Friday, September 11, 2009

The Butcher's 9/11

Butcher's, Bray, Co Wicklow
I have attempted three poems generated (I recoil from saying 'inspired') by the most memorable event of September 11, 2001. The following did not begin as a '9/11 poem'. I only really started to think of it in such a context after it was published in The Irish Times last Saturday.

At The Butcher's In Colmenar

A framed, blown-up photograph hangs on the wall:
the t-shirted butcher’s son and his wife, on their honeymoon
in Manhattan, the towers in the background, the date:
September 10, 2001.

Behind the counter, a steel door opens: a glimpse
of pale waxy carcasses, smell so thick I could colour it
black-red: the colour of history. Outside, I breathe
warm streets, damp from a recent shower.

An old man swings past on crutches. What do I know
about history? Dawdling under a nearby orange tree –
its perfect glimmering system – I think
of reaching to pluck one.

Andalucía, 2004

(from my third collection, Fade Street, forthcoming from Salt in 2010)

It took me well over five years to finish this poem (or bring it to a point where I felt it could be safely abandoned). As far as I can recall, I began to make notes, the first sketchy drafts, not long after leaving that butcher's shop, probably the same afternoon. I think what I was trying to get at, initially, were sensations, the texture and colour, particularly the overwhelming smell inside the butcher's . Incidentally, that butcher is highly respected, and his meat is of the best quality; the smell wasn't one of rottenness, but rather of fresh, visceral meatiness (an early image was of finding myself inside a 'meat tent'). I wanted to contrast this with the orange trees on the street outside, which had also made an impression on me.

The big framed photograph on the wall (which my cousin David had pointed out) was an otherwise fairly innocuous tourist snap, made remarkable because of the date, clearly printed in a panel below the image. The photograph may have featured in early drafts, but only in passing; the gist had been largely about the experience of finding myself in a foreign place, the oddness of real oranges growing, unplucked, on trees. That sense of dislocation is ground I (and of course many lyric poets) have covered before, and this time it ended in a cul-de-sac; the poem traveled into nowheresville and got set aside, if not quite abandoned.

Then I took it up again, a couple of years ago, and put it through another series of drafts, eventually focusing more on the photograph, which is now in the opening line (it took me years to realise its importance). Now the poem seems to have found its shape: three simple quatrains, just short of a sonnet, each shifting the location a little bit. I like the fact that an element of that uncertainty, that at-a-lossness, survives from the early drafts. It belongs in there. This is far from being a complex poem, but I think it just might contain something of that blurred little zone of almost-mystery, what Heaney called 'a hole', somewhere inside it. At least, I hope it does.

The photo above (pigs' heads with radio) was not taken inside the butcher's in Colmenar, but one in Bray, in the early 1990s.

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