, reminds me of spring
and us looking out beneath the willow’s
canopy of fluff, speculating why the foxglove

only trumpets every other year;
and how its stem of empty seed-heads
stands like a spent and tattered phallus.

 

That life 

Who paints the bargeboards blue and oils
the gate that used to creak? And despite
seagulls littering the roof, risk of full moons
flooding the yard, who chose the ruined
church, sinking into bracken, for their view?

Who walks a lurcher along the shore,
parks their battered black car a cat’s
hiss from the window box, rioting
violets massed along the sill?

Who sleeps in this cottage with its attic
room of wormy boards sloped towards
the early morning sun? And who
is stood barefoot, on those kitchen
flags that gave such cool relief?

Melt

We break milk

move to solids
and trees shoot
leaves like a fix
for breath

we break ice,
and boats move
like small fingers
through slush

we break cruths –
truss the feet
of young girls,
vacuum pack fruit.

We break down
and listen with
the psychomechanic,
to the fault.

— Michael Ray

.

Michael Ray is a poet and glass artist living in West Cork, Ireland. His poems have appeared in a number of Irish and international journals, including The Moth, The Irish Independent, The Shop, Cyphers, The Penny Dreadful, One, Southword, The Stinging Fly, Ambit and Magma. In 2012 he was a winner in the Fish International poetry competition. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Hennessey award. In 2016, he won the Poetry Ireland Café poetry competition. Michael’s visual art has been collected by the Irish Craft and Design Council, the Department for Foreign Affairs and the National Museum of Ireland.

.

Jul 112016
 

Mary Byrne

.

Mary Byrne is Irish but lives in Paris. These small texts are a hilariously whimsical mix of legend, fact, and fiction. The first three come from a collection of Irish firsts. The last — “That’s Another Story” — detailing Ireland’s long pre-history before the Irish were actually living there, is from the opening of a novel-in-progress.

dg

Primordial Irishwomen

If we believe our own stories, the first woman to explore Ireland was called Cessair. She came from an island on the Nile – or maybe it was Greece – anyway, from further east, because she’d had warning about the imminent Flood.

A lot of things happened on the trip over: two of the ships went down, but Cessair and her companions – some 50 women and a mere three men – managed to land. They arrived in Ireland 40 days before the Flood, making land at a place later called Corcu Dhuibne, after the seed or tribe of Duibhne – whoever he was – and now known as Dingle.

It was already raining and the wet rocks looked black, as they would later look in the film Ryan’s Daughter.

Since the story is told by the winners (in this case seventeenth-century Donegal monks), we are told that the men divided up the women between them. A fellow named Fintan had Cessair and sixteen others. Bith – who also just happened to be a son of Noah himself and father of Cessair – took her friend Bairrfhind and another sixteen. The pilot of the boat, Ladra (the original Third Man), was a greedy chap who complained about his unequal portion of the women. Needless to say he was punished for his greed and died of a surfeit of women. Or else “it was the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock,” which we might put down to the first case of Freudianism in Irish writing. That left Fintan and Bith to share out the women between them, and sure enough Bith died next, leaving Fintan with the whole lot. Eventually it was all too much for him too and Fintan fled the women altogether, leaving Cessair and the others to die of broken hearts.

Fintan took refuge in a cave on a hill called Tul Tuinde where he rode out the ensuing Flood and hung around for a very long time – some of it under water – to tell his tale to each new group of immigrants.

Unless you prefer a version of the story from the manuscript Cín Dromma Snechtai (since lost), in which the primordial Irishwoman is Banba who survived the Flood on top of Tul Tuinde, and lived to tell the arriving Milesians that she was older than Noah himself.

We imagine a world in which aboriginal Irishwomen – although already in trouble in terms of the power they wielded – still had the last word, a world in which Madame Bovary hadn’t discovered credit, where the influx of money from the film Ryan’s Daughter (whose black rocks were actually near Cape Town) hadn’t yet saved Duncaoin from economic extinction, a world where even explorer-women were already telling lies to compensate.

§

A sacred marriage*

* With a nod to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis, sent to Ireland to justify arguments for English conquest), and to the Vedic ritual horse-sacrifice asvamedha.

Somewhere in remote Ulster, in the territory of the Cenel Conall perhaps a thousand years ago, it is the coldest season of the year. All summer the grey mare – prestigious colour for a horse – has been cosseted and protected. Now, her time has come. She is used to people, so the noise of the crowd doesn’t worry her. She waits, and grazes.

A huge fire burns nearby, from which assistants wearing identical garments draw hot stones, turning their faces from the heat, backing away from the sparks, They roll the stones into a nearby cauldron of water placed in a hole in the ground. The stones hiss at first, then warm quickly, hiss no more. Steam rises into the cool morning air. The crowd rubs its hands against the cold, and huddles.

Presently there is a hush as the future king appears, wearing a cloak. The mare is led to where he stands. Then his cloak is removed. He is completely naked. He approaches the mare, occasionally dropping onto all fours, and climbs onto a big stone then finally onto some kind of contraption – there are assistants in cloaks, there’s a lot of urgency, it is all far from clear – finally he stands and embraces her neck at length. He strokes her back and approaches her rear, moving quickly. He pretends to (or actually does) mount her like a stallion. The crowd chatters wildly as he fumbles in mimicry of urgent copulation. Someone narrates loudly for those at the back who can’t see.

When it is over the crowd sighs loudly as he is quickly covered again and led to one side. The mare senses danger for an instant as they quickly surround her – but it is too late. They cut her to the bone. Before the crowd can even see the blood, a swift mist rises and floats away on the cold morning. The mare sinks first to her knees then finally falls on her side. They hack at the now lifeless form jigging with fat and gurgling liquids, until it is reduced to manageable pieces that steam in the cool air until dropped into the cauldron of bubbling water.

There is a pause and more recitation while they cook the meat to sufficient paleness. When the broth is cool enough the future king uncloaks again and is helped into the bath where he sits, eating the cooked flesh and offering it to the surrounding dignitaries (who pass small bits into the crowd). He washes it down with his own milky bath water which he scoops up in his cupped hands.

Now he is king, married to the land.

§

A first for Ireland 

Partholon was the first man into Ireland 278 years after the Flood. He was belloragged as a renegade from justice after killing his father, which would make him the original Playboy of the Western World.

Anyway, Partholon and his crowd came and would settle.

He’d always been a man with a mission: he’d been around the Mediterranean in all directions from Sicily to Greece to Cappadocia to Gothia (don’t ask), back to Spain and finally on to Inis Fail in Ireland, arriving on a Monday, or in another version on a Tuesday, the 14th of the moon.

He found it lying waste. Proud of his progressive ideas (already we have a boaster): not only did Partholon introduce the first cattle and cauldrons into Ireland: he and his people set to tidying things up. They settled south of the Liffey, cleared plains, dammed rivers, studied new farming methods.

Partholon was proud of his team: Accesbal (another manuscript calls him Beoir) who had built the first Bed & Breakfast and was planning to expand; Brea who built the first dwelling; and either Samailith or Makaliach who might be described as the first underwriter. They loved counting their exploits: seven lake-bursts, three lakes, nine rivers including the Lee (giver of life) and four new plains, one of which they cleared so well that not a twig has grown on it since.

Partholon’s wife Delgnat was sick of the counting. She knew that the silent Topa, her husband’s servant, was doing a different kind of counting. Topa pretended to be pure, but she reckoned he was just a kenat (a word they used up-country for a smart-aleck).

One day Partholon decided to go off on his travels again. Delgnat didn’t particularly want him to stay, but she knew what would happen as soon as he left: she was beginning to fancy Topa no end, and reckoned that he’d been giving her the eye for weeks.

“Are you not taking himself with you?” she asked her husband, indicating Topa.

Partholon continued to pack. “He’ll only slow me down,” he said, picking up his bundle and heading for the door.

As soon as she saw him and his bundle disappear over the crest of the nearest hill, she manoeuvred Topa into her room and fell upon him. When the deed was done there was such a drought on them that she got him to share a drink from Partholon’s own private vat of sweet ale – the first ale brewed in Ireland and made from bracken, an all-too-available raw material.

She and Topa made the mistake, however, of drinking it through Partholon’s special gold straw. (It had to be taken through a straw because what passed for beer in those days was a porridgey brew with things floating in it – anything that could be found to sweeten it, from honey to meadowsweet – and the straw helped avoid some of the floaters. It would be quite a while before the use of hops – for flavour and head – would make its way to these shores. We may even surmise that the continental Celts used their moustaches for straining their beer, and not their soup, as later claimed by a disgusted Diodorus Siculus.)

When Partholon, a fussy fellow, returned from all his work with a drought on him, he headed straight for his stock of ale, and noticed immediately that someone had been at the gold straw in his absence. He was that smart he recognized exactly who: “I can taste the two of yous clearly,” he said. “I wasn’t long gone but yous couldn’t be aisy.”

Delgnat didn’t even appear apologetic – she gloated. Partholon knew well what she was capable of. Topa maintained that she threw her clothes off and stood in the nip before him and, as he added, sure what was he to do? He insisted that what he had done, he had done without pleasure.

Offended, Partholon didn’t believe this was entirely possible, and considered it insulting. A man normally given to firsts, here was the first case of adultery in Ireland: how well it had to be his own wife – and with a common servant to boot!

And so it was by the same token Partholon was the first to introduce jealousy into Ireland. He was angry and he’d show them.

First he kicked Delgnat’s dog. Finding that this did him no good, he killed it. Then he got so angry he killed Topa as well.

When the law came after him, he demanded his right.

“I want to be paid the price of my honour,” he said. (Obviously this came before Delgnat’s honour, and clearly no one was interested in Topa’s – maybe servants had none, which hasn’t much changed, anywhere).

Delgnat was ready for this.

“And what about me – what about my honour?” says she, bold as brass. “I’m the injured party here. Am I not entitled to compensation? Didn’t you take a great risk, leaving me here with no protection?”

Partholon was dumbstruck as she moved in for the coup de grâce: “You’d leave milk with a cat, would you?”

It was another first for Ireland, a legal first.

Partholon had to swallow his pride. After the adultery, the couple lived together for 17 more years, had ten daughters and four sons who divided the island between them (another first to be repeated ad nauseam).

Finally Partholon and his followers all died – 4,000 women and 5,000 men in a week – of a plague in the month of May, another first: the 1st of Bealtaine. To honour them, the place was named Teamhlacht (now Tallaght), meaning “death monument”, the first of many of these.

§

Sin scéal eile*

* Gaelic for ‘That’s another story’)

Around 20,000 years ago BAA (Before Anybody was Anybody), the last glacial maximum was in full spate. In northwestern Europe, ice overwhelmed all but the highest spots. Anyone with the inclination could have walked from where Dublin is now to where Stockholm would one day be. The mountains of future Donegal, Mayo-Galway, Cork-Kerry rose in their tundra-ness above the white-greyness. Wisps of cloud hung around those few visible peaks while darker denser cloud enveloped the troughs.

To the east rose the peaks of what Chaucer would some day call Englelond, where there had already been humans for some 20,000 years. So far, no evidence has been found that they made their way to Ireland in those early days, but this may be only a question of time. Already distant, the tip of the neighbouring island hung above its own white-greyness. Over the next 10,000 years, a temporary moving landbridge of rubble pushed ahead of the ice made its way from south to north between Englelond and us. Nothing permanent, you understand.

And to the north, between the closest points on the coasts of Donegal and Scotland, a thin umbilical stretched, under the ice.

To compress Ireland’s arrival at some 20,000 years ago is to do an injustice to nature’s patience. A rock in Inistraughull in Donegal is 1,700 million years old. From there to here is inconceivable time travel, painstaking detective work with precious little clues. 600 million years back, Ireland lay in two parts (could the trouble have started here?) around the present level of South Africa, with North American style fauna in one half, and European fauna in the other. 50 million years later, a fern-like branch fossilised in a Bray Head slate. 400 million years ago the two plates welded together and Ireland became one. At Clogherhead and some way inland, the two fauna can be found to mingle. Some 375 million years ago a four-footed creature left tracks in mud on future Valencia Island Co. Kerry. The mud has now become hard slate, but the footprints remain. Then the sea swept in with its coral reefs, preparing limestone for our horses. After that there were rainforests, then swamps. Fossils of spiders and dragonflies are found in coal from these times. By 300 million years Ireland had moved up to the level of the equator and in another 50 million we were level with today’s Egypt, with an appropriately desert climate. Carrantouhill was 3 times higher than today. The Galtees and Knockmealdowns were formed, and Kingscourt gypsum, and the karstic landscapes of the Burren resembled for all the world the Dalmatian coast. Later they became as eroded as the moon’s surface and finally were swept away by ice. From this period a solitary pinnacle remains, near Fenit in Kerry, standing sentinel over a lake. Foundering formed a giant basin from future Lough Neagh to the Firth of Clyde. Somewhere around 225 million years a small reptile crossed the muddy edge of a pond south of Newtownards, and left his mark forever.

From 200-65 million years, organic debris was turning into oil and gas reserves. Ireland got only gas, somewhere off Kinsale. By 180M our profile was very low indeed, drowned in a sea that stretched from Ireland to the Caucasus. By 150M we were covered in chalk, yet the only chalk now left is either hidden under basalt up north or exposed at Ballydeanlea off the road from Tralee to Killarney, where it has been quarried and roasted in limekilns by local farmers, for fertiliser. Skipping ahead now, from 65 to 50 million years ago, volcanic activity in and around the North Channel causes our northeast, Scotland’s southeast, and Greenland to break apart. Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway are created. Molten rock intrusions bring to being the Mourne and Carlingford mountains, Doon Hill in Connemara, and probably also Hawaii and Vesuvius.

We’re up there with the big boys.

Now Ireland is a warm place with dense tropical forests of pine, cypress, monkeypuzzle, alder, fern. By now we’re at the latitude of the American Great Smoky Mountains. By 35 million years, the Lough Neagh basin is some 45 miles long, from future Ballymoney to Portadown, and completely unfamiliar: a large lake surrounded by forests of redwoods, swamp cypress, black gum, and the more prosaic alder, holly, lime, oak and palm.

Again a drive is made for natural resources: this time vegetable debris accumulates and changes into brown coal or lignite. There may also have been similar changes in the Shannon and Erne basins. Now lead and zinc form at Tynagh, where the remains of a bog of cypress have been found in the upper altered ores.

By 25M Ireland is near its present position, and slowly moving away from North America. Irregular falls in temperature all over the world signal what is to come and, sure enough, by 13M icecaps start to form in the polar regions. In Ireland there may have been badlands rather like those in Dakota today: a thick covering of red, yellow and brown clay bereft of plants. Our trees resembled those in North America or the mountains of China: warm temperate woodlands with magnolias, sweet gums, swamp cypress, palm, hemlock. Rhododendron, heather and moss from this period were found in a well near Carlow.

By 1.7 million years, the Ice Age had begun, during which Ireland would give drumlin and esker to the language of geologists and geomorphologists. It wasn’t all bad: a warm phase around half a million years ago gave us open country with fir, spruce, hornbeam and wing-nut. From 425,000-300,000 we had a warm phase named after Gort, with trees we would recognise: spruce, birch, juniper, pine, willow and, towards the end of the period, oak, hazel, ash, yew and finally holly, box and rhododendron, which would later disappear until they were re-introduced in the 18th century to plague the mountains of Kerry and Donegal.

Although man has by now discovered fire, he still hasn’t discovered Ireland, which now resembles the southern slopes of the Caucasus, with heath called Mackay, Dorset and St Dabeoc’s, and Killarney fern which loves being near the spray of a waterfall. 300,000-130,000 is all bad, a cold phase with ice all over the country except Cork and Kerry and thus called the Munsterian phase. There is tundra from the English Channel to Kiev. Ice forms the gap in the Knockmealdowns, carries gneiss cobbles from Mayo as far as Roughpoint near Castlegregory, dumps boulders of granite on the beaches of future Ballybunion and Ballinskelligs, cuts striae into a cliff on Valencia island, forms huge domes cover Mayo. The Tyrone dome holds hard against ice pushing in from Scotland as far as Cork where it deposits a blue-green granite like that of the lonesome Ailsa Craig just across the North Channel.

But what is man up to? By 130,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens was evolving seriously, in East Africa, perhaps. Some scientists now claim to trace us all back to a single ancestor they have dubbed the mitochondrial Eve. Others say there was more than one Eve. The whole thing, in the hands of the irresponsible, is liable to blow up into a racist scat, which will no doubt only be sorted out by DNA when our generations have passed on (although I am determined to hang on long enough to see some mysteries solved).

In fact, the work has already started: people in Ireland are already rubbing a brush around the inside of their cheeks and sending it off to scientists who will analyse it for some 15 genetic markers. Ireland, with its clan system, had a surname headstart of some 3-400 years over the British and the French, so the study is focusing on a handful of Gaelic Ulster names, for starters.

All things start and finish in Ulster or thereabouts, as we shall see.

Whatever the results will tell us about who the Irish really are, we are clear of the charge of being like monkeys, for scientists have recently determined that monkeys are merely man’s cousins. They have stopped looking for the missing link, because there isn’t one. We can talk, monkeys can’t, and that’s it. But I sometimes wonder: there are slender gibbons that live in treetops somewhere and never descend to the ground. They sing, all varieties of them. Like birds.

And wouldn’t you know, there are some bad boys amongst the crowd: researchers in France found the butchered remains of half a dozen people from this time. Not only was the meat removed from the bones in a certain way, but the marrow too. Ritual perhaps – or starvation-induced, there’s no one around to say. In spite of such savagery, most experts agree – and the weather was no doubt sufficiently mild for such luxuries: around 100,000 years ago man was getting into what is called “mythological thinking,” burying his dead with hippie-sounding “grave gear.”

Yes, this is the beginning of more trouble: ritual, religion perhaps, rules certainly.

Man got his heels cooled from 80,000 by a further bout of cold, when the ice returned to almost the level of the Munsterian phase. Drumlins come as far south as Clogher Head (the other, Kerry one), but this is followed 65,000-35,000 by a mild phase, during which elephant molars, pieces of tusk and a solitary tooth – perhaps of a woolly mammoth – get left in gravel near Lough Neagh. Temperature range was small, not unlike the range in today’s Armagh.

Soon they begin to come into focus, our hairy ancestors.

Around 50,000 years ago man began using language proper. I gaze in awe at reproductions of those first works of art called cave paintings which our ancestors may very well have called something else entirely, something more awesome, an impression perhaps augmented by mind-altering plants or mushrooms.

Yes, man may already have been at those dirty drugs.

But still no one has yet ventured to Ireland, or if they have, we haven’t found the evidence. From this time, in a cave at Castlepook near Doneraile in Co. Cork, an uneasy alliance of the bones of mammoth, spotted hyena, giant Irish deer, Norway lemming, brown deer, brown bear and Arctic fox offer silent testimony to either flooding, or strange bedfellows who roamed the open grasslands of the previous warm-up and took refuge from the ice that covered the rest of the country. There were even remains of the obstinate red deer who would still be around, in the wild state, till the 19th century. I imagine them mooching among birch and willow copses, in a landscape not unlike that of Siberia or northern Scandinavia today, a sort of tundra grassland, with docks, sorrel and least willow in patches amidst the snow, juniper in the northeast, birches in the southwest, crowberry in Roundstone. In 1715 someone reported finding mammoth bones near Newbliss, but sadly the bones were carried off and no proof remains.

Our other claim to fame, the giant Irish deer that decorates the walls of museums around the world, now has his heyday. Some 10 foot to the top of his (male only) antlers, he couldn’t have survived in woodland because the antlers also spanned some 10 feet. His was a dangerous life, for he was an awkward fellow, busy shedding and regrowing his annual antlers that weighed 60-odd lbs. He was stupid enough, when coming to drink, to blunder into the mud where he sometimes sank and died, if and when he wasn’t trampling all over his companions as they congregated in a valley, exhausted after the rutting season.

In those days art – if we decide to call it that – was perhaps considered a rather more meaningful activity. Indeed it was probably of prime importance. Artists and shamans had similar roles, if they weren’t exactly the same thing. By 20,000 years ago – now looking very recent indeed – America was being peopled, rampant animals and men were being painted on cave walls, while some remarkably fine Palaeolithic Venuses were being carved in bone and stone. Other, more brutish cave walls just got down to essentials: for a woman, an inverted triangle with a slash towards the bottom.

From now on, temperatures and sea levels rise and fall, but the Ice Age is on its way out, and from 13,000 years ago more practical things can get under way. In what we now call the Middle East and see on our TV screens daily, the first farmers started growing wheat and barley and raising cattle, sheep and pigs. Somewhere around 12,000 BP (before the present, for everything relates to us in the here and now) there is a final lengthy cold snap creating small glaciers in Wicklow. Arctic plants flourish where the Gulf Stream now warms our shores.

It is what I may call a pregnant moment: the ice forms the drumlins that will march from Down to Mayo. Above the ice, the peaks of Croagh Patrick and Errigal are distinguishable in the distance. When the ice finally recedes, all that will be needed is poor drainage, some dense woods, and the damp basket of eggs between Dundalk and Sligo will constitute a major physical obstacle to movement between the two parts of Ireland. It will only take a black pig’s dyke here, a dorsey there, the odd Cuchulainn, and the border is under way. To the west of this belt, corrie lakes nestle under high-seeming summits and further south form the deep glens and waterfalls that will one day attract tourists, like those white beaches where, in summer, foreigners are easily distinguished from the Irish by the fact that they wear rain gear, while the Irish wear swimsuits.

And still the first Irish have not yet arrived.

However, humans are near at hand: a solitary and roughly-fashioned flint, discovered in a Drogheda quarry, dates from this time and shows manufacturing techniques similar to those found in future England. People are there. Perhaps the lonesome flint was washed in at Drogheda from an outpost somewhere on the other side of the Irish Sea.

By 10,000 BCE (a common era that is politically correct) the ice cap has finally withdrawn, leaving tundra and steppe to take over most of Europe and the islands. As the ice withdraws it leaves sand and gravel across the valley of a river south of the present border with Northern Ireland, at a place that will figure in our story, between Conallgearr and Bellahanagadda, causing flooding in the river valley and forming a huge lake some 5 miles long. In the luckiest places pine and birch – one of the oldest tree species growing in Ireland today – start up.

Further north, however, since Scotland is still covered with ice, the remains of the landbridge still straddles between us and Scotland. Our umbilical, as it were, is still in place.

When the definitive warm phase – which we now consider normal – began, plants and animals wanting to immigrate here had a relatively short time to make it before the waters rose definitively to cut them off. It was rather like a Donnelly visa, many applied but few were lucky. You had to be in the right place at the right time to catch the forebulge that moved north as the ice receded, between us and the neighbours, acting as a bridge for our hopeful immigrants.

At Newlands Cross, some meticulous person has found the tooth of a field mouse from this time. But it is above all the botanical invaders that colour the landscape, arriving from all directions: from the north, lady’s tresses, blue-eyed grass and rushes move in, and stay. From the south creep arbutus (which the Irish will call cuinche), violet butterworth and Mediterranean heath splash their delicate pale purples over the mountains in early spring. The pink bells of St Dabeoc’s heath speckle the west, together with orchids and saxifrage. Mackay’s and Dorset heath make it back again, plus London pride and the Irish orchid. No pike, perch or bream are fast enough, but salmon, trout, eel, Lough Neagh pollan and Killarney shad make it in time. I imagine a place of grasses, docks, meadowsweet being slowly invaded by juniper scrub and then finally being overshadowed by willows, birches, aspen.

Our woods are under way.

Why some plants made it to Ireland but not to England is a mystery, especially since we have only 70% of their plants and 65% of their insects and invertebrates. But light thrown on this mystery may serve to answer questions related to later population movements. Here, our witness is a modest little bug that lives in rock crevices around the low-tide mark. Called Aepophilus bonnairei, it can neither swim nor fly, and is found on the Atlantic coast from here to Morocco. The conclusion is that the little fellow made it on foot, all the way up the Atlantic coastal strip. The same theory has the spotted slug making its way up from Iberia through France to settle definitively in Kerry.

Whatever the case, the whole immigration period only lasted some few hundred years. As post-glacial warming really got under way, the seas submerged coastal woods, until finally the crucial event occurred: the last of the ice melted.

It was around 7,500 BC when the drawbridge finally went up and the land bridge was severed. The only remaining link, between Donegal and Islay in Scotland, was removed. By now, the umbilical had been not so much cut, as drowned. Whatever flora and fauna we were going to get, had arrived. From now on, new life forms would get here by man-made means only. Nature’s shape had come to stay.

We were adrift from the neighbouring island, at last!

The remarkable flooding was widespread, causing Stone Age farmers to move on out of the Black Sea region and head off westwards, bringing farming to Europe. Perhaps this was the Flood that that marked man’s stories and memories forever, and in the case of Europe and the Middle East gave the leading role to Noah.

Here in Ireland, there was apparently no one around to celebrate the event, or sing ‘Thank God we’re surrounded by water’. Only the hazel bushes swayed gently in a low wind.

—Mary Byrne

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Mary Byrne was born in Ireland an currently lives in southern France. Her fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, including Numéro Cinq, Prairie Schooner, Dalhousie Review, Irish Times, Shenandoah, Transnational Literature, Stand, and Fiction International. and has been broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.

Tweets @BrigitteLOignon

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May 072016
 
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Photo by Jill Jennings

Eoin McNamee is well regarded as a master of noir literary fiction. Fictionalising real life violent events, his language is stark and brooding but ultimately complex and illuminating – shedding light on the human capacity to conspire with corruption and violent wrong-doing. His Blue Trilogy, focused around Lancelot Curran (a Northern Irish judge, attorney general and parliamentarian), being considered one of his best works: “Eoin McNamee may well be one of the finest writers at work anywhere; sentence for sentence, he is superb – the Blue trilogy is a poised, artistic achievement of compelling menace” – Eileen Battersby (Literary correspondent, The Irish Times). The Blue Tango (2001) was nominated for The Booker Prize and Blue Is the Night won the 2015 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

The extract below is from his forthcoming novel with Faber and Faber, The Vogue. As Eoin writes, “The finding of a woman’s body in an illegal dump on a disused runway uncovers other wrongs. New lies compound old untruths that have held sway since GI’s were billeted on the windblown aerodrome. Darkness descends on a small town.”

—Gerard Beirne

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Cranfield Aerodrome, November 16th, 2014

The sand pit had been opened. A yellow excavator stood by the side of the opening, its bucket raised. Swags of unfurled bandage hung from the bucket tangs, filthy and dripping. An articulated Scania with a covered trailer was backed up to the opening in the ground, its hydraulic rams half-extended. A fluorescent works light hung on jack chain from a corroded derrick. Three men rendered into silhouettes stood between the pit and the light. They stood without moving, their heads bent towards the opening at their feet, functionaries to the merciless night.

The bottom of the pit was half-filled with water. Syringes. Wound dressings rank with old blood and human tissue. Rusted scalpel blades and theatre gowns bundled and discarded. Used drug vials and transfusion sacs floated in the water. A woman’s skeletal remains clad in vile rags lay half-way up the pit wall as though she had crawled from it, matter adhering to her hair and clothes.As though she had looked for mercy and found there none. Across the sandy fen to the north of the darkened aerodrome chapel bells rang for the ascension.

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One

The Negro

17th January, 1945, Shepton Mallet Prison, Sussex.

The negro sits without moving. In the execution shed the apparatus is being made ready.The hood. The rope. The pinnings. Coir matting has been placed on the floor and against the walls to deaden sound but the prisoners can hear the hammering and tool work.

In his 1956 autobiography the hangman Albert Pierrepoint states his dislike for the American hanging method. Pierrepoint likes to have his prisoner sitting with his back to the door so that he can be taken by surprise and pinioned. Pierrepoint says he can get the prisoner from the cell to the drop in ninety seconds. He prides himself on it. The Americans insist that the prisoner wear full dress uniform with all marks of rank and insignia removed. The charges and sentence must be read to the condemned man at the foot of the scaffold. The Americans wanted the execution to be procedural, ornate. The prisoner must be reminded of his guilt. The executioners must be reminded of their duty. They imagine the antechamber of death to be a place of drama, laconic asides, last minute admissions.

‘Pierrepoint won’t sneak up on me,’ Martinez said, ‘I’m going out the American way.’

Martinez had been sentenced to death in August for the murder of a military policeman.

‘Kind of justice I like,’ Martinez said, ‘court martial took a day. No appeal. Straight and to the point. I got no complaints. Except the bastard Redcap had it coming.’

Martinez said he was going to stand facing the door of the death cell so that Pierrepoint could not take him by surprise.

‘Full dress kit. I’ll be standing to attention. Walk out of there like a man.’

There are other Americans in the cells. The prison has been under United States military jurisdiction since 1942. The men call to each other softly from the windows. They are not normally permitted to communicate but on the eve of an execution the Guards are lenient.

‘Hooper,’ Davis said, ‘you there?’

‘I’m here.’

‘I seen Pierrepoint go into the Governors house when they brought me down.’

‘What’d he look like?’

‘Ordinary man. Owns a pub in Oldham. He hanged one of his own customers, gentleman by the name of Corbitt. Corbitt killed his girlfriend and wrote Whore on her forehead.’

‘Man deserved to hang then.’

Hooper had been shackled to Davis in the back of the Utility truck that brought them to the prison. Davis was from Chicago, a thin, talkative man. He said he was doubled-jointed. He could slip his hands out of the cuffs any time he wanted, he said. All you had to do was give the word, They passed through Bristol at dead of night, the town under blackout. Driving through the Mendip hills. Stubble fields, gold and red as though the moonlight burned them. Passing through the towns of Clifton and Winterbourne. Passing through Evercreech and Frome.

‘Where you from, son?’ Davis said,

‘Near New York. Oxford, New Jersey.’

‘Your first time out of the States?’

‘First time out of Oxford, New Jersey.’

Davis spat over the tailgate of the truck.

‘And dearly you wish you had never left it.’

‘You got that right.’

‘Likely you won’t be going any further than Shepton Mallet. Last stop on the line.’

The negro asked where they were and the MP escort said they were close to Glastonbury. Davis told him about Glastonbury tor. He said that ley lines ran under the front gate of Shepton Mallet.

‘What are ley lines?

‘Lines that connect places of power. The ancient people knew them.’

‘Boy is all caught up by the the ancient stuff.’ The MP said.

‘Caught up by it til he’s caught up by the neck hisself.’

‘Reckon the negro here believes in that voodoo stuff?’ Davis said.

‘Voodoo’s from Haiti,’ Hooper said.

‘Same difference. Nothing godly in any of it.’

The Negro says nothing. There are demons out there. He seen it himself. The devourer of souls.

If he stood on his bed the negro could see the execution shed. The execution shed was a windowless red brick two story extension attached to the limestone wall of the old prison. An internal door opened from the main body of the prison into the execution chamber. The trapdoor opened onto a downstairs room with an external door. The external door faced the steel door of the morgue in the next building. October. Early frost on the ground at first light. Fifty minutes after dawn the ground floor door opened. Two men carried Martinez body on a stretcher like something they had stolen. He could hear the sound of their boots on the loose clinker on the ground as though they struck iron there. His grandmother had told stories of graves opened by night and bodies thieved. She said the darkness claimed its own. The two men laboured under their burden.

The negro turned away from the window and lay down on his bed. He closed his eyes. He had left Oxford, New Jersey, two years earlier. He had come into New York by bus through the Jersey turnpike. The suburban city lost in dusk, snow flurries blowing through the grid of clapboard houses. America looking lost in a wintry dream of itself. He could see the towers of Manhatten in the distance but he was more aware of the cracked road surface, rubbish piled in the freeway margins, caught in broken chain-link fences. He had expected more. A city that was striven for, epic, rising out of the historic swamplands. Passing road signs. Newark. Idlewild. The lost townships.

He stayed in a Negro hotel on the margins of the wholesale district. There were braziers burning on the street. The night was loud with stoop-talk, negroid gutterals. The streets smelt of rotting fruit. Crates of vegetables piled high on the sidewalk. He looked into warehouses and stores, the massive girdered interiors, feeling that he was getting a grasp on the inner matter of the city, the iron-joisted substance of it. It was cold and he saw steam rising from the pavement grilles. It surprised him again that the city was gritty, earthbound. On a street corner a prostitute offered him sexual favours. She was a remnant of the night before, a carnal leftover, the rouged leavings of the night.

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Two

The Brethern

Cranfield Aerodrome, Kilkeel, 16th November, 2014

Early morning. Gray skies. You could see a long way across the aerodrome. The block plant. The remnants of some spent industry. Overworked resources, seeping pollutants exhausted. Machinery dented and rusted. A dumper truck with flat tyres. Machine parts leaked diesel sludge onto the concrete apron. You started to wonder what had led to this abandonment. What catastrophe had come to pass.

Cole imagined the malign traffic that had flowed through this yard. Customs, police, tax inspectors. The administrative weather set at steady rain. Cole looked in the largest shed. A door creaked somewhere at the back, the noise amplified in the girdered ceiling. The place reeked of secret histories, illicit commerce.

He got out of the car. A man was waiting for him under the sand hopper. An elderly man in a white shirt with blood spots on the collar. He looked like a lone survivalist, edgy, spooked. He kept looking past Cole. As if he knew what was out there. As if he knew it would come again.

‘John Uel?’

‘You’re from the Ministry,’ John Uel said, ‘Sergeant Corrigan said you were coming.’

‘James Cole from the MOD.’

‘There was never any luck in this land,’ John Uel said.

‘No luck for this girl anyhow.’

‘Any word of her identity?’

‘No.’

‘Nor any word how long shes been in the ground. The sand will hold you down there until its good and ready to let you go.’

‘How long has the illegal dumping been going on?’

‘I know nothing about no dumping.’

‘They had to cross your land to get to it.’

‘That land is nobodies.’

‘It can’t belong to nobody.’

‘Then maybe it’s the devils.’

‘My information is that this portion of it belongs to the MOD.’

‘That’s what I told the polic..’

‘They’ll want to talk to you.’

‘They already talked.’

‘They’ll want a formal statement.’

‘I have nothing for them.’

‘People always have something.’

‘And what do you have, Mr Ministry of Defence?’

‘I have the right to inspect all documentation in relation to the freehold, leasehold, transfers and otherwise.’

‘You think one of yours done her. A soldier? Is that why you’re here?’

‘We don’t know what happened to her.’

‘The sands not like right ground.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The sands shift. Things travel down there. You found her here doesn’t mean she was put in the ground here.’

Cole looked out over the tailings pond beside the block yard. A crust of dried sand on top and underneath the liquid tonnage. Deep tectonic movement. The land shifting beneath your feet.

‘The police will have questions for you. Did you not see lights down there? Who owns the excavator? Those kind of questions.’

‘They can question away. I have no answers for them.She should have stayed down there.’

‘I don’t think she had a choice in the matter.’

‘She should have stayed down there until she was called.’

‘Called?’

‘On the day of resurrection.’

A woman watched from the window of the Portakabin. Cole trying to make out her face behind the window streaked with wet sand and blown concrete dust. Dark hair, the features unresolved.

‘Who’s that?’

‘She does the books.’

‘Do you have land maps here, Mr Uel, deeds, anything like that?’

‘I won’t do your job for you Cole.’

‘I can just look them up in the land registry.’

‘Then you better do that.’

‘I need to find Sergeant Corrigan.’

‘Try the Legion at the harbour. Its the kind of place you might find a sporting man.’

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British Legion, Kilkeel Harbour, 16th November 2014

There was racing on the television with the sound turned down, jockeys in muted silk turning into the home straight. Kempton Park, Chepstow. Labouring towards the line in rain-blown provincial race tracks. Rain blowing against the Legion windows . The girl behind the bar was Latvian, product of some gritty baltic seaport. Her small dissatisfied-looking mouth turned down at the corners suggested a mean-spirited sensuality.

‘I was told Sergeant Corrigan was here?’ She shook her head. Cole looked at the other drinkers but they kept their heads down. There was a bar room atmosphere of low-key duplicity and letting things go for the general good. Cole lifted a copy of the Racing Post, set himself to studying the form. The door opened behind him and he saw the bar girl look up as the door opened. Corrigan. The policeman was mid-fifties, his face covered in old acne scars like a mask of affliction.

‘John Cole. Ministry of Defence. We talked on the phone.’

‘I hear tell you’re looking into the body.’

‘You hear well. The body and the dumping.’

‘Whats your interest?’

‘Two crimes on MOD land.’

‘There’s no evidence so far that the girl was the victim of a crime. Can you confirm that the land belongs to the MOD?’

‘I intend to.’

‘Your car was at John Uel’s this morning.’

‘It was. Has the body been identified?’

‘Female between ages of twelve and twenty. Doesn’t fit any listed missing person. We’re looking at historic.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Who?’

‘The dead girl.’

‘Where do they put dead people?’

‘The morgue.’

‘Then that’s where she is.’

‘Is it open?’

‘Only if you’re dead.’

‘Who’s in charge?’

The pathologist is Morgan. If I was you I’d stay away from John Uel.’

‘He looks like a religious man.’

‘The good-living are always the worst. An autopsy is scheduled for next Monday.’

‘Why wait so long?’

‘She’s been down there long enough. She’ll wait awhile. Morgan has samples took. He’ll wait for them to come back from the lab. He wants to establish how long she’s been in the ground before he uses the knife on her.’
Shes been down there long enough. The girl lost in the strata, the deep undertow of the sand.

‘What about the lorries doing the dumping?’

‘They’ve been coming in on the Ro-Ro ferry, going straight back out again. There’s no way to track them down.’

‘Somebody must have seen them.’

‘Theres a widow lives on her own out the Limekiln road,’ Corrigan said. ‘She made a complaint about lorries at night. Artics. Putting the hammer down. No lights. No-one paid her any heed.’

The Limekiln road. No place for a widow to live on her own. No place for anyone to live on their own. The road running along the seas edge, the salt water littoral.At night the east wind rattles the dry stems in the reed beds. In the dark there is the call of seabirds from the mudflats, eerie pipings carried across the shifting channels and dark tide races. Brackish drains carry run-off into the shallows. Dead alder trees on the verges. People come out from the town to dump on the scrublands.

‘We thought she was dreaming,’ Corrigan said.

‘I’ll take you up to the hospital ,’ Corrigan said. ‘You can view the body, if that’s want you want.’

Cole followed Corrigan out onto the quay. A north-east wind blew up the boat channel. Hanks of net twine blew through the harbour margins, caught on discarded trawl cable. There were scattered fish scales, marine diesel spills on the harbour margins. A white box van was parked at the inner basin. A group of women stood in the lee of the ice plant. They each held a leatherbound hymnal. Men in black suits took speakers dressed in black cloth from the rear of the van and set them on tripods. A portable harmonium was handed over the wall and placed between the speakers. The men moved deliberately. They were elect. A girl stood apart from the women with her back to the outer basin. She wore a floral skirt which touched the ground. She had on a white cap. Her hair was gathered under it and fell to her waist.

The women wore long dresses buttoned to the throat. They wore no make-up. They seemed to have come from a latter century, pilgrim wives. An elder sat down to the harmonium.

They reached Corrigan’s car. The voices of the women came across the harbour. This was the hymnal of the town, the voices cadenced, God-haunted. Rural sects who practiced in corrugated gospel halls. The girl stood with the other women, her back half-turned. The oldest man motioned to her to step closer. His eyes rested on her hair loose under her cap, unchaste livery of the fallen.

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Kilkeel Hospital, 16th November, 2014

The hospital stood on the high ground above the river. Built on the site of the Workhouse. Ungraven stone markers beneath the scrub grass. Coffins brought in a handcart down a sunken pathway after dark. The grave opened by lamplight. A paupers moon hidden by the scrub pines growing on the slope. The bottom of the coffin was bracketed with brass hinges screwed to the coffin base plate so that it could be re-used. Other inmates filled in the grave. The corpses stripped naked so that the clothes could be re-used. All surrendered before they entered the workhouse. They died of typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis. What prayers the dead got were lost in the boreal darkness.

The hospital building was closed save for the morgue. Wartime Nissen huts in the hospital grounds housed the elderly and infirm of the town and its hinterland. Cole could see residents in wing back chairs in the closed-in glass porch. Bone-thin, palsied.

‘They act like bloody royalty, Corrigan said, ‘and them the leavings of the town.’

‘You know them?’

‘Put names to every one of them, seed breed and generation.

They think they’re on the brink of salvation but they’re not. My own fathers in it.’

Cole looked at him. ‘I should visit more often.’

The old people seemed imperious to Cole, a peerage of their kind. One of them lifted a hand to the car.

‘After the war the hospital was all sorts. A pharmacy. A children’s home. Then they parked the geriatrics in it.’

They entered the hospital building by a side door. Part of the plaster had fallen away from the inside wall to show the granite rubble construction behind.

The morgue was in the basement. Corrigan led Cole down a stairwell. He feels himself part of the workhouse complex. He can feel himself deep in the ground. He can feel its fastness all around him, the earthhold. The basement corridors stored the hospital files. Dented grey filing cabinets against the wall. Medical records. Psychiatric records. The death-trove of the town.

Corrigan unlocked the morgue door. Cole saw chipped tiling to waist level. Above that the walls were distempered, the paint peeling and flaked, the ground-damp seeping upwards. There was rubber matting on the floor worn through to the concrete in places. Theatre lights from long ago were switched on over the autopsy bench. The fittings were stiff and tarnished and Corrigan adjusted the nearest so that its brass pivot squealed.

Corrigan opened the cadaver drawer. The body was chilled but Cole could smell the ground from which it had been taken. The stench of the opened pit.

‘Do you want to come back when she’s opened up? She’s well preserved. Pathologist says she might have found herself in a pool of some preservative liquid. They’re a fucker to get rid of, preservatives. You can’t just tip them down the drain.’

‘Did you test the ground water?’

‘Who would pay for that for some long-dead girl?’

‘You have a point. Where is the clothing?’

‘Over there. I bagged it.’

Cole crossed the room to the stainless steel shelving units. There were jars and stainless steel dishes on the shelves. You thought of them filled with viscera, the organs stored for journey as they might be for a pharaoh or his queen. He did not look again at what lay in the cadaver drawer. The figure seemed wizened and hag-like, come to him from some dream of corruption and he wished not to know her.

Corrigan took sterile gloves from a clinical pack. He used scissors to cut the cable tie on the evidence bag. He laid the clothing on the sterile surface, the odour of ground toxins rising from the fabrics. The material starting to stiffen. He placed the clothes as she would have worn them, stained beyond recognition and shrunken by long immersion to a child’s proportions.

‘A child?’

‘The size on the garment label. It’s a twelve. Stockings, suspender belt. Shoes size five. No child was wearing this outfit.’

‘Teenager maybe.’

Cole leaned over the body.

‘Odour of formalin.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Dilute formaldehyde. It may be that the formalin was part of the hospital waste.’

‘Formalin?’

‘Its used as a preservative and bactericide. Histology labs used it for keeping organ samples. Undertakers keep gallon flagons.’

‘If some of that has been dumped on top of her the body would keep.’

‘Complicates the autopsy process.’

‘How soon will you know how long the body has been there?’

‘I don’t know. John Uel is anxious to know as well.’

‘He owns part of the land. Wants us to own the rest of it. Lets him off the hook.’

‘It lets him off the hook with regard to having a recent corpse on his rotten property. Doesn’t absolve him of anything else.’

‘John Uel will have figured the odds. You can’t be liable for waste dumped on somebody else’s land.’

‘What about a body?’

‘That might be a different matter.’

The smell of formalin getting stronger now, the chemical stink working its way into the neural pathways. Cole felt as if cold nineteen year old hands were dragging him down into some elaborate devising of the underworld.

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The Hollow, Kilkeel, 10th December, 2015

Cole parked in the Hollow behind the Kilmorey Hotel. The river in flood. Debris on the margins. Water in choked drains, the sucking darkness. The far bank in blackness. Slum clearances here thirty years ago, the site levelled. Children with diptheria. His room was at the rear of the building, looking out over the hollow and beyond that the roofs of the town, the streetlights glowing like naptha, giving way to the shadows of old entryways, back yards, the towns unslept gothic. A rain squall blown in from the sea darkened the town.

He walked across the car park. Two girls were outside the off licence. They wore coloured blouses in pink and blue which stood out like damask in the stark yard. Two boys stood in the lee of the dance hall gable shoulders hunched against the driven blast. Cole wondered what they waited on for there seemed no prospect of anything other than more rain, more night.

—Eoin McNamee

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mcnamee, eoin

Eoin McNamee has written seventeen novels, including Resurrection Man and The Ultras. His latest novel is Blue Is The Night, the third book of the Blue Trilogy. He lives in Co Sligo.

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Mar 052016
 

adrian and matthew
It was a cold Friday afternoon, last December, the 18th. By the fire in my front room in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada), I called, via Skype, father and son tag team poets, Adrian and Matthew Rice. Adrian answered from his home in Hickory, North Carolina and Matthew from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was particularly interested in the father-son poetry connection and how much influence they had upon each other’s work, whether their writing processes were similar or not and how the poems unfolded for them. We spoke about their influences, why poetry was important to them and what advice, if any, Adrian would give to Matthew about the writing life. I also asked Adrian about Abbey Press, a poetry press he co-founded in 1997 which published critically acclaimed work from Irish poets such as Michael Longley, Gerald Dawe, Brendan Kennelly, and the late Hungarian poets, Istvan Baka, & Attila Jozsef among others. But first I wondered how a young boy from the Rathcoole housing estate, north of Belfast got interested in poetry and how he eventually found his way to North Carolina.

While the joys of technology made this international video-interview possible, the pains (or my lack of understanding) of this same technology resulted in my external microphone only working intermittently. My solution was to edit my voice out of the recording and allow Adrian and Matthew to speak for themselves which you will soon realise they are more than competent in doing.

Following the interview are four poems from Matthew and four from Adrian (the first two are from his collection, The Clock Flower, and the last two from his recently published book, Hickory Station. Adrian is also one half of  ‘The Belfast Boys’, an Irish Traditional Music duo – in between their two sets of poems, you can listen to The Belfast Boys’ rendition of The Blue Hills of Antrim)

—Gerard Beirne

 ..

Sparrow

Darkness was dwindling
As we arrived back at your house
At dawn, late summer ghosting
The curtained rooms,

To find two sparrows flying a frenzy
Around the place, having tumbled
Down the throat of the chimney,
Spewed into domesticity.

While you set about freeing the one
Downstairs, I followed the other
Up above and cornered it
Against the window in the study,

Butting frantically against the glass –
Hope as a symbol with all hope lost.
And it was then that I thought
That losing all hope was a renewal,

Like the petering-out of a season.
So, I offered it the last of my hope;
I opened the study window
And watched it disappear into sunlight.

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The Hedge

in memory of Billy Montgomery

I’m a youngster
Led by the hand, as
The steam coming off the hob
Casts a cloudless shadow

Across the kitchen floor –
The smell of it like some old shanty
Billowing out its breath
Into the night,

Filling my field of vision
With a plume-tailed epiphany,
Holding the soul open
For the briefest moment,

Ebbing gently like the aftermath
Of passing through a rain-soaked hedge
Under falling cherry blossom –
As the window is opened

And the room restored.

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Atreus and Thyestes

in memoriam Zbigniew Herbert

Wet-eyed and begging,
Thyestes’ sons are put under their uncle’s
blade. Clean-edged vengeance-giver,
Atreus separates them into pieces,
aiming carefully at the wrists
to make a clean sever,
and, at pains to preserve the dignity of the young faces,
makes a good stroke at removing their heads.
The heads and hands he’ll cauterise
and keep, holding in a single thought reason and grief.

And look, what a lavish feast he’s laid on
for his brother, who sits across
eating under the illusion of truce,
who, later, will take the long walk
to the Oracle, red-eyed and sickened,
through the honeysuckle hedges
and high-sided hollows,
stopping briefly along the way
to tickle his throat with a feather;
vomiting up his beloved children
amid the indifferent, dipping swallows,
the sweet scent of summer –
how cruel the life that continues on.
The cooling breeze and carefree sway
of high branches make playful shapes
in the setting sun.

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The Gardener

It’s cool before the sun comes up
over Gethsemane, a single bird
singing like a wayward fan
during a minute’s silence.

The man out for an early morning stroll,
taking a piss under the drooping trees,
wonders briefly why the gardener in the distance
is not moving and is down on his knees.

—Matthew Rice

 

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The Clock Flower

As far as the rest of the universe is concerned,
Maybe we’re like the feather-fluff of the clock flower,

The ghostly snow-sphere of the dying dandelion
That the child holds up in wide-eyed wonder,

Which the mother says to blow on to tell the time
By how many breath-blows it takes before the airy seed

All flies away, leaving her child clutching a bare stem.

And where our humanness might go, who knows?
And when it lands – takes root – what grows?

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from ‘Eleventh Night’
XIX. Budgie

Drive the Demon of Bigotry home to his den,
And where Britain made brutes, now let Erin make men!
from ‘Erin’ by William Drennan (1754-1820)

It seemed like every single house had one
Except us, though we had an aquarium,
The other housed comfort of the working class,
One behind the bars, the other behind glass.
I thought it odd that the underprivileged
Would happily keep something tanked or caged,
Considering our hard human condition.
I guessed it was our identification
With creatures as poorly predestined as we
Often believed our hand-to-mouth selves to be.
Keeping birds in seed is a real kind of love,
And sprinkling fish-flakes like manna from above.
………….Now by a strange quirk of imagination –
Some new light from within, something gene-given –
Every time I saw a map of Ireland
I rebelled against the usual notion,
The birds-eye, map-driven visualization
Of Ireland backed to the masculine mainland,
Her leafy petticoats eyed-up for stripping,
Her feminine fields ripe for penile ploughing.
Even as a child, I refused to see it
As a victim, back-turned towards Brit-
Ain, inviting colonial rear-ending.
I saw it as a battling budgie, facing
The mainland, proudly, prepared for what might come
Winging over the waves from the gauntlet realm.
Though couched by Drennan to properly provoke
His fellow Irishmen to throw off the yoke,
It was no ‘base posterior of the world’,
Arsehole waiting to be slavishly buggered
By a foreign foe even our side flinched at.
No more servile hung’ring for the ‘lazy root’,
But male and broad-shouldered as The Hill of Caves –
Where the United Irishmen first swore slaves
Would be set free by jointly overturning
The home-based kingdom of the sectarian –
Our bold-hearted budgie had come of age,
Had climbed the ladders and looked in the mirrors,
Then ignored the dudgeon doors and bent the bars,
Self-paroled, assuming independent airs.
………..So turned towards the royal raven of England,
To my mind, our Irish budgie was crowned
With the head of Ulster: the tufty hair of
Wind-blown Donegal, the brawn and brains of
Radical Belfast, the ‘Athens of the North’,
With the clear blue eye of Neagh, and beak of Ards,
Heart, lungs and Dublin barrel-bulge of Leinster,
The fiery feet and claws of mighty Munster,
And thrown-back western wings of mystic Connaught.
Four provinces, four-square, forever landlocked,
Friend of brother Celts, but full of righteous rage
Against the keeper of the keys to the cage,
The Bard’s ‘blessed plot’, his ‘precious stone set in
The silver sea’, his ‘dear, dear land’, his England.
Yes, no Catholic cage, nor Protestant pound,
Could hold my dissenting ideal of Ireland.
For in spite of spite, it was Drennan’s Eden,
‘In the ring of this world the most precious stone!’
His ‘Emerald of Europe’, his ‘Emerald Isle’
Which no vengefulness would finally defile.

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Breath

What is death,
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock-cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those futtery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the least draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
a perfect bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breaths into her mouth.

What is life,
but a drawing in
of breath?

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Wasps

On an unseasonably
warm afternoon
I am back on the porch,
and the little wasps
are trying to build
in the hollow arms and legs
of my aluminum chair.

They’re determined,
as they are every spring,
to inhabit my chosen seat,
but I have soaked
their sought for portals
with gasoline, being equally
determined to stay put.

But on they come,
at regular intervals,
in one’s and two’s only,
as if one sometimes needs
the second as witness to carry
the story of occupation back
to the others, to be believed.

I wonder what they think of me,
and feel sorry for them,
almost guilty, even imagining
the dark openings they seek
as being cave mouths
in which they wish to store
some valuable scrolls.

So I am kind to myself,
reminding myself
that it’s my chair, my porch,
though I can hear them protesting
But we were here first!
Fair enough. But no matter.
For I have a porch thirst.

Gasoline will win the day,
for another year, anyway,
and I will sit safely and securely
behind my slatted battlements,
scratching the pale page
hoping, as always, to be
stung by poetry.

—Adrian Rice

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Matthew Rice was born in Belfast in 1980. He has published poems widely in reputable journals on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as having his work included in the CAP Anthology, ‘Connections’. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his first collection of poetry entitled ‘Door Left Open’. He was long-listed for The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016. He is studying for his BA Honours degree in English Language and Literature. He lives, works and writes in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.”

Adrian Rice was born just north of Belfast in 1958, in Whitehouse, Newtownabbey, County Antrim. He graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA in English & Politics, and MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature.. His first sequence of poems appeared in Muck Island (Moongate Publications, 1990), a collaboration with leading Irish artist, Ross Wilson. Copies of this limited edition box-set are housed in the collections of The Tate Gallery, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Lamont Library at Harvard University. A following chapbook, Impediments (Abbey Press, 1997), also earned widespread critical acclaim. In 1997, Rice received the Sir James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary for Emerging Artists. In autumn 1999, as recipient of the US/Ireland Exchange Bursary, he was Poet-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, where he received ‘The Key to the City’. His first full poetry collection – The Mason’s Tongue (Abbey Press, 1999) – was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Literary Prize, nominated for the Irish Times Prize for Poetry, and translated into Hungarian by Thomas Kabdebo (A Komuves Nyelve, epl/ediotio plurilingua, 2005). Selections of his poetry and prose have appeared in both The Belfast Anthology and The Ulster Anthology (Ed., Patricia Craig, Blackstaff Press, 1999 & 2006) and in Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets (Ed., John Brown, Lagan Press, 2006). A chapbook, Hickory Haiku, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press, Kentucky. Rice returned to Lenoir-Rhyne College as Visiting Writer-in-Residence for 2005. Since then, Adrian and his wife Molly, and young son, Micah, have settled in Hickory, from where he now commutes to Boone for Doctoral studies at Appalachian State University. Turning poetry into lyrics, he has also teamed up with Hickory-based and fellow Belfastman, musician/songwriter Alyn Mearns, to form ‘The Belfast Boys’, a dynamic Irish Traditional Music duo. Their debut album, Songs For Crying Out Loud, was released in 2010. Adrian’s last book, The Clock Flower (2013), and his latest, Hickory Station (2015) are both published by Press 53 (Winston-Salem).

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Jan 032016
 

Afric high res bio pic

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A River of Familiars

I have a cat that sharpens her scent on men.
……………I netted her from the river, called her mother.

Perhaps there’s a cat-flap in the sky,
……………because sometimes my mother’s a golden owl.

I have a memory cat that in a past life
……………knew the taste of golden whiskey.

My cat has a curiosity about the whiskey-crazy
……………wish for public nudity.

I have a crazy city cat with a lightning dart
……………across her lazy eye.

And my lightning cat has an earring, just the one,
……………mother-of-pearl. Call it intuition.

And seven secret positions, the last
……………a chanting lotus. I have a cat that doesn’t exist.

I have a penchant for jumping trains, inhaling
……………with each knock. I have a sister cat who inhales too.

I have a lover who becomes a lion under the glassy moon.
……………And the cat exhales her wail, like an accordion.

One cat is a grand, glass-lidded, gleaming ivory,
……………the light, not yet put out.

First-born, I am, of a cat who cycles lightly
……………inside his mansion full of stories, war and music.

My cat and I wear twenty masks when singing
……………out in rain, take it, like a wafer, on the tongue.

I have a cat that purrs in white and black
……………or foggy smoke rings, belly up.

As a foggy curtain rises, a missing cat
……………runs rings around the time inside a clock.

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Confluence

His manner is reserved,
a little secretive.
He scours the room, which also pines
for colour; moves
to the window’s blazing snap of light.

Her age depends on the light,
especially the collarbone’s
slight hollow at the V,
a wishbone, which gives luck
only when broken.

He is both still and moving,
like a tree in the trembling
haul of spring,
building up its nests
and growing puddles.

She spends the water
with spread fingers.
He is afraid of loss –
it’s easier to have nothing.
No way in for the water; no way out.

It’s herself she’s in danger from,
seizing a handful of electric wire,
as though clutching-
for-dear-life
a hank of drowning hair.

He paints what’s left behind.
A thought-ghost grieves,
disturbed by mutation;
like seeing the bones of tiny,
once-swimming fish.

She notes there’s no
fountain swishing,
only light.
Weightlessness
encloses her.

They share a reading
of each other’s bodies
among the hung-up coats,
mud-sucked boots;
the track.

They look up to find
the sky wiped free
of the drench;
his voice shifting
to a minor key.

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Contact

God and the Devil are one – Karen Blixen

I

Chopper’s genuflection;
a whoomph disturbs the air.

Clansmen and women offer fruit;
a whoomph disturbs

a calabash, spills water;
a whoomph: white walls, a flare.

II

A mob; Kalashnikovs and rocks.
He cowers in a corner.

Hands seize
on splintered glass.

A looming face, teeth yellow-
stained from chewing khat

spring-loaded spittle
screaming hate.

III

The sea receives more bodies,
lays them on a beach.

Crossings lead
to razor wire, new fences.

IV

Boycotts and defences dance
like pirouettes, a paintbrush.

V

At an army base: ‘I believe
he had no faith.’

The chaplain’s agitated. ‘But
we’ve got to say a prayer

before we zip the bag.
It’s always been the way.’

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Blink

They stream invisibly,
like phantom-birds past
a tarred window,

all the houses.
The first African one,
a hammerkop, all messy crest;

another, a paradise fly-catcher;
a third, a heron.
Sometimes they brushed

the edge of wild bush,
or a silvery river,
warming their tails

in the sun, till the vanishing.
One for each year
of a migratory childhood.

Long corridors, tall steps,
cold rooms, glass roofs.
Across a hemisphere,

some stood on lawns,
bright as sugar.
We dressed them up,

like mannequins, knowing
them to be temporary playthings
before another re-crossing.

Tucked at the end of a long cul-de-sac,
one comes close
to what you’d call home:

close enough to look into the glossy
pellet of a sun-struck eye,
see the malachite-amber blur.

But it slips through my fingers,
and once again I am left with another
feather-gold flickering.

.

Portrait of the Other

Like art (an addiction,
not a cure), you’re

the moonlit flit from
silk to gold, to wings

to glass; light as cats,
and sniper-accurate;

a heliotropic paradox
facing five horizons.

You’re a pack of jokers,
deuces, three-eyed queens;

the immensity of an
ocean or inferno;

you’re a shadow-grue,
sunlight and lawn,

and all the time
in the world.

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—Afric McGlinchey

 

Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland. She grew up in Southern Africa, moving frequently between countries, and received degrees from Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town, where she was tutored by the Nobel prize-winner, JM Coetzee. She has also lived in London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. She returned to Ireland in 1999 and currently lives in West Cork. Her début poetry collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, was published in 2012 by Salmon Poetry. The poems featured above are from her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which is forthcoming in February 2016 (Salmon Poetry).

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Dec 052015
 

Dennis

Dennis O’Driscoll’s abrupt and untimely death on December 24th 2012 was a huge shock to the poetry world. He was an acclaimed poet (considered one of the best European poets of his time) and critic who was selfless in his generosity towards his fellow poets. His remarkable series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008 – a book-length portrait of the famous poet. And, perhaps, it was Heaney who when speaking of his friend, Dennis, put it best:

“Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word. Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats‘s “man of a passionate serving kind”, never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought.”

On this, the third anniversary of his death, I am tremendously grateful to his sister Marie for sharing her memories of Dennis, her personal photographs and her vibrant artwork.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Though Dennis will be remembered by many through the treasured words he left behind, I will always be filled with the memories of growing up together, our childhood days.

I filled the garden with skipping rhymes, Dennis sat and read. He was the one who introduced me to the joy of reading, the first of many books.

He was a great instigator of much of the mischief which occurred in the household of six siblings.

He took me on my first trip without our parents, on the train to Dublin, where he quickly reached the top of the large queue in the train’s restaurant, with the use of my “magic slate” to announce to all that he was deaf and dumb. But he soon found his voice… when we were sympathetically ushered to the counter much to the annoyance of our fellow passengers!!

He created “pop up” art exhibitions of his ‘Abstract artwork” on the front wall of our home (which were worth a fortune!!). My parents were only alerted to the event by the sound of the odd car slowing down to take a peek as they traveled along the road.

Our annual holidays by the sea, embracing his anonymity, he could be a French tourist with little ability to communicate in English, seeking directions from exasperated, though helpful, locals. Convince people they were being interviewed live on the radio on topics of great interest, these interviews which we would listen back to on his tape recorder later in the day.

Our family’s Christmas will be forever tinged with sadness now,
his books and the many cards and letters he sent me
lie huddled together on my shelves,
where with the flick of a page,
I can feel his heart pouring out,
read his thoughts,
see visions through his words

Though it’s no easy task.

 

childDennis back in our childhood days.

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Christmas Eve 2012

My heart sunk as I caught a glimpse of the postal van, on its last round, as it headed for home on that cold Christmas eve 2012. The parcel from my brother Dennis wrapped with care, filled with thoughtful treasures, was now lost I feared. My present had always arrived well before the Christmas celebrations began and was often the first gift to be placed unopened beneath my Christmas tree.

Little did I know what lay ahead or that Christmas day would be spent in a cloud of unbelievable sorrow as we booked unexpected flights home. Or that I would find myself sitting by Dennis’s fireplace with my family a few days later where his painful absence was truly felt after that dreadful phone call late on the night of Christmas eve.

On my return to Holland with my heart filled with sorrow following the painful task of bidding him farewell…

…on the eve of his birthday, beneath a winter sky, in the midst of twinkling lights of Christmas.

It was then… that I discovered that the precious package had in fact arrived… and awaited me in my neighbor’s house.

There it was in all its glory with the so familiar handwriting looking as fresh as though the ink was barely dry.

I held it close to me as though it contained life…
With trembling hands, I peered inside,
then I carefully
placed it beneath
my darkened Christmas tree…

as gently as a coffin lowered
to its
Place of rest…

§

marie and dennisDennis & Marie

While Dennis used words to create images, I use paints and brushes… So one Christmas I decided to combine our work and send him a painting as a gift from me, a welcome break from the endless ties, I hoped. I wondered which poem I should choose, and as I read through “A Christmas Night”, it created visions for me. And so with great ease, his words emerged upon my canvas with each brush stroke.

christmas night

§

After he passed away, Evie our niece, then aged ten, would bravely stand up at a number of his tributes to do a reading of one of her Uncle Dennis’s favorite poems.

eviePortrait of Evie aged four

 §

Misunderstanding And Muzak

You are in the Super Value supermarket
expecting to meet me at 6.15.

I am in the Extra Value supermarket
expecting to meet you at 6.15.

Danny boy is calling you down special-offer aisles.
Johann Strauss is waltzing me down special-offer aisles.

I weigh mushrooms and broccoli and beans.
You weigh beans and mushrooms and broccoli.

It is 6.45 sign of you.
It is 6.45 no sign of me.

You may have had a puncture.
I may have been held up at work.

It is 6.55. You may have been murdered.
It is 6.55. I may have been flattened by a truck.

Danny Boy starts crooning all over you again.
Johann Strauss starts dancing all over me again.

Everything that’s needed for our Sunday lunch
is heaped up in my trolley, your trolley

We hope to meet, somewhere to eat it.

§

Since we lost Dennis, I continue to paint, and there are times when some of my work seems to be reflected in his words as in his poems Home and Time Sharing.

Home

when all is said and done
what counts is having someone
you can phone home at five

to ask for the immersion heater
to be switched to “bath”
and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.

unnamed.

Time Sharing

In our time together
we are travelling in the heated car,
a violin concerto playing on the radio
hills streaming with winter cold,
year – end fields worn down to seams,
a blazing quiff of distant dogwood,
burned meringue of snow on mountain tops.
We blurt past farms and cottages;
those whose era we share
are staring from net curtains
at a morning chill for milking
or are setting off to factories in the town,
their segments of road deserted.
It is like a childhood journey
of sleep and open-eyed surprise,
of hermetically sealed life
in the eternal present
before the final destination is reached
We hold hands on the gear stick
and, at this moment,
fear for nothing except the future.

§

Though it is not intentional, my sister Eithne once remarked to me that she can see a bit of us all in some of my paintings…on reflection, I had to agree. I can indeed see something of our very stylish Mother in this vintage style painting.

mother.

Years After

And yet we managed fine.

We missed your baking for a time.
And yet we were not better off
without cream-hearted sponges cakes,
flaky, rhubarb-oozing pies.

Linoleum-tiled rooms could no longer
presume on your thoroughgoing scrub;
and yet me made up for our neglect,
laid hardwood timber floors.

Windows shimmered less often.
And yet we got around to
elbow-greasing them eventually.
Your daily sheet-and-blanket

rituals of bed making were more
than we could hope to emulate
And yet the duvets we bought
brought us gradually to sleep,

Declan and Eithne (eleven
and nine respectively at the time)
had to survive without your packed
banana sandwiches, wooden spoon

deterrent, hugs, multivitamins.
And yet they both grew strong;
you have unmet grandchildren
in-laws you never knew.

Yes, we managed fine, made
breakfasts and made love,
took on jobs and mortgages,
set ourselves up for life.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

—Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll; Text & Paintings by Marie O’Driscoll

We are grateful to Anvil Press and Carcanet Press for permission to reprint the poems “Christmas Night,” “Misunderstanding And Muzak,” “Home,” “Time Sharing,” and “Years After.”

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Dennis O’Driscoll (1954–2012) was born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Apart from nine collections of poetry, books published during his lifetime included a selection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams(2001), two collections of literary quotations and Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(2008). Among his awards were a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies (Minnesota). A member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists, he worked for almost forty years in Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service. He died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

A second collection of his essays, The Outnumbered Poet, was published by Gallery Press in 2013. His selection from the works of Michael Hamburger, A Michael Hamburger Reader, will be published by Anvil in December 2015.  dennisodriscoll.com

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Marie O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, Co.Tipperary in 1957, one of a family of six siblings. She was educated in the Ursuline Convent Thurles, and it was there that she had the only art classes, that she would ever attend. Both Art and English were her greatest passion throughout her school life.  In her final year  at school, the family were struck with tragedy following the death of their mother, Kitty, and five years later their father Jimmy also died. The shock of the term “orphan” became a reality in their young lives.

She spent a number of years living in Dublin, where she attended a secretarial college, followed by a move to the west of Ireland where she met her  husband to be. A number of years later they emigrated to Holland with their  two daughters. She began teaching English to adults and children, and eventually created a method of combining her two favorite passions together by setting up classes for children using art as a medium to teach English to them. Although she been painting for as long as she can remember, it took her many years to reveal her work to others. Since then her art has found its way to many corners of the world. www.marieodriscoll.com

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Nov 102015
 
dylan

Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Dylan Brennan first moved to Mexico upon finishing his undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin and moved back and forth between there and Ireland a number of times before settling in Mexico in 2011. The poems in his first book, Blood Oranges, were written and primarily located there.

In the prose piece below, “Roma Walking Around”, Dylan and his wife, Lily Pérez-Brennan, walk the streets of the Roma district in Mexico City on a “psychogeographical odyssey” checking out places where writers had lived: “foreign writers” like Burroughs & Kerouac, Mexican writers like Ramón López Velarde & Juan Rulfo. Talking about his collection, Blood Oranges, and one of its central themes, the foreigner in Mexico, Brennan stated, “the idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico”. The Odyssey of course is not just a journey but a journey home (and one with a violent return before peace ensues). Writing is a bit like that too, a foreigner in a strange land looking for home. In Blood Oranges, the historic and present day violence of Mexico are an integral part of the collection. Brennan is all too aware of the peaceful and violent intersection. Indeed in his translations of Salvador Díaz Mirón, a Mexican poet born in the port city of Veracruz in 1853, we read how, “The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch/like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk”. An image that sadly resonates still through the murderous actions of the contemporary drug cartels. But despite the “waste” and the “stench”, we also read how “the sun ascended through impeccable blue/ and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus.”

Brennan as translator, journeys too through a strange land — the foreign terrain of a different language — but despite the savagery and cruelty necessitated by linguistic contortion, his words ultimately reclaim beauty and peace – a homecoming even.

—Gerard Beirne

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So they say he wrote Junky here. And Queer. Now the food doesn’t look too appealing. The coffee is dire. Weak and watery. There are a couple of altars. One is for Our Lady of Guadalupe, naturally. The other for a Niño Jesús, a boychild Jesus wearing a white robe and maybe a crown. Both are adorned with candles and fruit. Rotting yellow shrivelled mangoes and some light green-coloured apples. On the walls are abstract paintings of naked women with large thighs and buttocks, each one of them engaging in different ways with a sort of geometrically constructed multi-coloured snake. The peach liquor on the table in front of us is blue. I excuse myself and make for the toilet. It stinks. It’s disgusting. Maybe it smells like the kind of place where a heroin addicted writer would slap around a piss-spraying cat. No. 10, Orizaba. Was there any point to this? Let’s get out of here.

*

I walk with my wife Lily south down Orizaba and soon come to Plaza Río de Janeiro. In the centre of the square there’s a statue. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And scouts and dogs. Trendy people come here to walk their pure-breeds or to let them play in the fountain. Scouts turn up on the weekends and do their scouty things. On the east side we look up at the Casa de las Brujas — The Witches’ House. Stories of a woman called Pachita and her necromancy aside, it’s easy enough to see how it got its name. Built in 1908 the architecture seems European, Germanic or French. The entire Roma district was built at the beginning of the last century as a European style residential area to support the overflow from the city centre. Hard to believe this was the edge of town back then. There’s a kind of turret that sticks out above the corner of the building and looks like a witch’s head. The dark coloured peak like a hat and the windows like a mouth. Lily tries to take some photos but it’s hard to get a good shot. Go far back to get in the whole building and the trees of the plaza get in the way. Go closer and only get that witch-head turret in addition to risking getting knocked down by passing cars.

WITCHES'HOUSE 2

Witches’ House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Sergio Pitol lived in The Witches’ House at one point and I believe it crops up in his Desfile del Amor. I have yet to read his novels, but his non-fiction is full of wonder, his tales of youthful wanderings, the sad delight of nostalgia. How he goes on a cantina crawl round Old Havana, enjoyable lost and inebriated. Best of all, how he loses his glasses before arriving in Venice. Everything a blur of watershapes. The stench from the canals and the smell of incense from churches. Impossible not to be put in mind of Francisco de Icaza’s lines: Give him alms woman/for there’s nothing in this life/that can be sadder/than being blind/and in Granada. Or something like that. Not too long ago I saw a plaque with those words on a wall in Granada, Nicaragua. Wrong city but equally true. Carlos Fuentes lived up there too with the witches (Aura?) and the house is the possible location of a hidden Nazi sect in José Emilio Pacheco’s Morirás Lejos. Another novel I have yet to read but I have read his Las batallas en el desierto, an astonishing work of poetic simplicity. Schoolboy meets his friend’s exotic foreign mother. Falls in love. It’s obviously never going to work. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The novel’s epigraph. A novel that is as much about location as it is about plot. It’s about Mexico City. It’s not about Mexico City, it’s about the Roma district. City in half-light, mysterious suburb of Roma way back then.

*

This has aniseed in it was my first thought. The place seemed upmarket enough and 90 pesos for a sandwich is steep in this town. But marlin in a chilli and tomato sauce with a beer seemed like a good plan. It wasn’t. While the aniseed, real aniseed, added a nice touch, the sandwich was thin, soggy and flimsy. A waste of money and an appropriate end to a disappointing walk. The idea was simple enough. To head down to Plaza Luis Cabrera, for the first time, and to check out one of the houses Burroughs lived in while in Mexico City and also the house, just across the street, where Kerouac wrote Tristessa. Or at least where much of the events of Tristessa took place. The Burroughs house, this time No. 210 Orizaba, looked like a newish red-bricked squat apartment complex. The original must have been knocked down. Across the street the Kerouac place, he lived on the roof, was newly plastered white and was festooned with estate agent announcements. Completely refurbished or knocked down and rebuilt. A sofa abandoned on the pavement. I don’t know what I was looking for but it wasn’t this. Try it again next week.

SofaTristessaHouse 2

Kerouac’s residence (rooftop). Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

This time the route would be planned. There would need to be a breakfast and lunch and coffee. We would walk down Orizaba, stop in on the Junky/Queer house, continue on down Orizaba, passing Plaza Río de Janeiro, turn west onto Álvaro Obregón and stop at the Ramón López Velarde house before heading back down further south towards the other Burroughs residences and lunch. Lunch at a different place. No marlin sandwiches or overpriced beer. That was the what. The why was slightly more complicated. A psychogeographical odyssey? I’d been reading The Odyssey with my 4th year students and talking a bit about Joyce’s Ulysses, about voyages, saudade, nostos, about charting territory, about the journey not the destination being the thing, about psychogeography. They cared as much as anyone else in their position would care. I wanted to get to know my newly adopted city better. By choosing a set of coordinates, by pinning down the points on the computer screen and obliging myself to walk them I would create a circuit I’d never taken, combining areas I knew well enough with streets I’d never had any reason to walk down. As simple as that. Many famous people have lived in the Roma district—Leonora Carrington, José “Cosmic Race” Vasconcelos, Padre Pro, Fidel Castro—it’s a long list. But I chose writers. Foreign writers that lived in the Federal District and wrote about the city. Writers for whom the city was their protagonist. Just walking the streets of James Joyce’s novel, the streets of his city, my own city, that has to beat any desktop commemorative plaque. To see where Stoker wrote Dracula would be interesting. Nothing more. To walk the streets of Victorian London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. Well, that would be something more.

Burroughs—10orizaba 2

Burroughs’ House 10 Orizaba. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

But of course Burroughs and Kerouac were off their heads most of the time and their Mexico City was all bars and houses, rent boys, whores and drugs and alcohol. No matter, it still holds interest for me. This city is a brutal work of art, a place where everything can be found. I understand, however, that the symptoms of peyote poisoning and polio are identical. Kerouac ran down Orizaba to the Plaza Luis Cabrera to lie on the ground after having a negative reaction to peyote. I walked around the little park with its dancing fountains that look great when pumping water and look like a sad abandoned swimming pool when turned off. Hard to imagine the stinking (he must have stunk right?) Kerouac lying with his face to the stars in the night-time square. Hard to imagine stars these days. Roma is gentrified now. No doubt about it. Cold brew cafés and hipster barber shops abound. Not fifties hepcats though. The new kind.

*

LopezVelardeHouse 2

Lopez Velarde House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

After the Witches’ House we turned right onto Obregón and found the Ramón López Velarde (1888—1921) house, large and sky-blue. It was the second time I’d been in a López Velarde house but the first time in this particular house. Last December invited to take part in the Festival Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde in the exquisite silver-mining northern city of Zacatecas we were bussed out to his house in the nearby town of Jerez. The Mexico City version is a museum and also houses the Casa del Poeta, a small venue for book launches and readings. We were shown to his bedroom and admired his sturdy old little bed and his little shoes placed neatly at its foot and a selection of his books. We were told to open the wardrobe and stand inside it. You’ll wake one grey morning/and will see, in the moon of your wardrobe…The lines of a poem written on the inside of the wardrobe. That’s cute. He’s good. His Suave Patria is his most famous work. We were told to open the back of the wardrobe and nothing could have prepared us for what was on the other side. A funfair hall of mirrors and coloured lights. Papier maché figures and dioramas. Literal interpretations of the poems. Kitsch and grotesque. El viejo pozo de mi vieja casa—The old well from the Jerez house. Told to look inside we see the bloated mad guffawing face of a carnival mask. And so on. Who did this? Whose fucking idea was this? We were told his name. He’s a theatre man. He has a flair for the dramatic. We were told.

ClosetLopezVelarde 2

Closet Lopez Velarde. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Across the street to Bisquets Obregón. Seventy years old this year the establishment started right here in the Roma district on Obregón street, hence the name. Bisquets—not what we’d call biscuits back home in Ireland, more like a scone. But the coffee is good and is served estilo chino, Chinese style. Bucareli street isn’t far from here and was known for its abundance of Chinese cafés in the previous century. Just like in Café la Habana—Bolaño’s “Café Quito”—they all serve the coffee Chinese style. They pour you a small amount of essence of caffeine, a strong pitch coloured liquid, and warn you it is strong every time. You tell them when to stop and when to start pouring the milk from a long, curly metal-stemmed jug which they frequently raise and lower to create a foam, producing at the end a tall glass of strong milky coffee. And sweetbread. Bisquets Obregón have franchises spread out across the country. But this one, in Roma, this is the original. The coffee leaves a ball of fire to cool in your centre. We stepped back out.

RulfoSign 2

Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Further west along Obregón we hit Monterrey. Where Monterrey, Obregón and Insurgentes almost converge there’s a little traffic island park called Jardín Juan Rulfo. There have been recent heavy rainfalls and the sunken park is flooded. I’ve been here a few times before. The first time as a kind of pilgrimage as I wrote my doctoral thesis on Rulfo’s cinematic and photographic work. Rubbish floats on the scummy water and a rat runs away from our footfalls. There’s a sculpture of Rulfo and a few seats. The sculpture shows him with his head stuck in a book, literally. In 1985 a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 10, 000 and, of course, injured many more. It also changed the face of the city. A well-known washing machine seller, on the corner of Insurgentes and Álvaro Obregón was brought to the ground and could not be replaced. One year later Juan Rulfo died. The spot was chosen for his posthumous park. Borges called Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo one of the greatest novels in world literature. Now rats and homeless people sleep on the benches around his head. The tiny garden smells of piss. I once saw a 1976 short film by José Luis Bolaños called Que esperen los viejos. It focuses on a young couple seduced by dreams of a better life in the big city. At the end of the film the male protagonist wanders through the dilapidated streets of the megalopolis and a voiceover is heard. This is the land that they’ve given us. But what land did they give us? The words are from Rulfo’s story Nos han dado la tierra. Rulfo’s original is about peasant farmers who have received their government-allotted portion of land in post-revolutionary Jalisco. The land they have received is good for nothing, hard and arid. The promises of a better life have dissipated. And so it is for the characters in the Bolaños film. The lure of the big city resulting in extreme poverty, worse than before. It’s hard not to think of this when walking by the Jardín Juan Rulfo and it seems fitting. The squalid cardboard beds, the shit, the rats. But Rulfo deserves better. And so do the people who sleep in his park.

JardinJuanRulfo 2

Jardin Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

From Rulfo’s park we headed down Monterrey and soon came to Krika’s bar and restaurant. It’s a decent simple place and I had a beer at the bar. Burroughs called this place Ship Ahoy in Queer and spent plenty of time and money sitting at the bar annoying strangers and friends alike with his bizarre flights of fancy he liked to call ‘routines’. I’ve only read two of his books — Junky and Queer. Like Kerouac these were memoirs disguised as novels or, at least, that’s how they seem to me. The brutality of the writing is exhilarating at times and still shocking now. The filth, the despair and, of course, the incident. The moment that moved him to write. I once drank about half a bottle of Oso Negro (Black Bear) vodka in Mexico City and got into a fight with a friend over nothing. Later on in the week, the same friend and I overheard a couple of young Irish businessmen chatting in a bar about how one of them downed a load of Oso Negro and went completely off the rails, uncharacteristically aggressive. It rang a bell. Well, thank fuck it wasn’t the gin. Burroughs drank a bottle of Oso Negro gin and, in an apartment party above “Ship Ahoy” shot his wife in the face. Shot her dead as an apple fell to the floor. William Tell. Not quite. Her name was Joan Vollmer.

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Ship Ahoy. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

We were starting to get hungry for lunch so decided to keep heading south down Medellín this time to find one more Burroughs house. The street was called Cerrada de Medellín and the house was number 37. I think Kerouac crashed there at some stage. He must have. He wrote Cerrada de Medellín Blues, a poem that, typically for Kerouac and his Mexico City Blues poems, has absolutely nothing to do with Mexico and reads like a stream of gibberish. His novella/memoir Tristessa is a strange case, for me anyway. I like its depiction of the city at night, of his platonic lover friend Esperanza. It contains virtuoso impressionistic tours through the dark streets and moments of revelation. It also is punctuated by Kerouac’s inane Buddhist rhetoric (he talks of tethers while drinking himself to death) and stupid comments about Mexicans, who he seems to want to call brown Aztecs or Indians at any available opportunity. And changing her name, that was the worst. Esperanza means hope. A lost drug-addled prostitute called Hope. A poetic gift of a name ruined when changed to Sadness. He must have been insufferable. His fans tend to be too. Anyway, this house looked like it was abandoned. Like it was on the verge of total collapse. A neighbour, an old lady, came out to stand in the doorway and look at us with suspicion. Lily took photos of the house and we went closer to read the sign on the door. It was from the authorities. The building was split up into various apartments, all of then looked tenantless. The sign said that the owners of at least three flats were being prosecuted for the sale of narcotics on the premises. We needed to eat.

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Burroughs’ house – 37 Cerrada de Medellín. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan.

So what were hipsters before they were hipsters? Lily has asked me that question before. I don’t know. I suppose they were what they are now, the upper class alternative artsy crowd. I’ve been called one myself and I don’t like it because I just tend to equate the word with ‘talentless misguided dickhead’. That’s something I might just very well turn out to be and probably why I don’t like being described so. I have a beard and I write poetry and I like good coffee. I seem to fit the requirements. We queued outside a place called Porco Rosso for an hour. Essentially it sells what I imagine to be typically American food—pork ribs, mac and cheese and good beer. It’s a container with wooden picnic tables. The toilets are also made from containers and the upkeep seems minimal. On the way there we passed a beautiful early 20th century house with a plaque outside informing us that Fernando del Paso once resided within. I was about to launch into a riff about how the Beats lived in tenement style accommodations while the Mexican writers seemed to have all resided in large colonial style mansions on leafy boulevards. Then I remembered tales I’d been told of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (re-imagined as Ulises Lima in Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes) and the conditions in which he was purported to have lived. They eventually seat us and we order what seems to me to be a massive quantity of ribs and I drink an IPA from the state of Colima. Craft beers, that’s another thing. Plenty of good ones around Roma these days. When I come back from washing my hands the man and woman sharing our table congratulate me on our recent wedding. They must have been chatting to Lily. I thank them. Has anything changed they ask. No, nothing at all we both agree.

I lived in Mexico City in 2009 and wandered its streets on my own. But walking with Lily was different. The imaginary conversations I had with her were now real. We both love Woody Allen movies, even the shit ones. Midnight in Paris is a particular favourite. Eating ribs and drinking ale it hit me, what this was all about. Walking around with no particular purpose. I don’t really care where these Beats lived and got high. I care about this city and its seemingly limitless layers and possibilities. Its dirt and glimmer. Its poetry and dusk. Its smells and sounds. What I had been trying to do was to walk the streets of somebody else’s city. Burroughs, Kerouac, Pacheco. If I could dive head first into Ulysses like Kugelmass in Allen’s famous story, it wouldn’t be my Dublin in which I would find myself. If I could transport back in time like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris I could meet Frida and Diego, Rulfo and Bolaño…but it wouldn’t be my Mexico City. I mean, I can’t even enter Valeria Luiselli’s city outside of her Sidewalks and she’s my contemporary, give or take three years. The circumstances are different. A woman from a Mexican family that has grown up in South Africa—of course it will be different. No, my Mexico City must come to me naturally. What about the route I walk every day after work? From Cuauhtémoc metro station across Chapultepec down Abraham González past those magnificent closed lane streets of the La Mascota building, one hundred years old this year. Or a trip to the Oxxo past the young girls on Sullivan for a beer on a Saturday night. Sadi Carnot and the young lads that will mind your car or offer to sell you parts of another car they once minded for some other poor fool. This and so much more. So enough of planned walking. Enough of the maps and guidebooks. Enough of the footsteps of others. How is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture than can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form. It’s hard to disagree. And when you find your city you should walk it. And the city that you walk should be yours. And then, if you’re lucky, you find someone who will walk its streets with you. And then you don’t need much else.

—Dylan Brennan

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NEZAHUALCÓYOTL (1402—1472)

Though Made Of Jade

I Nezahualcóyotl ask the following:
Do we really live rooted in the earth?

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.

Though made of jade it gets
smashed to pieces
though made of gold it breaks ,
even quetzal feathers
get ripped apart.

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.

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I Observe A Flower

Finally my heart understands:
I listen to a song,
I observe a flower.
May they never wither!

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Where Will We Go?

Where will we go
when death is no more?
And is that why I live in tears?
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.
Even the princes came to die,
people get cremated.
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.

§

SALVADOR DÍAZ MIRÓN (1853—1928)

Example

The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch
like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk
a witness to an implausible sentence
a pendulum rhythm swaying in the road

The lewd nudity, the lolling tongue,
just like a cockscomb a high tuft of hair
all this made it seem quite funny, at my horse’s
hooves whippersnappers lazed and laughed

And this funereal waste with a drooping head
swollen and scandalous up there on green gallows
allowed its stench to carry on the wind

It swung in the solemn way of the censer
and the sun ascended through impeccable blue
and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus

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The Dead Man

Like a mountain tree-trunk brought to earth.
Impressive clean forehead proud and pure.
Furrowed black eyebrows drawn by a fine line
curved to trace the flight of a sketched bird

suggesting a sky. Nose just like a hawk’s
beak, egg whiteness of hair.
The fir now greenless that fell to earth
is partly ringed in frost.

The half-closed eyelid’s opening shows
a grim and glassy twinkle of sorrow.
A gloss of wellwater rigid in depth.

I scare and scatter the flies with my scarf
and on the face of the corpse
floats an unsure shadow—
it’s the flight of a condor as well as a shroud.

—Translated by Dylan Brennan

 

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Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

Oct 072015
 

September’s Uimhir a Cúig, The Poets’ House, Portmuck, featured the poetry of the late James (Jimmy) Simmons  – a senior Irish poet, literary critic and songwriter – and his wife Janice Fitzpatrick-Simmmons.  To date no video has been available of this great Irish writer and singer/songwriter until early this week when 15 minutes of video, James Simmons – The Lost Footage, turned up unexpectedly on YouTube! It is an extraordinary find and a wonderful memory. The video ends fittingly and memorably with Jimmy and Janice singing together. Have a look below and enjoy. Beneath that you’ll find a recording of Jimmy singing The Ballad of Claudy, a beautiful and tragic lyric account of the bombing of the small town of Claudy in County Derry on the 31st of July 1972 resulting in the deaths of nine people including an 8 year old girl.

 

 

—Gerard Beirne

Oct 042015
 

Kevin Barry

A quick follow-up to my last post on recent comings-and-goings of Uimhir a Cúig featured writers – well the ink was barely dry on the news that Kevin Barry has a new novel, Beatlebone, forthcoming when  the folks over at the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize included his yet to-be released novel on their six-title shortlist! My hearthiest congratulations to one of Ireland’s finest writers.

The prize was created to honour “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Fellow Irish writer Eimear McBride, whose daring debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing won the inaugural prize in 2013, was one of this year’s judges & had this to say: “Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is a storm of a novel – unsettling and mesmerising. It’s formally interesting also, with the novelist choosing to step on and off the page.”

beatlebone

“It is 1978, and John Lennon has escaped New York City to try to find the island off the west coast of Ireland he bought nine years prior. Leaving behind domesticity, his approaching forties, his inability to create, and his memories of his parents, he sets off to find calm in the comfortable silence of isolation. But when he puts himself in the hands of a shape-shifting driver full of Irish charm and dark whimsy, what ensues can only be termed a magical mystery tour.”

It almost sounds like a description of the writer himself, “a shape-shifting driver full of Irish charm and dark whimsy”. Well I, for one, eagerly look forward to the ride.

—Gerard Beirne

Oct 042015
 

Claire Hennessy2

 

The text comes in from Sophie at 5.03pm – Getting ready for the Debs @ Anna’s, can’t believe you’re not coming! Miss yer face. xoxo

Amy already knows. She has Facebook open on her phone, scrolling through the photos and status updates. There’s Sophie deliberately looking ridiculous, hip jutting out and her lips in a pout, her hair still wrapped up in a towel on top of her head. There’s Ruth’s dress on a hanger, silvery and sleek, the one Amy told her she didn’t look fat in, to stop worrying about it. There are the boys posting updates about how drunk they’re going to get, except for Will who claims to be ALREADY HAMMERED!!! And there’s the link to Michael’s latest blog post, which she opens in a new window, and then sets the phone down on her bedside locker before it loads.

Downstairs, she pushes open the door of the sitting room. Her parents are watching some old fashioned murder mystery series, one of those things where everyone talks in posh English accents and there’s never any blood on the screen, even when they do show a dead body. Amy waits for a pause in the dialogue before speaking. “I’m putting the kettle on, do you guys want anything?”

“Can you make a pot of tea?” Mam asks.

“Yeah, cool.” She hovers in the doorway for a moment, watching the detective walk briskly while looking thoughtful.

“Here, sit down, sit down,” Dad says, dislodging a cushion to his right.

She declines, instead retreating to the kitchen to make the tea. She reaches for her phone while the kettle boils, and then remembers its weight and contents are safely upstairs.

When she brings in the tea, Mam turns to her. “What are you up to tonight?”

Does she remember the date? Amy shrugs. “Just stuff for college.” She’s all of three days into her course, but there are articles she could be reading, theories she could grapple with. Or she could slip on the black dress she thought she’d be wearing tonight and make an appearance at one of those seemingly endless society events to welcome freshers. She’d walk in the door and impress them all; the conversation would still and then embrace her. Maybe she’d have them laughing at her wit, or nodding at her insights. The possibilities stretch out and then dissolve. Amy hasn’t exchanged more than a sentence with anyone in college since she started, and she’s fairly sure few people are, in real life, striking enough to wow a roomful of strangers simply by wearing a little black dress.

This is what she does, she knows. Dreams up how things should be, carving out shapes for disappointment to seep into.

Upstairs, she picks up the phone. Her fingers tap at the screen and there it is, Michael’s blog. She stares at it and then opens up other apps, cycling through who’s tweeted what and what moments of the last five minutes have been deemed Instagram-worthy. The post is already making its presence felt, though. It’s been like this all summer, since some quasi-celebrity in RTÉ found the blog and gushed about it, repeating ‘inspirational’ so often it lost all meaning. Then one of the more earnestly Catholic columnists for the Irish Times criticised Michael for his flippancy – the post where he’d compiled all the jokes about losing a leg – and suddenly he was even more popular for the absence of saccharine. Now there’s some comedian sharing the link to the latest post, saying, Michael Carter’s latest on getting ready for the Debs after a year of chemo – food for thought but also hilaaaaarious! READ!

It wasn’t a year of chemo, just like it wasn’t a constant on-the-brink-of-death struggle, but Amy’s used to the version of events people believe. Brave Michael, lover of hurling, lover of life, flung into despair when the doctors told him he had bone cancer, thrust into even deeper torments when his leg had to be amputated, but now discovering that life was meant to be lived, that the day was designed to be seized, and that the internet was an ideal forum to share these revelations with the world.

Let me tell you, the latest post begins, it’s tricky getting into a tux with only one leg! I almost fell over trying it on! Most trousers are grand but I was worried the prosthetic might get caught and tear these and when you’re renting that’s the last thing you want to happen!

There’s a photo, and her breath catches. Michael has the bluest eyes she’s ever seen and even in photographs, even in their tiny versions on her cracked screen, they get to her. For a second it’s nine months ago and he’s telling her she’s beautiful.

She keeps scrolling. I don’t have a date for tonight – I’m just going with the lads and we’re going to have the best night ever! I know that might sound like I’m trying to talk myself out of feeling bad about not having a lady on my arm, but the truth is, these guys are the ones who’ve been there for me the whole time I’ve been sick. We’ve already started going our separate ways, so it feels right that we have this one last chance to hang out and have the craic! I hope those of you reading this have a bunch of friends that you know you can always count on – hang on to them. It’s people like that who make life worth living.

The hot tears aren’t a surprise. Neither is the shaking. She should have known better. Why is she still reading this? The world of her screen, unlike school, is something she can curate, but she still knows when Michael has updated his blog or shared a new set of photos or reblogged inspirational quotes on his Tumblr.

There are endless possibilities for how she could spend the night but they collapse into this screen. Photos pop up from the dinner, and she marvels at how grown-up everyone looks. There’s one of Sophie, Anna, Ruth and Cliona, every facial imperfection smoothed out, and for a moment Amy looks for herself there too. There are so many photos of the five of them, going back to when they were gawky first-years, before discovering hair dye and contact lenses. She used to imagine them at weddings of the future, taking turns with bridesmaids’ dresses.

Sophie’s the only one who still texts her. There’s another message at 10.11pm – Great night, wish you were here. xxxx

It’s not that she broke up with Michael. That’s why the rest of the school think she’s a bitch, but the girls might have stayed friends with her if she’d done all the things they did when there was a breakup, the dissecting and regretting and rebounding. It was the silence. It’s her own fault.

“Don’t stay up too late,” Mam calls from the other side of the door, somewhere close to midnight.

“Night, Mam,” she calls back. The photos are still popping up. There are the boys, making faces in their suits, losing jackets as the night progresses. There are the girls, their smiles broader and wilder after several drinks. There’s Cliona with her date. There’s Anna and Sophie mid-clink. There’s Ruth sitting on Michael’s lap.

It’s pathetic to be still awake and at home alone at this hour but she texts Sophie anyway. What’s going on with Ruth & Michael???

1.03am – Did u see pic? I KNOW!!! All over each other!!!

Amy’s still staring at the message when the phone rings.

“Amy, oh my God, I just sent that and thought – can you hear me?”

“Yeah.” There are noises in the background, voices, but Sophie’s voice is coming through.

“I wasn’t even thinking when I said that, are you okay?”

“About Ruth and Michael?”

“Yeah. Are you upset? I really don’t want you to be upset, I feel bad now …” Sophie’s about a drink and a half away from locking herself in the bathroom and crying, Amy estimates.

“It’s fine. He can be with whoever he wants.”

“You sure?”

“I broke up with him,” Amy reminds her.

“I know, but, like, it’s Michael.”

Amy says nothing. There is nothing to say to this. There is nothing she can say that doesn’t make her the villain. Her fingers tighten around the phone, and when Sophie doesn’t fill the silence, she forces herself to speak. “Listen, go enjoy yourself. Have a great night.” She hangs up before Sophie can reply.

She used to imagine going to the Debs with him. Not just that, but other nights, other events. Maybe weddings, even, one day. Maybe. She used to imagine the romance, the magic. Rose petals on a hotel bed and his blue eyes fixed on hers as he slotted inside her, all so stupidly movie-like now she wants to slap her past self. She used to imagine he’d tell her she was beautiful, and that she’d know it was right. (Not being the stupid bitch who didn’t even want to fuck her boyfriend when he’d just got the worst news of his life. Who said yes, yes please, so she’d prove she wasn’t selfish, that she did love him.) (Not swallowing back tears when it hurt, the jabbing inside her, and all he was looking at was her goose-bumped breasts.)

This is what she does, the dreaming. She knows it needs to stop. This is the real world, and she’s nothing like a heroine, and fairytales weren’t ever real to begin with.

Ruth’s just posted a photo of herself and Michael, captioned LEGEND! <3

Amy has her number, still. Watch yourself, she could say. Or, don’t go home with him. But Ruth – Ruth will know the right things to do. She’ll know she’s in the presence of a hero. She’ll drop to her knees.

—Claire Hennessy

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Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator from Dublin. She has published several YA novels, and is currently working on a collection of short stories for adults, supported by an Arts Council bursary. She is the co-editor and co-founder of Banshee literary journal and tweets incessantly at @clairehennessy.

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Sep 052015
 

Poets outside The Poet’s House, Portmuck 1995. Photo by Todd Rudy.

The Poets’ House was established in 1990 by American poet Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late husband James Simmons, a senior Irish poet, literary critic and songwriter from Derry. Created initially as a centre of excellence for the study and writing of poetry in 1990, it began offering MAs in Creative Writing awarded through Lancaster University in 1994. Martin Mooney (an Uimhir a Cúig featured poet) joined as an additional faculty member.  Located first in Portmuck, Islandmagee, Co Antrim, the centre later moved to Falcarragh, Co Donegal. Visiting poets included Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Paul Durcan, John Montague, and Carol Ann Duffy. For many years Michelle Mitchell-Foust, a student and later poet-in-residence, lectured there on contemporary American poets. In this month’s Uimhir a Cúig, both Janice and Michelle share their memories of the Poets’ House and naturally enough, there are poems galore. It is a particular pleasure to publish a number of James Simmon’s poems here. As another Uimhir a Cúig featured poet, Thomas McCarthy wrote: “Ulster poetry without Simmons would be unthinkable, and any discussion of Irish poetry that omits him falls flat on its face… In a destitute time his independence of spirit is exemplary and profound.”

I had the good fortune to spend two weeks at The Poets’ House in Portmuck in 1995 (in fact, you can see me shouldering my way into the photo immediately below!)  –  fond memories indeed.

—Gerard Beirne

 

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Janice & James Simmons with poet Paul Durcan (right) outside The Poets’ House, Portmuck. Photo by Todd Rudy.

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In 1980, I came to Ireland on an extended holiday and saw a castle in Lough Eske. The castle was for sale, and after having been the assistant director of the Frost Place in the United States, I thought that I would like a place as majestic as this castle to house the voices of American and Irish poets. The Poets’ House wasn’t to be for another ten years, when I visited Ireland again and discussed my idea with people at the Project Art Center. I wanted to acknowledge and foster the differences among poets writing in English in a writing center in Ireland where poets could discuss craft and process.

In 1990 that center was born, the brain child of me and my partner James Simmons, who believed in my visions and joined in my journey to realize this one. The Poets’ House in Port Muck, Islandmagee, Country Antrim opened to poets from all nationalities, all walks of life. The house looked out onto the Irish Sea, and beyond that, Scotland. So the workshops in our center would look out onto pods of dolphins in the little harbor beyond our doors.

At first, there were only a few gathered. During its first summer term, the poets in residence included Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Anthony Cronin, Paul Durcan, Peter Sirr, Derek Mahon, Moya Canon, Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan, Simon Armitage, and Carol Ann Duffy. Among the students were Matthew Donovan, Daryl Armitage, Nessa O’Mahoney, Denise Blake, Moyra Donaldson, and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, who came back to The Poets’ House as an American Poet in Residence after being a student in the program. Each session that followed that first year had an American Poet in Residence, and these poets include Sherod Santos, William Matthews, Jean Valentine, Roger Weingarten, Ralph Angel, and Billy Collins.

The Poets’ House sessions, three a summer, were structured as lectures, workshops, and readings, with each day featuring a different poet. The poet lectured in the morning, conducted a workshop in the afternoon, and gave a reading in the evening. Students had one day off per week so that they might have the opportunity to travel to gorgeous destinations as part of the course– places such as the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle. Students from all over the world learned from an array of topics, including Irish folklore, the sounds of Irish birds, science poems, the God vision, and curse poems. Students learned of poets of all periods and all languages, such as Lorca, Pound, Rilke, Dickinson, Mandlestom, and Dante and Dante’s revisionists. For years, students heard Michelle Mitchell-Foust’s lectures on contemporary American poets who are women who question of boundaries of twentieth-century poetry: Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Susan Howe, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, and Ann Lauterbach. The days were rich with poetry, and the nights were rich with singing. James Simmons was a gifted poet and singer, and under his direction, we sang for the faculty and students and with them, and we created an environment that lent itself to the growth of poetry.

After three years, we knew that the Poets’ House could be expanded to include an MA program, the first in Ireland to be awarded for creative writing. The Poets’ House partnered with Lancaster University to build this graduate program. The program graduated sixty students, among them Heather Wood, Paul Grattam, Joe Woods, Matt Donovan, and Adrian Fox. Our faculty included Martin Mooney, Medbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan, Bernard O’Donahue, and Eilean Nichuilaanain.

Suffice it to say that no program in Ireland or America at the time could provide the kind of experience that poets at The Poets’ House could provide. With the Simmons family at its center, the summer and MA courses educated poets at the same time as they fostered them. No one, not even the faculty, left The Poets’ House without being touched by the magical foundation it provided.

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Leaving America

A child’s question — Who am I?
A new self in the Old World; I’m changed.
The arm of a wild Atlantic still before me.
Does it matter which —
Bar Harbor or the mouth of Belfast Lough?

Seals sometimes come into harbour
and occasional letters from home.
The seals, I imagine, are messengers from Maine.
They rise from the water, their funny heads
tilting sideways like dogs listening.
They say: ‘Cape Porpoise is full of tourists —
you don’t miss it.’

And I can imagine the Shetlands out there —
Otters in the blue inlets that glow with afternoon light.
If l close my eyes I can see further:
the fjords of Northern Europe,
mountains and midnight sun.
Our house looks eastward.

The final vision is, always, our snowy bed —
the high grazing fields above us,
the water, rock and harbour wall below.

I’m home and dry.

This is an island, her people calling out to sea.
All other lands are imagined, all other peoples.
These boundaries are defined by nature.

II

My urge to move west has left me.
Maybe I’ll never see California.
Lately, I’m hesitant to leave home;
to leave Portmuck for Belfast.
My gardens are beautiful in the spring sun;
gold and green and full of birds
whose songs I’m still learning.

III

I’m leaving America.
This is more difficult than I imagined.
First there was poetry and then love — they came easy.

At the beach I can just hear,
rising from the voice of water,
muffled as the sound inside a shell,
the chant of the Arapaho
or New England’s native Algonquins.
Sometimes they sing louder
and sound better from this distance
than all the old songs of the Irish.
I recite out loud the Indian place names I remember:
Wampanog Trail, Lake Winnepesaukee, Squam,
Chachapocassett.
They tell of familiar earth, of forest before plain —
colder winters, hotter summers, extremities.

All choices made and no regrets
here is the Atlantic before me —
the same big shining sea.

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Energy To Burn
in memory of James Simmons

I walk by the sea: it has the power
to wash away years.
It is fierce with life.
Blue green waters thunder and foam
hurling down the long strand at Tramore.
Yesterday a small dolphin
flesh torn and gnawed,
lay dead on the strand.

Wary with life I understand
now why my mother would call me
away from that element that swept her
and two of my kindergarten sisters out a mile;
her powerful, desperate tread keeping them all afloat
until the coastguard lifted the three
from deadly cold west Atlantic waters

where I swam too.
I swam until brine burned tongue and lips.
I could fly in that element
and leapt in the waves and glided
ignoring the terror of sharks,
ignoring the power of the ocean tides and currents,
fierce in that water, as children must be fierce.

In the office my feet still tread sand,
I walk beside that element, my blood in the same salt balance
with storm turquoise of swelling water,
its white churned crash,
alive with energy to burn.

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The Word Made Flesh

I was teaching the Roethke poem
where the glass house is a boat enduring the storm
when the moth landed. I should have stopped talking
and pointed the moth out, but couldn’t.

The moth was an angel of the afternoon
stopped for a moment between the cherry
and the climbing rose. An emperor moth the size of my hand
rested on the white wall of the cottage back garden.
A great arc of sunlight caught the moth’s wings.
The eyes of the wings were flowing deep blue­ —
almost indigo, swirls of white made an illusion of spinning;
the spinning earth then;

in miniature on the wings of a moth whose body
the colour of sunset and of the night sky
is doomed as we to brief life-caught in the light of an afternoon
to be a sign for seasons, for day and years.

—Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons

James Simmons, Portmuck. Photo by Todd Rudy.

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The Rat Under the Roses

My daughter says, ‘Don’t smoke, Daddy.
It frightens me.’ I love that young lady;

but how can I curb my pleasure, be suddenly stealthy
with life, given I’m still strong and healthy?

The stale air gathered in each good lung
resonates on the vocal chords. Anna’s fright
is part of a puritan fashion that I must fight
with words and music. These good songs will be sung.

We sing. `The rat under the roses’, and Ben’s joke
is to search the bushes. I smile and smoke.

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The Island Again

The season slid from Winter to the next,
snowdrops and crocus to hawthorn blossom, the hum
of bees, then pansy, rose, chrysanthemum.
The whole happy gamut hardly vexed

by touches of blight, of failure in leaf or root.
Gooseberry followed strawberry, the few we rear,
on till we watched the blackberries appear,
wild in the hedges, we were gorged on fruit

making our last surveys of our estate
before the snow. Oh the longevity
of the wild briars that never fade away,
but bloom, bear fruit, shrink back slowly and wait.

Our lives seemed overtaken by one flower.
Night-scented stock was event after event
so huge and satisfying, a cloud of scent
enveloping everyone at the front door,

any old life, its irritations and pride,
frozen, melted, raised up in the flower-smelling.
The two of us at the dark door of our dwelling.
The two of us at the dark door of our dwelling
Looking at nothing, that imminence outside.

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How Poems Come

1.

Outside, above my left shoulder
was their bedroom window,
the one he heard his wife through
when she opened the far door
of the porch that morning.

Van Macklin worked it all out for me…
a lovely old lady scholar, wearing
her learning light.
She sat up all one night
trying to make sense
of one of my misspellings,
`wain’ for `wean’.
She is a source
of laughter and respect.

Anyway, in that poem,
his wife woke the first bird
to sing that day,
him still in bed upstairs
brimming with bad temper
or love, or thinking poetry.
The one sound he heard
was the door opening—
her steps on grass were silent.
His curiosity is good fun.
He wrote, ‘neither was song
that day to be self-begun.’

2.

I urge my students to really work at rhyme
because, of poems I know by heart, most
have the sound there marking out the time.
Unweeded inspirations plus compost
is not organic—the garden goes to seed.
An artificial shape is what they need;

but if the lore of traditional form is lost,
like Berryman, be haunted by its ghost.

`Why not say what happened?’ was one excuse
for self indulgence, we hard men staying loose;
but how do you know what happened, how can you say
the truth without that drum-beat in your ear?
So we read Hayden Carruth’s poem for Ray
that Adrian loves, colloquial,
truly unbuttoned, as crazy as fox Cal,
and trained by reading Frost and Shakespeare

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Janice

The pale green of coastal water, shallow
over sand, were Janice’s eyes today.
Her broad back is freckled. Going grey
early gives her a luminous ash-blond halo.

Years ago, I imagined an itinerant younger brother
kissing awake a sleeping girl who shrieked.
This is what happened to me in my first week…
and now that wakened princess is my lover.

My kisses etcetera released her from the spell
of marriage to a violent, sick young man
that her upbringing taught her to stick by;
but the years didn’t seem to have taught me well.

I wasn’t ready yet to act the part
in a story I never wanted to hear,
and yet I couldn’t close my ears.
I had to listen, and I learnt by heart.

—James Simmons

Michelle Mitchell-Foust reads ‘Hunter Gatherers’ at The Poets’ House, Falcarragh – introduced by Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons
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On my first day of teaching at the Poets’ House, I found myself in an old Irish one room house-turned conservatory. At the far end of the room was a fireplace with a turf fire smoking. That end of the room got light from a window. On the windowsill, the tea was brewing. Before me sat a group comprised of an Irish bilingual senior citizen farmer, an Irish mother of seven, a younger Irish mother and her ten-year-old child, a distinguished Irish gentleman from the town, who was also an Irish language speaker, a young Irishman from Belfast, and several graduate students, one from Canada, and two of my former students who had come from the states at my suggestion. The graduate students were enrolled in the course as part of their M.A. in creative writing through Lancaster University.

In every way, the setting was ideal, complete with the sea outside the window. And the mix of students was something I was accustomed to from my teaching of creative writing classes at Fullerton College in California, only the Poets’ House had significantly fewer English Learners. I would be delivering a lecture in the morning, which might include a writing exercise, and conducting a workshop in the afternoon. I would give or attend a reading in the evening. I knew from my experience of attending the Poets’ House courses as a student what student expectations might be like. I also knew that students from Ireland and students from America and Canada would expect different things and acquire different facilitating.

I knew that all of the students were eager to have an audience for their work, and they were a mature group of people (even the child seemed wise beyond her years). Therefore, I knew that they would respond well to a supportive and constructive workshop setting, which is a necessary community for each writer. They would benefit from my completion of an M.A. and a Doctorate in Creative writing, where I had the opportunity to teach creative writing classes at University of Missouri-Columbia. I had a fairly traditional approach at MU, having students bring in copies of poems for written and verbal critique by myself and their peers in a workshop environment. I would later teach themed creative writing courses and cross-genre courses. And I would make writing and its process the focus of our time in the classroom, with 40% of the time dedicated to critique. I wrote a book-length manuscript of my own prompts for this purpose.

In the Poets’ House workshop, issues of syntax, diction, and form were open for discussion. We paid special attention to the nuances of point of view, as they are outlined in Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint, considering the telepathy and the global reach of the discourse. Readers made suggestions for revision and developed their critical evaluative skills. It was especially exciting to discuss the richness of the Irish language and its elasticity as well as the many American slang terms and colloquialisms that turn up in poems. On occasion I also asked students to discuss poems in affinity groups. I supplemented this course with reading in poetry texts such as Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order so that students had a resource for the terminology and the genre conventions as well as examples of the forms. (Reading is as important as writing for students in writing classes!) I did not lecture the class on prosody, preferring instead to discuss relevant craft issues as the need arose during our discussion of the poems.

One of my fondest memories involves one of the writing workshops in Donegal. A student brought her little daughter and her daughter’s friend along, so I decided to have the students write out ghost stories as a warm-up or a pre-writing exercise, so we all broke up the circle to travel to places around the house. The little girls went under a bush in the back yard to do their writing. When we all came to together, I started with the little girls. The one with the red hair had a wild tale of the “Fenchi”. She said she had found the most frightening book in the world, and she had taken it to school to scare all of her classmates with the “Fenchi”. The book said that if you put a piece of furniture, such as a chair, in the wrong place in your house, the “Fenchi” would come for you. Even as the girl read her story, she shivered with her residual fears. It took some discussion for me to discern that the little girl was talking about a book on Feng Shui! The book based on the Chinese customs for “harmonizing your living environment” absolutely terrified the girl and her classmates!

Furthermore, for our course in Donegal, we also had access to an impressive library of contemporary Irish, English, and American poetry at the Poets’ House. But the primary texts were the students’ poems. Where the challenges came in involved pacing and rigor. American students were use to faster-paced courses with more stringent and involved writing and reading requirements. They were quicker to use the poetry vernacular and to refer to schools of poetry. Irish students were especially strong during discussions of poems; they liked to take their time during their critiques, and they were better read than their American peers, so that they were able to draw from their readings during their verbalizing of recommendations. These strengths on the part of all students made for excellent teaching experiences.

During the ten years that I taught at the Poets’ House during their summer sessions, I had the opportunity to team-teach the workshop with other Irish poets and American Poets-in-Residence. For one summer course, I taught with Billy Collins, and it was an extremely rewarding experience for everyone involved. We were able to take a few “field trips” as part of this course, including a couple of memorable ones to a 7th century grave yard about a mile from the Poets’ House, where one American student was able to find an ancient ancestor’s grave, and we saw a rainbow at midnight. Because we teachers were working with the students each day of the course for the entire day and evening, we could refine our discussions and make sure that students received feedback in a group settling, on field trips, and during one-on-one conferences with me. The Poets’ House was the optimal setting for teacher-student communication about the students’ creative process.

As a Professor of English, teaching literature and creative writing, my pedagogy asks for dedication to educating as a question of human communication and its improvement and preservation. I resist the notion that education employs only a transmission of knowledge. We are talking about human communications that are working their way toward the beautiful and the sublime.

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Islandmagee

These look on: the magpie fanning
over the road’s descent to the sea
whose brown jellies and dolphins look on,
and on the road farther along,
the red cows, the miles of animals
lying down, whose backs make a soft sea
of their own in the green. They look on
to the open window in the poets’ house
where the music comes from.
There’s a tree inside the house,
and a guitar and toy swords,
and a family, two children and a dog,
and more people and more whose every atom
joined to take this beauty down.

—Michelle Mitchell-Foust

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Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons was born in Boston and took her MA at the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Assistant Director of The Robert Frost Place in New Hampshire. In 1990 she co-founded The Poets’ House in Portmuck, Co Antrim. She received The Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in 2009 and The Royal Literary Fund Bursary in 2010. She has published five collections of poetry, her most recent being St. Michael and the Peril of the Sea (Salmon Poetry).

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James Simmons was born in Londonderry in 1933 and died in Donegal in 2001. He taught for three years in the sixties at Ahmadu Bellow University, Nigeria. On his return he lectured in drama and Anglo-Irish literature at the New University of Ulster. He founded and edited the literary journal The Honest Ulsterman. He published numerous poetry collections of poetry with The Bodley Head, The Blackstaff Press, and Salmon Poetry. The Selected James Simmons (edited by Edna Longley) was published in 1978 (Blackstaff Press) and Poems, 1956-1986 was published by The Gallery Press in 1986. He published a critical study of Sean O’Casey (New York, St Martin’s Press, 1983) and released four LPs of his songs.

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Michelle Mitchell-Foust is an American poet whose published works include Circassian Girl (Elixir Press), Imago Mundi (Elixir Press). She and Tony Barnstone edited the anthologies Poems Dead and Undead (Everyman Press) and Monster Poems: Poems Human and Inhuman (Everyman Press), which will be out in September, 2015. She was a student at the Poets’ House in 1992, and an American Poet in Residence at the Poets’ House for ten years.

Jul 122015
 

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“I went to the house but did not enter. Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard. I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement.” Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day

Kevin’s story about the nightclub once again propelled Lucy into a world of doubt about her recent return to Ireland. It was a sort of panic attack – and it had not been the first. The attacks had caused her to book her return flight three times since her arrival, yet she had not actually left.

‘Shambles? Not a great name for a nightclub, is it? Can’t imagine what made them call it that,’ her father said to Kevin, who was now getting fat in his twenty-fifth year.

‘It’s just a place to drink and dance,’ Kevin said. Her father’s pupil’s latest tale, about his peers openly having sex in the town’s most popular nightspot, confirmed to Lucy that the generation that had come after hers (and which was already leaving the country for work as hers had done) pretty much got straight to the point when it came to meeting someone in a club, and that they had no need for the foreplay suggested, perhaps, by the monikers of the nightclubs that had been in the town when she’d grown up in it, such as Whispers or Amber.

‘What did you get up to on the weekend, then, Lucy?’ Kevin asked, as he moved a chess piece across the board.

‘Went up to Dublin to a play,’ she replied. Kevin did not ask Lucy which play, nor with whom she’d seen it. It occurred to her then that she’d been living something of a double life since returning. There was her domestic life – taking care of her father, the house and garden; some writing (letters, emails, half-hearted attempts at applying for jobs), and her cultural life, which consisted mostly of lone visits to Dublin’s theatres and galleries.

‘Find nothing like that in this town, ‘the arts’,’ her father said, as if to say, I told you so. And in a way he had told Lucy so, for her parents, after sixteen years away themselves had also returned to the town, which they’d found to be largely as she found it now, many years (including those of the Celtic Tiger) later: dull, inartistic, beautifully scenic, a pleasant-enough place in which to await death. Yet, in London, Lucy had found herself pining for the place; real melancholic pining; had put aside its borderland small-mindedness and could not remove from her mind the swathes of persimmon-coloured heather that would appear each June on the hills outside the town, nor the late-summer hikes to those hills – where she might see a hawk or fieldfare dart out from the bog, nor her walks along Shelling Hill in winter where the sea could be as wild as the Atlantic Ocean. No, these memories, which all seemed less vivid to Lucy now that she was actually home, had been pivotal in her decision to leave London. And the longing for them, as well as the inability to inure herself to this longing, had, she believed, brought about her eventual incompetence at her job (over time she found herself unable to make the calculated decisions required of her to fulfill her initial promise). This yearning for the town in which she was born and reared was, then, finally, Lucy’s Achilles’ heel, and not, as her friends believed, Arthur Hackett.

Lucy had reached a point in her career where the fact she’d made no substantive mark upon it had become something of an embarrassment – to herself and to her work colleagues. The Gallery tried to avoid this by promoting her. Lucy was experienced enough to know that promotion in such instances is often a sort of skewed version of the Peter Principle, applied, in the Gallery at least, particularly to female employees, whereby the employee is ‘promoted’ to a job with an impressive brief but which has no real power. In other words, Lucy had been put where she could do no harm, either to the Gallery nor to block the way of more exciting newcomers. So, it had come as a terrible realisation to her that after eighteen years of devotion to Modern Art she was not the high-flier of her university years, but, rather, a bit of a deadweight, an earnest plodder, with an over-developed sense of fair-play, and that if one’s career could be measured like a degree, she would probably get a third, at best a 2:2. (It was, Lucy thought, as if the pastoral backdrop of her upbringing needed to be erased for any kind of progress in London to occur. As if Modern Art itself could sniff her out; needed her to stamp out the tone of nature she must have carried always about her before it would let her come close and trust her with its frosty cleverness. As if it could smell the heather and tawny hawks off her, the salt of Shelling Hill, and no matter how much Lucy wanted it – it clearly did not want her.)

Of course, the whole business with Arthur had not helped. He’d been her mentor (he was the Gallery’s first owner and, after selling, remained as Chief Consultant), and in her second year in the job she had moved in with him, into his superb flat in Brondesbury Park. She knew that at first she’d been indispensable to him; she was acquainted with most of the YBAs, had (as a student) attended Damien Hirst’s Freeze and been on intimate terms with a couple of friends of the Chapman brothers. Arthur had a nose for the new and cutting-edge but he was not young, and so was known to use young women as spies into the habits and trends of the youthful. He was also a shark, and had often said to Lucy, and not in jest, that in the business of Art one should always have friends in ‘low places’. He certainly had contacts with dubious people, and Lucy knew for a fact that he had more than once brokered deals for stolen artworks.

‘You should go to Ice House Hill next weekend,’ Kevin said, as Lucy slotted the plates into the dishwasher.

‘Why, what’s out that way?’ she asked.

‘Shakespeare. In the open air. Saw something about it in The Leader.’

‘There’ll be none at it,’ her father said, emphatically, his face aflame now with annoyance at Kevin’s inattentiveness to the game (as a result of speaking to Lucy).

‘Well, if everyone took that attitude,’ Lucy said, and enquired as to which of Shakespeare’s plays was being performed.

‘King something,’ Kevin replied.

‘They do take that attitude, isn’t that the problem?’ her father continued, cutting across Kevin who was still trying to remember the name of the play being staged on Ice House Hill. Lucy had always considered that her father rather relished the cultural poverty of the town, for it had let him off the hook all these years: the lack of any significant artistic activity (in his mind, all the ‘arts’ were grouped together) had become the perfect dumping ground for his many failures. For it was tangible enough evidence, for all to see (surely), that he had just been too ‘advanced’ for the people he found himself living among, hence their rejection of him and his inability to succeed in anything other than board games upon his own return. So when something ‘artsy’ did occur, especially something exciting or innovative, Lucy knew he would most likely shoot it down.

King Lear?

‘That’s it,’ Kevin said, without looking up, ‘we done (sic) it at school.’

‘It’ll be the usual am-dram shit they have on here,’ her father said.

All the same, she had isolated herself, had not made friends upon her return, had certainly not linked up with her former school friends. The thought of having to explain her sabbatical from a flat-lining career to ‘the girls’, now middle-aged women, filled Lucy with horror. For ‘the girls’ would also want to know about her personal life. Hence, a scenario began to play out in Lucy’s mind, in which she would meet said girlfriends and they would judge her for her material lack and she in turn (as if defensively) would judge them for their lack of culture. (Prior to 2008 and the country’s financial collapse Lucy had observed the spread of what had become known as ‘status anxiety’ to a town once hinterland enough to have been referred to as ‘El Paso’ by the writers of The Rough Guide to Ireland (1989), and, despite the recent recession, she did not feel relaxed enough to accept her comparatively lowly ‘status’ amongst these ex-friends who in her absence had become doctors or lawyers or prominent business people or the wives of such people.) The reigniting of such friendships was therefore doomed and, Lucy considered, best avoided. Plus, she dreaded that awful question asked of every returning émigré to the town: when are you going back? Because she simply didn’t know when she was going back nor if she would ‘go back’ at all.

Lucy had done well at first, moving to London for her Masters, landing at twenty-two an assistant position (with the Gallery) while ‘the girls’ were still struggling at home in the remainder of the earlier recession of the 1980s. It’s just that after the acrimonious break-up with Arthur she remained in the assistant position (or some version of it, a fact that her various promotions failed to disguise), running out of ingénue years, never making a real mark, finding her instincts were not the market’s, and for one reason or another (most likely, she believed, as a result of Arthur’s malign influence) she had not found the right conditions in which to bloom. At forty-one, Lucy was, she considered, very much a thing unbloomed. She could easily have left the Gallery, and had been encouraged to by well-meaning friends, but was determined not to let Arthur Hackett think he held any power over her. Suddenly, as she pressed the dishwasher tablet into the plastic pocket of the machine, she remembered something she’d read.

‘Ice House Hill? Wasn’t that near the house where that woman was killed?’ she said, as she searched for a sharp knife with which to dig at the cuds of caked sugar now stuck to the worktop after her father’s slovenly attempt at making tea.

‘Aye,’ Kevin said, ‘the Ice House. They say the husband done (sic) that.’

‘They always say it was the husband, Kevin. Sometimes it isn’t you know.’ Of course Lucy knew quite well that (at least in the crime movies she’d seen) more often than not it was the husband, but she wanted to make a point.

‘Hadn’t he an alibi? He was at work in Dublin, in the bank,’ her father said.

Some of the details of the Imelda Woods’ murder returned in a flash to Lucy’s mind. It had been a gruesome act, which, she recalled, had seemed at the time to capture the town’s imagination (of all the other gruesome acts of the border region), perhaps, as it had come at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger and the beginning of the more recent recession, and was rumoured to have been connected to a property dispute. The town had gone quiet for months afterwards, as if the crime was the apex of something – perhaps that whole torrid period between two recessions that saw a simple house in a not-particularly-thriving part of the country valued at over a million euro.

‘Never mind that alibi. Supposed to have got three fellas to have done it for him,’ Kevin said. ‘The Doyles. From the Demesne Road. Hard fellas, them Doyles. Border heads. Father’s a Provo, has half his face missing from a beating. One of them Doyles was going out with Imelda’s daughter, battered her once with an iron bar. They done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.’ Lucy’s jaw dropped at Kevin’s elaborate new theory on the Ice House Hill murder. She felt that Kevin could easily have yammered on all day about the hard men that lived around the Demesne Road. For in a way he was a ‘hard man’ himself, and only that he’d developed a talent for strategy, for board games, chess in particular, at which her father fancied himself an expert and teacher, he may well have got caught up in town violence himself. She wondered how he was able to tell such stories while making his winning moves on the board. She made her excuses and left.

*

Lucy stood with her bike on the pavement. The Ice House did not look from the outside as if such a heinous crime could possibly have been committed within. It was an unfussy building with its name scored in white paint on a large rock set slantwise in the front garden. But despite the house’s cheerful new yellow paintwork (Kevin had told Lucy it had been painted by the victim’s family in an attempt to put behind them the horror of what had taken place inside), and the trimmed speckled laurel hedge, Lucy sensed something strangely knowing about it, something prescient and dark. Within, it seemed to her, as if represented by the two top-floor windows, were a pair of judgemental eyes looking out onto Demesne Road, to the back of the busy town. The house seemed to call out to passers-by, relaying the message that one of the town’s biggest secrets remained locked within its walls – and desperately required solving. It is possible in a small town not to know the slightest thing about some people, including those as apparently popular as Imelda Woods. Lucy, nor her father, had ever met the middle-aged aromatherapist. But, Lucy vividly remembered reading about the Woods’ murder, the twenty-seven punctures to the upper back, the image of which had haunted her mind because it was so brutal. She’d cycled down Demesne Road the year before and then there had been Garda cars everywhere. Now, with the white and blue tape gone from around the house, the longer Lucy stared and noted its ordinariness, its deceptive quietness, the more she saw that something was dreadful about the property. An atmosphere of pain engulfed the place, as if the unresolved nature of the crime had become a palpable thing, had entered the atoms of the freshly painted yellow bricks. What had happened to Imelda Woods seemed to sit there, still and heavy, stubbornly unhidden by the new paintwork, as if it sat also on the conscience of the whole town.

The fact that the house, at the end of a row of similarly square-topped Art Deco properties, cut into the edge of Ice House Hill gave it an added gloom. The Hill had once been a fort, beneath which, hundreds of years ago, people had supposedly hidden from marauding Vikings. The ancient forest on top descended to the edge of the house’s back garden. Lucy recalled reading that a couple of men had been seen running from the garden into those very woods on the morning of the murder. Something, too, about peaked caps. A shiver ran down her spine as she glanced up at the trees: black-green cedar, a few sally, some rowan and alder, all packed together on a heath that blocked the sun from entering the back of Imelda Woods’ now empty and silent home, but which, Lucy realised, would nonetheless make a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s moodiest play.

*

In the Tourist Office she came upon a leaflet advertising Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s tour of the northeast. There were to be two shows in Monaghan, one in Newry and one on Ice House Hill. The image of a castle, visible in the distance from the heath on Ice House Hill, featured on the front of the leaflet and was overlaid with an image of a woman cutting into a deep meat pie. (King Lear was in repertory with Titus Andronicus.) A few details on the reverse of the leaflet revealed the company to be local.

‘Have they been around long?’ Lucy asked the fair-haired man behind the counter in the Tourist Office’s modern wood-panelled foyer.

‘Sure,’ he said, in a local accent. ‘They won an award last year. I saw their Tempest in Stephen’s Green.’

‘Any good?’

‘Aye, they are,’ he replied. ‘A real physical company. Visual and intelligent. Are you thinking of going?’

‘Shakespeare here in the town? Doesn’t happen every day.’

‘Oh, there’s lots of stuff happening now. Oh yeah. Lots of bands, too, and exhibitions.’ The fair-haired man got up and walked to the front of the desk. He was lean and smelled of patchouli. He pulled a postcard from a carousel of postcards that stood in the centre of the foyer and handed it to her. The image on the card was of a voluptuous naked woman coiled around a tree. Lucy was embarrassed. Not by the naked woman but because she thought the work was terrible. She hoped the young man was not about to tell her that the picture was one of his. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he continued, and flicked through the cards to see if there were any more examples of his work in postcard form. ‘I’m in a group, you see. In Carlingford. You missed the exhibition in the Town Hall, but I’ve another coming up.’ Lucy nodded and said she’d love to see his next exhibition (while simultaneously feeling the enormous effort of lying course through her body). She noted the man’s name on the back of the card: Larry Doyle. She’d heard that surname once already that day (the family of psychos from Demesne Road). She pumped up her enthusiasm and left. On the way out she berated herself: Why did she have to know that the lad’s work was bad? Why couldn’t she think it good? Why did she have to be such a bloody expert?

Still thinking about her encounter in the Tourist Office, Lucy decided that twenty years in London, however difficult some of them had been, had, overall, spoiled her for anywhere other than big cities. She could not help but feel that everything at home was substandard; the theatre seemed amateurish, the visual art derivative and idea-less. What poets there were published themselves and went about local pubs selling glossy chapbooks of their rhyming quatrains. She’d been home two months – two months in the very same country it seemed the entire world believed was bursting with artistic talent, and still she felt starved of real, meaningful stimulus. She either needed to go back to London, fast, or move to Dublin or Belfast. Or, perhaps she needed to dig deeper; surely she had dismissed the place too soon. If she was to survive in this town at all she certainly had to stop coming across like a one-woman art Gestapo. Artistic mediocrity was not a crime: stabbing a woman in the back twenty-seven times as she washed the dishes was a crime.

As she cycled home, Lucy looked out at the streets once so familiar to her. There she had climbed a wall to pilfer apples, there she had stamped out her first (mint-flavoured) cigarette, there she had walked with her then best friend – hair slicked back, hands in cream Macintoshes with collars upturned, eyes heavily lined, faces pale as dolls – while loudly singing Ultravox’s Vienna. No, she would not, could not change her view. Artistic mediocrity was, she reasoned, very much a crime. Perhaps it was no coincidence, she considered, that when a town had no real art gallery, when the most popular theatrical performances were the local musical society productions of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, when the Tourist Officer himself had a penchant for lurid Celtic designs, the benchmark was somehow lowered, and so this was why, in this town, murders, particularly of quiet aromatherapists, seemed somehow less horrific than they should be, and, as in the case of Imelda Woods, one year on remained unsolved. After all, Lucy reasoned, lows are really only perceived as such against highs, otherwise they can be tolerated. This town, she concluded (though she fancied she’d absorbed something of its grit and obduracy), seriously needed to raise its own personal bar.

Passing the Ice House on her way home, its dusty white nets hanging in dense creases so as to permit no view inside, for some reason Lucy thought of Arthur. Perhaps he missed her. Perhaps now that she was away, no longer part of the proverbial office furniture, he would realise the full extent of what he’d lost: a lover, a loyal employee. Or perhaps not. However bad this sabbatical thing was proving, that cold, empty life in London could not be rekindled in a hurry, she reminded herself.

She parked her bike outside the Centra shop her father frequented and went inside. She saw the headline in the local newspaper immediately: Woods’ Husband Declares Innocence. Lucy picked up the paper, turned the pages. Imelda Woods’ husband’s letter to the editor had been given pride of place. It read: Dear Editor, I would like to put an end to the terrible rumour that has been circulating through this town about my involvement in my wife’s murder. I am devastated at the level of hostility shown to me by the people here, some of whom I believed were my friends. The letter continued to the effect that Mr Woods’ life had been destroyed by the kind of remark Kevin liked to dish out casually in her father’s kitchen. The writer seemed a far more sensitive type than the money-hungry fiend Kevin had described. In fact, this letter suggested that Mr Woods was quite heartbroken. She felt distraught reading the man’s plea to the town’s gossipmongers to leave him alone. She brought the paper, along with a carton of milk and a small loaf of bread, to the counter, and paid.

‘Poor fella,’ Dympna, the young You’re a Star contender remarked, as she placed Lucy’s purchases into a bag.

‘People thought he killed her, right?’ Lucy said.

‘Only the fools. And there are fools every place,’ Dympna replied. ‘What would be his motive? Sure they’d been split for years and he still won’t get the house.’

‘How do you know?’ Lucy asked.

‘Because she sold it a month before she died. To the council. She sold it for a song, too, so they’d let her live in it till they were ready.’

‘Really?’ Lucy replied, ‘ready for what?’

‘Aren’t they going turning it into an arts centre? About time we got something like that. You’d swear we’d nothing going for us here only The Corrs.’ Lucy took her change. An arts centre in the home of a murdered woman: was that not a little weird, grotesque even? Surely there would be something still there – a residue, a ghost, a revenant of some sort? But then she thought of Drury Lane and other such theatres in London that were supposed to have resident ghosts, often carrying their own heads. She was glad then that something good was coming to the town at last and that Imelda Woods had had the foresight to sell her home for such an excellent cause.

That night, Lucy got a text from Cindy, the Gallery’s junior assistant:

Lucy, ffs the grad intern covering u is now shacked up with Arthur. I thought u should know! Cx to which Lucy replied:

Who’s Arthur?

She began to worry that she’d mentioned Arthur’s name a bit too often in the office – and that she’d been too keen to share (with Cindy – and therefore the whole office) not only her anger over how he’d treated her over the years but also her pain in knowing he’d moved on while she hadn’t, her ongoing sense of loss. She should have kept such things to herself. But the break-up had felt like grief, had followed the same key stages, and she had needed to talk to someone. That night she felt much more than a renewed determination to make a go of her new life at home; she felt that Arthur Hackett had pretty much brought her to her knees, and began to feel again her former intense grief-like rage, for he had, effectively, with his charm and promises and eloquent mentorship, robbed her of her future. And that night she not only passionately wished him a swift demise but began to think of what Kevin had said about the hard men from the Demesne Road, the Doyles, the ‘scumbag assassins’ who would kill for hire and at a cheap rate, too.

*

Neither Kevin or her father could come to Ice House Hill to see the play. But a large crowd attended nonetheless. Around seventy people laughed and cried (and screeched at the blinding of Gloucester). The company was, as Larry Doyle had said, very physical and it put on a good show. Then, just as Lucy was about to depart the spectral darkness of Ice House Hill, she spotted Larry Doyle – chatting to the heavy-chested actress who had played Cordelia. He saw Lucy and beckoned her over. Lucy congratulated the actress and within minutes was being swept up in a buzzing horde of people, actors from the theatre company, local artists like Larry, and a few others, all heading for a bar in town. Excitement crackled in the air. A few hours into the drinking session in the bar on Park Street it occurred to Lucy how talkative and cheery she was being, and that a slight trace of her former accent was returning to her voice. She felt ever so slightly happy – and was enjoying herself.

Larry introduced her to Don Shields, the town’s arts officer. Shields was very keen to know about Lucy’s work in London though she neglected to mention her lengthy sabbatical. As the evening went on it became apparent that it was Shields who had been responsible for the purchase of the Ice House and that he would be at the helm of the project that would transform it. He was full of ideas. The house would have a small cinema, he said. He had in mind already the first season: rotating weeks of Italian neorealism, German expressionism, weekends devoted to David Lynch, Tarkovsky. Lucy sounded her approval. She didn’t want to appear to know too much about the gory details of what had occurred inside the house, to which Shields referred only once. The man had a strange way about him; he spoke hurriedly, with a trace of hostility, and looked beyond the person to whom he spoke as if he expected a row of people waiting to speak to him. He made Lucy feel as if time with him was precious, valuable. He was also loud, strident even and managed to down an entire packet of cashews in one go while he spoke to her – making him seem more clinically efficient than rude. The crowd with whom she had gone into the bar seemed to hang on Shields’ every word. It was Shields, too, she learned, who had suggested the performance on Ice House Hill to Chapterhouse Theatre Company. His boundless confidence recalled to Lucy, one Arthur Hackett, and because of this she was not quite as impressed with him as she thought he thought she should be. But her slight disdain towards him gave her the courage to speak frankly. So when she mentioned that surely the murder of Imelda Woods would need to be resolved before the arts centre was established and a cinema set up inside, Shields became sharp and defensive.

‘We’ve been as cooperative as we can with the family,’ he said, ‘but the house is our property now. Besides, the town should really just move the fuck on.’ Even deep in the sticks, Lucy thought to herself, the arts world had its stonehearted men of ambition.

A few hours later, Lucy walked home, merrily drunk, from the bar (alone). She went into a restaurant with a busy takeaway section to buy chips, something greasy. True to the town’s reputation for violence, a fight broke out as she waited in the disorderly queue. Two men emerged from the back of the dining area and dragged one of the men who’d been in the fight out onto the street. Through the glass, Lucy could see the two men screaming at the younger man as they slapped him about the head. The young man’s slate-blue eyes were wild, as if he wanted nothing more than to burst back into the restaurant and continue the fight from which he’d been dragged. She guessed that he was brother to the other two as all were tall, long-legged, had the same chalky pockmarked skin, the same crazed unfocused look – and there seemed to be a kind of understanding between them. The owner of the restaurant, a little Italian woman, banged on the window for the three to move on, but the younger one, still full of bluster and rage, ignored her and the two men rebuking him and continued his attempts to re-enter the place. It began to rain then, a light summer rain, and the young man calmed, and Lucy watched as he and the other two took similar-looking black peaked caps from their pockets and fitted them snugly onto their heads before moving off.

Done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.

‘Fucking Doyles,’ she heard the man behind her say, ‘bad bastards, the lot of them.’ Lucy paid for her order and set off home on the balmy night with her oily chips and onion rings. She did not go home via the back of the town and so did not pass the Ice House, but walked along Park Street towards home. The Doyle brothers walked animatedly ahead, their dark round heads bobbing before her like a group of seals. As she observed their loud playfulness, at once humorous and violent, she became overwhelmed with a deep sense of belonging, of rootedness. Something inside her had finally relaxed. She wondered, how – when she would eventually catch up with the Doyles, as she was resolved to do – she would go about striking up a conversation with them (at least before they made the turn for Demesne Road). She wondered, too, if any of them had ever been as far a-field as London.

—Jaki McCarrick

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Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It recently premiered in Chicago to much critical acclaim. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel. Represented by AM Heath. Her blog, CloudNine, can be read here.

Jun 012015
 

Victoria KennefickVictoria Kennefick

Victoria Kennefick’s debut chapbook, White Whale, already a winner of The Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition, I am delighted to say has (in the last few days) also won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet and well deserved too!

While discussing White Whale (with its recurrent images of the sea and that great white creature of myth) in a recent interview, she stated that “the sea is my context. It is how I understand time and space…. I can’t imagine life, or my poetry, without it.” Indeed her writing reflects that fluid quality, the poems possessing the same illusionary motion of waves: their words, like the sea’s water particles, staying in place while transferring their energy to the next word (particle) in line creating a distortion of our external reality to yield up an internal truth. Kennefick, it should be noticed, is not, like a sailor, using the fixed stars to determine time and space but the sea itself. In this way, perhaps, she resembles more the whalesmen of Melville when he writes, “in maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound…they [the whalesmen] are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them…”

—Gerard Beirne

.

Apology

I turned my back on aeonian coffee dates,
I have no patience left to watch you eat a pastry,
sawing it into tiny, bite-sized portions
to nibble at with milk teeth that refuse to budge.
Please know it’s because I felt like a savage.

I put out the lights on looping walks around
the Lough, Fitzgerald’s Park, the entirety of the city.
I like to walk in silence, alone, I do not need to burn
the way you do. I’m glad you have a dog now.
Please know it’s because I felt lazy.

I left the room when you cried at birthdays, graduation,
my father’s funeral. I do not want to sweep up your broken
porcelain face from my floor anymore, not at my wedding.
Sometimes it’s about me. I am happy you found love.
Please know it’s because I felt selfish.

I shut the door because we talked in circles, spiralling
into the centre of our own darkness. Your devotion
flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.
I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip.
Please know that I am sorry.

.

Marie Céleste

I am too young for this body,
it cracks and snaps.
My mast broken into points,
my sail flaps in tatters, loose angry skin.

My mouth is full with tongue,
wooden and dumb.
My hair locked in coils,
breaks on dry shoulders.

Paint flaked off like old make-up,
the green of my eyes died.
Above an albatross shrieks
at this body open like a cave.

Yawing wood unclasps,
ribs collapse, fingers untwine,
whining to float on grey water,
washed out, broken.

Fall into the blankness of the tide,
leave behind the old and splintered thing.

.

Ritual

Because she demands it,
the rain comes.
Everything stops,
conversations drip with it,
eyes water.
I ask villagers what she did.

The priest says he saw her dance
in a white nightgown,
a fallen star not knowing
where to land. The doctor
noticed drops fuse with her skin,
fizz like sugar.

Calm as a mushroom, I watch her,
safe underneath my umbrella.
Hear her when she squalls,
‘The rain will dilute everything,
set lakes and rivers free.
Then you’ll see an ocean in me.’

After a few days, the rain stops;
sun dabs puddles like wounds.
There is no flood, we are glad.
She sits alone in steaming clothes
bleeding white on wrinkled skin,
her sky seems clear forever.

.

On Reflection

The sea
a shell rippling open
puts itself in the shallows,
leans over quivering panes,
dips tippy-toed to look at itself
now it’s low tide.
It squints up at us shivering,
our breath clouds of brushed cotton.
Goose-fleshed toes burrow
down to where worms squirm.
Sand, hands cupped, holds us up,
my head in view, flat on the water
in the sky, pupil in the eye,
turned in on itself, and out,
and you and I, and me and you,
and us, pinks, blues, periwinkles,
a cockle, kelp.
The ocean takes us all,
the sky too,
on reflection.

—Victoria Kennefick

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Victoria Kennefick’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry (Chicago), The Stinging Fly, New Irish Writing, Bare Fiction, The Penny Dreadful, And Other Poems and elsewhere. She won the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize 2013 and was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2014. Her pamphlet, White Whale, won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition 2014 and just won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. You can follow her @VKennefick.

May 092015
 

Macdara Woods Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014Macdara Woods at the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014 — photo by Robin Parmer

Macdara Woods unquestionably possesses one of the most singular voices in Irish poetry. He has published eleven collections of poetry since 1970 with his Collected Poems appearing in 2012. In addition he has published two collections in Italian and has poems translated in twelve languages. In 2002/3 he worked on two collaborative commissions: the first, In The Ranelagh Gardens, a sequence of  twelve new poems to go with four new pieces from the Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, first performed by both, in Dublin, in the Bank of Ireland Mainly Modern Series, February 2003.  In July 2003 he completed the second, The Cello Suites, a six-part sequence of 480 lines, in response to a performance of the Bach Solo Suites by US double-bassist Richard Hartshorne at Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, in 2002. It was premiered by both in Harrisville, New Hampshire, December 2003, and performed again in Toronto, New York, and Dublin. He has read and lectured extensively throughout the world over the last fifty years, most recently in Brazil and Argentina.

Perhaps Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Irish Times review (2001), put it best, “Macdara Woods has been an absorbing and relatively unplaceable presence in Irish writing since the 1970s, because the internationalising tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards was always balanced by a rooted use of Irish language and tradition.” And push those boundaries he has, but in a careful measured way. While living mainly in Dublin, he also resides as much as he can in Umbria, where the poem featured below, Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light, is located.

Macdara has described this poem as “a serious statement of record and intent arising out of a nightmare progression of medical catastrophe, starting from a fairly routine surgical intervention.”  Five days after the routine surgery he collapsed with a severe near fatal sepsis which necessitated a second surgery and a further eleven week stay in hospital. Upon release, he suffered excruciating pain in his back and leg which ultimately led to a hip replacement, “but I was so wrecked from the sepsis, and because I also had a still open wound, the surgical team was very hesitant about going ahead. So they hit upon the idea of keeping me semi-knocked out, to try and control the pain, until January when they hoped I might be stronger and a bit more healed. In the event, two days before Christmas Eve, there assembled round my bed 4 serious faced harbingers, the man who had done the first and second operations, the man who would be doing the hip replacement, a beautiful and high-powered Romanian anaesthetist, and a microbiologist. There to tell me that I was getting worse instead of better, that in fact I was as good as I was ever going to be…”

The following day he had his hip replacement which required him to learn to walk all over again. It was more than a year after his initial surgery that Macdara was finally well enough “to get back to Umbria, a place I had begun to feel I was never going to see again, to start reassembling myself.” The poem was written last September after he managed to climb up to the top of the hill-town of Nocera Umbra.

—Gerard Beirne

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Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light

I.

My father did not finish things
Such things as rows
Or playing parts ..And breakdowns
Retiring early ..Died too soon
His final words to me — A
Half a question ..Half unasked
At no point answered ..Comes there
Any answer ever? ..Do you…
Do you remember…When…and there
It stops unfinished in my head
Do you remember when we… ..Lost
The points of contact maybe
Or lost the faith ..Or lost our nerve
Lost certainty along the way
As is the way of things ..And now
That I am gathering speed
The train tracks meeting in the distance
Far behind ..The fearsome nameless
City rearing up in front ..where I know
No one ..and none know me
But where we all get off
It is too late to even think of asking questions
And of whom? ..The young Eastern
European with the tea-urn
Has passed up and down the corridor
Three times ..has disappeared
And gone for good
As has the man who checks the tickets
And the district nurse ..who is
The only one that anyone could trust
Out of the whole shebang and calaboose
Or – to use my mother’s phrase –
The Slaughterhouse
This travelling slaughterhouse on wheels
We call a life
……………..But not an unconsidered one
Out of the four last things
This one remains ..Impervious to fashion
Time or doubt: ..the flame ..it flickers
And goes out
The bird across the banquet hall
No more than that
………………………..And yet we
Mostly ..stand our ground ..because
It is expected
And what I am trying to understand
Even now at this late hour
Is your unhappiness and thus my own
Beyond the dopamine deficiency
And those endorphins
Creatures of ..the vasty deep
Who do not come when they are conjured

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II.

Yesterday I climbed ..lungs heaving
Up the earthquake damaged street
……………………….Nocera Umbra
Much ..chiuso per restauri
And simple minimal ..so beautiful
So free of traffic ..free of noise
Mid-Wednesday afternoon
One self-conscious policeman
Checking doors so tightly shut
Not even dust could penetrate
And near the top
Two men are laying cobble stones
In sand ..tapping them square
Into the roots of time
In shadow
In the lovely buttered ..honey light
Of mid-September
……………………..This constant need
For rehabilitation ..Spells in John Of God’s
Cataracts removed
Appendices
Colonoscopies and cardiograms
Or how in 1991 in Moscow
So many Metro escalators stopped
Seized-up ..steep egress from the underworld
Sotto Restauro ..everywhere Ремонт
Remont ..we climbed up from
The marble bowels and chandeliers
Of Kruschev’s dream made real
But lacking maintenance
The way we do not finish things ..is
Where entropy comes in ..is Auden’s
Sinister cracked tea cup
And the Watcher in the shadows
Who coughs when you
……………………………would kiss
Or coughing ..labour upwards
On a stick and artificial hip
To the Civic Tower and campanile
La Campanaccia at the top
Built nine hundred years ago
And standing straight ..full weight
Erect proclaiming ..Eccomi
For I am here and have been here for all to see
And have been seen
………………………..As I too am here
And have been seen ..been part of this
Small space today between the Tower
And the Cathedral
All chiuso per restauri ..Have seen
The maintenance and putting things
In place ..Knowing that they must
And will go wrong again
And be put almost right again
Poor transients —
Until the Heracliten lease runs out

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III.

And one day indeed the words ran out
And we ..with nothing ..left to say
Consulted over menus
Read bits of news ..repeated saws
To get us through the silence — you
Didn’t know
……………………..And I had yet to learn
That few words ..A simple few
Could be enough ..could tell it all:
A tendency to stagger to the left
And sometimes teeter backwards
Which could explain
My dreadful fall in Fiumicino
Too much saliva
Varied tremors ..Hands and chin:
And sometimes fingers clawed
In sudden spasm
…………………….Do I go on
Into the realms of dysgraphia
Staccato speech ..Shoulders stooped
A slowing of the gait?
I prefer
To watch the dancers in the village square
The ballo in piazza
Sunburnt mirth ..Provencal song
That so caught Keats’ fancy
Out of reach
And I have had a longer run than that

And not yet reached Astopovo:
Still travelling
………………..To places all unseen
Invisible to those with open eyes
It needs a certain antic 20 20 vision
To housepaint in the dark
As we have done ..And plastered walls
Without a light in Fontainebleau
Not cowboys then or now
Just battling with addictions
………………………Drink and pills
And work ..At labouring ..And selling
Two hours of life to buy a third
The hell with that bum deal
I said ..And I have now grown old ..And someone
Cooked the booksbooks
……………………….Along the way
The way we knew they would – So
Who owes what to whom is moot
Irrelevant ..We last from day to day
No more than that ..That’s it .Enough
For now
The diagnosis works ..Of course it does:
Who ever died a winter yet?

………………………………September 19th 2014

—Macdara Woods

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Macdara Woods was born in Dublin in 1942. Has been publishing work since the early sixties. He is a member, since 1986, of Aosdána, (set up by the Irish Government to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the Arts in Ireland). Recent reading tours include Austria, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greece. His Collected Poems were published in 2012 by Dedalus Press and his pamphlet, From Sandymount to the Hill of Howth, was published by Quaternia Press in 2014. He currently lives in Dublin, and when he can in Umbria. He is the founder-editor of the magazine Cyphers (1975 to the present). He is married to poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and they have a grown-up son, Niall, a musician.

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Apr 012015
 
john connell author

Photo by John Minihan

Born in County Longford, where his debut novel is set, John Connell like many Irish before him emigrated to Australia. The success of his short story The Little Black brought him to the attention of Picador Australia publisher of The Ghost Estate. Set during the Celtic Tiger, the novel explores the psychological and emotional “boom and bust” of those reckless times:

“Gerard McQuaid has been waiting for his start in life: his house, his girl, his land. And with rural Ireland being swept up by the Celtic Tiger and villages becoming towns, the electrician’s moment has finally arrived. With the chance to run a big job, McQuaid finds himself on Birchview Manor, a decrepit estate where the dreams of modern Ireland crash up against the weight of history. As McQuaid gets further into the restoration, he falls deeper into the story of the estate’s previous owner, Lord Henry Lefoyle, whose fate begins to loom ghost-like over McQuaid’s own.”

 

 

Gerard Beirne (GB): John, your debut novel, Ghost Estate, somewhat unusually for an Irish writer is being published in Australia (Picador). How did that come about? Are their plans for it to be published in Ireland or England?

John Connell (JC): Yes it is quite unusual. I was an Irish emigrant living and studying in Australia and wrote a short story which was included in two short story anthologies in the country and happily for me it received quite a bit of attention and a few different publishers approached me with book offers. I decided to go with Picador as they said I could write about whatever I wanted so that was a really great gift. I have just engaged an agent at the moment who is looking to see about publishing the book in UK/Irl and other regions. So hopefully 2015 will see the Ghost Estate get an Irish release.

GB: Tens of thousands of Irish have move to Australia in the last decade with many staying on to become permanent residents or citizens? Why did you move there and do you intend on staying?

JC: I went to Australia as an exchange student studying journalism, I was then offered to finish my degree there and did my final degree project on the aboriginal communities in remote Australia and produced an investigative radio documentary, That piece won a journalism award and secured me work with ABC the national broadcaster. I had only ever intended on being in Australia for 6 months which later turned into four and a half years before moving to Canada.

GB: Many of those who have emigrated have done so because of Australia’s “booming” economy – having written a novel about the boom and bust in Ireland, do you see any similarities there, any concerns, warning signs?

JC: Ah yes of course, Australia is in a boom and the refugees of the Tiger are driving that boom in so many sectors. In my few years in Australia I saw the price of living increase, the price of houses, the proliferation of money and its wasting, all the hallmarks of a country running away with itself. Australia unlike Ireland has mineral wealth that won’t run out any time soon, but it is dependent on its trade relationship with China, its number one trade partner. In my opinion, Australia won’t crash like Ireland, but it will slow down (and it has started to slow down- I have Irish friends who work on rigs and mines that have been let go with that same slow down). The greed is fairly pronounced there at the moment sadly.

GB: Where was the book written? If Australia, did this make a difference to the writing of the book? If Ireland, was it necessary to go back to Ireland to write it? If both, was this a necessary part of the process and why? 

JC: The book was wrote in Ireland in a portacabin in a field in Longford. It was necessary to write the book in Ireland (I even did the rewrites here). I needed to be in the atmosphere of the place and listening to the local people talk, and I also gained so many stories from local people that ultimately found their way in some form into the book. It would not be the same book if it had been written in Australia. I just actually can’t imagine what it would have been. Ireland was the canvas and the book was the paint if you’ll pardon that bad analogy.

GB: How does the literary world in Australia compare to that in Ireland? — The literary community, the publishing scene, the literature itself? Is there an Irish literary community there?

JC: The literary scene in Australia is quite small compared to Ireland. There are lots of publications and publishing houses but not the sheer volume of writers as we have in Ireland. However, there are wonderful Australian writers with a unique Australian voice. It was only in living in Australia and Canada that I realized the tremendous output of Ireland in world literature. Thomas Keneally author of Schindlers’ List is Irish-Australian and would be the one stop shop for Irish literary scene to my opinion though other writers such as David Malouf have wrote books on Ireland or Irish-Australian subject manner.  Ireland and Irishness is part of the history and story of Australia and many Australians have Irish heritage so I suppose we are part of the Australian story in many respects. I mean Ned Kelly was Irish after all. Peter Carey would not have got his Booker without us convicts!

GB: The novel is set in Longford where you grew up – how did the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath affect your home and community? Depression plays a central role in the novel. We know that suicide rates increased due to the recession particularly amongst those in the property business. What has been the psychological impact of the “bust”?

JC: The Celtic Tiger and its death had a huge impact on Longford and other rural communities. Longford was a very quiet place as a child, but it gradually became very busy during the boom years, and in the death of the tiger a ghost county as opposed to a Ghost Estate. Suicide was sadly all too common and still is. We have 10 suicides a week in Ireland. 8 of those are men. Many young men who had known nothing but success in the boom years suddenly found themselves in debt, unemployed and caught; and sadly far too many remained silent, suffered quietly and took their lives. It is a sad, sad truth but one that has yet to be fully talked about. For many, it was either emigrate to Australia and now Canada or face the quiet lonely Longford nights and the dole queue.

GB: You grew up on a farm — how has that played a role in your life? How has farming been impacted by the Celtic Tiger years and how have the changes affected rural communities?

JC: I enjoy the countryside and I’m proud of my rural roots but that’s about it. The Celtic Tiger changed everything in Ireland even farming; farmers were builders and developers too.  Thankfully that has calmed down now and people are returning to the land in a more healing and respectful manner.

GB: On a final note, you mentioned that you know Yanis Varoufakis the current Greek Finance Minister. What is your connection to him and does it have any relevance to the book?

JC: Yanis and I talked a number of times after I heard a lecture he gave on the GFC. I was on the rewrite of my book at the time and Yanis’s ideas combined with those of Tony Judt whom I met before he passed away, really cemented some of my economic thinking on why things got as bad as they did. Yanis had offered for me to study with him in Texas, but I had a wedding to plan and he a country to run. Maybe in time we might get to reconnect on that one!

—John Connell & Gerard Beirne

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Listen to John Connell read an excerpt.

 

cover

Excerpt: Kane – a short chapter about the developer

John Kane balanced the car keys and mug of tea in his hands as he opened the sleek black door of his new Landrover. It was a bright if somewhat cold morning. He let the engine warm before he turned the ignition. One, two, three. He sipped from his mug quietly, as the window slowly defrosted.

He was used to this morning routine now. The Landrover moved smoothly along the country roads. He could hear the scrape of briars and overgrown branches against the vehicle as the lanes narrowed towards the cottage.

How many times had he come up this lane? It was beyond measure now. The house was still the same, had been since Noel had lived there. Old Noel, his distant cousin, the bachelor, the man who had left him everything in his will.

But wasn’t that what he had wanted, he reminded himself, all those visits, the shopping trips to Longford, the dinner in the Landmark. Had it all been for the hunger, the want of land, those twenty acres and the plot of turf in Kelleher bog? Yes, he admitted, and no. He and Noel had shared a friendship, and while it was not a surprise that one day the man asked to be brought to the solicitors in town, some part of him felt that he was entitled to it. It was in a way a gift. Though Noel’s niece had never seen it in that light. Not at the funeral when he had taken the front pew reserved for immediate family, nor at the reading of the will when she had received nothing, despite nursing him in those last few months.

Friendship had a price and that was not his fault.

He rolled to the door and beeped the horn. The vehicle hummed quietly as he waited on the cracked concrete. The house was old. Sheds dotted here and there around the yard were filled with turf and old creamery cans. The turf was never burned any more. The house ran on oil.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

‘We’re all well I hope?’ asked Kane, looking in the rear-view mirror towards the others.

‘We well, yes,’ they agreed sullenly.

Each morning was the same. A talk, a half-hearted chat that petered out. There existed in the car two different worlds with many incomprehensions.

‘I drop you at the manor today, okay?’ he said.

The group nodded.

‘Jans, can you come with me to the office? I need you to give me a hand.’

The Polish had arrived with the boom, come like a wind indeed. The country had woken up to find new names and faces that spoke of towns and villages no one had ever heard of. They were good workers and in so many ways were what the Irish had once been, Kane thought. Strong-backed, fond of a drink and, yes, ignorant. They were in search of a better life in another land and yet dreamed only of returning home.

Jans, who spoke the best English, had been a teacher of sorts, but there was more money to be made lifting blocks than teaching children. He, like all the others, had made that Ryanair migration across Europe and somehow, somehow, ended up in Longford.

It still puzzled Kane, Longford being multicultural, and was there not enough trouble between the two native groups that lived here already, not to mention the travellers? How were they ever to come to terms with foreigners when they had yet to come to terms with themselves?

But there was work to be done, and these men, these Poles, were ready to do it.

They never complained, they never questioned, they simply shrugged and worked. They had become serfs in a way; a man’s success could be measured by how many Poles he had working for him.

Kane drove toward the estate. Big Jack would be waiting for them. It was the same routine each morning. And they would be set to work on some menial task around the sites, something a contractor would refuse to do. They were the workhorses of this boom and when it ended, whenever that might be, they would be sent away like all old nags.

On Fridays after work he would bring them to town to wire their wages back to Poland, back to their families. It was perhaps paternalistic but he knew the minds of young men well. If they had the money, they would spend it, and an arsehole pub in the middle of Ireland was no place to waste a week’s work. He would give them their pay slips and drive them to the Western Union branch and the rest was their own choice.

It was not really a life, Kane often thought, to work and save and never be able to fully communicate your thoughts and fears for the lack of words. It was little wonder the men took to the cheap bottles of vodka at the weekend.

They were not so different, not so very different at all, Kane thought. A picture of Poland instead of Ireland on the cheap bedroom walls and a set of rosary beads under each man’s pillow. Poverty had a way of repeating its motifs.

‘Come on, Jans,’ he said as Lech and the others packed out of the Landrover. ‘The gutters in the office need a good clean. They’re full of fucking weeds.’

‘Yes, boss,’ Jans said simply, and returned to silence.

Was it better than teaching, Kane thought. It must be. It must be.

—John Connell

 

John Connell was born in 1986. He grew up in County Longford, Ireland. An award-winning investigative journalist, playwright and producer, The Ghost Estate (Picador Australia) is his first novel.

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Mar 082015
 

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The cuckoo flower.

“Oh, that one’s bad luck if you take it into the house,” my mother said, so we left it where it showed four pink petals and a greeny yellow heart.

The devil’s bit scabious.

“No,” my mother said, examining the bluish purple blossom.  “I don’t know what it’s called either.”

I learned cowslip, white clover, oat-grass, creeping buttercup, meadow barley, meadowsweet and – floating at the tranquil edges of the croaking, churning quagmire – watercress and forget-me-not. When it came to the rarest Callows flower, bell-shaped and creamy white and hidden among the prevailing browns and greens, I would have to wait, as with the devil’s bit scabious, until a book identified the “summer snowflake”.

I hungered for books but books were scarce in our house.  Though my mother appreciated the value of books, money was often too short to afford them and the nearest library an inconvenient eight miles away, in Loughrea.  I made do for a long time with a huge tome called Flaming Flamingos that my uncle Mattie had brought.  All of nature seemed contained in that book.  The Camargue, Lake Nakuru, the Orinoco, that book whetted my hunger.  It widened my thought even if I often got stuck in the mud of its ornithological intent.  Over time it grew shabby and dog-eared and its spine broke.  Finally someone must have fecked it into the fire while I wasn’t looking.  But still it lingered even as I walked the Callows with my mother and the flamingos lit up those river meadows in my imagination.

The Callows was big when I was small.  It flooded or was supposed to flood in spring and autumn.  Flooding is too strong a word.  It stayed dry on higher areas and even in winter offered more a splashy sheet of wetness than a flood.  It held marshy tracts as well but we and the handful of neighbours who shared it always called it Callows and this, together with its four rivers, made it one.  I’m certain that the further back I go into my childhood, the slobbier, wetter, more unstable the Callows becomes.

Callows 1

It was entirely treeless apart from a few diminutive blackthorn bushes nibbled by the wind as much as by any grazing animal.  Its rivers, too small to carry names, trickled beyond their banks in some places but in others made me gawp at the force of the fresh current that linked them to the main river flowing across Foxhall Little and away outside the reach of my thoughts.

Several harsh-throated, drab-plumed birds depended on the Callows.  Greenland geese flying in V shape made weary-sounding, high-pitched cries and the creaking of their wings – together with their feral smell – filled my head.  Shyer than my mother’s geese, they wheeled their large white-fronted bodies about and chose to land well away from where I stood.  Whooper swans stuck out their black and yellow beaks, hissing a warning as I skirted the turlough.  Golden plovers, more white than gold, reeled in flocks, resembling miniature pieces of flickering litter as their bodies caught the sunlight.  Wild ducks, the males with their vivid plumage, dipped and dabbled.  The corncrake broadcast his arrival in late spring by “serenading” the world night after night, his voice harsher than two rusty nails being scraped together.

Some birds stayed all year.  The curlew rose almost straight up and made me feel melancholy by the way he called his own name as he glided back to earth.  The sound of the snipe’s drumming tail-feathers always stopped me in my tracks, and his zigzag flight easily deceived my eye.  The skylark dwindled to a heavenly dot, singing as he rose.

“Closer, closer,” the quagmire croaked when my mother let me go alone.  I would step and thrill and step until my wellingtons got stuck.  More than once I had to scramble back or even to step out of them in order to escape.  I gave up this game the day one wellington slowly filled with mud and sank without trace.

Callows 3

The Callows became a kind of outback to which I could escape and go walkabout.  I never felt less lonely than when alone there.  Often I felt sad as a child, the sadness of disappointment.  I wondered what the disappointment was.  Maybe, I told myself, it involved the waiting that had to happen before I could do the ‘great thing’ for which I had been born and would be remembered.  Maybe it included the worry of being responsible for this great achievement, the nature of which I had not the least inkling.

Mostly I tried to coax the sadness to behave itself the way I might Jack, our jet-black pony, a kicker and a biter.  Everyone must carry the disappointment that is part of them, I decided.  But in the Callows the disappointing mope in my heart would shrink and I’d find exhilaration by sprinting barefoot and fast.  A salt taste tanged my mouth and heat rose behind my ears; sometimes a stitch jabbed at my heart.  Later, a similar abandon erupted in fights with other boys – the thrill of landing a telling blow, of ending a pent-up frustration.  In my teens the drumbeat and the squawking of an electric guitar across the darkness from the dance carnival at Mullagh Cross also tapped into this sensation as powerful and primal and worth bringing on.

The Callows let me live in the moment and the moment could run and run until I completely forgot myself or, for that matter, other people’s opinions of me.  I was in my own manner “forgetting human words”, as W. B. Yeats said of Synge.  I see now that I didn’t have even the most basic sense of how to care for myself.  I went without a coat in rain or frost no matter how often my mother might advise me to wear one.  The cold and the wet and the pain served as balm against the sadness I felt.  They couldn’t stop me from exulting each time I sprinted and turned and sprinted again.

Years later, when I was a young teacher, I worked with boys who reminded me of myself as a child.  They, too, went without.  Some, unlike me, lived in utter poverty or wilful neglect.  Others suffered a lack of physical affection similar to my own.  Cold and hunger were second nature to them.  They had far more genuine excuses for being difficult or disruptive than I ever had – but I still recognise the boy I was, the boy who thought himself king of the Callows and who would happily have thrown away the blanket of mist and the cold kiss of a frog for the touch of human warmth that wasn’t given – not out of any meanness on the part of my parents, for they didn’t have a scrap of meanness in them, but because in the way of that time such things just weren’t done.

My need deepened as I grew older.  At first I cycled to and from St. Brendan’s College in Loughrea.  Cycling meant breezes and drenchings, but I refused to wear an overcoat.  Cycling also meant avoidance of talk, especially with girls.  And when the bus took the place of the bike, the driver – lamp-headed, incandescently so – said go up the road to Castlenancy or I won’t stop for you.  There they were – the girls, their long hair shining and the shape of their breasts and thighs suggested behind the ruck and pucker of convent uniforms.  I stole looks at them, racked my brain trying to think of something smart to say.  If I could only speak the first sentence… but no, I looked away again, stayed dumb for five years, give or take, and the girls stayed dumb with me.

“Look down,” the wet meadow whispered.

Black oily goo oozed from a wound in one place, while in another a seepage of glorious rusty orange happened.  I saw feathers scattered where a fox or hawk had struck, and a crow standing on a dead sheep’s head, trying to lever out its eye.  I didn’t wonder about ugliness or beauty, cruelty or compassion, or if I did the Callows wasn’t bothered.

Nor was it bothered when one spring a group of about twenty men arrived with nets – an extensive network of nets – and used thin rods to set them in place in the shape of a huge, open-mouthed pen.  The men spread out along the perimeter of the Callows and beat the vegetation, shooing and hallooing.  Hares rose and ran ahead of them until eventually there was a drove of maybe a hundred hares.  These were flocked into the pen, where they frantically scrabbled against the netting even as it closed on them.  They would be used at coursing events in various country towns where most, if not all of them, would be torn asunder by competing hounds.

I felt powerless.  The big world couldn’t be kept away.  Its entertainments were the same as its hungers: they required to be fed.  A small dread started in me there.  The future would happen, changing everything, including myself.  I understood at some basic level that I would have to leave when the future came.  My only solution was to immerse myself ever more deeply in the Callows.

Callows 5

At each visit I would lift the large flat stone that lay at the Callows’ edge.  There I might find a slug the colour of a lemon drop, a centipede that resembled a frazzled piece of twine, or a harvestman taking slow, articulated steps as if he were a flimsy wound-up toy.  They couldn’t stand the light of day and maybe that’s why I loved them – they were shyer even than me.

Then I would enter the cold, queasy pottage of what I would later describe in a poem as “land aspiring to be water; water wanting to be land”.  It had the raw look of a place still beginning.  It didn’t hold out much hope of anything remarkable.  But if you leaned into it, if you stayed quiet enough for long enough, its creatures would forget you and make free.  So I heard the pheasant hiccoughing as though drunk with sunset, and I found the eels – collectively if implausibly known as “a fry” – slithering their way across the waterland.

One evening I dug below the dank mat of roots and soil and clutched up a fistful of white dripping clay.  It was marl, but I didn’t know that then.  Slowly I crumpled its gritty sponge and found isolated on my palm three small egg-shaped shells.  Smooth and whorled and beautiful to my eye but, after holding onto them for a day or two, I gave them to my mother.  She could hardly have looked happier if I had given her a pearl necklace.

“Maybe the Callows was a lake,” she suggested.  “Maybe water snails lived there long ago.”

“But when was that?”

“Oh, not since Adam was a boy.”

She let the shells drop into the torn pocket of her apron where she assured me they would be safe, and I have no recollection of her ever mentioning them beyond that.

Callows 4

The Callows stayed with me long after I’d grown up and “become sensible”.  Its landscape turned into thought.  I wanted to preserve its sights and sounds and smells the way I tried to restrain three pheasants in a furze clump once, “flocking” them with my hands for several minutes until finally they burst upwards past my chest and face to escape.  Nearly four decades later I recalled

the marl excavations: white, with small
tell-tale shells remembering a lake
where the Callows found its first
foothold – and where your heart’s pangs
are shallow waves, breaking still.

My mother had become old and enfeebled now, laid up in Portiuncula Hospital after yet another stroke, one more sweeping of the ground from under her.  I had drawn the bed curtain across, sat with her through the night.  I stayed awake listening to her breath, her scraping restlessness, and staring at the Callows meadow scene painted on the curtain itself.  Flowers aplenty there, patches of water, tall grasses.

Towards dawn I held her wrist while the doctor clumsily took blood.  Some blood squirted from his syringe onto the curtain where it formed a black flower among the lightening colours of the wetland meadow – one more beauty to add to the forty plus species per square metre that river meadows are capable of supporting.  I thought of the many walks she and I had taken together.  And I found myself wishing for the shells back, or maybe for the moment of offering them to her again.

—Patrick Deeley

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patrick-deeleyPatrick Deeley via Five Glens Arts Festival

Patrick Deeley was born in Loughrea, Co. Galway in 1953, and currently lives in Dublin.  His poetry collections published by Dedalus Press include Intimate Strangers (1986), Names For Love (1990), Turane: the Hidden Village (1995), Decoding Samara (2001), The Bones of Creation (2008) and Groundswell: New and Selected Poems (2013).  He is the recipient of a number of bursaries and poetry prizes, and translations of his work to French and Italian have come from Alidades Press and Kolibris Edizione respectively. “A Callows Childhood” is an extract from a memoir, The Hurley-Maker’s Son. His personal website is here.

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Feb 112015
 

Thomas McCarthy

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Winter With Catherine

The plover and the plover’s page
Apply their narceine to Kenmare water

In this, the earliest light of winter time.
Night lifts its bitter crystalline,

Clouds withdraw in wounded hauteur.

Sunlight tinctures sorrel and sage
With drifts of its royal orpiment

While we gaze upon a lobster-boat
As it drops a rosary-beads of pots.

Gulls attend each sinking reliquary:
Chattering classes in a frenzy of prayer –

The hour is so casually strummed upon,
It booms in opiate lanquor:

This sun is a river, the plover’s a sea.

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While You Sleep

I watch the timeless candle burning at both ends.
At one end it must be my mother’s face
And her infinite correlation with my own fate.
There’s no other end that I would put in place

At this moment or at any moment in our room.
The candle burns in its circadian rhythms,
Leaving words behind it on her waxy lips:
She told stories to the dark while the world slept

And like poems she didn’t need an end
But supped off the oils of perpetual change.
I watch the warm light on your own restless face.
You are restless like a mother. The precipice

Of night threatens you, though I am here
Always to hold you. You must learn to un-drown
Yourself, to float the way light does
From a timeless candle. Your superstition grows

In the absence of day, but night has no substance
When we are together. Look at the stars
Through the bedroom window: their universe
Is nothing in this huge room, in the light from us.

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At Ink Level, The Sea

Here on the writing desk of the earth
The sun goes down quickly at ink level.
Soon the stony outcrop will be a blob
Of light blue and the sky will be pale
As the tissue rises. Is it time to go in
Or is it time to go outside? Only time

Will tell me how the levels rise –
Phrases cluster on the sunlit page,
So many oyster-catchers thread the surf,
Their needlepoint becomes pale green.
Water is near, shale bursts in applause,
Gulls congregate on a drifting raft.

Am I going out or coming in with the sea?
Not everything is blessed by the promise
Of water: your book on birds
Is soaked by the wash, ink grows pale
In its buckled galleys. From the Hellespont
Of a paper-clip, Leander swims to me.

—Thomas McCarthy

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Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in 1954. Educated at University College Cork. He worked for many years at Cork City Library. Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, 1977, Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, 1980 and O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize, 1991. Fellow of the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa, 1978/79. A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and guest editor of The Stony Thursday Book, he has directed writing workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Arvon Foundation and Molly Keane House. He is a member of Aosdana. His last collection of poems was The Last Geraldine Officer (2009). A new book, Pandemonium, is due from Anvil Poetry in May 2015.

 

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Jan 052015
 

ian-duhig

As writers, I often think we treat language as something to be dominated and controlled rather than something to be lived with and lived through. In this way, we become detached from language, indeed become fearful of it. Not so with Ian Duhig. Duhig’s poetry while steeped in form trusts the sound of language, its musicality, to lead the way as he relentlessly explores the complex connections between a seemingly diverse range of subjects. Since our knowledge of the world, however, comes not through our comprehension of its elements but rather the relationship between these elements, Duhig’s poetic gaze is focused exactly where it needs to be. The insight provided emerges from a writer who dwells within his words and is fearlessly willing to follow where they might take him.

Duhig was born in London to Irish parents and he says, “’London-Irish’ is definitely how we thought of ourselves growing up.” ‘Grand Union Bridge’ (based on a film poem with Alastair Cook), he tells me, explains his relationship with Ireland as a child of immigrants. ‘?’ he says, “demonstrates the sort of skewed understanding of great events being at one remove from them as a second generation Irish youth might have, while ‘A Double Bolide’ deals with a real character I discovered by accident recently, who both the Irish and English would like to keep out of history entirely as an embarrassment to both, to the one a traitor, to the other a paid informant.”

It may be fanciful to imagine that this hyphenated identity led to his formal interest in connectivity within his poetry but, be that as it may, fanciful is good enough for me.

—Gerard Beirne

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I was the eighth child in my family and the first born in England where they’d moved to so my father could find work – he’d served in the Irish army but there was nothing for him in 50s Tipperary when he left. My Mother knew a huge amount of Irish poetry by heart, which was how they learned it at school in her youth. I grew up listening to that in a London-Irish community where poetry was still valued and however often we visited “home” (as Ireland was always called) the place for me was made out of words more than earth. I explored the world of Irish poetry more than the country. When I did live there it was in Belfast, where I ran a hostel for young offenders, but I came into contact with the work of an astonishingly-accomplished generation of Northern Irish poets – Heaney of course, but also Longley, Mahon and the amazing Muldoon. I published my first poetry in The Honest Ulsterman and then stumbled off on my own journey. There’s that old joke about the Irish boomerang – it doesn’t come back it only sings about coming back – and there is a sense of estrangement from home which is central to the Irish tradition and I’ve always felt at home with estrangement.

—Ian Duhig

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Grand Union Bridge

I’d take this bridge across Paddington Cut
where PC Dixon was shot in The Blue Lamp
when I’d go to the cinema robbed by his killer,
the teenager Riley, with his pal Spud Murphy,
betraying Irish lines from this canal’s cutters
up to the likes of my family, over to find work.

Is it called Paddington because of the Paddys?
I’d get asked at school. Back after a lifetime,
from the Grand Union’s winter skin of black ice
I make my song this coat, the old Cut it’s cloth,
to slip into the otherworld of the eternally young
who would only age if they touched our land.

I remember that young Irish suicide landed here,
her own gas inflating the mae west of her flesh,
turned over again, an iceberg of tears, melting,
told the fairy story, promised a gold ring, falling
with child, into this wedding dress of water silk.
O commemorate me where there is water…

I remember police writing in their notebooks.
If you want to know the time, ask one of them.
He knows it can be suspended like a sentence,
although back then the sentence for a Riley
would be for him to dance the Paddington Jig,
in the measure called the Home Office Drop.

But PC Dixon would rise again from the dead,
go on to star in a much-loved television show
that was as black and white as its writers’ plots,
a show running softly for over twenty-one years,
the length of a whole youth back in those days,
birth to the wedding cake with black icing. Cut.

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?

Of all my questions still unanswered

regarding the heroical-pathetic Easter Rising,

such as whether England might have kept faith

when World War I was all said and done

or which Castle cretin sent in the Lancers

against well-trained urban guerillas,

whether Constance Markiewicz really shot

Police Constable Michael Lahiff,

whether Ireland would have been better served

if James Connolly had stayed in bed,

if Captain Bowen-Colthurst was mad

before he was sent to Ireland

and, if so, why nobody noticed it

or at least some behavioural giveaways

or if madness was considered acceptable deportment

for officers of His Majesty’s forces

or why anybody should have been surprised

that starving Dubliners would loot the shops,

my one, persisting, small, ignoble nag

dismissed impatiently by the committed over years

is why exactly was the General Post Office

still open on the Bank Holiday?

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A Double Bolide

Scientific dating tests connect the Hambleton pallasite
from Kilburn’s White Horse with the 1783 Great Meteor,
a brilliant double bolide heard then exploding over York.
In another report of the event in the London Magazine,

an officer on a British warship moored north of Ireland
related that a little time after he first noticed the meteor,
“in the north-east quarter, he saw it moving back again,
the contrary way to which it came” in Sternean fashion.

Perhaps it presaged that year’s Irish stage premiere:
‘Tristram Shandy: A Sentimental Bagatelle in Two Acts’.
This adaptation, playing up patriotic aspects of the text,
was by Leonard McNally, whose book on the law fixed

our criminal trial standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”
indebting future civil libertarians to this Dublin barrister,
a man who came to play many parts during his own life,
with this starring role only coming to light after his death:

McNally was a founding member of the United Irishmen,
informing on them for pay and, when acting as counsel
for the Rising’s leaders, he collaborated with the Crown
to guarantee their convictions beyond reasonable doubt.

McNally was also the lyricist of that sentimental ballad
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill which invented the cliché
a rose without a thorn and was a favourite of George III’s
since its first airing in the year of the French Revolution.

O the pikes must be together by the risin’ of the moon
declares one sentimental ballad about the Risin’ of ‘98,
reminding me that Sterne coined the word ‘sentimental’,
how his name meant star in the Hanoverians’ language.

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Games

Weber could not tell a Punjabi from a Kilkenny man.
-Christy Campbell, ‘The Maharajah’s Box’

The former prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Whitby
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Sikh ‘Chess King’ in “the Great Game”,
slipped into Russia as Patrick Casey, the Republican dynamitard.

He bore proposals for stationing Irish volunteers on their border
to guard the building of a railway for the Czar’s invasion forces,
effecting his aim of the liberation of the Indian sub-continent.

The King maintained clandestine links with Russian intelligence
(noted the Department for the Supression of Thugee and Dacoity)
through the Aryan League of Honour, rogue Calcutta Theosophists,

their agent in the British Isles being Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’,
who misinformed him on Vedantic philosophy, so Yeats confused
Brahman, the Supreme Being, with Brahmin, Chatterjee’s caste.

Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’ “quotes” his guru: “I have been a king,
I have been a slave”, although the next verse goes on to state
Mohini Chatterjee/Spoke these, or words like these…” How like?

Poets tell lies and cause confusion too. Look at Plato’s ‘Republic’.
Even ‘Campbell’, surname of the supplier of this poem’s epigraph,
means ‘Crooked mouth’ in Gaelic. Check that with a MacDonald.

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‘Pontypool’

Poetry wants to be a contagion — Jorie Graham

At the fleapit in town
I watch ‘Pontypool’,
“a semantic schlock
zombie apocalypse.”

Set on a radio station,
news that stays news
is of flesh-eating mobs
who can’t speak French

as airborne plague rides
honeyed English words,
a xenotext in the matrix
of Canadian intercourse.

Like some new love poet,
our hero, the shock jock
broadcasts to survivors
how he spread the virus,

how meaning is Plague
to be purged from words,
we mustn’t make sense
to return to our senses,

how life means death
in a language of sin,
love’s a fatal disease
and to kill means kiss

then kisses the woman
his own words infected
who asked to not to die
a Donne Newfoundland,

but live where zombies
are all Hungry Horaces,
searching for the poet
in her disjecta membra.

—Ian Duhig

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Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has worked on productions of a wide range of music from the medieval to the avant-garde and this year he published Digressions (Smokestack), the book of a project with the artist Philippa Troutman based around Laurence Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in Yorkshire. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

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Dec 082014
 

Mary-Morrissy-NLB

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The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s now. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.

I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.

I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.

After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house unmolested since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.

This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.

It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.

Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered?) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I was staring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” you’d never known. You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.

Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . . Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out. Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.

The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not my type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.

“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”

You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention. I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?

I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I was requited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out. In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.

““I’ll do it, right now.”

““It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.

““Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.

““Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”

It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me. Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her. You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.

Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.

““Do you know me?”

He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.

““It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.

““Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.

““Can I . . .?”

I nodded.

He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.

““You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.

““I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”

I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.

“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.

“Are you my mother?”

That broke the spell, the chemo fog.

“What? No!!”

“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.

“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear.

The airwaves had been full of stories of adoptees trying to trace their natural parents; I felt I had stumbled into someone else’s reality show. I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace.

“Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me?” He raised his voice. “Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”

There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?

“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”

Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.

—Mary Morrissy

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Mary Morrissy is an award-winning Irish novelist (The Hennessy Award, Lannan Foundation Award) and short story writer, the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey (long-listed for the 2015 IMPAC Award), and a collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye. A second collection of linked stories, Diaspora, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape. Her website is available here.

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Nov 042014
 

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With the publication of her intensely moving debut novel, Solace, Belinda McKeon quickly established herself as an important new voice in Irish literature. While we eagerly await the arrival of her second novel, Tender (to be released in March 2015), Uimhir A Cúig is delighted to feature her remarkable new story, “Route.”

Annie and Brendan have emigrated to the US from Ireland; however, as Annie recognises, “what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants.” A couple not so much leaving as arriving, but leaving what and arriving where? A couple who married in a church not necessarily because they wanted to but because they felt obliged to for their elderly relatives’ sakes – “just do the damn thing.” And what role does duplicity play in all of this – long ago lies, imaginary friends? Just what is left to believe in? The past, might be one answer, even if it is, perhaps, an imaginary past. McKeon takes us on this journey too. Where we came from and where we end up is just as uncertain as we, like McKeon’s characters, struggle to grapple with “the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world.”

—Gerard Beirne

 

In a quiet moment, of which there are precious few, Brendan takes care to speak out of the side of his mouth. “Our table is very loud,” he says, flickering his gaze onto Annie’s, and Annie is proud of how good they have become at this surreptitious communication; is it marriage, she wonders, or is it just the whole emigrant business? Though, actually – and, if she’s honest, much less pleasingly – what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants, as their friends here are never slow to remind them, albeit always in the velvet case of laughter, always with the understanding that, since they are such good friends, they can poke fun at one another over anything at all. So: nothing like one immigrant population bitching on another. That was Rob – grad-school Rob, now barman Rob – to Annie, a few weeks ago, after she had said something about the Polish women in Greenpoint, about the way they glared. The way that sometimes, you caught them staring at you, sweeping their eyes over what you were wearing, as if to say, this has gone beyond a joke. As if to say, you people: how can you go out like this? And Annie sees something else in their eyes, too, something which, maybe, it takes one cor-faced Catholic woman to read in another, which is, You’re a bit long in the tooth for this messing, aren’t you? When are you going to cop yourself on?

“Don’t worry about it,” Annie mutters back to Brendan now, as they both pretend to be listening to whatever turn conversation is taking at the other end of the table. “People don’t notice it here in the same way.”

From his throat, a low, sceptical chord. He sips his Bloody Mary. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve seen a few people wince.”

Annie shrugs. “Let them wince. Nobody knows us here. So who cares?”

Brendan glances at her, and when he speaks, his tone is colder. “What’s that got to do with it?” he says. Brendan has views on this; Brendan does not think Annie should care about this thing about which Annie cannot cease to care.

“Nothing,” Annie says, shaking her head, but he knows, and she knows he knows, and so on, ad infinitum, and down where Martha and Jack are sitting, the decibel level is once more steadily climbing, as Martha teases Jack about something to do with football, something to do with the Jets, and it’s evidently a killer blow, a comical blow, because up goes the cry – EH-OH! – like something from a television show, and meeting it – AIYKK! – is a second roar of approval, of commendation, of glee. Jack holds his hands in the air as though defeated, and Martha bumps fists with Jessica, then with Tasleen. Opposite Annie sit Meghan, the birthday girl, and beside her, Liz, the only person at the table who has experienced parenthood, and who talks about it enough for all of them. That’s not fair, Annie says to herself, as soon as this thought arises. You had to ask her to see the photos. Hold your horses. Drink your drink.

*

Escarole salad, chilaquiles, pork and grits, baked eggs with leeks and truffles; this is brunch so elaborate that it might have come from some computer programme. And yet, so utterly par for the course; this is Smith Street, on a Sunday afternoon in October. The ten-dollar gin thing in front of Annie is called a Sleepy Hello, and she could tell from the first sip that she would need three if she was to get anywhere close to drunk. Which means that she is probably safe, as far as confessions go – though since confession is the word which has most readily come to mind, possibly not.

What would he say, Brendan, if she told him that less than an hour ago, as she headed for the subway after the gym, she walked up the steps of a church and she went right in? An instant previously, she had been admiring a stained-glass window, thrown open to the street, and the way it looked against the golden yellow brick of a building; but it had been an abstract, hazy sort of admiration – the smugness had still been uppermost, her real attention had been on the subway entrance across 7th Avenue, and on whether the lights would stay green long enough for her to get over there. And then, somehow, she had been on the steps. And then, somehow, she had been in the hall. She had been at mass. Near to it, or within reach of it, or lurking in the background of it, but however she put it, she had been there. Mass.

Or, service, actually, which makes it easier to take. It was a Methodist church, something Annie discovered herself to have already known as she walked into the hall, something she must have picked up from a sign or a noticeboard in between the yellow brick and the stained panes of glass. Methodist Church of Whatever. Methodist Church of The Village, she thinks it might have been, now. Or Village Methodist Church. One of those. Village, she imagines herself saying to Brendan.

So, it’s fine, she hears herself continue. It was Methodist. Or, better still, it was only Methodist; how about that for a nice spot of distancing and evasion? It was only Methodist, and I only stood in the hallway even though a woman – smiling, dreads, floral dress – invited me to go all the way in. I only stayed for ten minutes, and the preacher, who was female, and in her twenties, and wearing a Madonna headpiece, namechecked the Gay Men’s Chorus in her sermon, and I only stayed even that length of time because I could see that there were singers and a pianist on the altar, and I was curious to hear what they might sing, and when it turned out to be You Raise Me Up, I got out of there, and really, I only went in because I had a few minutes to kill.

The worry, of course, would be that he might not mind. Or, worse still, that he might somehow, actually, approve.

Annie stood in front of an altar with this man two years ago; beside this man she knelt there, on what turned out to be the excruciating-to-kneel-on beads of her dress; beside this man she prayed the prayers and rolled out the vows. They did this. They went there.

But everybody understands what this kind of thing is about. Everybody understands why this kind of thing is, sometimes, unavoidable. There are parents, some of them elderly, and elderly is code for just do the damn thing; everybody knows that. There are arguments, and because of just do the damn thing, you are too cowardly to get into those arguments, and besides, there is an aisle, and some part of you is hard-wired into thinking that only an aisle will do for walking up and for walking down. None of this is admirable. None of this is brave. But. There is no need to get carried away.

“How are the grits?” Brendan says, just seconds from finding out for himself, given that he is sliding a fork into the creamy mush on the side of Annie’s plate.

“Amazing.”

“Want to try?” he says, gesturing towards his own.

She shakes her head. “Stuffed,” she says. “Already. Here.” She pushes the small bowl of potato cakes towards him. He glances at her as though he does not dare hope.

“Sure?”

“Potatoes,” Annie says, giving the word the thick-tongued intonation she and Brendan give it when they say it here, as a joke. A joke that only they get, given that to everyone else, their accents probably sound exactly the same as always. “I’m sure.”

“Yay,” her 36-year-old husband says – her smart, sarky, word-whirring husband, he actually says “yay” – and he polishes them off.

*

Meghan and Liz are talking about children. Meghan earns money for taking care of them during the day, and Liz pays money to other versions of Meghan to do the same thing. They have been talking, they tell Annie, about how extremely good their kids – Meghan’s charges and Liz’s daughters – are at lying. They are pros, apparently; unblinking, unwobbling pros, and already Liz’s youngest, at sixteen months, is showing signs of being the slyest of them all.

“I’m doomed!” she says, smiling as though this is the most delicious prospect in the world. “I’m completely doomed!”

“But every child lies, don’t they?” Annie says.

Meghan looks at her blankly.

“Come on,” Annie says. “Didn’t you?”

Meghan opens her mouth as though to respond, then just twists her lips and gives Annie a slight shake of the head.

“I don’t believe you,” Annie says. “I think you’re lying now.”

“Uh-uh,” Meghan shrugs, twirling her straw and casting her gaze out to the street. “I’m not. I just never needed.”

She is blonde, and petite, and pretty the way a girl on a poster for dental floss is pretty. When she is not minding children, she writes essays on urban space and eco consciousness and on the city of the future, which is a place, from the way she’s described it, in which Annie is not sure anybody is going to want to live. Who, Liz’s little liar, grown up to be ultra-cognisant of others? A likely story.

“I lied like a sailor,” she says, aware that the simile is wonky, and she takes a big swig of her elderflowered gin. “It came to me so naturally that a couple of times I actually shocked myself.”

“Like when?” Brendan says, beside her, and she almost jumps; she had, somehow, almost forgotten that he was there. Not that it would have made any difference, not that she would have told a different story, but still. Her declaration was for Meghan’s sake, and for Liz, who has still not shown her own hand where duplicitousness is concerned, but who scarcely needs to; wee Victoria has not licked it off the ground.

“Like, too many times to remember,” Annie says, giving Brendan a playful nudge. “But a long time ago. Not lately.”

Brendan arches an eyebrow at her. Then he laughs, and they all sip their drinks and make what headway remains to be made of their food, and as Brendan puts some chorizo on Annie’s plate – she has to try it, he says, to her protests, she has to take just a bite – he asks whether either of the girls ever had any imaginary friends.

Liz shakes her head, exhaling a light laugh, but Meghan’s expression suggests that she regards this as a trick question. “Imaginary?” she says, and she tilts her head to one side. “Like, people you pretend are there?”

“People you pretend are there,” Brendan confirms, nodding, and suddenly, Annie realises where this is going. “Or,” he says, “people that other people think you’re pretending about. Until they discover otherwise.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Liz says, deadpan.

“No, no,” Annie says, shaking her head at Brendan. “We’re not…”

“Come on,” Brendan says. His grin is boyish, enthused.

“What’s going on?” Meghan says, holding her fork in mid-air. “Is something going on with you two?”

“Annie has a story about an imaginary friend,” Brendan says, still grinning.

“Jesus,” Annie says to him. “I haven’t thought about that story in, I don’t know, fifteen years.”

“Tell us!” Liz says, looking to Meghan for back-up, but Meghan just continues to switch her gaze from Brendan to Annie.

“It’s stupid,” Annie says. “I don’t even think I believe it anymore.”

“You said you knew the girl, didn’t you?”

“She was a friend of a friend,” Annie shrugs. “But I heard something since…I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even remember it properly.”

“You can remember it perfectly bloody well,” Brendan says, and he turns to Meghan and Liz. “So,” he says. “A friend of Annie’s. A friend of a friend.”

“In Ireland?” Liz says.

“In Dublin,” Brendan nods.

“Ok,” Liz says, as though this somehow adds an extra layer of credence. “Ok.”

“She was babysitting,” Brendan says, and he nods towards Meghan, whose face twitches as though she has been outrageously accused in the wrong, “looking after this little boy. And…” he nods towards Annie. “And…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Annie, and she takes a mouthful of Sleepy Hello, and she gropes for the story as she was told it by her flatmate Gemma in Phibsboro twelve or thirteen years ago, one night when they’d had whiskey and when every story about everyone they’d ever known seemed to be pushing to the surface and heaving itself out onto the floor between them. Gemma; where is Gemma now? Married too, and with a couple of kids, and with the negative equity that is as tightly woven into their generation’s existence as email, or Ikea, or kale. “I didn’t really know this girl,” Annie says, and Brendan makes a noise that says, get on with it, don’t be trying to wriggle out of it, and Liz looks at Meghan and Meghan looks down the table towards the other conversation, the conversation that is still, impossibly, about football, and she looks back.

“So, she was minding this kid. And his parents told her, you know, little…”

“Jasper,” says Brendan, nodding very gravely.

“Jasper?” says Annie. “Jasper was not the child’s name. But anyway. The parents told her everything she needed to know about looking after him. Where his food was. Whatever.”

“Where his food was?” Liz says, laughing. “Are you sure she wasn’t looking after a cat?”

“She saw the imaginary friend,” Meghan says abruptly. She shrugs at Annie. “Right?”

“She saw him?” Liz says, holding up a hand for silence. “Sorry, explain this to me. She saw what?”

Meghan is frowning. “Isn’t this a movie?” she says. “Doesn’t this…”

The Sixth Sense?” Liz says impatiently. “But nobody saw him!”

“This is pointless,” Annie says to Brendan, and she lifts her glass. It is almost empty. She sucks loudly through the straw.

“You might as well finish it,” Brendan says. “The story, I mean.”

“I’m not going to finish it,” Annie says. “They know what happened.”

“I don’t know what happened!” Liz protests, a hand on Meghan’s arm. “I want to hear the rest of the story!”

Annie sighs. She remembers the shock of this, from when Gemma told it to her in that basement flat where the heating always took forever to come on; she remembers the genuine chill which dropped down her spine when Gemma came to the big reveal. A gunk, that was what her mother would call it; she got a gunk, and for weeks afterwards – it was so silly, so embarrassing, she was afraid to look at a window after dark, for fear of what she might see reflected there. A broom handle, a cheap old table, a fridge door covered with novelty magnets and unpaid utility bills; that was what she would see. But she didn’t look. Not for ages.

“The parents told this girl that the child had an imaginary friend, just so she’d know, if she saw the child talking to himself, not to worry, that this was the reason, and it was perfectly normal, and cute, and blah,” she says. “And sure enough, she did notice the kid making occasional comments to the space beside him, and she tried to be nice, to interact a little bit with the…friend – to ask him questions, or to ask the kid questions on the imaginary friend’s behalf. That kind of thing.”

“Bad move,” Meghan says. “Never patronise the imaginary friend.”

“Yeah, well,” Annie says, suddenly determined to maintain control. “That’s as it may be. So. She gets through the evening, and the kid is well-behaved, and he puts his pyjamas on, and he gives her no hassle, no hassle at all, and he’s quite content just to go up to bed. And as she’s reading to him – “

“Oh no, no, no, no,” Liz cries, covering her ears.

“Hang on,” Annie says, pointing to her. “Not yet. As she’s reading to him, the kid is making occasional references to the friend. Asking him questions, explaining stuff to him, that kind of thing. And it’s fine, and she goes along with this, a bit, and when she’s saying goodnight, she makes sure to say goodnight to the imaginary friend as well. And.”

“Oh god,” Liz says, hands to her ears again.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Meghan says.

“And later that night,” Annie says, and now she realises that she does not want this story to end, that she wants to keep stringing them along like this, even Meghan, who is trying so hard to look as though she does not care for a word of it. There is more of her father in her than she thought, Annie realises, her father who loved nothing more than to keep them all up at night, scaring the life out of them, telling ghost story after ghost story, her father who was never as happy as when he had an audience, attention, an atmosphere that felt like approval, even if it was only actually a hunger for distraction. Lately, it has felt as though she is having discoveries like this every day. Lately, too, she has been opening her mouth, and saying something – something to Brendan, usually, because it is with him that her intonation is at its less contrived – and hearing, quite clearly, that it is not her own voice, but her mother’s voice which has come into the room. It is not a mystical thing, this phenomenon; it is to do with aging, and timbre, and genetics – nothing more mysterious than that, nothing more poetic. And yet.

“Later that night,” she says, “the babysitter goes upstairs to check, say at 9 or 9.30 or something, whatever time a four year old boy is meant to be long asleep by, and she hears him chatting in his room. And she says to herself, right. Enough is enough. And she opens the door. To say, time to go to sleep now…Jasper. Time to say goodnight to friendy there and close your eyes.”

She pauses. Even if the story is ruined, there is nothing wrong with a pause.

“And he’s there.”

“Oh my fucking God,” Liz says, hands to her mouth. “Who’s there?”

“The friend is there,” Annie says, and she laughs with true delight at Liz’s reaction. “Sitting at the bottom of the bed, looking around to see who’s disturbing their conversation. Looking her right in the eye.”

The people at the next table register only mild irritation at the jump in noise levels; Liz’s shriek is at least over with quickly. Beside her, Meghan is adamantly shaking her head, talking about how this is a movie, how it is definitely a movie. Brendan drapes his arm around Annie’s chair, and she leans into him; they are laughing, they are enjoying themselves, this is effortless, this is fun. Which is how Annie comes to sit up straight, suddenly, and look at Brendan, and say, while the soundtrack of Meghan’s cynicism and Liz’s horror is still unfolding, that they should tell them the other story, the one about the guy on the road, and she knows as soon as she has said it that Brendan has gone into a different place now, that Brendan is not interested in playing this game anymore, that Brendan does not want to be at a brunch table with the Annie who would tell this story – but no, it is not even that, she sees, pushing her hair back from her face and looking, unsmiling, at him as he looks, unsmiling at her; it is that he does not want her to be an Annie who would believe this story, who would drag it up again and thereby prove to him that she has not listened to him when he has told her to let go of it, to see sense on it, to understand that it is not, and cannot be, the story she for some very worrying reason so fervently maintains it to be.

She gets it; he looks at the Annie for whom this story is a real one and he wonders if he knows her at all. If he is right about who she is. If he did what was wise, after all, standing with her in front of that altar, listening to those prayers for their future blessedness and fecundity, tolerating the doggedly old-school priest who told them to keep the Blessed Mother and her saints in their home always, to make a place for her, presumably, in between the imitation Eames and the Crate and Barrel lamp and the black and white films they send flickering up onto the wall from their fancy, ugly, clunky projector, that horrible piece of office equipment which allows them to bring Bogart and Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart into their living-room, large as the night, whenever they please.

Annie, Annie hears her mother’s voice say. Watch what you’re saying. But Annie is angry with her clear-sighted husband, by now, and Annie will tell the story of the old man on the side of the road if she damn well pleases. So she tells them, and this time, Meghan does not disguise her interest, and this time, the noises that Liz makes are of a different kind, and this time, the others at the table listen too, and if Annie is not mistaken, the couple at the table beside them are angling their ears in her direction as well.

It lays its track down easily; their last week in Ireland before moving here, the pressure to visit everyone, to say to cousins, and aunts and uncles these formal goodbyes, as though they would see them any less often than they had while living in the same country as them. This was before the recession, so the term had not yet come back into currency, the term that everyone who emigrates is using now – the American wake, or the Australian one – fair enough, Australia is a long bloody way away – or the London wake, which is just silly, which is clearly just an excuse for a piss-up and a chance at a few good luck cards stuffed with twenty-euro notes. Annie and Brendan had used the term too, but with what they thought of as hilarious irony; nobody really saw it that way, they knew, and all of that was so long ago now, all of that suffering and misery, that it was absolutely fine to joke about it, and their going-away party was a laugh and a bit of a bragging opportunity all at once. But the visits; the visits were a chore. Driving to Galway and Cavan and Roscommon; cups of tea and ham-and-tomato sandwiches, and beer that Brendan could not drink because he had to drive back again, and the same questions, and the same answers, and the same old lines. They had done it because their parents had expected them to do it. It had not occurred to them to say no, no thank you. The inkling of such a possibility was only beginning to occur to them now. Now that it only half-mattered anymore; now that their parents were one-half gone.

It was August, so it was still light out at half-nine or so, which was when they were heading to Annie’s cousin’s house, and this cousin lived up the Arigna mountain, so the roads were tight, and steep, and winding, but Brendan knew this country well – Brendan had grown up close to here, had come these roads with his father and the cattle lorries – and Brendan was driving as Brendan usually did. They were talking, letting off steam about whatever visits they had been required to undertake already that day, and they were listening to the radio, to the arts thing on Radio One. And it was on a straight stretch of road that they met him, and he was just as she remembered him, insofar as she could remember him at all.

He was then, perhaps, twenty-five years dead.

She knew it was in and around that, because of the way the memory of his funeral was held in her mind; it was all angles and shadows, with no sense of human expression, no trace of how an emotion had looked, taking over an adult face, which was something she could remember from later funerals, the strangeness of a man’s weeping, or of her mother’s weeping, for that matter. This one, though; too early for that. Those pictures in her mind were made up of pew backs and of knees and of the slant, high up, of the ceiling; that had been her perspective on the world then, which meant that she had been three, maybe four years old. Jodie had been their neighbour; her neighbour, the old man who lived in the tin-roofed house up the lane, who chatted to Annie, who treated her like a neighbour no matter how tiny she was, how frightened she was of his greyhounds. Annie’s mother brought her up to visit him almost daily, and the three of them talked – it was like that, it was not Annie’s mother and Jodie talking over her, or down to her, it was the three of them talking, and then Annie and her mother talking some more as they walked down the lane again afterwards, or sometimes, Jodie walking her down. And when she saw him on the mountain road that evening, she had recognised him instantly, before ever it entered her mind that such a thing was an impossibility.

“I said to Brendan, long before we went around that corner, I said to him, hey, that’s Jodie. I hadn’t even registered that it couldn’t be him: I just saw him, and that was that.”

“You never know with these things,” Brendan says now, and his voice is wary. He tries to touch Annie’s hand.

“I saw him,” Annie says, almost savagely, and she pulls her hand away.

Someone says it: “Eh-oh!”.

“He lifted his hand, as though he was telling us something, and I said to Brendan, I said, Jodie, and he said, Jodie who? And I said, slow down. And he said, why, do you want me to stop? And I said no, just slow down, just slow down. And he did. And when we came around the next corner…if we had been going any faster…”

“There was a guy in a tractor, cutting a fucking hedge,” Brendan says with a grimacing shake of his head. “With a hedge-cutter; he was taking up our whole side of the road…but…there was room – I would have been able to brake…”

“You would not have been able to brake,” Annie says, and she looks to Meghan and Liz, to the others at the far end of the table, for support. They stare back at her, eyes wide, faces deadly serious.

“He saved you?” Liz says, right on cue.

“He saved us,” Annie nods, and to the noise of Brendan’s heavy sigh, she does not even turn her head.

“Irish roads,” says Meghan, reaching over Liz for the water jug. “Rather you than me, by the sounds of things.”

*

Presumably, Annie thinks as she sits on the bus later – alone – these recorded messages are played over the tannoy at random; presumably, the driver has nothing to do with it. The driver is just making his way from Greenpoint to Prospect Park, doing battle with all those shining, chubby SUVs, watching as his passengers haul themselves up his steps, as they dip their Metrocards into his machine; listening for the right kind of beep. He’s doing his thing, and then somewhere along the line – he doesn’t know where – the recording jolts itself on, and the bus is filled with the voice of a guy who could be at the Academy Awards, asking the audience to please welcome some hugely famous, greatly beloved actors, such is this guy’s drama and intensity, such is his sense of this as a moment when all ears ought to be his, all attention locked with full focus and reverence on what he has to announce: that assaulting a New York City bus driver is a crime. Annie looks around, but nobody else on the bus seems to be paying the voice the slightest heed; they are still absorbed in themselves, or in one another. Gazing out the window at Crown Heights, as it slugs past, all bodegas and clothes stores and worship halls and hair salons. Listening to each other; debriefing one another after another day. Listening to their music, whatever it was; nodding so deeply, so slowly that no degree of dead-eyed stare could convince the observer that here was anything less than vivid life, engaged and excited life. Annie looks at them, her fellow passengers, and she realises that what she is trying to do is to catch someone’s eye. To find someone, in that instant after the syrup-voiced warning has played over the speakers, with whom to connect laughingly, wryly, with whom to make wisecracks about the announcement and how comical it is, coming the way it does, coming with that camp flourish, that elegant timing, as the bus slams and rattles its way along Utica or Nostrand.

“Sure, we’re not going to do anything to him,” Annie imagines herself saying, pulling her face into a comical expression, while her interlocutor nods, and laughs, and sends her eyebrows high towards her hairline. Her interlocutor will be a woman, a woman in her 50s, Annie decides: a teacher, or someone who works in a hospital, something like that. She will be black, because everyone on this bus is, except Annie, and she will take absolutely no shit; she will be in full agreement with Annie about the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world. Sure, we’re not a bit interested in you, love, Annie hears herself continuing, and the woman will nod and laugh and move her head in accord. That’s right, maybe she will say – That’s right, Annie feels reasonably sure, is a good approximation of what a woman like this would say – and she will smile a purse-lipped smile – not unlike Annie’s mother’s smile – and her eyes, her eyes will be beautifully bright. Mmm-hmmm, she might then say – another sound that Annie can hear in her head, a sound she feels sure to be the right sort of one, at least – her agreement emphatic, her enjoyment of the joke intense; Sure, we have better things to be doing than assaulting that lad, Annie might go on to say. “That lad”: so Irish, so much of Annie’s part of the country, but these kinds of descriptions are the same the world over, and she is certain the woman will see her meaning without any snag. Then the woman will laugh in a final confirmation of pleasure and approval, and Annie will shake her head and say, Oh, well, and the two of them will go back to their business. And, have a nice day, or you have a nice day, now!, whichever of them – probably Annie – will be first to stand up and press the cord for the stop to come.

—Belinda McKeon

Belinda-McKeon

Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace, which won the 2012 Faber Prize and was named Irish Book of the Year as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. She has contributed to publications including the New York Times, the Paris Review and the Guardian, and is also a playwright. Her second novel, Tender, will be published by Picador in April. She teaches at Rutgers University. Her website is www.belindamckeon.com

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