Sunday, September 11, 2016

Where I Was

Fifteen years ago, when it happened, I was in the little town of Silves in Portugal. The photo above was taken in the local cemetery.

We’d brought my mother and her two sisters, Nuala and Moira, on a holiday. They were all in their eighties. The holiday was my cousins’, Isobel's and David’s, idea (one of the sisters, Nuala, was Isobel's and David's mum). I wish I’d done holidays like this more often, because they loved it: swimming or basking by the pool in the rented house among lemon groves, my mother’s osteoarthritis almost forgotten; they all opened to the heat, Moira especially, her natural but very English exuberance affecting us all, as if we were flowers that had been starved of sunlight, warmth and, for want of a better word, fun.

In the two photos below: from left to right: Moira, my mother Sheila and Isobel's mother, Nuala.

The drive there had been an adventure in itself, and not a pleasant one: the first time I’d driven in a foreign country, on the other side of the road. We got hopelessly lost and ended up in a village off the motorway, where I drove the wrong way into a little roundabout. There were a few cops nearby who witnessed this and stopped us, charging us an on-the-spot fine of around 80 Euros. Eventually we called the agent and, when she arrived, followed her car. The journey was about half an hour and when she took an obscure turn and drove down a dirt track, through a dog-barking farm, it became clear just how impossible it would have been to find the place on our own.

As we approached our villa, we noticed that the sky in the near distance had a pronounced orangy tinge and was flickering in an odd way. I remember Moira’s unperturbed English drawl from the back seat: ‘Oh my god, we’re driving into a forest fire.’ 

It was a fire alright, but thankfully distant, miles beyond the villa. When I walked onto the veranda next morning I saw what looked like a tiny file of burnt matches on the crests of the rounded, earth-coloured hills. 

The place seemed idyllic. Each night I'd check the porch light for the two or three geckos that congregated there, little household gods.

About a week later, myself and Isobel were in a local supermarket. I remember I was looking for fresh coffee and found it difficult to identify from the Portuguese packaging. I asked a couple of Scottish tourists if they knew what aisle it might be in. ‘Have you heard’, one of them asked me, ‘Manhattan is under attack.’ When I told Isobel we both thought it amusing. Maybe they were a bit touched. Something might have happened but 'under attack' sounded like an hysterical exaggeration.

When we wandered out into the narrow, cobbled streets we noticed a large group of people crowding outside a little sports shop which happened to have a wall-mounted TV near the door. That’s when we saw what looked like a replay from an action flick. Isobel says we actually saw the second plane in real time, though I am not sure. I can’t remember exactly what I saw (a plane plunging into the monolithic flank of a building, oily smoke, blossoming flames...). All I remember is that it looked unreal, and deeply wrong. Something big had just turned a corner, or obliterated it.

We spent much of the rest of the holiday in the villa watching CNN, the only English language station we could find. The day before we were leaving for home, Isobel told me she was worried about her mother, who was on Warfarin for her heart. Nuala had been feeling weak in her knees, not a good symptom. We made an appointment for the following day in Faro, where the airport was. We had till late afternoon to catch the flight. 

The doctor was concerned but not too much so; he told us he'd like to send Nuala for some scans but there wouldn't be time, and she'd probably be okay. 

Nuala wasn't okay. In the airport it became clear that she was confused and dopy and was drooping slightly in her wheelchair (we had found wheelchairs for both Sheila and Nuala). The place was chaotic, our first encounter with the havoc wrought by 9/11: delays, vast queues, soldiers with machine guns, bins at each gate to discard anything vaguely sharp or pointed; we sacrificed an old pair of decorative scissors, a souvenir I think for some trip grandmother had taken to somewhere, Lourdes perhaps. I got on the phone to try and reach the surgery we'd been to but it was pretty hopeless with my lack of Portuguese. 

Then there was an announcement. Our flight was leaving, unexpectedly, as we'd thought we'd be delayed for far longer. It was a two hour trip. So we did a quick calculation and decided that Nuala would be better off rushed to Beaumont Hospital, which was near Dublin airport. We almost got put off the plane when I requested an ambulance be there when we arrived. 'Oh? Is somebody ill? We can't have seriously ill passengers on the plane.' I think they may have been hinting that we should just keep schtum, because they accepted my u-turn reassurance that nobody was badly ill, we'd be just fine, thanks. 

It was the right decision, because Nuala had already had her stroke ('a massive cranial haemorrhage'). Yet she got the necessary treatment, almost completely recovered and survived another ten years. 

They are all dead now. Looking back, that holiday looms like a darkly bright outpost, something at the brink of a world-shift that almost seemed forseeable.

Over the years, I have found myself writing three, very different poems in response to 9/11. Only one of them, Of A Man, Falling, confronts the event directly, and I posted that poem for the anniversary in 11/11/11. 

Here's another one, with a more oblique reference, part of a short sequence (about lizards) that includes those geckos I mentioned:


Five Lizards

1. Benidorm 1966

It could let go its tail if caught.

Fat siesta sun full
on my back, I kept still, held
myself invisible, in love
with its dry archaeological scuttle

quicker than thought.

2. Silves 2001

Those two, geckos with the magic toes ––
guardians of our rented house
in Portugal. While we watched

the terrible loops of data on CNN ––
the towers turned
into blooming smoky candles again and again ––

they returned each night and set
under the porch light
short delicate shadows.

3. Malaga 2004

When you threw another log on the fire
something half-fell, half-

scrambled, smoking on the hearth.
Must have been asleep in the woodpile. For

a handful of heartbeats it froze
as if considering –– flagstones, open door

to the Andalusian stars ––
before skittering back to its bolt-hole, the core

raftered with blue-orange flame ––
safe as ashes, as clay,

already part of the same
sky we’d be vapouring into the following day.

4. Inis Mór 2005

Saw a sand lizard’s face poke
out of a slice

of blackness in a gryke
and was vouchsafed

something of the island’s discrete
micro-climates –– time zones

seeded between the old
carboniferous floors

shifting their plates:
elaborate flying buttress

of bramble and tiny, rare
nova-flowers that burn

in there with feathery tails

of scaly-male fern.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016



No. Try Again

Testing, testing.


Out on the street, from my new perch in a stroller, I envy the baby passing in its big  shiny black box: elevated, properly laid back, eye to eye with the ceiling.


Something is lying at the bottom of the trench they’ve dug, a mustard-yellow tin bus: a toy. I ask my mother to ask and one of the men kindly hands it to me: a single-decker, slightly muddy, the passengers’ profiles painted in each blue window.


I am being searched for again by my mother’s empty red dressing gown (its neck slightly pointed from hanging on the hook behind her door). It’s a game of hide and seek I am bound to lose. When it finds me, all it will do is touch me with the poker it holds in one of its handless hands –– the same one we use to poke the fire. A jolt of heart-revving terror, and down I’ll go, sucked in, quickly digested and spat out by that gawping rabbit hole tucked under the bed.

Myth 1

She told me she once set me loose on a beach to see how far out I’d toddle out if left unhindered. And how far did I get –– the waist? the chest? the brightly haloed, stubbornly unbobbing head? –– before she had to shout, stand and run?

Burning Bright

My oldest stuffed toy is a squatting, round-faced tiger. Mended countless times, fur a dirty orange, stripes long gone, straw (or wood shavings?) poking out of its stumpy paws. It wasn’t called Tiger, nor Pooh’s friend, Tigger, but that proto-word I couldn’t quite pronounce, that became its proper name: I-ah.

Magic Dragons

To recall nothing but recent, grown-up clouds, lightshows that have barely passed. Where are those first ones, puffs of silent cannon exploding on my retina? What our child kept punching his finger at as I wheeled his pram through the park.

Myth 2

In our grand guesthouse-hotel in Bournemouth I went missing again, hiding and seeking. She said she panicked because the maids were cleaning and airing the rooms, stripping beds, leaving windows open. Memory-blank’s filmmaker screens it perfectly: a fresh breeze, room after empty room of billowing white gauze.


When the boy in front of me rose from his desk a piece of paper floated to the floor. A drawing he’d been working on, the baggy outline (a crude horse) filled in carelessly, or painstakingly, with thin, multicoloured candy-stripes. A pyjama-pantomime creature, yet somehow clearly, startlingly, a horse. I rescued it from the floor and told no one: my blueprint.

Myth 3

‘I’m not a gentleman. I’m a cowboy!’

Snow Globe

Looked forward to even more than the summer’s infinite stretch, Christmas was special, something we could get the measure of, flickering there at the bottom of a darkening dampening old year. The religious part was rarely solemn, more a shadow-play, bright, animated frieze, soundtrack of tinkling silence. Somewhere in that backdrop (though near as the bedroom wall) familiar figures trod to their familiar-exotic destination, bearing lovely aromatic words: gold, frankincense, myrrh. A god like a pink baby was buried in all the sumptuous drapery. And a big star held everything together like a great safety pin. The presents, though vital, were more about bedding down, lining the floor of the cave with leaves, straw, cotton-wool snow. In the corner of the living room, a pine smell, softly prickling, a back door to the woods. Postponing then falling asleep was deliciously sensual, knowing that when you woke your feet would nudge that precious weight laid on the counterpane: at the foot of the bed, a rustle of wrapping paper, a new red ball like an unhatched egg.


From her family holiday, a girl who lived on my road brought back a remarkable gift: a big jar of baby Natterjack Toads. Along each pebbly back ran a thin yellow line, a seam of the purest gold. I hadn’t a clue. They died. Years later, she became my first girlfriend. I hadn’t a clue. We kissed just once, pressing together our closed mouths, lips dry with excitement.


They were always pleasantly new even when they were old. The little one my mother took me to in Dungarvin, on a weekend break, a too-short holiday from nearby Ring College where I was boarding. Narrow, thick-carpeted stairs. Smells of fresh gravy and polish. The miniature bar of unwrapped, sea-green soap. I wanted to stay there forever.   

The Leather Boys

Our first, certified-over-16 film was a disappointment. Not so much as a flicker of nude skin (let alone breasts): sulky faces, Brylcreem and biker jackets. As tame as my inability to shift my fifteen-year-old arm from the rim of her seat.


Grandfather’s room was next to mine. The plasterboard wall provided poor soundproofing. He always hated my insistence on not settling down for the night, whether it was reading late or whispering with my younger cousin who often stayed over. I’d try to switch off the bedside light as soon as his bed-springs creaked and he rose to make his way to the bathroom. But I was often too slow, or he was too quiet, and he’d spy the telltale yellow leaking around the edges of my door. Each room had a key and one night when my cousin was staying I dared to lock the door. In a fury at my defiance, grandfather whacked at the door with one of his golf clubs. My cousin was shocked. We all were: thunderclaps of actual violence. I can’t remember whether I gave in and opened the door or my mother or grandmother talked him to bed. Some time after this, I tore off and sellotaped strips of paper around the edges of my door, blacking out that unholy rectangle. 

The Moth

My first story was called The Moth, about a boy who is frightened to death and turns into a moth, battering at his own window. Preparation for a lifetime’s work, a thesis in nocturnal daydreaming.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brexit: The Movie

Wake from Swift, Holyhead
Is it really as clear
as those signs at the rear
whose letters in green
distract from the screen
(where Nigel and Boris
make a Carry On Norris
flag-waving the fleets
that are under his sheets)
or is all this 'greatness'
the tang of a tasteless
and placeless Armada
amounting to nada?

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Hosting

It is a king’s work, this hosting
of all of Adam’s seed,
and yet is it no work, nothing
at all, and it proceeds.

No sooner do they know
than they study to forget
where the hosting goes –
no one is ready yet.

When you are called forth,
if you refuse to leave,
in whose house, whose fort
will you stand siege?

After 'The Last Call-Up' (from A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry, Ed. David Greene & Frank O'Connor), an anonymous poem of 17 stanzas originally published in the 15th century Book of Lecan.

First published as part of a short sequence, Departures (long after the Irish, AD 600-1200), in my collection Fade Street (Salt, 2010).

Photo: Stéig, an iron age (AD 400) fort in the Ring of Kerry.


Tuesday, March 08, 2016


Looking for god is like asking directions for the edge of the earth. –– Stephen Hawking

In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded. –– Terry Pratchett

Before the Big Bang, no time, so no room for god
crushed against solid Nothing. We should
be ‘pretty pleased’. No need to fear god now
(though what scares most of us is that paler shadow

at the back of our group photo of devils and gods).


At the quantum level we’ve seen a photon pop
into existence from nothing –– why not
‘the ultimate free lunch’? So something has come
of nothing: my appetite’s gone. Bear with me

Flying Spaghetti Monster made of string theory.


The unnameable was always a human name
even as it shrank from having a finger put on it ––
sunbeam touching the nerve in a passage tomb,
god of the minded gap, the sucked thumb,

cloud of unknowing breathed on a window pane.


What if god comes with the bubble-wrap, the fold
between universes, blacker than black rose
bundled into the mother of all black holes?

What if time is a sliced pan, each moment
self-preserved, fresh as the day it was born?

Moseying along the path at the edge of the page, the cliff ––

agnostic heartbeat: what if, what if, what if  

from Haunt, Salmon, 2015

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Lines For The Diceman

i. m. Thom McGinty

Good to know you might turn up
in the frieze of faces on Grafton Street,
familiar stranger surprising us
in something from your wardrobe-gallery,

a walking painting say, holding its own
gilded ornate frame, the face
white as a mask, Mona Lisa
in a black cat-suit, cracking a murky smile.

Dead-slow, solemnly careful
among eddies of Christmas shoppers, summer dawdlers,
tourists, street-traders, Guards...
mindful of each sound-proofed step, sure-

footed as an acrobat, spaced in, treading your own
high wire. When we looked
at you looking through us
we took in the joke that jumped -- a spark of silence --

eye to eye, mind to mind,
across Grafton Street's  canyon of swirling clockwork noise.
You're gone now forever (back
into the box with Jack)

and scanning the quickslow, giddy, sedate
everyday street-portrait  ---  its procession
of invisible masks  --- the eye misses you.
Old master, Diceman, conductor

of the ungrooved thought, catcher
of the thrown glance, are you still there?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Reverse

–– Cornelius Gijsbrechts, 1670

Although his trompe l’oeil, ‘The Reverse
of a Painting’, is intended to deceive,
one double-take is all it takes to leave
the expected for the micro-universe:

nested rectangles, the frame’s pale grain, the buff
canvas stretched and pinned with tiny tacks,
the price on a ticket fixed with sealing wax ––
range-findings, star-charts, more than enough.

Beyond a trick then, his scrupulous look
at what is overlooked –– details that wait
behind what hangs in MoMA or The Tate ––
lifted the world of appearance off its hook,

turned it to the wall and then applied
equal pressure to the other side.

          from Haunt (Salmon Poetry, 2015)