Jul 112016
 

Mary Byrne

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Jul 092016
 

StratfordTrainCirca1971The Author circa 1971 on the Stratford Train.

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By the time I was seventeen, I was a singer-songwriter—a tumbleweed riding the wind, barely making ends meet. I sang a lunch set at the Penny Farthing coffee house for my lunch and dinner. And I lived in a downtown Toronto rooming house across the hall from Murray the Speed Freak who, according to the Addiction and Research Foundation, should have been dead six months ago. I needed a steady job to afford a better place to live.

So I applied to work at the University of Toronto where, I was told, jobs were plentiful. I presented myself to their administration offices with no skills, no experience and no references because I was not yet eighteen, still legally too young to work full-time. I lied about my age and likely other details I don’t recall. They hired me for the Wallace Room, the undergraduate reading room in the Sigmund Samuel Library. My first full-time job required me to be in the same place, all day, five days a week. What a shock.

9-5 Blues by Mary Rykov  [1:48]

My first full-time job was also a serendipitous good fit because I love to read. I’m told I recited the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as a two-year-old. And I have fond memories as a five-year-old walking with my mother to the public library each week to exchange books. I felt grown up when she went off to choose her books and left me alone with the children’s librarian to choose mine. I love books, libraries and even the musty-dusty smell of some old books.

I can’t say I enjoyed my grade school library, where choices were limited. Mrs. Copeland ruled that library with a sign-out system that encouraged us to read the classics. The deal was to alternate between reading a book from her list and a book of our choosing. Fair enough.

When given the choice, I read about animals. Sometimes my choice overlapped with Mrs. Copeland’s book list, but not often enough. When I eventually read all the fiction and nonfiction animal books on the Grade 1, 2, and 3 shelves—interspersed, of course, with Mrs. Copeland’s literary canon—I chose an animal story from the Grade 4 shelf. But I was not allowed to read the Grade 4 books because I was still in Grade 3.

I balked at the injustice. I was following the rules and living up to my side of the bargain, but Mrs. Copeland was not playing fair. In protest, I stopped reading all books in Mrs. Copeland’s library. The school thought I stopped reading. They didn’t know I was reading — without restriction—the children’s books that lined my piano teacher’s waiting room.

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The Wallace Room

The Sigmund Samuel Library was constructed in 1910 on the east perimeter of King’s College Circle to replace the original University College library that was gutted by fire in 1890. The Wallace Room, named for Chief Librarian and scholar-historian-editor W. Stewart Wallace (1884-1970), was located in a new wing added to the north side of the 1910 building in 1954-55.

SigmundSamuelLibraryBuilding

The library building was then named for—and significantly financed by—Sigmund Samuel (1868–1962), son of a wealthy British industrialist who successfully grew his inherited family business. His generous philanthropy was responsible for the library enlargement, as well as the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada), contributions to Toronto Western Hospital, and numerous other community projects. Samuel became a Governor of the university and laid the cornerstone for the new library addition. With no disrespect intended for Samuel’s significant contributions, the oversight of indigenous perspectives that characterizes Eurocentric-colonialist “Canadiana” constitutes an unsettling and incomplete historiography by today’s standards.

The Wallace Room housed open stack books for all undergraduate disciplines, as well as short-term course reserve loans. After the Robarts Library was built on St. George Street in 1973, the humanities and social science holdings moved there. Today the old Wallace Room is a reading room in the Gerstein Science Information Centre, which takes up the entire Sigmund Samuel building. But during my 1971 tenure, I bolstered my high school dropout education with the full range of undergraduate disciplines.

WallaceRoom2016

Wallace Room 2016

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Duties

My Wallace Room desk duties rotated between the sign-out desk and the front desk. At the sign-out desk, I ensured that sign-out slips were completed correctly. Then I date-stamped both duplicate parts of the slip, placed one copy in the pocket pasted to the back inside cover of the book, and the duplicate copies accumulated in a box to be filed later.

BookPocket

Duties at the front desk entailed answering questions, retrieving course reserve books, receiving book returns, and collecting fines. We were allowed to excuse overdue fines under $50.00 at our discretion, depending on the circumstances. I always pardoned fines for students who told me about a family death or other emergency, but not for students who told me the maid swept the books under their bed. We admired some of the stories that accompanied overdue books. Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

During down time at the front desk, those duplicate paper sign-out slips were meticulously filed by date and call number. Book returns were processed by removing the paper sign-out slips from the back pockets, finding the corresponding filed duplicate slip, and discarding the matched pair.

The returned books, once processed, were placed on wheeled trolley carts according to the call number printed on their spines and by the green, orange, red, blue, purple and yellow dots that signified the call number section.

Stacks3

My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. And I particularly enjoyed the marginalia comments and arguments.

Herodotus

Herodotus interested me because I like archaeology and ancient history, myths, legends, and old things in general. I enjoyed talking to the students and read what I saw them reading. I was allowed to sign books out, and did. But most of my reading was done on the job. I read slowly and deeply (still do), cover to cover, including forewords, introductions, and acknowledgements. The marginalia was like a conversation speaking to me, although I can’t remember exactly what was said. I just enjoyed the discourse and that someone was moved—and cared enough—to respond to the writer. I still read marginalia.

My Wallace Room supervisor was librarian Jeanette Anton, a childless Estonian WWII refugee in her 50s who spoke with a musical accent. I likely projected onto her the character of Mrs. Copeland, my grade school librarian, who more closely resembled the wicked-witch-of-all-libraries past, present and future. In fact, there was no comparison. When Mrs. Anton smiled, her blue eyes twinkled. Mrs. Copeland also had blue eyes, but she never smiled. At least, not at me.

Mrs. Anton was kind, but she was also precise, demanding and did not suffer fools kindly, as the saying goes. She seemed to have had eyes in the back of her head, which gave her the uncanny ability to catch you doing something wrong—even if you never did it wrong before and never did it wrong again. She knew. Also knowledgeable and competent, Mrs. Anton was grandfathered into the library profession without having had formal training. She furthermore frightened me because she was very tall and towered over me.

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Dress Code

I was (am) tiny, not five feet on a tall day. I could never find shoes small enough for my feet, and clothes didn’t look the same on me as they did on store mannequins. My long chestnut-auburn hair was never styled. Besides, I often rode my bike to work and didn’t preen. Mrs. Anton tolerated my jeans and sandals with a patient, maternal kindness. She also offered unsolicited wardrobe advice.

“So-o-o-o, my little one,” she would say, “they came out with a new fabric not long ago called Crimplene. It comes in all sorts of pretty colours — pink, blue, yellow, green. Solids and prints. You can throw it in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t need ironing. Crimplene!” I used to imagine Mrs. Anton with her very own TV commercial.

FloralCrimplene

For readers who missed this 1960s fashion phenomenon, Crimplene was a thick, wrinkle-resistant polyester that was ideal for A-line mini dresses. The Crimplene name alone used to make me cringe almost as much as my coworkers’ snickering as Mrs. Anton extolled its virtues to me. While she raptured on, they stood behind her with fingers to their lips as if to vomit, trying to make me laugh. I learned to keep a straight face—a useful skill when fabricating excuses for being derelict in my duties. Read on.

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Paper Records

Libraries in those days functioned on paper. Everything did. Books were requested, acquired, signed out and signed in on paper. Overdue fines were recorded on paper. My hours worked, all recorded on paper. But I was too young and feckless to care about company loyalty, much less duty, or pride in work well done. On busy days when I was too hot, bored or hungry—or hot, bored and hungry—I would tire of filing or retrieving all those paper sign-out slips. My eyes glazed over.

So I became the library fine faery.

Sometimes I excused library fines just because I didn’t want to record them. Other times I “disappeared” the paper sign-out slip duplicates by filing them temporarily in my pockets instead of in their respective file boxes. Later I would file them permanently down the toilet. Unfortunately—or fortunately—my tight blue jean pockets could not hold much.

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Front Desk as War Zone

One spring morning, with cherry trees in full blossom, Mrs. Anton gathered us around her for a strategy meeting. Convocation ceremonies were scheduled, and students who had not paid their library fines would not receive their diplomas. They attended convocation, but their diplomas were held hostage until their fines were settled. Mrs. Anton knew this ritual well. She scheduled extra front-desk staff to address the onslaught.

You’d think these students would know who they were. You’d think they’d come in ahead of time to pay up. Some did, but many did not. Maybe they considered their overdue fines were hollow threats now that they had completed their studies and had no use for library privileges. They underestimated the ransom power of unpaid library fines until they found themselves at graduation, all dressed up in gowns and mortarboards, with just empty handshakes. No diplomas.

KingsCollegeCircle

After the ceremony, the convocation carillon rang out like a starter pistol. We watched the would-be grads sprint straight across the King’s College Circle lawn from Convocation Hall heading in our direction—caps in hand and gowns flowing behind them in the wind. We took our positions behind the front desk as they arrived in droves, while Mrs. Anton maintained order in the lines-ups. Ha! Gotcha!

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The Book Stacks

As mentioned, I enjoyed shelving and reading the books on the trolleys. On hot days, the book stacks in the back were darker and cooler than the sunny western exposure of the reading area in front. The old library building was not air conditioned back then. And when I was shelving books alone in the back book stacks with nobody looking, I would lie down on the floor to feel the cold marble on my hot arms and legs.

Stacks

One steamy summer day I fell asleep there. I woke, startled, with everyone standing over me wringing their hands. Before I could leap to my feet—afraid I was really in big trouble this time—I realized they thought I had fainted. I was not allowed to stand up until I drank some water and ate a snack. Then I was sent home in a cab.

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I Sleep Late (Most) Thursdays

Yes, my sleeping was a problem. More specifically, I had trouble waking on Thursday mornings because every Wednesday night I worked a late shift. I didn’t mind taking my turn and working late, but not when I had to start work at 8:45 am the next morning. My Wednesday late shift alternated between 10:00 pm one week and midnight the next week. Regardless, I still needed to be at work by 8:45 am on Thursday mornings.

I usually (but not always) managed to arrive on time after working until 10:00 pm. But on Thursday mornings after working until midnight the night before, I often failed to wake on time, even with three alarm clocks. And when I (or anyone) did not appear by 9:00 am, Mrs. Anton phoned. By then I had moved to a large shared house, living student-style with six others. And when I slept in and Mrs. Anton called, I had to dash from my third floor bedroom to the second floor telephone before my sleeping housemates were roused.

One Thursday morning after a midnight shift, I woke right at 8:45 am. Late again! But this time I dressed quickly, took the telephone receiver off the black, rotary-dialed base, and stifled the beeping with my pillow and blankets. I ran two blocks to the payphone at a busy intersection. Out of breath, I called in late from there.

“Where are you?” I’m asked.

“I just witnessed an accident, Mrs. Anton,” I say.

“Oooh, you must be upset,” she answers. “Go have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay,” I say.

So I walked home and put the telephone receiver back on the hook. After a leisurely bath—we had no shower—I made coffee and breakfast for my housemates. I finally sauntered into work around 11:30 am, in time for lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked.

Hmmm, I should have anticipated I would need further details to account for myself. But I was too young to be responsibly irresponsible. At first I tried saying I was too upset to talk about it. I hemmed and hawed, stalling, until they finally wheedled this story out of me.

“It was such a glorious morning, and I was a bit early,” I lied. “So I decide that instead of getting off the southbound Yonge subway at College and taking the streetcar west, I would exit a stop earlier at Wellesley so I could walk across Queen’s Park and enjoy the beautiful spring flowers,” my fib unfolds. “And while I stand on the northeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets waiting out the red light before crossing to the west side, I see a popcorn man wheeling his bicycle cart south on Bay Street.”

cashews

By now there was no turning back or stopping. My story continued, as if on its own. So I included hand gestures to illustrate. “As the popcorn man pedals into the intersection, the Cadillac car behind him starts to make a right-hand turn west onto Wellesley Street from Bay—and knocks the poor, old popcorn man over with its left rear tail fin!”

I was awed by my own audacity. Had I read so much Wallace Room fiction I was beginning to make up my own? I covered my face with my hands because I laughed so hard I actually gasped. And as I gasped, I cried. So I carried on, embellishing an awful scene with the popcorn man and his cap and his popcorn and peanuts and chestnuts and cashews and taffy apples spilled all over Bay Street, balloons billowing in the middle of the morning rush hour traffic. Of course I stayed with the popcorn man until the ambulance arrived. His name was Giorgio. Then I went to the police station with the officers to give my report. And months later when I slept in again—I was in court, serving as witness for Giogio’s case.

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My First Job Legacy

Dumbfounded and relieved, I somehow passed my three-month probationary work period. How? No doubt due to Mrs. Anton’s compassion and affection. Mrs. Anton, may you rest in peace, and thank you. But three months after passing probation, I slept in so often that I exhausted all my toothache and dead relative excuses. No sequels to the popcorn man fable followed.

Unable to manufacture as much fiction as I consumed, I resigned from my first job because I assumed I would, eventually, be fired. I resumed playing music and did manage to land some television and radio spots, thanks to the Canadian content (Cancon) government regulations set out by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1970s. Once I opened for Lenny Breau in an after-hours jazz club. I even sang at the Myna Bird as an opening act for the strippers, which might have been easier had I stripped. Oh, well.

Circa70s

As I fumbled on towards adulthood, I came to appreciate my path was paved with more kindness than I was aware of at the time.

—Mary H. Auerbach Rykov

.MaryRykovSageHillJuly2015

Mary H Auerbach Rykov is a Toronto music therapist-researcher, editor and educator. Her work appears in literary and professional venues. http://maryrykov.com

 

 

Jun 102016
 

Julian Herbert

 

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:

“You want an aspirin, baby?”

It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.

My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.

“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.

Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.

Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”

Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.

“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”

“Ceftriaxone.”

“That’s it.”

“And Acetaminophen.”

“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.

We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.

Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.

I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.

The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.

Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”

I paid in advance.

Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:

“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”

I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.

“OK,” I told her.

I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.

Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.

We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.

One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.

Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:

“How much do I owe you?”

“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.

“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.

One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.

Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.

I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.

Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.

There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.

For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.

Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.

“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”

“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.

It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.

My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.

The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:

“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”

I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.

Cecilia.

I sell sheepskins.

A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.

— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

 

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

§

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

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May 082016
 

Shawn Selway

x

Pier 8 Hamilton ON looking east

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Pier 8

Chilly here today, but beautiful as always, always in a new way. Looking east from Pier 8, where the tugs are snugged at night, those domes you see are grain storage bins. Beyond, behind the laker, are the mills, half-idled now as U.S. Steel gets on with killing Stelco, the homegrown competitor it bought a few years back. Their latest stunt is to persuade a judge to relieve them of paying certain medical benefits to their pensioners. We inhabit a lampoon of capitalism. Marx would certainly get a laugh out of the view: the mountain of capital left to rust unused, and just beyond, a second mountain, still alive with fire and action and thriving alongside the corpse of its former rival. I sometimes think of writing him, you know, the way Auden wrote to Byron, to give him an update. But I kind of think that he would be impatient with whiny epistles, and just want us to get the hell on with the job of removing “creative destruction” from our horizon once and for all.

They plan to build condos on this pier. (They have a lot of plans these days.) They better build ’em good, because the westerlies that come across here in winter are enough to freeze your face off in about ten seconds. In summer the thunderstorms come straight down the Dundas Valley and advance in majesty across the end of the bay to fire terrifying sizzlers right at your house! You wake up thinking, Holy shit, that was close. You roll over and there’s your wife sitting on the edge of the bed with the shutters open, watching the maple trying to climb into the room with you.

Studies indicate that if you are visiting, there is a fifty-eight percent likelihood that you came to see friends or family. Planning and Economic Development staff would prefer that you had no previous ties, and believes that our appeal is strongest for Connected Explorers, Knowledge Seekers, and Youthful Socializers. Personally, I care not what market segment your affiliation; even mixed affiliation is okay by me. Whoever you are, if you want to look around, I will likely bring you here first, for the contrast: to the east, the freighters and tugs, blast furnaces, coking ovens and coal piles; to the west, a broad back-bay full of white sails, and trees down to the water. This range accounts in part for the rueful sense of waste that will overtake you from time to time, if you live here. The splendour of the setting and the magnitude of past accomplishments accentuate the banality of current politics. Now that the gentrification machine has begun to reprocess the older city and different people are coming in, you see bright young things advertising their ambition with tote bags that read : You can do anything in Hamilton. The scope of the ambition remains to be seen, but the Old Boys and Girls are increasingly irritated by the new pushiness. Which is fun to watch for the rest of us.

Alright, let’s wander, and we will come back here for the other view, the western. I call it the not-the-brochure tour — you know, the one where the tourist is regarded not as a mark to be fleeced, but a friend in the making.

x

James North

You have to understand that for the longest time there was no money. Now there is almost too much. Here, Mission Services, feeding the hapless with whatever the rest of us can be persuaded to give; three blocks away, a chocolaterie: a piece of caramel the size of your thumb, six bucks.

When the money did return, after thirty years of contraction, it came like a cloudburst to long dry channels: quickening first Locke Street, then James, then Ottawa. Novelty broke out all over. Buildings changed hands, storefront galleries appeared on James, and the army surplus became a print-making studio. (Farewell to cheap work boots and quilted plaid shirts with gold dragons on the label.) Real estate refugees fleeing the impossible Toronto prices bought houses on the side streets. Suddenly James became fantastically mutable. The sheets of paper taped to the inside of display windows were building permits. The merchants organized a monthly Friday night “art crawl.” The Young Socializers came, then their parents, then the Connected Explorers. The Portuguese men watched from their usual spots in front of Ola bakery and the Vasco da Gama soccer club.

A mood of expectancy, exciting but also slightly sinful, arose: the legendary Bubble trembled and hopped along the street. Notices of complete applications for planning approvals popped up here and there on vacant lots. Rents rose, complaints began. By and by there was a meeting about gentrification at the activists’ cafe. It ended in screaming.

Consultants overran the joint. Their maps reconfigure the territory and their perspectives are disturbing in a surprisingly intimate way. Attending public meetings at the rail station turned banquet hall, or at the neighbourhood recreation centre, you are made uneasy by the scale of what is proposed. Your understanding of “market forces” deepens when the invisible hand is pressed to your own back, steering you firmly toward the door.

Five Star Hamilton ONFive Star Cafe

Ah, the Five Star, last oasis of the afternoon drinkers. They step out front to smoke and shout at each other, then it’s back inside to huddle elbow to elbow, getting that glow on. The black-clad proprietor of B Contemporary across the street lounges in the doorway of his gallery, skinny as a consumptive poet, himself a part of the show he is watching. Next door the Lighthouse carries all things Portuguese grocery and more: blotchy papayas with coin-sized craters of decay, fresh green olives so bitter that you never do that again, burlap sacks of beans with silver scoop on top, and crates of cod, both salt and dried, the dry so woody that they keep a bandsaw to cut it for you. At closing time an ancient yellow towmotor comes clanking out of an alley to move everything inside for the night, and the stench of propane exhaust hangs over the street. Next to the Lighthouse is Morgenstern’s, where they provide communion and confirmation togs, all black and white, and voluminous mother-of-the-bride dresses, showy but not too showy.

All along here now the parking meters are hedged with ultra-trim bikes. There is a vogue for rescuing some instance of an obscure marque from cobwebbed oblivion and having it modified to run as a one-speed fixie, maybe with coloured tires, blue or red. A little precious but pretty slick, you have to admit.

What else do you want? Kitchen and restaurant supplies? Chris’s. Vintage clothing? Hawk and Sparrow and a couple of others. Florist? Yup. Rare relict of long-lost punk bands? Yup. Get your toenails done? No problem. Pastries. Pho. A tour of duty in Afghanistan, if you want to sign on to the reserves at the armoury. This is a massive block of brick the size of a crusaders’ castle with an interior parade square, from which trucks edge onto the street honking to warn pedestrians as they come. Don’t think they’ll send you to Kurdistan just yet, but you could ask. Hardware. Soap. Coffee, coffee, coffee. And conviviality, if you want it.

If you were to involve yourself in any of the several schemes for the advancement of something or other which are ongoing at any given moment, you would inevitably attend a meeting at the Mulberry or else down the street at Homegrown. The place is snug and humid, the floors of cracked and patched once-white tesserae, the ceilings of pressed tin. There is a corkboard at the entrance, every inch covered with close-fitted posters and notices and the spillover taped to the bare brick wall, breathing lightly with the door. Couples natter and solitaries sit at open laptops, some working and others twiddling, waiting for somebody to happen to them. During an hour here, you will be greeted by two or three people you know, and those greetings and your meeting will warm and encourage you for the time, but in the morning when you read the paper you will feel less hopeful — fatigued, rather, and baffled by the obduracy of the opposition to “evidence-based” policy, as those pushy newcomers style their own views.

Blackbird Studios Hamilton ONBlackbird Studios

Want more? Let’s step in here. Check out the cooler. I like how they park the plastic tubs of tofu (pallid cubes in a cloudy fluid) right beside the same containers full of pudding-like blobs of curdled pig blood. Yum. No concessions made here for the tender feelings of Euro-Canadians long off the farm, who would likely gag at the rural matter-of-factness of what goes on behind the meat counter. Not us though, we’re too hip. Next? How about here, Blackbird Studios. Don’t be misled by the opulence of the garment in the show-window. Most of their dresses are quite simple. The smell of fresh ironing dissolves your resistance the moment you enter and find yourself in a deep closet between a double file of close-packed garments. Women fall silent and become intensely concentrated. Flick, flick, pause, flick, flick . . . They unhook something gorgeous, loft it, appraise it at arm’s length, smile a little twisted smile, frown, return it to the rack. People leave exhilarated.

What else? Send money to Latin America? You can do that. Borrow against your paycheque? That also. Dinner? Of course, many ways. We could stop by the art supply store, where everyone goes to gossip; or the place specializing in Danish Modern furniture, books of post-modernist theory, and hard-to-find movies. But you get the picture. There is a street or two like this in every town on both sides of the line, where money is on the march and the pace continues to accelerate. Lately the tale has taken some wicked twists. The Province has endowed us with an interurban commuter rail station, now under construction; and Council approved a proposal for a twenty-storey building on James, up from six, over the strong protests of their own staff.

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Corktown

People complain about how everything is disappearing, but we still have a lot left. Look at this joint, all sideways, all additions. There used to be train tracks, is why. A spur line ran down the street.

Ferguson House Hamilton ON

This place is ours, so I’m here quite a bit. The previous tenant did yardwork, but the incumbent is a musician and a doctoral candidate, so she has too much else on her mind to be wielding a rake. I like it here. You are right downtown, but apart. There is a bench in the park across the street where people stop to neck or smoke up or just to rest with the dog’s paws on their knees and its eager head between their hands, getting its ears fondled for the tenth time today, the insatiable thing.

The CP main line passes close enough that you could reach out and touch the train. Well, not really, but it is very near, and the enormous commotion of its passage is deeply exciting. The sky abruptly unzips and a huge waterfall bursts forth; then, on the count of ten, zip, the rent closes and the minor traffic noises resume.

Initials on Ferguson House Hamilton ON

After we bought the jumble of buildings, and I inspected more closely, it turned out that, not content with carving their names on the stable doors, the little bastards had gone down the alley and applied their jackknifes to the clapboard on the house itself. Not much to be done, except paint out the contrast. A hundred years passed. Kids still lead double lives, now with handy spray cans and markers, but authority has learned ju-jitsu. Walls are made available, community art projects become fundable. Still, the rail yard keeps blooming and taggers scribble away everywhere. Some high-minded incorrigible, exasperated with all the posers, went around for a while overwriting artless tags with the admonition LEARN TO PAINT. Some do.

Graffiti Hamilton ON 2015

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Robert Village

Built a thousand years ago in 1970, this complex was to have rooftop gardens — there, on the lower building, which has two-storey three-bedroom apartments. Two-storey three-bedroom apartments are unheard of nowadays. They just don’t make ’em for non-millionaires. The heritage crowd has not gotten this far yet, but the owners of a large Toronto development firm have understood.

Robert Village Hamilton ON

There are about two thousand of these buildings in the Toronto-Hamilton area. They form a great archipelago of towers and slabs stretching in a wide arc around the western end of Lake Ontario, and most of them are in need of repairs.

These particular units are two blocks off James, that is, two blocks and worlds away from the dressmaker and the chocolatier. Somali refugees have a vertical village in the eastern tower. You see them sitting on the curb at the entrance, chatting, the women and their daughters wearing headscarves, the men sometimes dressed in our clothing, sometimes in theirs — longer, looser garments. An older man with an injury uses a carved cane which you would like to examine. Before the flood, the rest of the tenants were mainly locals, a few disabled and some on City rent subsidy. The balconies were loaded with chairs and bicycles and the odd black-shrouded barbecue, and here and there lumpish green garbage bags of extra stuff, probably the belongings of some relative or friend intending to fetch them when they have more order in their life. Passing by, you would see three cop cars standing flashing. Next day there might be something in the paper but usually not.

We have rent controls in Ontario. An above-guideline increase requires application to a Board. Alternatively, the landlord can empty the rental unit and charge the next tenant whatever they will pay.

The new management of Robert Village started by requesting that tenants report to their rep downstairs, one by one, to “discuss your lease.” They were offered a payment to end their tenure. They were told of the tumult which was about to overtake the property and warned that the buyout offer was for a limited time only. Pick-up trucks and white vans bearing phone numbers with a foreign area code crowded the semi-circular drive in front of the building, trees were cut. Meanwhile maintenance requests from continuing tenants were ignored by the new regime just as by the old.

At the meeting organized by the tenants, the local imam rose to ask why the delegates of the various agencies ranged across the front of the room were calling upon people to bring their problems to them one by one, when what was needed was a “class action” of some sort. The ward councillor was in attendance. Subsequently, he arranged for property standards bylaw officers to go through the buildings. By the time they did so, two months later, half the apartments were empty. The officers issued a raft of orders.

Now Renting Robert Village Hamilton ON

The anarchists came into some money, bought a used commercial press, and began posting broadsheets, 18th-century style, on the utility poles. These sheets denounced the gentrifiers and directed passersby to a 5000-word essay online. Someone responded on the local civic affairs website, and the response grew a long tail of comment and counter comment. After a couple of days the argument went off the boil and the young urbanists got back to hounding the City to provide traffic calming, cycling infrastructure, and transit improvements. The front moved eastward over the horizon to Riverdale, a highrise neighbourhood so remote from downtown that it may as well be on the moon.

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Barton

No one owns anything down here. A phone, that’s about it. A bike, if you’re a guy. Flashy shoes maybe. Maybe an electric scooter or a power wheelchair.

Nobody seems to be thinking about what will happen when the new money finally makes the last mile and sloshes onto Barton. The police perhaps. Maybe Children’s Aid. There is no next move.

Storefront Hamilton ON

Somebody called the cops that there was a guy lying in the middle of the road not moving at Barton and Mary, and when they got there sure enough buddy was face down and pretty much “exsanguinated,” as the emergency room doctor told the newspaper. Made it easy for the cops, though, who just followed the trail of blood to the ex-girlfriend’s door, which had a security camera over it. (Wonder what they do there.) When she opens up they look in and the hall floor is clean as a whistle. Gleaming. At the trial the new boyfriend explains that after he stabbed the old boyfriend — who had dropped by to see his kid — the girlfriend freaked and ordered him to mop up the mess, like now!, which is how the old boyfriend was left to walk two blocks alone before collapsing in the intersection. The doctors saved him but he told the court that he has trouble trusting people any more.

The shabbiness, the temporary repairs never redone, the jumbles of stuff piled into every third storefront, it goes on forever, block after block of it, chipboard and tape and second-hand everything: fridges and stoves, baby clothes, furniture, garden implements, and mechanic’s tools. (Shopping to replace stolen hammers and wrenches, I found some of them on offer here and bought them back.) When you think it can only improve, it gets a little worse. Businesses that held on for decades into decline finally die with their owners. Lifetimes in menswear, Italian cheeses, shoes vanished; rendered futile for lack of succession. Recently there are new commitments, but when you go in to chat, you hear tales of a different kind of futility, that administered by City property standards administrators parsing the zoning bylaws. “Change of use” brings a world of grief, no matter how minor the impact, how major the potential benefit for the street. Eight months of complications including $2,500 dollars in architect’s fees triggered by a request for permission to put up a sign. That kind of thing.

Hamilton ON facade

Crazy-reckless lead singer for an all-girl punk band gets addicted to pain pills. She buys them from a guy in a wheelchair who has a boatload of prescriptions because of so many health problems. The singer mentions to a couple of friends all the meds that her dealer has at his apartment, and the collectibles. Expensive watches and what all. They persuade her to set him up. They go there and tape the guy’s hands and start robbing the place and looking for drugs but the stuff is mostly junk. They leave him lying there, face down. Nobody comes by for a couple of days so what with all his conditions he dies there on the floor. The singer gets three years for her part in this horror movie insanity — the part of the total fool.

And so on.

Meanwhile the president of the Chamber of Commerce, a progressive guy as they say (meaning, good on questions of traffic and transit), sharp suits and stylish coloured socks to the knee, eager to position the Chamber as a “thought leader” in the current era of “city-building,” brings his counterpart from Brooklyn to address the troops. (Our two cities have, of course, nothing whatever in common.) The newspaper relays his message to the rest of us. “Be who you are,” he tells us, “Be gritty. Be cool.”

Punching bag in Hamilton ON backyard

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Pier 8

Never mind. When you just can’t stand it anymore you can always come down here again. Like the poet said:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

Looking west from Pier 8, you see earth, air and water. For fire, you will have to go back to the other end of the pier, where we started, to see the stacks whence they flare the coke oven gas.

Hamilton ON Pier 8 looking west

When the City turned entrepreneurial, twenty years back, they built a trail alongside the CN main line all the way from here to those bridges, and beyond, on into Westdale. The first rail bridge, of wood, collapsed in 1857, killing 60 people including its engineer. Not his fault though. The road bridge with the fancy columns was part of a larger project involving the expulsion of shanty dwellers who were squatting on what had become prime land for advocates of a City Beautiful program.

Many come down here for recreation and respite. Nature is so consoling. But running can be boring, so it helps to bring a song or poem to memorize. This is how you get to Hopkins, who is tricky but very apt in the context.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
xxOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bentbent
xxWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Well, perhaps not. But clearly the Paraclete was often with Gerard, and it is indeed fresh and fine down along here, in any season. Plus, knowing about poetry adds to your stock of social capital, right?, so you’re not just a common grunt all your life. Of course, that’s what they want anymore. Abjection is authentic. Evidently we are become saleable, in all our rugged beauty — our curses and sneers, our resentment, our suspicion, our primitive loyalties, never mind…No, no, go on, we love it when you people get like this, so gritty, so down to earth, so Hamilton,…Damn. Where was I? Oh yeah. Fresh and fine.

Berries on nature trail outside Hamilton ON

Believe it or not, beaver have come back here. The Conservation Authority and the Botanical Gardens are working hard to restore and “naturalize” this end of the Bay. So are the beavers, who are astoundingly destructive, harvesting tender saplings and six-inch trees alike, leaving only pointed stakes behind. So are the coyotes, who come trotting along the rail corridor right into the main switching yard that parallels the trail for a kilometer or so. Coyote would like to reintroduce nature’s rules all the way into our back yards, if we are stupid enough to allow it. Add the little rock islands installed in the water to provide nesting spots for the swans, and a carp exclusion barrier meant to keep that bottom-feeding fish from tearing up all the marsh plants in the inner lagoon — and you have yourself one bustling farmstead, complete with roving gangs of geese who part reluctantly to let you pass. Overhead, the vultures who reappeared several years ago are now a constant, they must live their whole lives in the air. Below on the rocks black cormorants — lousy fliers but brilliant swimmers — rest with their dragon wings outspread. Once endangered, now they have overwhelmed their nesting islands, reducing them to white humps from which a few black sticks protrude, the remains of trees. However, the older, rarer world is here too. There are precious turtles, much fretted over though never seen by laymen. Once or twice a year coveys of ducks descend from the great sky beyond the curve of the world, bringing their wild fear with them. High-strung mergansers, slender tufted things far from their dark northern lakes, rocket away for nothing. Others tolerate more proximity, but not much. They are so exquisite that you have to laugh sometimes at the absurdity of their presence here. And with all that, there is still and always the lively changeability of the water itself: the glossy swells; the all-hushing fog; the flickering worry of the chop; the necklace of sheet ice that goes chink-chink as you cycle by; the luminous elasticity of the membrane that wavers and tightens on a still day when a boat passes far off in the outer harbour…only, even the water is not quite what it seems.

Trash in Hamilton ONGarbage along the shore

Just the other week, two women who have been going around piling stones into small cairns in memory of their murdered sisters all over the country had to interrupt their project to spend a couple of days camping on the shore, to publicize the mess they had found there: scraps of plastic, syringes, et cetera. City workers were detailed to return the place to the condo-worthy condition implied in the brochures, while the higher-ups explained, once again, that the sewage treatment plant is not quite large enough and so during a heavy storm operators must let a few batches go by or risk backing up the whole system.

Camping in memory of murdered women Hamilton ONCamp-out sparks City clean-up

And that is what it’s like to live here: always behind, never ahead; forever hopeful, often deceived. Love in vain. But I just can’t help myself. And you would wind up just the same, my friend, if you lived here.

—Shawn Selway

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Shawn Selway is a Stelco-trained millwright who currently operates Pragmata Historic Machinery Conservation Services. His book Nobody Here Will Harm You, about mass medical evacuations from the Eastern Arctic during the fifties, is forthcoming from Hamilton literary press Wolsak & Wynn.

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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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Apr 102016
 

creation

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — most of us know what it looks like: God divides light from dark and land from water; God creates the Heavens, the sun, the moon; God holds his hand out to Adam’s hand and their index fingers almost touch; God creates Eve from Adam’s rib; the Snake, wrapped around The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, tempts Adam and Eve with an apple; God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; eventually, after familiar stories of Old-Testament misbehavior, God sends a Flood. Meanwhile, sibyls and prophets sit at the edges, distracted by their own concerns. We know when the frescoes on the ceiling were painted: between 1508 and 1512. We know who the painter was: Michelangelo Buonarroti, born in  1475, died in 1564 (the year Shakespeare was born) – Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer.

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalySketch of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

But do we know how the artist felt, lying on his back painting that ceiling month after month and year after year? I mean, do we know much about it beyond the imaginative retelling of it by a Hollywood director? We do, since Michelangelo himself gave us a poem about it:

A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
–bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ‘s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback’s hump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled-see?
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle round, erratic.
Up front my hide’s tight elastic; in the rear
it’s slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I’m bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
Not odd that what’s on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don’t belong!
Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.

Not many people know that Michelangelo was a prolific and accomplished poet, writing more than three hundred poems across the entire span of his creative life. He tried, near the end, to organize one hundred of his poems for publication. But one of the two friends involved in helping him with this project died before it was completed, and a first edition of the poems was not published until sixty years after the artist’s death, under the supervision (and high-minded tinkering and “sanitizing”) of Michelangelo’s grandnephew.  “Sanitizing,” according to the translator John Frederick Nims, meant taking out “anything that might have reflected discreditably on the family or fame of Michelangelo: “Love poems addressed to a signor were revamped to fit the madonna of tradition; dubious political or religious views were amended.” His poems, to put it bluntly, were “made respectable.”

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals.

What we recognize, as we read through The Complete Poems of Michelangelo is the unique physicality of the artist. He brings his knowledge of the body – it’s outer curves and inner musculature – with him, from the three-dimensional sphere into the verbal. Known to have reduced his skill at sculpting the human body to these instructive lines, “Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop,” he also gave us these thoughts about sculpting, comparing what he sees as his simple talents (calling his own hammer “botched”) to the “heavenly hammer” of God:

….If my rough hammer shapes the obdurate stone
to a human figure, this or that one, say,
it’s the wielder’s fist, vision, and mind at play
that gives it momentum – another’s, not its own.
….But the heavenly hammer working by God’s throne
by itself makes others and self as well. We know
it takes a hammer to make a hammer. So
the rest derive from that primal tool alone.
….Since any stroke is mightier the higher
it’s launched from over the forge, one kind and wise
lately flown from mine to a loftier sphere.
….My hammer is botched, unfinished in the fire
until God’s workshop help him supervise
the tool of my craft, that alone he trued, down here.

david-full-front …………Michelangelo’s David
Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop.

According to Nims, the originals were written on “whatever [Michelangelo] had at hand”: the backs of letters, records of expenses, receipts, and sketches for his buildings and for his paintings. The artist was known for his sloppy personal habits – Paolo Giovio, one of his many biographers, wrote, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him…he had a reputation for being bizzarro e fantastico.” He felt no particular restraints when he was young about criticizing the profit- and violence-driven culture that surrounded him in Rome:

….Chalices hammered into sword and helmet!
Christ’s blood sold, slopped in palmfuls. With the yields
from commerce of cross and thorns, more lances, shields.
Still His long suffering mercy falls like dew?
….These lands are lands He’d better not come through.
If He did, his blood would boil, seething sky-high,
what with His flesh on sale, in good supply.
Virtue? Cast out. NO ENTRY signs repel it.

Later in his life, he became more cautious about expressing his political views in public. But his love poems remained vital; he is described over the years by many poets, including Italy’s own Nobel laureate, Eugenio Montale, as one of the great lyrical poets of the High Renaissance.

No one translates Michelangelo’s poetry as well as John Frederick Nims – in fact, Nims’s essay about his translations engage the reader almost as much as the poems themselves. Nims had this to say about his own efforts:

I intended, at first, to [translate] only a few…. But when I had finished those few, the momentum carried me on through all eighty. Those done, there were the hundred or so madrigals, which showed another side of the poet’s temperament. They came next. Then there remained another hundred poems in various meters -but it seemed too late to turn back….What had kept me going, for a year or more, was the fun of it. “Fun” is a word that Robert Frost often used of poetry. If it offends anyone when used in the aura of the divine Michelangelo, as Vasari called him, we could retrieve from ancient Greece the favorite motto of Valery…which he translates as pour le plaisir. I kept translating for the pleasure of it.

Not all translation is word~for~word “literal,” rich in the pleasure we call “fun.” Dictionary~scavenging can be dreary work, like a piece of assigned homework we resent having to do. The fun comes in when, by imposing obstacles, we introduce the element of sport or game, with its hurdles, wickets, sand traps, baselines, strike zones, bull’s~eyes. So, in translating poetry, we have to cope with such tricky features as rhythm, sound, wordplay, connotation, and all the other enrichments that lift prose to a resonant and more allusive level. Incorporating as many of these features as the terrain allows is the goal of the translator: born of such fun is what we call fidelity.

Nims chooses a modern voice (“I don’t belong! / Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong”) which some critics object to. The poet Mark Jarman, in his review of the book for The Kenyon Review (Summer/Fall 2001) says that, as a translator, Nims “tends to heat up Michelangelo’s poetry, making it more inventive and slangier than it appears in Italian, closer respectively to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nims himself.” But in his introduction to the book, Nims points out the unappealing high diction of previous translators  such as Wordsworth, Longfellow, Emerson, Santayana, Symonds and Rilke, all of whom overloaded the “rough language” of Michelangelo’s youth with too much elevated diction. He goes on to explain that previous translations had “a totally different effect on our ear today than Michelangelo’s would have had on the Italian ear of his time.” Despite their “complexity of content” the poems contain language that shows Michelangelo “spoke and wrote like the Florentine he was.”

The poems of Michelangelo surprise us. They do just what surprises should do: they wake us up and keep us marveling. To the list of his accomplishments – painter, sculptor, architect, engineer –  we need to add the words “and poet.” Though publicly arrogant at times, in the privacy of his own poems Michelangelo doubted his own worthiness, his own talent, and he struggled with the uncomfortable fit between his creative energies and his more spiritual existence. Not only his back ached – so did his soul. The poems often sound like they come from a worried, tempestuous modern mind. See if you can get a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (translated by Nims) and read it through. And while you do, keep this image in mind:

laocoonMichelangelo’s Laocoon

—Julie Larios

.May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numéro Cinq over the last few years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

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Mar 112016
 

7

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The Portuguese island of Madeira, a ‘pearl of the Atlantic’ situated 850 kilometres west of Marrakech, is known as a place for people who like to walk. Retired hiker types from northern Europe flock here year-round to trek the levadas – an ancient and seemingly endless network of irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. The levadas flow between high mountain peaks, through banana and eucalyptus groves, and up on the wild north of the island through the primeval, UNESCO-protected laurel forest that at one time covered much of southern Europe. The trails are mostly flat, making them surprisingly easy to walk: they transport water, and water doesn’t like to travel uphill. It’s all so beautiful, beautiful, the visitors say. ‘Come to walk!’ the tourist brochures say. Walk walk walk, levada levada levada. And flowers.

That’s all fine, but it’s not my Madeira. I’m a dedicated pedestrian and academic (possibly in that order), and I’ve lived on this island for the past three years. I don’t do a lot of levada walks unless friends are visiting, but I get my share of exercise. I move around almost exclusively on foot, except when I buy groceries and take a taxi home. What I mostly see of Madeira are the streets of the capital, Funchal. To walk in Funchal is to walk almost constantly at a slant, on a near-vertical slope. Since settlement in the fifteenth century, the city has gradually climbed up the side of the steep volcano whence Madeira was born. Nearly every house, including mine, enjoys stunning views across the Bay of Funchal. This distinct and dramatic urban landscape, seen from street level at walking pace, is the Madeira I inhabit.

Madeira streets

Taxis have trouble reaching my house. When I tell them the name of my street, they mutter under their breath and slap the dashboard of their ancient canary-yellow Mercedes-Benzes. Most drivers already know me: I’m the tall estrangeiro, the One Who Walks, the non-tourist who cabs it. Funchal is a small city; I think a lot of people know me this way. My boss told me that his father once pulled him aside and asked, ‘Nuno, are you paying the new estrangeiros enough? I often see the tall one in glasses walking by the side of the road – like a stray dog!’ My boss explained that the foreigner liked to walk, though I’m not sure he understands it either. When I walk home from work, the last stretch up to my street has me bent so far forward that I can reach out and touch the ground in front of me. People driving past eye me with a blend of suspicion and pity; a couple of the friendlier ones have stopped to offer me a lift.

It’s a typical weekday morning and I’m standing in a ditch by the roadside. I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett, whose characters I remember were always hanging out in ditches – just hanging out, their lot being simply to represent our debased state as human beings. I can relate to this. I lean back and press myself against the dirty wall, my feet deep in cast-off drink containers, as a bus passes inches from my face. There is a blast of exhaust-filled wind and a deafening noise as the bus shifts up to the next gear, then silence. The sky is a high, hazy blue and I’m on my way to work. I step out of the ditch and continue along the single-lane bidirectional road with houses like walls, no sidewalks or trees or grassy boulevards. If I reach out with my broad wingspan I can almost reach both sides.

Julian1

Parked cars are a huge pain in the arse. I’m tempted to key the car blocking my path, a BMW that’s far too big for such a small island. I even fantasize about walking right over the top of it – I could do it! But instead I wait for a break in the morning rush hour traffic, the cars taking turns to go around it. Even on roads with sidewalks it is difficult and dangerous to be a pedestrian. Cars use the sidewalks as parking spots; somehow they’re immune to ticketing, it’s a populist government and everyone drives. So pedestrians – me, the One Who Walks – are forced to walk on the road. Sometimes I squeeze my passive-aggressive body between the parked car and the wall, snapping in the wing mirror as I pass. Often there are people sitting in these parked cars, why I’ll never know. They’re always playing Candy Crush. My defiant mirror-folding gesture is lost on them. They either ignore completely my body squeezing past their window, refusing to look up, or they act like I’m crazy, like I’m in their space. Hey pal, careful with that wing mirror!

I’ve had some minor altercations. Once I broke the wing mirror off a parked car – it was already taped up, I hardly touched it – and the woman yelled at me as she opened her door a crack to snatch the mirror back from the ground where it lay. Another time it was more serious. I was waiting to cross a busy road, and people kept driving through the zebra crossing. One, two, three cars. When the fourth car approached I started to step out, to signal that it was, in all fairness, my turn to cross. The guy kept driving through at high speed, nearly hitting me. As he drove past me I lifted my leather satchel in a way that was half defensive, half threatening. He was so close that it made contact and clipped the wing mirror – oh those wing mirrors! The mirror came right off. (The satchel was full of books.) There was a loud crack and it went sailing through the air and landed with a tumble, skidding briefly along the road. The Fiat Panda screeched to a halt. The guy was nineteen or twenty, wearing cut-offs and a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut, and he jumped out and started cursing me in Portuguese, calling me the son of a whore. If we had been in North America I might have been worried, like afraid he’d pull out a gun or a bat. But I was twice as big as the guy, if rather willowy and professorial looking, and when I swore back at him in English and shook my satchel full of books he jumped in the Panda and drove off, waving his fist in retreat. I crossed the road.

Julian9

Every morning I start my commute walking straight downhill. I often break into a run because the incline is so steep. Suddenly I’ll hear a car and flatten my body against the wall as the driver passes with a blank stare or an absentminded wave. After fifteen minutes downhill it levels out for a bit and then I usually put in my earbuds and start back up another hill to get to the university. It’s great exercise – so much that I crave it restlessly when I work from home. But I also go through a lot of shoes, stripping the soles right down to my socks every few months.

Being a pedestrian in Madeira is all about humiliation. It’s impossible to ignore, a nagging voice you can’t drown out with the loudest music or the most engrossing podcast. I remember spotting a fellow academic once when I was walking home from the university, a visiting lecturer from MIT. He wore a thick red beard and spectacles and earbuds like me, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I gave him a hail-fellow-well-met but he didn’t notice. He was evidently deep in thought, taking long strides, and he paused to step into the ditch when a bus drove past. Here was my doppelganger; my own humiliation externalized.

So why do I walk? I’m a grown man, with a decent job, and yet just the other day some moron in a Peugeot sprayed me with wiper fluid. Why do I spend my mornings and evenings walking along the gutter – breathing diesel exhaust, dodging dog shit, stepping over abandoned pairs of underpants – instead of cruising the winding roads in a climate-controlled Audi A3 like my colleagues? I’m not cheap; I’m not particularly sporty either. I don’t climb mountains and I’ve never kayaked. What’s wrong with me? Am I afraid to drive? Am I a masochist with psychogeographic tendencies?

madeira8

For a while, until I thought better of it, I had considered calling this essay ‘Foreigners, Deficients, Dogs’ – in the end I worried it might be taken the wrong way. I was riffing on the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ sign that used to hang in lodging house windows in Britain. (I happen to be Irish as well as Canadian.) The use of the offensive-sounding term ‘deficient’ was meant to be an ironic commentary on the Portuguese word deficient that is still used to label people with various mental or physical challenges. Although I see almost no other pedestrians on my morning commute, every morning I walk past two guys with Down’s Syndrome at different points in the journey. They both look about my age, and they possess the same determined, slightly harried look of the pedestrian in a hostile landscape that I must also wear as I walk along the ditch. This being southern Europe, one guy is always smoking; the other guy shouts a loud ‘Bom dia!’ just at the moment he passes me, and I shout back to him over my shoulder. The ‘dogs’ in the hypothetical title were a reference to the packs of stray dogs that I pass every day: usually six or eight in a gang, oddly laid-back and unintimidating despite their size and number, some of them limping after run-ins with cars. The foreigner, of course, is me – and the visiting lecturers who don’t know that nobody walks in Madeira. On this island, we are on the margins – quite literally – while drivers occupy the central space.

There are really two questions I ask myself most days: ‘Why do I walk?’ and ‘Why do I live in Madeira?’. Sure it’s sunny here, but so is San Francisco. After years of living in Madeira my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. Am I afraid to compete in the great northern cities of industry? Perhaps, although I’m fairly certain I could get a job elsewhere. There must be more to it.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. I don’t want to be insulated from the pain any more than I already am; I don’t want a life of easy pleasures. Before I moved here I lived in Vancouver and found it depressingly dull, so polished and sensible and fit. I don’t want to give up the hard pleasures that you earn by seeing the world at street level: I want to see what people in cars never see, and breathe the air they don’t have to breathe – even if it kills me.

— by Julian Hanna

(Photos by Simone Ashby. To see more, visit Instagram @tar_island.)

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Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

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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

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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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Feb 052016
 

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I

N THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south.

The Range

To me it was a magical place with rusty remains, like the single-furrow plough once pulled by heavy horses, my great-grandfather plodding behind. There were outbuildings of battered corrugated iron which included the wash-house. There were the old slab stables (part of the woolshed), housing the abandoned buggy and the sulky. Horse collars, harness and chains still hung from rusty nails and hooks. It was where my mother grew up.

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

There were saddles in the harness shed and a rusted iron bedstead where mum had met the fox. There was the anvil, dull from neglect, the bellows and the tools. Bridles hung in a row from the vertical slabs and a side-saddle, the leather blackened, dried out, cracked and dusty. ‘Grandma Ewbank’s saddle’, Mother had said. It belonged to my great-grandmother who’d left Bundella in offended silence in 1908 when she was sixty-five. She had no further use for such a thing as a side-saddle.

D. Caption 'My Great-grandmother c. 1874'My Great-grandmother c. 1874

Now there were no horses. At night by the light of the kerosene lamp, I studied the faded snapshot of the man sitting tall on the high horse – my grandfather who died before I was born – beside four of his five children on horseback – my mother the young girl in the wide-brimmed hat on The Creamy.

E. On horses (Caption 'In 1922')In 1922

Life at Bundella behind the village Store and Post Office was simple but tough – no electricity or gas, no town water supply (only the rain and it often didn’t rain very much), plus hard well water for the bath, heated on the fuel stove or in the copper, carted in a bucket to the bathroom. I’d sit with a cake of Pears soap in an inch of water at the bottom of the old white tub which had feet like a lion. And down the backyard I’d clutch the edge of the scrubbed pine seat in the lime-washed slab-walled dunny, holding my breath because of the smell as I balanced over the cesspit, hoping not to fall in. Then I’d open the crooked door with its leather hinges and run past the fowl house, scattering chooks and grey-and-white-spotted guinea fowl as they foraged in the yard. I’d detour through the wild garden, under the trees, round the shrubberies and scented flower beds, keeping an eye out for snakes.

The house

My grandmother sold up in 1950 at the age of seventy. She moved from Bundella to the city with Marjorie. We went out in the ute to clean up the sheds. My father couldn’t come because the mine was flooded, so Charlie from the pit was at the wheel in his greasy hat. We squeezed in beside him, my mother in her best hat and gloves. I, being the smallest, had to straddle the gear stick that rose from the floor. There had been flood rains and the black soil road was treacherous. No dust but plenty of mud. Charlie smoked incessantly, rolling his own as he drove.

When we arrived, Marjorie was sitting as usual, prim-faced at the switchboard, her thick black plait pinned firmly over the crown of her head. She waved us a greeting but said to a subscriber at the other end of the line, ‘Sorry, the number’s engaged. I’ll try again shortly…Number please?’ In the kitchen, the heavy blackened kettle was boiling on the fuel stove and my grandmother made tea. Charlie ladled in the sugar, then tipped the tea into his saucer. He blew on it and drained it down.

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

My mother removed her hat, donned her overalls and went out to the shed. My grandmother temporarily took over the switchboard so Marjorie could lend a hand. She rushed up with a sack over her shoulder and dropped it with a clank on the ground. It contained rusting rabbit traps that were put to one side ready for the auction. A bonfire burned in the yard. Charlie hurled on everything my mother condemned to the flames. By evening the shed and other outbuildings were bare, the bonfire a heap of smouldering ashes.

The goods for the auction were piled high: saddles and pitch forks, axes and ploughs together with the mangle, the anvil and the galvanised iron wash tubs. At the centre of a heap of dusty objects I spotted the gleaming statue of Grace Darling.[1] She was about my height and I was seven. Jim and Fred from up the creek had carted her from the house. She’d always been in the dark hallway, peering out at the raging sea and that shipwreck. At least that’s what my mother said. She said Grace Darling was a heroine. Now she stood on her pedestal in the mud, holding the lantern high and gazing out across the sodden plain, her hair and gown, as always, blowing in the gale.

It was wet the day of the auction and a bleak wind scoured the paddocks. I peered out between the lopsided doors of the shed to watch old Johnny Ferguson playing the auctioneer. He stood on a battered crate, felt hat down to his eyebrows, pulling at his braces to adjust the sagging trousers. ‘Come on you lot,’ he admonished the bedraggled onlookers. ‘How about these rabbit traps or that there box of pony shoes.’ But times were tough; few people were bidding. Next day, after friends had been in to help themselves, Fred and Jim carted truckloads of junk a few miles down the track and dumped it in a gully.

‘What ever happened to Grace Darling?’ I asked my mother years later, but she couldn’t remember. Nowadays when I look back, I see Grace Darling lying somewhere across that black soil plain, still holding her lantern.

The Plains

Parts of this essay first appeared in the memoir ‘Vanished Land’, published in 2014.


Messages

I never knew what to expect when I picked up the heavy receiver of the antiquated telephone attached to the wall in our hallway. My mother took many of the coal orders, but from the time I was able to answer the phone, I relayed messages to her and later was able to write them in my childish hand in the untidy message book.

Small orders came from householders in town who needed coal for their fireplaces, their fuel stoves and their laundry coppers. Conversations went something like this:

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Mrs. Mingay ‘ere. Tell yer dad I need quarter of a ton, an’ I don’t want none of them big boulders.’

‘Yes Mrs. Mingay. I’ll tell Dad when he gets in.’

Large orders came from Tamworth, twenty-eight miles away, from the Power Station, the hospital, the butter factory and Fielders Flour Mill where they made the bread. There were calls from mine inspectors and the NSW Government Railway’s head office, and the NSW Coal Board in Sydney. The Coal Board always wanted the coal production figures for the week. I’d say in my best seven-year-old voice (as my father had instructed): ‘The output was the same as last week.’

Sometimes there were calls from truck drivers – those hard-working, easy-going, likeable men who drove the fleet of battered and unreliable coal trucks: Bedfords, Whites, Internationals and Macs. Some were ex-army vehicles, for it was only a few years after World War II.

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

I had little knowledge of the workings of trucks, so I passed on messages, sometimes with little understanding, but often with some merriment. The calls varied:

‘Tell yer Dad me engine’s buggered, just outta Currabub.’

‘Got a punsher an’ me spare’s ‘ad it.’

‘Me muffler’s busted. Sounds like a flamin’ tank.’

‘Blew me gasget’, ‘Think it’s me pistons’, ‘Stripped me gears’ and one day ‘smashed me sump on a bloody tree stump’. I kept careful records in the message book.

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘It’s Bill ‘ere. Tell yer dad I done me big end, out by the cemetery. I’ll sit ‘ere and wait for a tow.’

‘Right-o Bill. I’ll tell him as soon as he comes up from the pit. You’re not hurt?’

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

I finished the call and carefully replaced the receiver. Before I could write anything in the book, the image of the overweight and balding Bill with his exploding big end got the better of me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.


Keep Out

1953

Keep Out

Remember when we went to live in Tamworth, and you said we were going to explore that haunted house up the top of the road? Old Mr. Hill lived at the back there somewhere. We used to see him galloping his horse and sulky down the slope with all the kids hanging on, and Mrs. Hill petrified beside him. He’d be shouting, ‘Shut up you bastards!’ at the kids. But we hadn’t seen him for ages, had we. You thought they’d gone away, so we walked up the road after school. You read out the notice painted on the old piece of tin nailed to the front gate: ‘Private. Keep Out’ so we went round the back and scrambled through the thorny hedge. I got scratched on the arms and the face, but you said, ‘Come on, don’t be a baby.’

The wooden house was derelict. My father always said it had never seen a coat of paint in its life. I could see the grass and weeds growing up between the floorboards of the back veranda. The back door was chained with a padlock, but you kicked it, and the padlock just fell off, and the door flew open. You went in first, and the floor rocked up and down when you stepped on it. The place was empty and dark with cobwebs and dust. I remember those old portraits in curly gold frames still hanging on the wallpapered walls, all flowers, and the chair with the broken leg lying in the middle of the room and that old chamber pot full of soot in the fireplace.

‘Look in here!’ I said, but you said, ‘Shhhhhhhhh!’ and we heard someone crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down the back, then ‘Clear off out of there you bastards!’ from a distance. ‘Quick!’ you said, and I tried to open the front door. It was locked, but you managed to heave open the front window. I didn’t like cobwebs and spiders, but you said, ‘Come on, scaredy cat’. You gave me a leg up and pushed me over the splintery window sill. I fell out onto the veranda. ‘Run!’ you said as you climbed out too. We clattered down the front steps into the jungle and fought our way through the thorny hedge. Old Mr. Hill was shouting ‘Get the hell out of there!’ at the back door, but we were taking off for home down the gravel road.

Mother was in the front garden pruning roses. ‘Don’t stop,’ you said to me as we streaked by. We thought Mr. Hill was charging after us. ‘Don’t wave. Don’t let him know where we live!’ and we kept running – past Mrs. Chaffey’s and round the corner into the back lane, then into our garden through the back gate. ‘Now don’t you go tittle tattling to Mum’ you said when we’d stopped puffing.

‘I saw you girls tearing past this afternoon,’ Mother said later when we came in for tea. ‘What was all that about?’ ‘Nothing,’ you said as you spread the Vegemite on your toast. I just pushed the spoon right down inside my boiled egg . . . Remember?

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas

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L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Grace Darling was an English heroine of Victorian times. As a young woman she rowed out through raging seas with her father to rescue survivors from a sailing ship wrecked on rocks in the storm.
Jan 132016
 

Jacket Photo 2015

White Brothers Dairy Farm

White Brothers Dairy Farm

 

Drought field of Iowa cornDrought-stricken field of Iowa corn

Drought         

Every Sunday during Mass, our priest prays for rain. He prays for the health of Pope John Paul II, he prays for peace with Russia, and he prays for the sick to be healed.

His last prayer on the list: we pray for rain for the farmers.

The congregation answers in unison: Lord, hear our prayer.

It is the summer of 1983, and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church is in the small town of Bloomfield in southeastern Iowa, a few miles from the Missouri border, an area hard hit by a drought called the worst in a half-century.

Father Wilkening’s prayer for rain goes on for weeks.

During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother. Each time Father Wilkening begins the series, I close my eyes and press my palms together beneath my chin, and pray. But in my selfish little eight-year-old heart, I don’t care about the Pope. I don’t care about peace with Russia. I don’t care about the sick.

I care about the rain.

Farm Crisis Manual

I pray for the rain when I’m in church. I pray for the rain at night in my bed before I go to sleep. I pray for the rain when I play outside beneath the broiling hot Midwestern sky. I pray for the rain when I walk across the dry, brown soil that turns to powder beneath my bare feet. This is the dirt of my father’s and my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s farm before it was theirs.

Sometimes, I see my father’s ruddy face, creased, worried, as he stands in the yard and studies his cornfields that have become a mass of stunted brown and yellow stalks with nubby, kernel-less cobs. I shade my eyes with my dirty farm kid hands and study the fields with him. I turn to the clear blue west where I know clouds are supposed to form, and I pray, Please bring rain. Please water the corn. Please refill the creeks and ponds. Please save us.

But the clouds do not form. The rain does not come.

This goes on for months.

Finally, a small afternoon storm arrives with a steady downpour, a few cracks of thunder and splinters of lightning. I splash barefoot in the puddles, letting the raindrops beat the top of my head and soften my curls to silk. My hand-me-down T-Shirt and cutoff jeans become soaked and stick to my skin as I dance and play in the water and catch more raindrops on my tongue. It is rain, at last.

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s not enough, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t understand. It’s rain, I say.

One little storm, it’s not enough, he repeats.

Kali's First Communion, age 8Kali’s First Communion

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Crisis

That fall, Father Wilkening continues to pray for rain. Our tiny parish of barely twenty-five families—few of them farmers—don’t care about the rain as much as I do, I’m sure of it. All they worry about are their dead, crunchy lawns or the low, brackish lake where they want swim. My mother unfailing writes a check every week to put in the church collection plate, and I pray twice as hard to equally do my part.

Soon, farmers around us quit farming. Sometimes there are auctions and crowds and the families cry when their tractors and wagons are driven away, their tools picked over. Sometimes the farmers just leave. One day a kid is at school in the desk next to me, the next day he is gone. I don’t know where they go.

I hear my father and my uncle speak in numbers and vocabulary I don’t yet understand. Twenty-five to thirty-five bushels an acre for harvest compared to a normal yield of one-hundred and twenty five. Land values down four percent. Cattle prices down. Milk prices down. Bankruptcies and tax delinquencies up. Five hundred public farm auctions a month.

The Channel 5 news anchor talks about the Caterpillar Tractor Company plant in Burlington, Iowa shutting down. He talks about 20,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the eastern half of the state. He talks about John Deere laying off workers by the thousands. My best friend’s father works for John Deere.

The nightly news terrifies me.

I double my prayer efforts.

In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby. One day without warning the green blinds are drawn over the tall windows of the ground floor, and there is a hasty, hand-written “out-of-order” sign hanging on the night depository chute. Customers wander by the “closed” sign taped to the front door. Farmers pull on the brass handle only to find it locked. They try to peek through the covered windows before giving up and wandering a few doors down to a café, confused, disbelieving. They order a cup of coffee at the counter and sit because they don’t know where else to go.

Bloomfield Exchange BankBloomfield Exchange Bank

No one realized it wasn’t insured, I hear my parents say, and I don’t know what that means.

We’re not depositors at The Exchange Bank, though. Our money is in the other bank across town and I am so grateful that I say a prayer of thanks our bank belongs to something I hear about for the first time, the FDIC, whatever that is.

I hear the names of families who lost money in the Exchange Bank. I know their kids. We go to school together. Sometimes I steal glances at their faces in class and wonder, did you pray enough for your bank when you were in church on Sunday? And I feel smug, because I prayed, and my bank had the FDIC.

I get my third grade school picture taken but my mother does not order copies to save money. Two months later, my teacher old Mrs. Judd hands me a packet of printed pictures anyway. I don’t know why. We didn’t pay for them. The bank closing, it seems, has confused everything.

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Celebrity

Our little town is on the local news. Then the national news. The New York Times writes about us. I listen with my father to Peter Jennings on ABC, on our Channel 5 that is always snowy. He reports that there are 424 uninsured banks in the United States. Four are in Iowa. One, is in my town. And it is already closed.

At church, Father Wilkening prays for rain, and now for the families who had money in the Exchange Bank.

After the bank closes, the brick building sits empty. After a while, it becomes a sandwich shop, then a pizza joint, and other businesses I can’t remember because they come and go so fast. The popular bank president leaves town with his wife and two handsome teenage boys. My sister had a crush on the younger one. They never come back. I don’t know where they go.

Diamondz PizzaThe exchange bank turned into Diamondz Pizza

In the winter of 1984, the Davis County High School boys’ varsity basketball team has a winning season and makes it to the state tournament. Our town finally has some good news. Something to celebrate. The boys on the team are heroes and there is a city-wide pep rally. Father Wilkening prays on Sunday for the boys to have a safe trip to Des Moines, and for a win. The school prints T-shirts that say “Davis County Too Tough To Die” like The Ramone’s album, though I don’t know who The Ramones are. My mother buys shirts for me and my sister and brother. They have gold sleeves and maroon lettering and our galloping mustang mascot on the chest. Giant “Too Tough To Die” billboards are erected on Highway 2 and Highway 63, greeting motorists as they come and go from our town.

Good Morning America hears about our uninsured bank that closed, and about our basketball ball team going to the state tournament, about our T-Shirts and billboards, and they come to our little town because we’re suddenly interesting.

They film kids wearing the T-shirts in front of the west side of county courthouse—a beautiful gothic building in the center of the town square that makes a perfect backdrop for the camera shot. I am there wearing my gold and maroon T-shirt, and my neighbor Jessica hoists me up for the camera because I am too short and lost in the crowd. On three, we all shout “Davis County! Too tough to die!” and cheer while the camera rolls. Joan Lunden tells the story of Bloomfield and our bank and our basketball team, and I get up early to watch, before the bus comes to take me to school. For the first time in my life I see myself on television, a tiny speck in my neighbor Jessica’s arms. I’m smiling and look happy.

Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere. Our boys don’t win the state basketball tournament.

Seasons pass. Harvests. Calvings. Powdery earth still beneath my feet.

Depositors at the Exchange Bank never get their money back. The drought persists. More farmers leave. A few, I overhear in terrifying whispers, go out into their barns and shoot themselves.

A protest group comes to our little town. They assemble white wooden crosses and plant them in the yard of the courthouse, the exact same spot where I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America. One cross for every farm foreclosed in our county. There are dozens and dozens of the haunting white ghosts.

White Crosses on Courthouse LawnsWhite crosses on the courthouse lawn.

West Side of the Davis County CourthouseDavis County Courthouse

Nothing, it occurs to me, has changed. I’m sorry that I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America.

Father Wilkening leaves and we get a new priest. Father Gottemaller. He also prays for rain. My mother gets a part time job at the liquor store on the square to help make extra money. She still writes a check to the church every Sunday.

Only now, the checks make me angry. I don’t trust money anymore.

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Flood

At last, a spring planting season brings rain. Not just one isolated rain shower, but weeks and weeks of rain, and the ponds and lakes refill, the grass turns green, the creeks swell, and I dance barefoot in the puddles and cry Hallelujah! My family’s farm is saved.

Flooded creek and fileds on my dad's farmFlooded creek on my father’s farm

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s too much, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t ask him what he means, because this time I understand. This is how it will always be. Too much. Not enough. Too tough to die.

The next Sunday, Father Gottemaller prays for the rain to stop, for the flooded creeks to subside, and for the swamped fields to dry out so the farmers can plant their crops.

My mom writes her check. But I don’t pray.

I am a farm crisis kid now.

I don’t trust money. I don’t trust the sky.

—Kali VanBaale

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Kali 3rd Grade School Picture

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Good Divide, is forthcoming June 2016. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.

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Jan 112016
 

presentación jtJavier Taboada

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JAVIER TABOADA (Mexico City, 1982) is a translator and poet. He has translated the work of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Alceo, Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) and Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles and A Further Witness, forthcoming in 2016) amongst others. He is the author of a remarkable first collection of poetry, Poemas de Botica (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta, Mexico City, 2014). Dylan Brennan conducted this interview with Javier via email correspondence from October-December 2015.

DB: Tell us a bit about your early life, where you grew up, what you studied, how you first discovered poetry.

JT: I was born in Mexico City and grew up there. I studied at religious schools from primary through secondary before beginning a B.A. in Classical Literature at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I also completed my M.A.

I suppose that my first contact with poetry was similar to that of most middle class children at that time. What I mean by that is, with rare exceptions, in every house you could find certain books by certain poets such as: Neruda (his 20 poemas de amor almost always featured), León Felipe, Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, García Lorca, Jaime Sabines anthologies, amongst others. But there were also plenty of anthologies of what we call poemas de declamación (recital poems): in my house we had the Álbum de Oro del Declamador (The Orator’s Golden Album), I still have it now. It’s a collection of occasional poems, ready to be opened for a mother’s birthday (or for the anniversary of her death), poems that speak of heartbreak, lost loves, poems to scorn vices, to exalt familial and Christian love etc., all tinged with a moral outlook and an unbearable sentimentality. However, in the final section of this book, I found poems like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Lermontov’s The Cross on the Rock, Pasternak’s Night, The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound, Quasimodo’s Auschwitz, to mention just a few. The one I liked best from this book was Antonio Plaza’s A una ramera (To a Harlot) because the use of language made me laugh.

The other contact with poetry came from a source less bookish (for want of a better word), I mean popular Mexican music, especially the bolero. Then later, during puberty, rock music.

Beyond what I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in reading poetry until the age of about 16 or 17. And that had quite a bit to do with the so-called Contemporáneos poets. Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, some of Carlos Pellicer’s stuff, José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta (his sonnets, of course, not his Canto a un Dios Mineral, which I could only begin to comprehend—years later—via an extraordinary book by Evodio Escalante). They astounded me. After a certain amount of time, I then began to buy poetry books or to read them in the school library, whenever I’d been kicked out of physics or mathematics class. My reading is completely disordered. I’m a trained Hellenist and I haven’t even been able to follow any kind of order with the Ancient Greeks.

DB: I know you translate quite a bit. Tell us about that. Does translation affect how you write, how you read? Do the poets you translate influence you much? Which poets have influenced you? How did you come into contact with them?

JT: Nowadays I read as a translator and this has become beneficial to me. In my current state of disorder I’m reading and translating Rosmarie Waldrop, Federico María Sardelli, Claudia Rankine and John Wilmot. I read them, then I attempt to translate a certain fragment, then I read them again, etc., until the job is done. Whether the translations get published or not, this permits me to be influenced in a way by their work, to assimilate something of their poetics, and, in some way, to redesign my own, to become re-moulded. I am in no way scared of continual influences (I don’t think they ever end) nor of revealing them to others. It is obvious that translation, as reading or as a constant act, not only modifies one’s own voice, but also changes literary traditions. One day, those who study the national poetry of certain regions will pay more attention to the translated works that their poets have read as opposed to the original versions. For example, I read Eliot translated by Ángel Flores and, in my memory, The Waste Land (La Tierra Baldía) is the one that Flores translated.

As I mentioned, I’ve been greatly influenced by the Contemporáneos. My reading of the classics, which I did almost exclusively for a period of about seven or eight years, has also left its mark. Fundamentally, the ancient lyrics: Alcaeus (whose work I translated almost in its entirety in 2010) but also Sappho and Alcman; and also Archilochus and Hipponax. The latter I consider the most modern due to his use of language and humour. His pugilistic poems are raw, his sexual references, explicit. For example, there is one poem in which the “poetic voice” attempts to cure his impotence with the assistance of a Lydian witch. Frankly, it’s hilarious, vulgar and ingenious. Among the Greek Classics I should also mention that I read Euripides and Aristophanes thoroughly.

There are common names such like Pound, Eliot, Wordsworth, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Hölderlin, Yeats. Of course, they have influenced me. More specifically, I can mention poets like Blake, H.D., Charles Wright, David Meltzer, William Carlos Williams, Lee Masters, Efraín Huerta, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño (I regards his Fuego de Pobres as a gem of Mexican literature) and Nicanor Parra.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Jerome Rothenberg. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in the last year and a half I have worked a lot with him. I’ve finished translating A Further Witness and A Poem of Miracles, two of his most recent collections. It looks like they’ll be published in bilingual editions this year (2016). I’ve also translated to Spanish and to Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews) his poem Cokboy which is, as you may know, written in a mixture of English and made-up Yiddish. This proximity (admirably generous) has transformed my understanding of his poetry. I will remain forever grateful to him.

DB: Is there a Mexican poetic tradition? Are there various? With which, if any, do you identify? What about the Mexico City cronistas (non-fiction chroniclers like Carlos Monsiváis or, most recently, Valeria Luiselli)? I ask because your book Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) is very much steeped in the sights, smells, sounds of a particular part of the city.

JT: Everywhere, particularly during these years of globalisation, the borders between “national” literatures have begun to dissolve: they begin to respond to different stimuli and contact with other poetic tasks become more immediate. In Mexico right now I can see a conceptual growth as well as a turn towards new technologies. On the other hand I see an emerging interest in ethnopoetry, ecopoetry and colloquial poetry. Much of this owes to the incorporation of the North American poetic tradition or English language poetry in general.

As a tradition, I would have to mention the baroque. It’s still alive and has continued to adapt (in some instances, in other instances, frankly, it has not) to the times. In its use of language, for example, can be derived part of the metaphysical or mystical poetry that is composed in Mexico.

I don’t know to what extent I can associate myself with any “tradition”. It seems to me that that should be decided by others. I can only recognize some influences that are present in this book, but I cannot talk about belonging. Sophocles says that nobody should consider a person as being “happy” until the moment of his/her death. Other work will come, I hope. Then the time will come for me to cash out. Time will take care of putting everyone in their place. What I mean is, to answer your question, there are a wide variety of poetic traditions in this country. I’m sure there are others which I’ve forgotten, or am yet to have discovered.

Of the cronistas that you mention, I haven’t read Luiselli. I’ve read very little Monsiváis and a bit more of Novo. Honestly, the Mexico City chroniclers had very little influence in Poemas de Botica. I think that a much greater debt is owed to the Lyrical Ballads, to Huerta, Parra, Salvador Novo’s Poemas Proletarios, Fuego de Pobres by Bonifaz and Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. After the collection had been published I was introduced to Chetumal Bay Anthology—a very interesting collection by Luis Miguel Aguilar (winner of the 2014 Ramón López Velarde Prize)—and noted the similarities between my book and his (the focus on just one place, the style of language etc. which in turn is fed by the work of Masters). A fortunate coincidence.

Mexico City has a great deal of problems: brutal inequalities, violence, organized crime (though they claim it’s not there), racism and discrimination, misery belts, inefficient transport, unstoppable pollution etc. On the other hand there are the personal oases, those places that transform the city into your city, though you will always need to pass through chaos to get there. A bit like Milton’s Lucifer. This dichotomy is experienced by anyone who has lived in the D.F. In my case, I couldn’t stand it any more so I left.

DB: Tell us about how you write. Where does it all come from?

JT: I don’t have any particular schedule or discipline for writing. In reality, all my writing springs from obsession. After investigating a certain theme for a while, disposing of material, etc., ideas emerge. And then begins a process that is long. As you well know, there are texts that just jump onto the page and others that take forever. Then, when I believe that a certain text is speaking, I correct it, edit it. I throw away or erase what is no longer of use, without restraint. Usually, what I leave behind is the poem’s skeleton. When I’ve found—sometimes it’s just a few verses—the idea, the tone, the form of what I want to say, I begin to re-write it. In the end, I share it with some writers that I know and trust to be objective. Then, if the text passes this test, I think it’s ready. In general, I mistrust my own opinion. With regard to form, the form is dictated by the contents of the poem.

portada

DB: Poemas de Botica is an admirably solid collection. By that I mean that it possesses a wonderful unity, all the poems revolve around your grandfather’s apothecary and it’s a collection that feels more like a place than a book to me. I mean that in a good way, it’s remarkably vibrant, alive. Where did it come from? Did you always know how it would be structured?

JT: Poemas de Botica emerged from the Guerrero neighbourhood, one of the oldest and dodgiest in the city. But, to be more precise, from the area immediately surrounding the Dr. Medina pharmacy which was the property of my grandfather for almost 65 years. The pharmacy also operated as an old-style apothecary. I had to work there for about 4 or 5 years, selling medicines and mixing remedies (not many, in reality), while I studied at university. The apothecary is still open, even today.

No, actually, it’s strange. Some of those poems (which were then called de Botica in 2003), were more or less finished. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought they’d never be published. You know, I didn’t have any more material. There were 4 or 5 poems and that was it. Then, I stopped working there, and I stopped writing poetry and focused on my studies. I submitted, like we all do, to that sterile prose of academia. And, while it gave me other positive things, it dried up my literary work.

I found it really very difficult to start writing again. A few years later, I’d say it was around 2012, I started to re-write those poems, now with the readings I mentioned above in my mind. The key to the collection arrived with the (Homeric) Cantos del Señor Olivares: I glimpsed the possibility of orchestrating the whole book with an array of different voices: the historical voice of the city (Olivares), the lyrical voice (the Apothecary), the testimonial voices of the characters, all mixed up: humour, violence, colloquialisms, music and refrains. In other words, everything that I learned in Guerrero. And then I quickly discovered that the book was finished. Leticia Luna, the editor, insisted that the tone was not lost.

Finally came the business of unifying the collection. All the poems revolve around an apothecary. I understood that it was about the day-to-day running of the business. Working at an apothecary, you end up having to deal with the clients, with yourself, with those who promote the merchandise, with anything that was going on in the barrio. Outside and inside. And almost everything that happened in that small world is portrayed in the book. ‘The world is an apothecary of the depraved’ (El mundo es una botica de viciosos) says the book’s epigraph. The world or purgatory in which we all find ourselves. In fact, the first poem gives the physical location, the address of the pharmacy, but this also functions as a cosmic location of the Counter-Earth, according to an astronomy book by Giorgio Abetti, I think. That’s what the botica was for me.

DB: What do you think of contemporary Mexican poetry?

JT: Honestly, and this has a lot to do with my formative period, I’ve attempted to immerse myself in contemporary Mexican poetry only recently, in the last three or four years. For example, I have discovered fantastic works such as those of Francisco Hernández (Moneda de Tres Caras, La Isla de las Breves Ausencias), Elsa Cross (Bomarzo, Bacantes, Canto Malabar), Myriam Moscona (Negro Marfil and Ansina), Coral Bracho (Si ríe el emperador), José Vicente Anaya (Híkuri), Ernesto Lumbreras (Lo que dijeron las estrellas en el ojo de un sapo), Tedi López Mills (Muerte en la Rúa Augusta and Parafrasear) Gerardo Deniz (who had already passed away but his Cuatronarices was a major discovery for me), Luis Miguel Aguilar, as I already mentioned, the Mazateco poet Juan Gregorio Regino (No es eterna la muerte), Víctor Sosa (Nagasakipanema), amongst others.

There are some writers, a bit younger than the ones I just mentioned—often younger than I am—whose work I admire. Amongst these I can mention Alejandro Tarrab, Hugo García Manríquez, Balam Rodrigo, Inti García Santamaría, Heriberto Yépez, Hernán Bravo, Yuri Herrera, Óscar David López, Sara Uribe, Paula Abramo, Marian Pipitone, Eva Castañeda, Zazil Collins. So far. I know of many other names due to the renown they have earned but I haven’t read them, and that is a source of minor embarrassment. But that work is pending. The list will certainly grow.

DB: Personally, in Mexico, I’ve noticed a fair amount of literary cliques. As if the on-going feuds like the ones documented so memorably by Bolaño in his Savage Detectives are continuing today. Do you notice any of this? Does it hold interest?

JT: Yes, I suppose that, like everywhere else, there are. Regional, local, national, transnational. In general, I have very little time for personal disputes that always seem to mutate into group disputes. I read, ignoring the affiliations or ascriptions of an author. I’m only interested in the text. I can still identify the conflicts generated by the aesthetical (and political) differences between the Stridentists (Estridentistas) and the Contemporáneos or between the Infrarrealistas (the “Visceral Realists” from Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) and group of poets headed by Octavio Paz. Or the ongoing arguments between nationalism (whether that be criollo or mestizo) of Mexican poetry against its francophilia (afrancesamiento as Cuesta called it, extending the term to mean a sort of universalist ambition).

DB: There seems to be plenty of political poetry being written and disseminated in Mexico of late. What do you think of this? Should poetry be political?

JT: Yes, it is normal to see this emergence of political poetry. We live in tragic times. Some of these poems I simply don’t like: particularly those that seek to mythologize or ritualize that which has happened in Mexico. By so doing, they seem to engender a justification (myths and rites that outline a psychic, hegemonic and social mechanism a posteriori) in order to suggest some sense of destiny. Furthermore, I think that political poetry (as always) is at risk of turning into a simple instrument of affiliation, an occasional militancy that is of more benefit to the poet than to society.

A work that stands apart from these is Antígona González by Sara Uribe. Though she recycles the figure of Antigone, she refuses to justify suffering through the notion of myth.

DB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

JT: Well this year (2016), as I mentioned, I hope to see the Rothenberg collections published. I also hope to publish Nacencia, a long poem dedicated to my son, which focuses on the processes of translation. It’s about the impossibility of translation. It’s also a unified piece, from the eve of his birth up until an event that seemed astonishing to me, which occurred when he was about four months old. He reached out to touch the shadow of his own hand on the wall. In other words he carried out his own process of translation: in four months he had interpreted the world, his surroundings, passing through a long phase of discovery and an awakening of the senses, until he could see that hand and touch it. From that point, everything became clear, the light of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Nacencia is a poem that has nothing to do with, with regard to subject matter or form, Poemas de Botica. Which is something that pleases me greatly.

Furthermore, I want to continue with my translations of Claudia Rankine (her multi-prizewinning Citizen) and of Rosmarie Waldrop (The Ambition of Ghosts). I’d also like to keep translating some of Federico Maria Sardelli, who is real character (Vivaldi scholar, director of Modo Antiquo, painter, poet).

—Javier Taboada & Dylan Brennan

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From Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems)
By Javier Taboada
Selected and translated by Jack Little.

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Visión

Aquí
las rameras
……….se canonizan en nueve meses
el diente de oro
es tatuaje de honor por las migajas
y el rito de la madre
es zumbarse al niño
y llevarlo a la escuela
cubriendo el látigo del marido.

Los boticarios
son los nuevos curas
que redimen
por menos del tostón.

La borracha canta
soy la Magdalena
revolcada en mierda
……….hay viejos oraculares
……….héroes y padrotes
y hasta los boxeadores rezan
que con la Virgen basta
y la piedra sosiega.

Aquí
la camisa de fuerza
espera por la señal de la cruz.

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Juanito

Nadie sabe que soy un súper héroe.

Piensan que estoy loco
pero en las noches vuelo
……….aunque todavía
no aprendo bien
y me azoto en la banqueta.

De día
enjuago los carros
que llevan a los reyes actuales.

Mas luego oscurece
……….y no sé quién
le sube el switch
a mis rosas eléctricas.

Ahí me da por encimarme
……….los calzones
……….la capa
mis botas negras de hule
y entonces VUELO

por la quijada brillante
del burro
la tripa de cristal
que se hace rollo
y se alarga.

Eso que dicen
que es la epilepsia.

Y con mi lengua
en la banqueta
me quedo dormido
……….como una coca de vidrio
vacía de la furia del mar.

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Crac

Un joven de quince años
pidió un gotero de cristal
para bajarle a su bebé la temperatura.

…………Mejor uno de plástico
…………que el vidrio es peligroso
…………si el niño tiene dientes.

No lo quiebra  no lo rompe.
Y besó una cruz
que hizo con los dedos.

………….Fui por su jarabe
y me dejó hablando solo
con la medicina.

Nunca había visto a un tipo tan flaco.

***

La piedra
el fumado
…………en papel
…………en lata de refresco
…………o gotero de cristal
es un tizón de sesenta pesos
…………llaga que arde viva
…………entre labios y garganta.

Hay que jalarle duro
…………fumarse hasta las burbujas
…………oír el crac en la piedra
y sentir cómo pega en putiza.

***

Pasadas las diez de la noche
chupando la mugre de las uñas
…………por si algo sobra
los muchachos del crac
…………ángeles de cera sobre una flama
salen a la calle
con todas las palabras
…………………en la manguera de la lengua
el sexo de fuera y erecto.

El barrio cierra sus ventanas
…………tapia sus puertas
porque los muchachos del crac
…………aúllan
y se rascan para quitarse los piojos
…………que inundan su piel
……………….pues es mejor dejarla en carne viva
…………a que se la coman los gusanos.

Los muchachos del crac
…………ejército de cadáveres sin camisa
…………pubertas embarazadas
caminan a ninguna parte
…………juegan volados o rayuela
…………cantan  bajo la pequeña luz del encendedor
y miran de reojo
buscándose el cuchillo.

Luego caen
uno por uno
bajo los dedos del alba.

***

Al abrirse las puertas del metro
los muchachos yacen en el piso
………………como pan con hongos
……………………..arcada del ebrio
……………………..viejo al que chupó el diablo.

—Javier Taboada

§

Vision

Here
the whores
………….are canonized in nine months
the gold tooth
a tattoo to honour crumbs
and the rite of the mother
is to hit her child
and to take him to school
to cover up her husband’s lash.

The apothecaries
are the new curates
redeeming
for less than fifty cents.

The drunk lass sings
I am Mary Magdalene
wallowing in shit
…………here old oracles
…………heroes and pimps

and even the boxers pray
that the Virgin alone will suffice
and the crack rock soothes.

Here
the straitjacket
waits for the sign of the cross.

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Juanito

Nobody knows that I am super hero.

They think I’m crazy
but at night I fly
……………even though still
I don’t learn all that well
and crash into the sidewalk.

By day
I wash the cars
that carry today’s kings.

After dark
………….I don’t know who
flicks the switch
on my electric roses.

I turn myself out in
……………underpants
……………the cape
my black rubber boots
and then I FLY
by the brilliant jawbone
of the donkey
the glassy guts
that roll
and lengthen.

That they say
……………is epilepsy.

And with my tongue
on the sidewalk
I sleep
……………like a glass bottle of coke
empty of the fury of the sea.

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Crack

A fifteen year old guy
asked for a glass dropper
to bring his baby’s temperature down.

……….Better a plastic one
……….glass is dangerous
……….if the kid already has teeth.

He won’t crack it won’t break it
and he kissed a crucifix
made with his fingers.

……….I went for the syrup
and he left me talking alone
with the medicine.

I had never seen such a skinny fella.

***

The stone
devilsmoke
……….on paper
……….in a can of pop
……….or a glass dropper
it’s a three buck ember
……….a sore that burns alive
……….between the lips and throat.

You have to pull hard
……….toke until it bubbles
……….hear the crack in the rock
and feel it like the smack in a brawl.

***

Past ten at night
sucking the muck on their nails
……….just in case there’s something left
the crack boys
……….wax angels over the flame
go out into the street
with all the words
…………..on the tube of their tongue
sex outside and erect.

The neighborhood closes its doors
……….shuts its windows
because the crack boys
……….howl
and scratch to get rid of the nits
……….that fill their skin
……………for it’s better to leave it raw
……….than let it be eaten by worms.

The crack boys
……….army of shirtless corpses
……….pregnant adolescents
walk nowhere
……….play coin toss or hopscotch
……….sing under the dim glow of a lighter
and gaze askance
looking for a knife.

Then they fall
one by one
under the fingers of dawn.

***

As the metro doors are opened
the boys are lying on the floor
………………..like moldy bread
…………………….drunk’s retch
…………………….an old man made rotten by the five-second rule.

—Javier Taboada translated by Jack Little

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Javier Taboada (Distrito Federal, 1982) traductor y poeta. Ha traducido a Alceo de Mitilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) y a Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles y A Further Witness, de próxima aparición), entre otros. Es autor de Poemas de Botica (2014).

Jack Little Photo

Jack Little (b. 1987) is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Elsewhere’ (Eyewear, 2015) and the founding editor of The Ofi Press: www.ofipress.com

Dylan Brennan

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

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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.’

.

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

IMG_9980

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 142015
 

poetry

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I have three bookcases full of poetry books in my house, one whole bookcase taken up with hefty anthologies like The Oxford Book of American Poetry, along with classics (thank you, Homer, Chaucer, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman) and Collected Works (thank you Auden, Moore, Brodsky, Merrill, Heaney) and books about the craft of writing. The other two cases, however – a total of twelve shelves, 30″ each shelf – are filled with individual “slim volumes” by poets with a few books out and with, often, long teaching careers and honorable but minor reputations.

A remarkable number of 1/4″ spines can fit into 360 inches, especially when they’re mostly paperbacks, as mine are. There are a handful of poets whose early hardcover books I’ve lusted after and, bit by bit, collected (thank you, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur) and another bundle of hardcover books written by professors and mentors whose work I love (thank you Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds.) I have a nice stack of books by friends (thank you Walker, Wing, Hoogs, Whitmarsh, Cornish, Arthur) and I have my own poetry books for children plus copies of reviews that my adult work has appeared in.

The remaining space is filled with books by poets who have won some fine contests, gotten published, gotten some buzz, earned teaching positions, generated enough excitement to establish a loyal (usually regional) cadre of followers, but never really become “major” poets. Each one of those books has elegant, finely crafted poems in it, poems which are idiosyncratic in the best way, that is, with an identifiable, strong voice. Just as most books by well-known poets can be uneven, these books by lesser known poets can be uneven;  that’s as true for the reading of an individual book by Auden as it is for any one of these many “slim volume” poets. There are poems I pass by after one reading, but there are also poems that reach out and grab me by the collar and shake me to my bones. There are poems I share with friends – a grassroots effort that mimics my approach to politics: support who and what you love. Buy their books. Talk them up. Cross fingers.

I wonder sometimes whether, if submitted to a blind “taste test,” some of the best poems that stay quietly within the covers of these slim volumes  might not be mistaken for the writing of poets with much heftier reputations. And, as usual with this series about “undersung” poets, I wonder about the whys and wherefores of “success” in general. Did (or do) these poets long to be well-known, or were they satisfied professionally? Did they dedicate themselves to mentoring and thus forget (or express contempt for) the process of self-promotion? Did they battle with good-old-boy systems? Did they know the right people, and – if they did – did they use the right people in order to get ahead? Did they quit poetry and move on to anything less disappointing or better paying or fresher or simply different or…? Did they suffer poetry fatigue? Were they simply in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? Did their gender or ethnicity present stumbling blocks? Were they shy? Were they, ultimately, satisfied by poetry, or would they rather have been fishing, playing the trombone, painting? Was publication enough? Did they – or do they, for those who are still alive – want more? “Success” – is it really counted sweetest by those whom it bypasses? Does it really interrupt that “sorest need” which Dickinson said was required in order to “comprehend a nectar”?

Here are five poems, one from each of five separate books I pulled randomly off my shelves. I’ve purposely left out biographical details about the five poets, though you can easily click on their names to get further information about them. Some were winners of the National Poetry Series competition or the Walt Whitman Award, several earned fellowships like the Guggenheim, one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize,  most earned residencies at respected workshops and retreats, as well as State Arts Commission awards. Some are still publishing and can expect their reputations to continue developing. But for reasons that continue to elude me – and, of course, the reasons are multiple rather than simple – the names of these poets are relatively unfamiliar to most poetry readers.

Yet I think these five poems measure up to most of the contemporary poems in the Oxford Book of American Poetry – they are precise, original, layered, large, and full of leaps that take the breath away. They use language beautifully and, though not formal in terms of rhyme or meter, they are “musical” – like the best musical compositions, they care about the sound they make, and like the best humor, they increase in appeal when spoken aloud with just the right emphasis.  In what way do the poems in well-recognized anthologies surpass these five? I haven’t figured it out. Can it be as simple as personal taste – is that what the best anthologists do, insist on including what they like? If so, are we unduly influenced, are we struggling to “like” work we don’t actually like (and what is that thick volume of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems doing on my shelf if his work doesn’t appeal to me; is it there because J.D. McClatchy likes it? Because Harold Bloom likes it, David Lehman likes it?) “Success” – is it counted sweetest, Emily, by those who go all out trying to achieve it? I’m curious to see what the readers of Numéro Cinq think.

—Julie Larios

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Sunrise

Throughout the night the sky
had been wild with stars.
Then in the morning came an instant
when the hills sharpened, and grew shadowless,

and the world seemed no casual
enterprise of creation. From beyond the hills
rose the soft pillars of light,
until, as if caught by high winds,

they wove and interwove, and became
the bright, close fabric of sky.
Later came a burst of warm rain,
but by sunset the light had cleared,

and at the tip of one needle of the white pine
that shaded the front porch, a drop of rainwater
trembled. It was clear
as ice. It contained a fierce,

quivering image of the sun.
The light drew back, and back,
and with no further evidence of breath
the sky was precisely as it had ever been.

John Engels (from Cardinals in the Ice Age (Graywolf Press, 1987)

john-engels-448

John Engels

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Language with Pony Track

You’d think the rich stink of pony
would rule the senses, but violets, sunflowers,
hollyhocks draw the eyes which dart
from the shaggy Shetland’s horrible privates,
a-drop and a-swing like the backstage works
of St. Ag’s, to a bank of tiger lilies, those carroty stars.
Two girls, the sides of their sneakers
worn away, wearing tattoos of water paint
rubbed on with spit, check it out:
the heaven of leather, fried onions, and music,
five houses from where, with no eyes for flowers
or horseflesh, their father’s face reaches
the texture and twitch of skinned hare.

Catherine Doty, from  Momentum (CavanKerry Press, 2004)

doty

Catherine Doty

—————————–

Saint John of the Cross

He is not here in Fontiveros, Spanish Nebraska
of his birth. The red brick granary fills
with nothing but wheat, and the empty plaza
has forgotten the name of Juan de Yepes,
grandson of Jews, though it contains a statue
of his alter ego, Saint John of the Cross.
Even bound by the thinnest of golden threads,
the soul’s inexplicably bound. Leashed
in the cell, the whips of the holy friars
scourged him as he knelt, three times a week,
at dinner hour, nothing to eat but cruelty.
When he finally saw Christ, He was
falling toward him, His arms stretched back,
coming out of their sockets for love of him.

It’s clear why he left Fontiveros —
his love for mountains conceived by this
dreary view — but no one knows how he escaped
from prison. Or why love finally drove
him back. Sick, he asked to be treated
in Ubeda, for he knew no one would cure him,
the bishop would curse him: he could die
inferior, die unknown, die suffering greatly.
Only love can heal us, opening our hands 
to a darkness that we keep trying to let go…
How happy he was, always leaping free of the cell —
Fontiveros, Salamanca, Ubeda, the World —
singing softly, no longer having to tear out
the feathers that kept sprouting from his limbs.

Rebecca Seiferle from Bitters (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)

Rebecca Seiferle

Rebecca Seiferle

————————————-

Refuge

Glossy ibis, says the guide setting her tripod
on pavement, training the lens for the birdwatchers
to fix the downward curved bill and spindly legs
of the wader. I can’t help but itch
to get closer than this tailored birdwalk. Once

I rode to low marshland with a friend. The horses
mucking up to their knees, parting the brushy alders
where there wasn’t any trail. We gave them their heads,
trusting their instincts to get to dry land.
On the far side we rested, the woods

glowing with rust and lemon. We sat. Reins dropped,
the horses leaned to fidget the leaves.
Wind thickened in the evergreens. Then the quiet cracked —
wings that loud slapped the air — brittle legs
arrowed through weeds to land not five feet away.

The great blue heron, eye fired toward shore,
where we held our breath. Even when
we began to speak, edging slightly closer,
she stayed. And something in her lack of fear,
the fix of one black iris on us — horses,

woman and man alike, kept us in our place.

Alison Hawthorne Deming from Science and Other Poems (LSU Press, 1994)

Alison Deming

Alison Deming

———————————

The Arbitrary Angel

It’s born in that sudden
spark between things: a yolking
of oxen and egg, the music
of shells and high seas.

And so it rises, of course
capriciously, a sexless
Venus from a salty meringue
masticating your good mind

until you’re determined
to do it justice — even as
the microwave sounds
like a garbage truck in reverse,

the pencil a small animal
filled with lead but still
running, running, running
everything down.

Gilbert Allen, from Driving to Distraction (Orchises Press, 2003.)

Gilbert Allen

Gilbert Allen

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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.

_SHIP AHOY_  2

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.

BurroughsMedellín 2

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.

.

I Observe A Flower

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

.

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

.

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

Nov 022015
 

E_Sunhats (1949)Sun hats, 1949

 

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B_Photo - Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)

WE LIVED ON THE HILL. From our gate we could see far across the valley to the mountain. Everyone called it Terrible Billy though its real name was Mount Terrible. At the foot of the mountain was our town, Werris Creek, just three miles from home. At night we watched the lights sparkling, mainly street lights and those at the loco yards where steam locomotives shunted the freight cars. In summer I slept on the veranda. The night sky shimmered and I heard trains puffing slowly up the valley.

The coal mine was further down our hill, hidden by gum trees. It was small and inconspicuous as pits go, with the boilers beside the rusty corrugated iron shed that confined the steam engine. All day I heard it in the distance, groaning and hissing as it wound the steel rope that heaved the coal skips from the tunnel. I could smell the black coal smoke that billowed from the chimney stack.

 

Going to Town

We sat in the battered utility truck, my big sister and I, looking out for the pit horses as my father drove down the paddock, jolting along the track as far as the cattle ramp. The tar road started there, a narrow pot-holed strip that went all the way to town beside the railway track. We had to get half off the road if we met a car. Sometimes we saw Tommy Windsor on his tractor, ploughing a paddock, or Mrs. Fred Jones milking her nanny goat in the lucerne patch. Mr. McClelland shuffled out of his old wooden house to close the railway gates across the road. It would be a freight train, perhaps bringing coal from our pit or wheat from the silo. The passenger train didn’t come through until lunch time. Occasionally we had to wind up the windows because of the smoke and soot as the locomotive chuffed past. We waved to the driver in his greasy clothes and maybe saw his mate shovelling coal into the furnace.

J_Our town Werris CreekOur town, Werris Creek


School

We ran into the schoolyard and up the slope trying not to trip on the cracked asphalt, but we always had skinned knees painted with orange Mercurochrome. If the boys had rung the bell, we joined the juniors, standing in front of the big kids, ready for assembly. The sun was hot at nine o’clock in the summer. Our headmaster, Mr. Porter, would be on the retaining wall at the edge of the playground with the other teachers. They lined up on either side of the flag pole. The sixth class boy battled with the flag then hauled it up the pole. We saluted, shoulders back, and sang ‘God Save the King’ for George VI who lived in London on the other side of the world, and ‘Advance Australia Fair’, or ‘There is a land…’ but I didn’t know the words except for the chorus: ‘Australia Australia Austraaaaaaalia’. It made me feel funny in the chest like I was going to cry. We recited the school pledge which to me was a jumble of words, then sang the school song. ‘Werris Creek Central School’ were the only words I managed to make out. I just sang ‘la la la’ when I didn’t know. Mr. Porter would shout, ‘School dismissed!’ like they did in the army and we marched away to the crackling sounds of a brass band issuing from the tinny loudspeakers. Sometimes it was ‘The British Grenadiers’ or ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, other times ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Swing those arms. Lift those knees. Left right left right.’ We marched round the playground and eventually up the wooden steps into school.

C_On the swing in 1948 - my sister pushing (Insert before 'Going to Town')On a swing with my sister

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1949

In Kindergarten I played in the sand tray with Noah and his animals and drew on a small blackboard with broken chalks, or opened my book and traced the fish with a wobbly line and coloured the hippo with blunt pencils. Then I danced on tippy toes and stomped like the giant, or sang about little nut trees and kookaburras sitting in old gum trees. We all slept on blue mats after lunch then played with big wooden blocks and it was three o’clock and time to go home.

But my father would be doing the mine inspection. He couldn’t collect us for another hour. I’d go to my sister’s Second Class room. They didn’t finish till half-past-three. Mrs. Boram gave me a special drawing book. I drew pictures with pastels in delicate colours, not like the red, white and blue of those broken chalks. On the first page I drew flowers with long stems, beautiful petals and ladybirds. ‘Bring your work here and show me,’ Mrs. Boram said from her desk at the front. ‘Just a minute,’ I called back. I still had more ladybirds to draw. ‘Don’t “just a minute” me, young lady,’ she said, looking fierce. ‘Bring your work here immediately!’

One of the big boys from sixth class ran across the playground and rang the bell at half-past-three. I walked down to the gate with my sister. Her name was Dora. We sat on our school ports or played hopscotch for ages till my father came in the ute. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we walked over to the convent straight after school for piano lessons with Sister Paula. I thumped away at middle-C and Jesus looked on from the wall, with his bleeding heart.

D_Rag Dolls & Curling Rags (1949)Rag dolls & curling rags, 1949

 

Lunch

At lunchtime we sat in the school playground on splintery benches. Bees buzzed overhead in the pepper trees. I’d have an apple and Vitawheat biscuits with butter and Vegemite. I squeezed the biscuits together and out through the tiny holes wriggled lots of butter and Vegemite worms. No one else (except my sister) had Vitawheat biscuits with worms. Sometimes I swapped for slabs of white bread and jam or half a cream bun. I didn’t tell my mother.

On Fridays we bought lunch from Mrs. Munson at the sandwich shop across the gravel road opposite the school gate. I got a baked bean sandwich or sometimes egg or devon or tinned sardine. In winter it was a pie or sausage roll with tomato sauce. My mother said, ‘Now don’t you go buying lollies. Buy an apple.’ But I just had a big round All-Day-Sucker for a penny instead. It changed colour as I sucked. I took it out often to see what colour it was. Soon my fingers were multi-coloured and sticky. The lolly didn’t last all day but sometimes it lasted so long I still had it in my mouth when we went back into school. ‘Are you eating?’ Miss Barwick would say. If the lolly had shrunk to the size of a small bead, I crunched it between my teeth and swallowed, but sometimes it was too big and I was caught. ‘Show me,’ she’d say and I’d open my mouth. She’d look disgusted as she peered in. She’d say, ‘Put that in the bin!’.

Sometimes I bought pink sherbet instead in a small white paper bag with a short liquorice tube like a straw. The sherbet fizzed as I sucked it in. It made my teeth go pink and my tongue go red and the liquorice made my lips go black and my fingers too. Sometimes I bought a long black liquorice strap. I spent the rest of lunch time chewing on it and pulling faces to scare everyone with my mouth, tongue and teeth all black. Sometimes it was a small paper bag of Conversation Lollies – tuppence worth. They were flat, in different shapes, with a message on top like ‘I love you’ or ‘Be my friend’. I offered them round in the paper bag like a lucky dip.

F_With my big sister and a friend ('1949')With my big sister and a friend

 

Dentist

Mr. Cox was the dentist. He had a moustache and wore a white coat. I went down to the Railway Institute after school with my sister and lined up with the other kids. He was only there on Mondays. His room was tiny like a walk-in closet and there was a big chair like Nippy the barber’s. I clambered up and he leant the chair back and said, ‘Now open up’. He peered into my mouth with his little round mirror on a stick and his spiky probe. If he found a hole, he said, ‘Now this won’t hurt,’ and he pedalled away with one foot to make the drill turn and I heard a ‘whirr whirr’ sound like a bicycle. I felt the drill slowly grinding into my tooth. It made a horrible noise in my head. Sometimes I jumped because it hurt but mostly it didn’t. He mixed grey stuff on a little glass tray and rammed it in the hole. ‘Now have a good rinse,’ he’d say and I swilled my mouth out with the pink water and spat in the dish. One day he was poking about in my mouth with his finger and he said, ‘Now bite’. He started to remove his finger and I just didn’t think. I snapped at his finger because I thought I was going to miss. I bit it – hard. He was very cross but I couldn’t see why. He said ‘bite’ so I bit – and there was nothing else there to bite, only his finger.

G_The Railway Institute (mentioned in 'Dentist')The Railway Institute

 

1950

It was First Class, when I was six. We sat in desks with curly cast iron legs, lined up in rows facing the blackboard. We kept our books on a shelf under the desk. That was the year I learnt that time extended further back than ‘the olden days’ when ladies wore long dresses like Scarlett O’Hara and there were coaches and horses like on the biscuit tin. Before that, Miss Kievis said, there were cave men who lived in caves and rubbed sticks together to make fire and didn’t wear clothes unless it was cold. Then they wore animal skins. I drew tiny cave men in my book. She didn’t mention what came before that. Not a word about dinosaurs. I didn’t find out about dinosaurs until I saw them at the pictures, killing the cave men.

H_Friends ('1950')Friends, 1950

 

Dunny

The dunnies were across the playground under the pepper trees. There was no roof, just a high corrugated iron wall round the battered wooden cubicles. I could see the sky through the branches above and got wet when it rained. It was the same in the boys’ only they had a urinal as well. Mr. Porter said at morning assembly that the boys had to stop peeing right up the walls. The bees roared in the trees but the blow flies roared even louder. I ran in holding my breath because of the smell. I tried not to look down into the sanican underneath the wooden seat because there were masses of maggots writhing, especially when there was a heat wave.

The nightcart turned up when the cans were full. Sometimes it arrived when we were in the playground. We watched from a distance as the big filthy boy took each slopping can on his shoulder out to the truck and returned with an empty one. We held our noses and said ‘pooooh’ and the sixth class boys jeered and laughed until the job was done and the old truck revved up and disappeared down the lane. The new cans reeked of Phenol and for a few days there were no maggots.

Sometimes there were squares of cut up newspaper hanging on a rusty nail behind the wooden cubicle door but more often there was no paper at all. We could bring some from home. If we ran out, or forgot to get it from our school port before coming out at recess or lunch time, we weren’t allowed back inside to fetch it. We scouted round the garbage bins to find some, maybe old lunch wrap or something, and the blow flies buzzed and swarmed round. We washed our hands outside, under the tap over by the weather shed – cold water, no soap, but we could bring that from home too. I had a little bag for my soap. I kept it in my pocket, together with some paper and a handkerchief. But some kids had nothing; they didn’t even have shoes.

 

1951

In Second Class our reading book was full of animals like the platypus, the wombat, the dingo and the kangaroo but I struggled with the words. And there was the Race for the Stars, a big chart on the wall with everyone’s name. ‘If you do good work you’ll get more stars,’ Miss Beavis said. But everyone else was getting lots of stars; I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting many. And they won prizes but I didn’t get any. That was the year Dora and I learnt a piano duet from ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play’. I had the bottom part. Mum said we weren’t playing loud enough, but we played so loudly on the night of the open-air concert, the nuns said they could hear us at the convent, and that was over beyond the Presbyterian church.

I_Me aged 7 with a small cousin ('1951')Me aged 7 with a small cousin

 

Cold War

When I was seven I saw something remarkable through the small square panes of the Second Class window. It was a jet trail. I’d not seen one before. It was far up in the blue sky like a streaky cloud, so high I could barely make out the plane in front, just a tiny glint in the sunshine and the trail growing longer like toothpaste coming out of a tube. Robert sat at the desk beside me. He said it was a jet trail because he’d seen one in Life Magazine and a jet plane too, and on the newsreel at the pictures. We rarely saw planes in our skies. If we saw one when we were in the playground, we waved and shouted to the pilot but he probably couldn’t hear. They were small planes with propellers. Once we even saw a helicopter. The day we saw that jet trail, Robert said, ‘It’s the Russians coming,’ but we didn’t tell Miss Beavis because we were supposed to be getting on with our work. We’d heard grown-ups talking about the war and the Germans and the Japs but that war was over and my uncles were all back home. Now it was the cold war and the communists with their hammers and sickles and the Russians who made trouble with the Berlin blockade, whatever that was.

Mr. Muir owned the cafe opposite the pedestrian bridge that went over the railway to the train station. My father said Mr. Muir was a red hot communist. I didn’t know what a communist was. We sometimes spent time in the cafe talking to old Mr. and Mrs. Muir and their son, Kevin, after my father collected us from school. Kevin had a girl friend called Daphne who was the waitress. She wore a white apron and cap. My father talked and laughed with Daphne as he leant on the Laminex counter, but they didn’t talk about hammers and sickles. I’d have ice cream in a fluted glass dish with sticky strawberry topping, crushed nuts and a wafer triangle, and maybe a malted milkshake with a straw, to fill in the time.

One day I wandered out to the back room. There were heaps of newspapers stacked on a shelf. They had strange letters and words printed on them and photos of soldiers and tanks parading through crowded streets, and fat old women wearing overcoats and headscarves in the snow. ‘Can I take this home to show Mum?’ I asked Mr. Muir, waving a paper at him. When I got home, my mother said, ‘A Russian newspaper! Where on earth did you get that?’ It was only an old newspaper with foreign writing but she thought it was something to do with this cold war. She told my father he shouldn’t be going to Muir’s cafe. He just laughed. ‘Half the blokes at the pit are bloody commos,’ he said. ‘They’re always waving the red flag.’ But I didn’t see any red flags.

 

1952

Third Class was my last year at the Werris Creek School. I was eight and I had a crush on Ken Hays. His father owned the dairy. I posted him a letter during the Easter holidays but he didn’t answer. He pretended not to see me when we went back to school. At the end of the year Miss Barwick had some of us line up in the playground. She photographed us with her Box Brownie camera. She said we were her shining stars.

We’d learnt about explorers. They mostly got lost in the desert or died of thirst or were speared by Aboriginal people. Nobody mentioned all the Aboriginal people killed by white settlers in those early days. I didn’t even see this at the pictures though I saw lots of American Indians being killed by cowboys, and we all cheered. Gloria was in my class. She was an Aboriginal girl. Her skin was like chocolate. She had a big smile and gleaming white teeth. My father said her father was lucky because he worked on the railway and they lived in a railway house down near the loco yards. Other Aboriginal people weren’t so lucky.

K_Miss Barwick's stars (1952)Miss Barwick’s stars, 1952

 

Picture Show

On Saturday afternoons we went with our friends to the pictures in town. We called it the matinee. We sat at the back and ate red Jaffas full of chocolate, or Minties or sometimes it was Fantails which were chocolate coated toffees. My sister saved the wrappers because they had things on them about the film stars. There were hardly any grown-ups, just children. The lights went out suddenly and we cheered as the curtains opened because we saw Hoppalong Cassidy riding Silver, and the Mexican bandits hiding behind boulders. Then Hoppalong was galloping across the desert after the baddies and we shouted ‘Come on Hoppalong’ and stamped our feet with all the kids and jumped up and down, raising the dust from the bare floor boards while Jaffas rolled under the seats. Some man would yell, ‘Pipe down you kids’ and we went quiet for a while. Then we were laughing at Felix the Cat, or Tom chasing Jerry, in colour. Next we saw the serial with robbers stealing the treasure and falling into the snake pit or sinking in quicksand or being trapped in a cave with moving walls covered in spikes that slowly closed in. Just as the heroine was about to be impaled, the screen seemed to flash open and the voice said, ‘Don’t miss the next thrilling episode of – The Drawn Dagger’, or whatever it was. We came out of the pictures so excited and I had nightmares for weeks about snake pits or boiling oil.

On hot summer nights we went to the open-air picture show which had a neon sign over the entrance. It said ‘Talkies’ in red but the ‘T’ often didn’t light up so it said ‘alkies’. That sign was old then, at least from the Thirties, my father said, and it was now the Fifties. The theatre was surrounded by a high battered corrugated iron fence with the silver screen at one end and the corrugated iron entrance door and ticket office at the other. There was a dirt floor and we sat in deck chairs under the stars with our parents. The big kids came with their friends.

There were pepper trees round the perimeter. When I was bored with the film or there was too much kissing, I looked up at the black velvet sky and saw the Milky Way and shooting stars or maybe looked for the Southern Cross, or watched the possums clambering in the branches overhead. I heard the puffing locomotive’s whistle and the crash of the freight cars being shunted in the loco yards.

Sometimes the projector broke down and a few electric lights came on at the back. We talked to our friends and ate tiny pink musks or got fruit flavoured Jujubes stuck to the rooves of our mouths while we waited. Kids ran up and down the aisles until the lights went off and the film started up again. The picture show man flashed his torch to make the naughty boys sit down.

Once I was unlucky because the old canvas seat started to rip. My bottom sank through and my knees ended up level with my eyes and someone had to pull me out. I watched the scary movies between my fingers so I could cover my eyes if I couldn’t stand it, like when King Kong was climbing the Empire State Building in black and white. I cried at the end of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ with Greta Garbo. Everyone cried in ‘Lassie Come Home’ and when Bambi’s mother was killed in that fire, and it wasn’t in black and white – it was colour.

—Elizabeth Thomas

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L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.

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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 082015
 
Mistral 7

Gabriela Mistral – Nobel Prize Ceremony – 1945

Icame to the poetry of Gabriela Mistral through the back door – that is, through her poems for children. As a teacher of graduate students who wanted to write for children, and as someone writing poems for children myself, I was drawn to her cradle songs, her “round dances” and “Tell-a-World” poems, and her “trickeries,” especially the ones that offered up strange images or that went directions that contemporary American rhymes for children do not  often go.


DAME LA MANO

A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.

GIVE ME YOUR HAND

For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

[unless otherwise noted, translations are all by Ursula LeGuin from her book, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.]

Mistral’s rhythms (especially as translated by LeGuin, who catches both sound and sense perfectly) remind me of the work of Walter de la Mare (“I must go down to the sea again, / to the lonely sea and the sky….”), another writer whose poems for children can inhabit and haunt us.

Most of Mistral’s children’s verses were published in a book titled Ternura (Tenderness); I found a dusty copy among her poetry for adults (and literary criticism about her work) at the graduate library of the University of Washington – my public library didn’t have it. I searched that volume out because I wanted to study how Mistral did it, how she managed to make the leap and bring a certain oddness to her verses for children. While teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to try to “strange it up” in order to make their work less thin and Seuss-like, more haunting, less Hop-on-Pop. Mistral knew how to do that; it’s a worthy goal for people who think, as Maurice Sendak did, that children can handle more than we give them credit for.

LA RATA

Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

Miren que la rata de la delantera
se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.

THE RAT

A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea.

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

We can almost see the children’s game being played out on the playground there, but the poem has the combination of eeriness and sing-song cadences that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and James Fenton’s “Out of the East” have. Mistral’s poems for children are not always sweet and catchy, nor are they hyper-kinetic with wordplay. They might be called quirky and – at their darkest points – unsettling. That’s true, too, of the oddest and most haunting nursery rhymes we have in English (think “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”)

Mistral 1

Gabriela Mistral – Her First Communion

EL PAVO REAL

Que sopló el viento y se llevó las nubes
y que en las nubs iba un pavo real,
que el pavo real era para mi mano
y que la mano se me va a secar,
y que la mano le di esta manaña
al rey que vino para desposar.

Ay que el cielo, ay que el viento, y la nube
que se van con el pavo real!

THE PEACOCK

What if the wind blew and bore away the clouds,
and there was a peacock flying in the clouds,
what if the peacock came to my hand
and my hand is going to wither,
and this morning I gave my hand
to the king who came to be married;

O for the sky, O for the wind and the cloud,
all gone with the king’s peacock.

That poem has something of Wallace Stevens in it (“The palm stands on the edge of space. // The wind moves wind in the branches. / The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”) and something of George MacDonald (author of the classic At the Back of the North Wind.) There are folkloric elements, fantasy elements, and a strong flavor of the fabulous.

When Mistral published Ternura in 1922, she had already been teaching for twenty-two years but was only thirty-six years old. She had been supporting her mother and siblings since she was fourteen, managing to write and publish poetry while she did. A tragic love affair (her lover killed himself over accusations of embezzlement) led to the publication of a book of sonnets (Sonetos de la muerte / Death Sonnets) that won the Chilean National Poetry Prize and established her reputation throughout Chile, all this when she was barely twenty-five years old.

mistral 2

Some critics consider those sonnets her best work, and though they are technically accomplished and passionate, I find her later work more precise, more secular, less sentimental, less florid, and so more connected to the world of senses than to emotional abstractions or questions of religious devotion. After the publication of Ternura, she moved to Mexico, where she tried to help the new Obregon administration establish a post-revolutionary education and library system nationwide. She never again returned to Chile to live, though she represented it as a diplomat in many countries. Neruda studied under her at one point, and both of them, though well-known for their attachment to Chile, spent long years abroad. Though Neruda’s exile was forced, Mistral’s was voluntary. She died in New York in 1957.

Mistral 10
As I say, I came to Mistral through the back door. Knocking on the front door, I would have encountered a steelier poet, a more complicated Mistral: Nobel Prize winner, self-styled exile but world citizen, diplomat and activist (the proceeds of the sale of one of her books went to help Basque children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War), renowned educator, and fierce guardian of her personal privacy. “Gabriela Mistral” was not actually the poet’s name – it was used as the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, born in 1889 in the Elqui Valley of Chile’s Andean Mountains, in the small farming community of Vicuna. Lovely as the more poetic explanation of her pseudonym is (referring to the Archangel Gabriel and to the mistral wind which blows across France toward the Mediterranean Sea), most biographers suggest that the name was chosen to honor the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the French poet and philologist, Frederic Mistral, also a Nobel Prize laureate.

Choosing an alternate way to approach her work allowed me to detour around some of her earlier sentimental work and arrive at what I think her strongest poems for adults are, those published later in her life. The series of poems called “locas mujeres” (crazy women), which includes some of my favorites, was published in Lagar (Winepress), Mistral’s last book of poems. By then, she had lost not only her lover but several friends and a well-loved adopted son to suicide. I have an unpublished manuscript of poems for adults titled “The Madwoman”; it’s only natural I would be drawn to those poems of Mistral’s. Looking at a woman’s perspective on the ordinary objects and routines of this world, once she has some kind of emotional and mental dislocation, is intriguing to me, though not quite as personally motivated as it was for Mistral. Randall Couch, author of the book Madwomen: The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (he translates the poems – a few of them uncollected at her death – as well as introducing them and addressing the task of translation, both in general and in particular) says that these poems are among Mistral’s most complex and compelling, written “at the height of her powers.” I agree.  Couch goes on to say that Mistral “bends the bow of poetry, a frail weapon against the unhinging of consciousness, into strange new forms.”

LA GRANJERA

Para nadie planta la lila
o poda las azaleas
y carga el agua para nadie
en baldes que la espejean.

Vuelta a uno que no da sombra
y sobrepasa su cabeza,
estira un helecho mojado
y a darlo y a hurtárselo juega.

Abre las rejas sin que llamen,
sin que entre nadie, las cierra
y se cansa para el sueño
que la toma, la suelta y la deja.

Desvíen el agua de la vertiente
que la halla gateando ciego,
espolvoreen sal donde siembre,
entierren sus herramientas.

Háganla dormir, póngala a dormir
como al armiño o la civeta.
Cuando duerma bajen su brazo
a avienten el sueño que sueña.

La muerte anda desvariada,
borracha camina la Tierra,
trueca rutas, tuerce dichas,
en la esfera tamborilea.

Viento y Arcángel de su nombre
trajeron hasta su puerta
la muerte de todos sus vivos
sin traer la muerte de ella.

Las fichas vivas de los hombres
en la carrera le tintinean.
Trocaría, perdería
la pobre muerte de la granjera!

THE FARMWIFE

For nobody she plants the lilac,
prunes the azalea,
for nobody carries buckets
of water that reflect her.

Turned towards someone taller
who casts no shadows,
she pulls up a wet fern frond,
plays at giving and taking back.

She opens the shutters though no one calls,
no one comes in, she shuts them,
and wears herself out in the dream
that takes, and frees, and deserts her.

Turn aside the water of the spring
that finds her groping blindly,
scatter salt where she sows,
and bury her farm-tools.

Make her sleep, put her to sleep
like a stoat or a weasel.
when she’s asleep lower her arm
and blow way the dream she dreams.

Crazy Death goes reeling
across the world, drunk,
changes paths, twists fates,
makes earth his dream.

Wind and Archangel of her name
brought to her door
the death of everyone she loved,
and did not bring her own.

Living human poker chips
jingle as he runs.
He must have lost it on a bet,
the poor farm wife’s death.

 

We all know that a poet, no matter how well his or her books sell in America, will be under-read. The readership for poetry in this country is so small and fiercely segmented, so specific to individual tastes and trends, that we assume a meeting of any poet’s fan club will be sparsely attended (relative to the loyal fan clubs of Stephen King or Barbara Cartland.) This is as true for Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, whose books sell well considering they are full of poems, and whose fans include people who don’t normally read poetry, as it is for a “poet’s poet”  like James Merrill or Elizabeth Bishop. Poetry, no matter how well it sells, is not a best-seller in America. So the idea of poet-as-beloved-symbol-of-her-people and “Mother of the Nation” is a bit hard to comprehend.

In 1945, Gabriela Mistral became the first South American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was cited by the prize committee for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idyllic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” Or, as The Poetry Foundation puts it, “[Mistral] will always be seen as a representative figure in the cultural history of the continent.” Scholarly books of criticism, written by critics who are well aware of the need to be politically correct, still use the slightly objectifying term “la Mistral” when referring to Gabriela Mistral (imagine Pablo Neruda being called “el Neruda”!) and she is often referred to simply as “Gabriela” in the Hispanic communities where her children’s poems are sung as lullabies and read in school, and her reputation as an important educator is sustained.  In some segments of Latin American society, Mistral’s reputation paints her with such a saintly or other-worldly brush that she is basically desexualized, not unlike the “mistral” wind her name conjures up, strong but cold. In truth, very little is known about her private life, despite many poems and a large body of personal letters having been poured over for decades by scholars.

What we also know about Mistral is that in South America, at least, she is not undersung; in fact, she’s ubiquitous. Schools are named after her, songs are sung in her honor, festivals and prizes (for poets and teachers) are named after her. Her image was placed on the 5000-peso Chilean bank note (now affectionately called a “gabriela”) in 1981; it has also appeared on stamps throughout South America. When she died and her body was returned to Chile, the Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of people attended her memorial.

Mistral 5

Mistral 6

Mistral 8 _1957_Ecuador_stamp

Mistral 9

How can a poet born in the Western hemisphere, one who received the Nobel Prize for Literature mid-century, one whose work has been well-translated and reliably kept in print in English, one whose work still reads as modern and relevant, one whose gender might serve as a point of pride for feminists — how can she remain not only undersung among general readers of poetry but among American poets themselves? On the other hand, when I told my sister that I was working on an essay about the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and that I was worried, as I had been about a previous essay in the Undersung series about Eugenio Montale,  whether Nobel laureates could actually be labelled “undersung,” my sister reminded me that 25% of all Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth. I guess it’s no surprise Gabriela Mistral is not a household name from Maine to California. Assuming that a large percentage of practicing poets actually know which heavenly objects orbit which, it’s still true that many American poets have never read Mistral’s work  – certainly not in its original language.

We’re a lazy bunch here in America, second-language-wise, despite the fact that whole sections of the government now print their official documents in Spanish and English. We’re a bilingual country without a bilingual population – bilingualism is taking its own sweet time to catch on.  Hurry up, I feel like saying to my compatriots, learn Spanish and be ahead of the crowd! The benefit of doing so would be not only the ability to converse with and stand together with a growing portion of our fellow countrymen, but the ability to read Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Vincente Aleixandre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Camilo Jose Sela, Jose Saramago, Miguel Angel Asturias (all nine are Nobel Prize winners) and yes, Gabriela Mistral, in the language their work was written in. The current state of affairs seems to suggest that since Robert Frost said (I’m paraphrasing) that poetry is what gets lost in translation, we’ve given ourselves permission not to read translated poetry. After all, if Frost was right, what would be the point? Translated poetry would be an oxymoron. Thank God a few poets – oxymoronic, slippery fish – manage to reach our shores from time to time and make a contemporary splash: Wislawa Szymborska springs to mind, as do C.P. Cafavy and Czeslaw Milosz. But it’s not the feast we might enjoy if we were less Anglocentric. We have an unfortunate history of undervaluing anything  — or anyone — that is outside the mainstream, as Langston Hughes understood when he translated this poem by Mistral:

 

THE PARROT

The green and yellow parrot,
the saffron and green parrot,
called me “ugly,” squawking
with his devilish bill.

I am not ugly, for if I am ugly,
then my mother who looks like the sun is ugly,
the light that is part of my mother is ugly,
and the wind is ugly that sounds in her voice,
and ugly is the water that reflects her body,
and ugly is the world and He who created it…

The green and yellow parrot,
green and shimmering parrot,
calls me “ugly” because he has not eaten,
so I take him bread and wine,
for I am getting tired of looking at him
up there always posed, always shimmering.

—Julie Larios

 Heads

Heads

Julie Larios writes poetry for both children and adults; several of her poems have appeared in the pages of Numero Cinq but she is proudest of her faux-translation “A Cow’s Life,” submitted five years ago to NC’s First Ever Translation Contest. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series. Her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq has previously highlighted the work of R.F. Langley, George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid, John Malcolm Brinnin, Ernst Jandl and The Poet-Novelist.

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.

Aug 122015
 

Meg HarrisAuthor photo by Abigail Kibler

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C Picture Three

Y

ou remember it as a holiday weekend at camp, an outdoors club your grandfather and a few of his friends and brothers started in the early 1900s. It’s the summer of 1962 and friends and families, who’ve descended from those nine original members of Royal Outing Club, mill around the grounds in rural south western Pennsylvania. Someone starts a bocce game on the lawn, others play cards, drink beer and smoke cigarettes. They lounge around on lawn chairs or the wooden porch swing which hangs from the branch of giant tree near the mess hall. The smell of roast meat emanates from the old wooden building and laughter and conversation rise and fall ubiquitously. Horseshoes clank and thud in the dusty pits behind the beer-garden where old men play poker and drink an amber liquid from tiny glasses. Their cigars make a canopy of oaken smoke over a low hanging black walnut branch which shades the lichened table where they sit. Bright glints of afternoon light chink through the foliage here and again. Inside the crowded beer garden, nutshells crunch under your sandals, bigger kids push past you. Teenage girls, hips swathed in plaid peddle-pushers, sway rhythmically to the beat that rolls from the grill of the Seeburg juke box.

B Picture Two
You and some girls your age run up to the ladies’ bunk to play. It’s the kind of afternoon where you can wander as a pack for hours and someone or other’s mom or dad peeks in on your game when they visit the powder room or stroll down to the creek-side. The cool cement floor and spare block walls of “the house” are the perfect setting for a game of hospital—this and the rows of metal WWII cots with their sagging mattresses. It’s quiet here too, with all of the grownups down at the bar or out on the lawn, even the napping babies become a part of your game of hospital. The children’s ward is in the back room where cribs stand end to end those patients sleep soundly. Ailing 3, 4 and 5 year old patients with measles, river fever, or snake bites convalesce and suffer in the camp hospital. You recall that you and Regina Gemperle or maybe Susie Larkin doctored and nursed with some authority and aplomb. You minister to the sick moving somberly from bed to bed. You are tall enough to reach their pale slight faces and feel for fever, offer a sip of water or medication, bandage an injured wrist. Your mother’s magnifying mirror and other instruments, curling irons and shower caps become the tools of your trade.

A Picture One

Years later you are told by the ladies that so many children were born in 1957 because the summer before your mother taught everyone the rhythm method of birth control. The result of these instructions were you and at least six other children.

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D Picture four
The playing hospital in the women’s bunkhouse part of the day is the clearest in your memory. Maybe you needed a nap or maybe the afternoon grew especially hot and therefore you recall only the blurred moments. You’re not certain as to how or when the day changed profoundly. What you do remember is this day included your first awareness of your mother’s being drunk.

On the back stoop of the bunkhouse your dad holds you in his arms as you sit together on the cool cement slab. You lean your head away from your mother’s distorted face, her mouth coming toward you for a kiss. She comes in close making you swoon and whimper.

“Aaawwwhatsamatterdoll? Don’t cry,” her speech slurs and you catch the scent of sour breath with her words. You are aware of grownups laughing on the lawn and the afternoon suddenly green and bombed with intoxicating heat and sounds which bore into your small head. Your mother’s never been like this; all of the world tips on its edge, if not for the sure arms of your dad you’d collapse on the lawn. Years later, you will blame your nightmares in which your mother is replaced by a shaved-head-Nazi, on this day and that is probably exactly where those nightmares began.
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E Picture five
The gravel road from camp leads out to the Buhl Bridge on old Route 8 and just a few steps from there you can double back on Cottage Lane as it runs with the tracks for a time until it turns toward the tall stalks of corn and leads to the little cottages. Each place is brightly painted and one of these belongs to your Aunt Cle and Uncle Dick. Your favorite is the white cottage with red decorations and the giant letter on its front. Today, you and your father do not stop to visit any of the cottagers. You have trouble keeping the rough chunks of gravel out of your white sandals and your stride is clumsy. No matter your appeal your father does not carry you. Only, he pulls you down the lane, the strap of your summer romper slipping from one shoulder, the buckle on your sandal rubbing a blister onto the side your foot. Your father does walk you through the labyrinth mowed into the tall weeds across from your uncle’s cottage and there you grow dizzier with each twist and turn of the maze, the tall grass moving in a haze of green with the soft shushing of an afternoon breeze which lulls you to doze. One day you will puzzle at the uncomfortable feelings games of hide-and-go-seek that grass maze calls up in you, how you are unable to play along with the other children.
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F Picture six
This is your father rescuing you from the upset of your drunken mother. He takes you for a walk ‘out the road’ and then back toward the cottages and finally, full circle, he walks you across the ball field back toward the camp grounds. The field needs a mow, overgrown barnyard and crab grasses scratch your drowsy feet and scrape your ankles. Ground bees lumber about your moist person. Your wee-self fills with weariness as you approach the back of the mess-hall knowing that opposite is the bunk-house where, in the darkened back room where the cribs are and the soft wooden floor and giant overhead fan. You will rest in your own little bunk with its pink pillow-case on top of the soft-worn Indian blanket. You are by now tired and troubled enough about your mom that you haven’t the energy for finding Tobie cigars with the kids, or beheading dandelions, or the touching of Monarchs, or finding blue fairies, or gathering Queen Anne’s lace. No time for spotting black snakes, hooking worms, or building sand castles creek-side. Your father has insisted that you walk with him and because you adore him you do your best to please him. Your soft light brown curls stick to the perspiration on your forehead and the slow buzz of a no-see-um sounds eternal in your ear.

At last the crepe soles of your sandals meet the scruff of the paved sidewalk leading to the bunk and your father scoops you into his arms. You rub your face into his neck. The damp cotton of his shirt smells of nicotine, sweat and dial soap, a somehow tender and comforting scent. Years after he dies the smell of cigarettes still gives you a sense of security and, you believe, adds to your long struggle to stop smoking.

Your eyelids grow heavy and you are letting yourself slack into afternoon dreams when you hear the distant sound of your mother, “Oh, Stuart,” she is saying and something more you cannot make out as she staggers near.

“It’s alright, Rita,” your father tells her, setting you down on your feet and taking your hand once again. To you he says, “Come on, Babydoll. Let’s walk around the block again.”

You cry. You tantrum. All protests are ignored by your gentle father and after a visit to the ladies’ bathroom, once again you walk with him around the tracks and along the lane where the earth is a gravelly gray clay which traps puddles that will last as long as summer. Your toes are black with dust and your sandals are now a dirty white. This time around a train passes sounding its horn into your sunburnt temples. One of the cottagers drives slowly down the lane heeding the yellow “5 miles per hour” sign and rolls to a slow stop next to you and dad. It is your aunt and uncle and your father picks you up this time allowing you to sleep deeply on his warm shoulder. The sound of his voice chatting with these passersby tumbles up to your ears from his warm chest and soon you are in a deep sleep. He carries you the rest of the way back to camp. The only sound his melodic random whistle and the stirring of the cicada’s call as the warm afternoon gives way to evening.
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G Picture Seven
Years later you will recall this experience while talking with your sister and you will ask if she remembers the time mom was so drunk and how it upset you to the point where dad had to take you for a walk around the block at camp.

She will laugh at your recollection and explain, “Mom wasn’t drunk. Dad was walking you around because you kids got into Sis’ sleeping pills. You were playing hospital in the bunkhouse,” Later other old friends will fill in the blanks for you.

“We called doctor Klatman and he wanted all the kids to take syrup of ipecac.”

“Your dad refused to make you throw up because you hated it so.”

“He decided to walk you around until the effects of the drug wore off.”

“You were five, I think. Our Carol was just a baby at the time. Just two, I think.”

“No. Your mom was not drunk. She wasn’t even drinking whiskey. Just a few beers.”

Your mom is gone over a decade when you learn the truth of what happened that day and you have a vague recollection of perhaps even being the person who distributed the medications. You do remember that as a child you loved to explore, especially into the business and belongings of others. Your sister’s make-up, the old photos your mother stowed in the cedar chest, your brother’s girlie magazines.

You remember some things now and it makes sense that the medication was the culprit making you light headed and sleepy. You see now the deep affection that your father showed for you that day. The cloak of unfaltering devotion from your father bolsters you even today some 40 years after his death.
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H Picture 8
That summer marks the first but not the last time you were inebriated. You know that your condition then made you somehow able to see something you’d never seen in your mother. Drunkenness. It was something you’d never fail to distinguish again. You would also never fail to forgive it, not in yourself, not in your mother.

—Meg Harris

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Meg Harris grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania but has lived in New England since the 1980s. Recently Meg and her husband took occupancy of a home in Connecticut that was purportedly a tearoom in the 1700s and originally a “great barn” in the 1680s. Today, “Sol’s Path” is Meg’s writing retreat. A chap of Meg’s poems, Inquiry into Loneliness is forthcoming this month from Crisis Chronicles; her stories and poems have appeared in both print and online journals. This is the first time Meg’s creative nonfiction has been published.

 

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.

Jul 092015
 

 

It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?

Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.

In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.

I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.

Chicago, he said.  Chicago? He said nothing more.

Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”

This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.

The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.

At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.

In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.

At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.

We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”

It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.

It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.

Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).

After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.

What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.

The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.

In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?

I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.

Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.

Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….

Before I could finish, Ray took over:

This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

He had been there before.

It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Jul 082015
 

AUSSTELLUNG: DIE ERNST JANDL SHOWErnst Jandl  1925-2000

This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light

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Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:

reihe

eis
zweig
dreist
vieh
füllf
ächz
silben
ach
neu
zinc

The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:

series

won
toot
treat
for
fife
sex
several
ate
nylon
tense

It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:

hide
wine
dry
for
fun
except
seepin’
out
‘nuf
said

Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:

madrigal

sadly
sadly
………full

wholly undone

madrigal

sadly
sadly
……..full

wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

….o
fr   sch
….i

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||    str..ng   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
:
lieber…..:    tee
:
:
[egal]…..:
ich……….:   tee
:
:
fragt……:
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:

My…….:….T

:
liber…..:….tea
:
[fr]…….:
eterni:….tee
:
[equ]….:
all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios

 

May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

Jun 052015
 

New Mexico landscape

Pants

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THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.

McCahill3

We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm

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Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.

Winter

Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.

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Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.

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Arroyos

In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.

Pants2

While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?

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American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.

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Windows

Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.

Backyard

The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.

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Fires

The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.

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Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.

door

American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.

mesa

I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.

Flowers

Kate McCahill

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Kateportrait

Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

.

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 122015
 

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios

 

Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984” – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

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Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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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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May 092015
 

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old

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The pop machine

MY FATHER OPERATED a garage in the small prairie town of Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, pop. 500 or so, located just off the Yellowhead Highway 30 miles west of the Manitoba border. The garage was low and squarish, with a huge sign mounted high on the front that read ‘Hi-Way Service,’ navy blue letters against white. I don’t know how much that sign set my father back, but I know it was too fancy by half for a small-town shop in the sixties. A year or two after the sign went up, the new highway went in, skirting the town entirely. The unlucky Hi-Way Service now fronted on a low-traffic graveled street little different from any other street in town. Over time, the blue letters weathered to a colour close to purple.

Inside the garage, over to one side, was a pop machine built like a chest freezer. Sometimes, not often, on a hot day I would slip into the garage, into dimness after sunlight. The clank of a tool hitting a workbench, the pffft of an air hose, the earthy smell of oil. I would make for the pop machine, use all my muscle to push open the lid, and peer over the side at the rows of glass bottles. They hung in their separate metal tracks, NuGrape, Orange Crush, Seven-Up, Club Soda, Coca-Cola, suspended by their bulbous little chins, their lower parts immersed in a bath of ice-cold water. I could reach way, way over, feet lifting off the floor, and plunge my hot hand into the cold bath. Once in a long while, or maybe once, period, my father found a dime and slipped it into the coin slot, and I slid a bottle of NuGrape along its track and out past the metal guard. Ten cents bought one release of the guard and the satisfying slap as the metal fell back into place after the bottle came out. An opener was mounted on the front of the machine, a pry mechanism, and below it a cap-catcher shaped like a tiny pregnant belly. I held the bottle, sliding-wet from its cold bath, and my father gripped it further up, along its tapered neck, and helped me lever off the cap. It fell, clink, against the other caps inside the little belly. I have never lost my appreciation for the earth-sweet smells of gas and oil. I wasn’t really even supposed to be in the garage.

Hi-Way Service before the SignHi-Way Service before the sign

 

The pasture

I was a town kid, but Nickel’s pasture was my little bit of wild. I could get there by walking: across a gravel street, across the corner of a neighbour’s triangular lot, across a ditch. Not there yet: across the gravel road that used to be called a highway, across another ditch, and finally along a lane. I liked to sit in the pasture at the bottom of a little draw, low enough that I couldn’t see a single house or car or shed. The pasture was rimmed by scrubby bush: chokecherries, saskatoons, spindly poplars. Down in the draw I was in the Wild West, a place I knew from TV, in all its black-and-whiteness. Kicking around the house we had an Indian-princess hairpiece—a pair of braids made from three pairs of old nylon stockings. Bobby-pinned into my hair, the braids hung on either side of my white and pink and freckled face and draped onto my shoulders. I don’t recall if I was wearing the braids on the day I’m thinking about now, the day I was frightened by my own heartbeat. Crouched in the draw, summer warm on my hair, sun frying my freckled nose, I listened to the silence of that small world. And then I heard a beat, relentless, rhythmic. Indian drums! From the stand of poplars over there! I froze for a moment; then I ran home fast, listening as the drumbeat sped with me, inside my chest.

Years later, my sister and I and the girl from across the street put the pasture to another use. Hanging from a nail on our kitchen wall was a tin matchbox holder, and in it was a box of Eddy’s Redbirds. The tips of the matches were banded blue and red and white, the colours of the Union Jack. We’d grab them by the handful, couldn’t stop ourselves from licking them to taste the naughty taste. We’d make off with them to light our little fires. In the pasture we pulled together small, dense stooks of dry grass, lit them, and watched as they went poof, and flared and died. One day the flare didn’t die. We high-tailed it away and waited for a grown-up to notice the grass fire. Eventually, a grown-up did. The volunteer fire department came out in force to quell the flames, and we were either not found out or were silently excused without a fuss.

The _Little Kids_ (Leona on the left)The Little Kids (Leona on the left)

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The nuisance grounds

Small-town Saskatchewan kids were free-range kids in the sixties. We could walk along a country road to what we called the nuisance grounds, about a half a mile from town. On one excursion, we three girls found skin magazines, and we ripped out pictures of partially naked women and folded them into our pockets. Were we ten or so? In the heat of summer days, among the reek of rotting left-behinds, we found other memorable junk—one day the remains of the combination mailboxes the post office had disposed of after the conversion to keyed boxes. The old boxes had metal fronts, about five inches wide and four inches high, each with two concentric dials on the front that reminded us of the safes we saw on “Get Smart.” These metal doors were still attached by hinges to wooden drawers, and the drawers slid in and out of what remained of the wooden framing that housed them when they were still in use. Some of the frames were open at the top, and we could see inside the guts of the mechanisms well enough to figure out the combinations by watching closely as we turned the dials. Every kid needs a place to store her secrets. We had a wagon with us (of course), and we each took home a mailbox or two. We memorized the combinations, closed the open tops with nailed-on boards, and hid the dirty pictures inside.

Water lines

 

The Red Thing

We four sisters shared a bedroom. Two sets of bunk beds. I assume that The Red Thing, which stood at the foot of one of the beds, began as a display stand that came to the Hi-Way Service in the course of business, and once the product it displayed was sold out—oil, antifreeze, wiper blades?—my mother or my father carried it half a block to the house so it could be put to a new use. It was made of heavy-gauge wire, say three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and the wire was coated with a red material, silicon or plastic or some such. It had two or three shelves, and the back and sides were an open grid of wire. Into and onto this rig we piled books, teen magazines, comics, puzzles, paper dolls.

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

The Secret of the Old Clock, Donna Parker, The Curly Tops Snowed In (my first-ever hard-cover book, which my mother brought home from a magical place in Regina called The Book Exchange), Heidi, Treasure Island, Little Women, Call of the Wild. The bottom shelf was low to the floor, and the broom wouldn’t fit underneath; you’d have had to move the entire rig to sweep there, and so when I sat in front of it to sort through the sliding stack of Archie comics and colouring books I could see the dust curls underneath. We weren’t much for housekeeping anyway. Words were the thing.

We discovered The Red Thing was sturdy enough, and freighted with enough printed matter, that it could counterbalance the weight of a child hanging upside-down off the front of it, feet up top, hands grasping the sides halfway down. Every kid needs a members-only club, and every club needs a pledge. I remember one of my sisters, face blossoming red, hair dangling inches from the dust bunnies, reciting “I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down for my club, the upside-down club.” I can recall no function of the upside-down club other than hanging upside-down.

One evening—I think I was about nine—I heard my three sisters laughing in the bedroom, and I walked in and grouched at them, because what could be funny when my mother had just told me we were about to lose the house, and we’d all be out in the snow with our furniture by Christmas? Snow falling on the bunk beds and The Red Thing, I supposed. And on all the books, the ones on The Red Thing and the others, hundreds of them ranged on shelf after shelf in the living room, the ones I had to stand on the back of the sofa to reach.

I don’t know how my mother succeeded, ultimately, in saving the title to the house. A lot of yelling went on, those years, and we girls managed sometimes to tune out the specifics. I do think it must’ve been my mother who saved the title. My father was smart in his way, a small-time genius as an inventor, mechanic and electrician, but he had no head for business or law, and he was so good at avoiding the tough questions that he knew how to leave mail unopened for years if he didn’t like the address on the upper left corner of the envelope. Long after my parents died, going through old files, I came across a sheaf of papers that had to do with the house, the garage, the courts: eight letters from the sheriff, seventeen from various creditors, fifteen notices to do with unpaid taxes, and three to do with court proceedings. A note in my mother’s handwriting attests that a letter from one creditor remained unopened for seven years; it was old enough that the mailbox the postmistress would have sorted it into would have been opened by combination rather than key. Through the years when all that was going on, I would sometimes sit in front of The Red Thing and open my copy of Heidi and bring it to my nose and sniff the pages. The smell of ink and binding glue and pressed paper would call up a feeling that I want to describe as friendship. I still do this with books; I still am surprised by that same feeling, whether or not I know beforehand that it’s what I’m looking for.