Thursday, December 24, 2009

Do Reindeers Have Magic Legs?

Museum of Natural History, Dublin, 1990s

That's the question our five year old recently asked (it being the time of the year that's in it). And it would have been even more charming if he put it to us over breakfast rather than waking his mum in small hours.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Goat On The Roof Syndrome

Hen & Goat, Bun-a-tSleibh Cottage, County Wicklow

I hadn't thought about this for awhile. About twelve years ago I house-sat for friends of mine, TP and his family, who had gone to visit relatives in Australia. Their home was an ancient little cottage at the foot of the Sugarloaf (it was called, appropriately, Bun-a-tSleibhe). Here they kept some chickens and goats; also Jack, a white and grey cat that behaved rather like a dog, and Bunter, a Jack Russel that behaved rather like a cat (or occasional lap-dog).

One morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw something that made me grab my camera (see photo above). It wasn't only the oddness of the goat, but the happy symmetry of the goat and chicken, heraldic, back to back, that touch of Chagall surrealism. The phone rang. I put down my camera. It was my then girlfriend, Paula. When I began to tell her about what I was looking at she interrupted me excitedly. She had just had a session with a psychic: palm, tea-leaves, etc. (a woman from Crumlin, one of the best apparently). According to Paula, the woman 'saw' something in the tea-leaves that puzzled her: 'Someone who is close to you... he is in some place where... there are animals all around... strange... I don't understand... I am seeing an animal... on a roof...not a cat... an animal that should not be on a roof...' That's paraphrasing of course, but the psychic's 'vision' was at least as oddly precise as that.

I called up Paula half an hour ago to confirm some of the details. We chatted for a bit about things, not necessarily super (or un-) natural, just incidents that stick in the memory. She mentioned a couple of recent ones: wood-pigeons flying overhead in the twilight suddenly, briefly under-lit by a sparky streak of light: a meteorite. Also recently, in this unusually wintery winter, a robin on a fence-post she had kept her eye on for some time, fascinated to note what the freezing air made of its thin little puffs of bird-breath.

But what did that odd, seemingly precognitive, animal-on-the-roof vision mean? Nothing, I imagine. People who read tea-leaves probably chuck in a wealth of odd, extraneous detail in the hope that something might stick (and the knowledge that what sticks is what will be remembered). Anyway, I don't have much truck with psychics, partly though disbelief/disinterest and partly my own brand of superstition. The latter reaction is encapsulated in the following (part of a mini-sequence that doesn't seem to be going anywhere):


No one has read my palm.
I won’t let them.

Not that I believe those lines
more meaningful than canals
on Mars, but to display
the soft pink valleys, how they
might read to a strange-eyed stranger:

‘The life-line’s fractured
and there seems to be…’ ‘What?’ ‘No, nothing.’

And how long’s a frayed piece of string?

What brought these things to mind was a recent post (Dec. 21) by Georgiasam. It's longish, meditative, honest and eloquent piece, set off by (among other things) the word 'mystic' in a favorite poem by John Clare and some remarks by the novelist Hilary Mantel, who pointed out '...the similarity, on one level, between psychics and writers (both hear voices, both make the dead speak), she insisted that the authenticity or otherwise of her medium, Alison Hart, was not the principal issue in the book.' To which Georgiasam responds: 'Psychics and writers are indeed alike, with the one simple distinction that psychics are nauseating frauds (cue reprise of the Dara O Briain routine about ‘bogus psychics’, as though the bogus ones were going around giving the genuine one a bad name, as if all psychics are not total frauds).'

The O'Briain crack (which I think I've heard before) made me grin. And I almost completely agree with that hand-dusting dismissal of psychics (and the rest of the fairytale wardrobe). The only thing holding me back is just one dancing molecule of doubt; doubt at any absolute certainty besides the utter weirdness of being here in the first place. As Terry Pratchett sardonically put it: 'In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.' Yes, the fact of apparently spontaneous creation is at least as fantastic as any creation myth or Pratchett's fantasy/Disc-World novels. It is not that 'there are more things in Heaven and Earth', so much that the things themselves, the sheer floridness of the flora and fauna, and the apparently unassailable fact that these (and I/we) non-existed for bottomless eternity before the big birthday-bang, the abrupt unfolding, the accelerating burst, the cooling gases, the stardust and 'carbon compounds'... till, hey, here we all are.

This is not, incidentally, an apology for the pseudo-science of 'Creationism', a pathetic bid for respectability whose promoters I really do consider to be 'nauseating frauds'. I am not in effect saying 'gee, it's all so complex there MUST be a Man with a Plan.' There is no reason why our wish for 'something else', for Milosz's bird on a branch to be anything other than a bird on a branch, should actually radiate beyond the tiny human sphere of expectation, desire, faith, forlorn hope... I readily acknowledge that my own molecule of doubt is probably composed mostly of wishful thinking and hedged bets, and perhaps it deserves nothing but contempt. That said, nobody has to answer to anybody else for his or her beliefs (or lack of them). Neither an atheist nor a priest (nor, for that matter, a scientist) should be expected to adequately explain to me 'the million-petaled flower of being here'.

I have met people whom I trust who say they have seen ghosts. My own encounters with the apparently softer edges of science are far less convincing (not that seeing ghosts need convince one of anything). A psychic who read my goat in tea-dregs, a bogeyman's silhouette looking up at me (as if waiting) when I drew aside the bedroom curtains in the small hours, a Courtmacsherry statue of the Virgin that shifted enough to almost give me the finger... These can easily be shrugged off as substandard coincidences; sleights-of-the-eye (or brain). They prove nothing. But when such rare-enough incidents occur they can leave a delicious, lingering tingle. I prefer not to dismiss them out of hand. Meaningless synchronicity, syndromes of the sheltering self... whatever they are, they are there, like everything else, to be savored: like the meteor-lit wood pigeons, the ectoplasmic ribbons of robin-breath.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who's Averse To Lightness?

George Szirtes' blog often kickstarts little meditations or ideas for essays, as with his recent entry on Light Verse. He begins by quoting a nice one by Harry Graham which immediately reminded me of Ogden Nash's:

The Purist

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist.
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

Like Szirtes, I often enjoy 'sheer word play, sheer silliness' of all kinds, provided I myself am clever enough to play ball. Much 'silly' poetry is inclined to what Heaney called 'cleverality', and I'm not a particularly clever person; I'm hopeless at crosswords, and any poem which resembles one, be it 'post-avant' or merely deeply up its own posterior.

Some people seem to confuse light with humorous verse, even if the latter has an ironic or serious undertone. Is Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife' light or comic or both? What about Wendy Cope? She can be laugh-out-loud funny, as in her Gilbert & Sullivan/Ted Hughes parody:

'No, the imagination of a writer (of a writer)
Is not the sort of beat a chap would choose (chap would choose)
And they've assigned me a prolific blighter ('lific blighter) —
Patrolling the unconscious of Ted Hughes.'

But poems like 'Bloody Men' and 'Flowers', although they begin jauntily enough, end on a seriously rueful note. As with the last example, much of the best light verse is overtly musical: droll, smart and snappy as a Cole Porter song, like the following by Guy W. Longchamps:

Mrs. Sullivan
"Function follows form,"
Said Louis Sullivan one warm
Evening in Chicago drinking beer.
His wife said, "Dear,
I'm sure that what you meant
Is that form should represent
Function. So it's function that should be followed."
Sullivan swallowed
And looked dimly far away
And said, "Okay,
Form follows function, then."
He said it again,
A three-word spark
Of modern arch-
Itectural brilliance
That would dazzle millions.
"Think I should write it down?"
He asked with a frown.
"Oh yes," she said, "and here's a pencil."
He did and soon was influential.

Wikipedia is not terribly helpful on what it calls 'Light Poetry', as it begins with the rather misleading sentence:'Light poetry, or light verse, is poetry that attempts to be humorous.' It proceeds:'Poems considered "light" are usually brief, and can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature wordplay, including puns, adventurous rhyme and heavy alliteration. Typically, light verse in English is formal verse, although a few free verse poets, such as Billy Collins, have excelled at light verse outside the formal verse tradition. [ ] While light poetry is sometimes condemned as doggerel, or thought of as poetry composed casually, humor often makes a serious point in a subtle or subversive way. Many of the most renowned "serious" poets, such as Horace, Swift, Pope and Auden, have also excelled at light verse.'

This is fine as far as it goes, except that it needs to acknowledge that humorous poetry can be anything but light. And I would not describe the best of Billy Collins's poetry as light verse. Rather, his mode is the laconic, the off-kilter-elegiac. In fact, Collins can be at his weakest when he attempts frivolity, as with his unfunny parody of Heaney (like a lame stage-Oirish impersonation).

The Princeton is far more thorough (exhaustively so). Its first sentence gives a better summary than Wiki's: 'Light Verse. A name rather loosely given to a wide variety of types or forms of metrical composition, worldly in character and most often witty, humorous, ingenious, or satirical.' Good to acknowledge that 'loosely'. It proceeds to list: 'Vers de Société, occasional verse, satire, burlesque, the mock-heroic, nonsense poetry; such brief forms as the epigram, the comic or ironic epitaph, the limerick, the clerihew; and all types of tricky or ingenious verse as acrostics, shaped and emblematic poems, alliterative or rhyming tours de force, riddles, puns and other forms of versified trivia.'

That last one seems rather dismissive. Trivia? Sounds more like 'verse lite'. And are all epigrams light (and therefore trivial)? Greek epigrams can certainly be very witty, and light I suppose, as in the following (which doesn't seem trivial to me):

'If blocked, a fart can kill a man.
If let escape a fart can sing
health-giving songs.
Farts kill and save.
A fart is powerful as a king.'

Nicarchus, The Greek Anthology (Penguin)

And here's my (VERY free and loose) version of an old Irish epigram:

Payment In Kind

He’ll never trade you a horse
for a beautiful, thoroughbred verse.

He will offer you something hollow
as his heart: an old cow.

Princeton's mention of 'Vers de Société' reminds me of Larkin's brilliantly vicious poem, about loneliness/aloneness/art versus 'society': 'I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted, / Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted / Over to catch the drivel of some bitch / Who's read nothing but Which.' Not at all light. Unlike, perhaps, Larkin's little sketch of Alfred Tennyson 'doing his poetic business' while Mrs Alfred Tennyson got on with running the house and answering all the letters.

Derek Mahon has written some clerihews. Interesting that he once told George Szirtes that he didn't like light verse. I am almost sure that I read an essay by Mahon in praise of Ogden Nash's poetry (though it doesn't seem to be in Mahon's collected 'Journalism', so perhaps I am wrong). People can have different ideas about what constitutes 'light' verse. Edward Mendleson edited a selection of Auden's poetry for Faber, entitled 'As I Walked Out One Evening: Songs, ballads, lullabies, limericks and other light verse'. Some of these, such as the limericks, certainly qualify as light verse:

The bishop-Elect of Hong Kong
Has a cock which is ten inches long.
He thinks the spectators
Are admiring his gaiters
When he goes to the Gents - he is wrong.

But the ballad 'As I Walked Out' and the cherishing, loving 'Lullaby' ('Lay your sleeping head my love...') are not what I would call light.

Mahon's poetry is worlds away from 'light', but, though it can often be darkly comic, it invariably treads lightly enough:

‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man’
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering can.

Another brilliant, more bitterly comic poem, 'Matthew 5 v. 29-30', was excluded from Mahon's Gallery 'Collected', though it had been in the earlier Oxford 'Selected', edited by Edna Longley:

Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
when the offense continued.
So I plucked out
the other; but the offense continued.

In the dark now, and working by touch,
I shaved my head.
(The offense continued.)
Removed an ear,
another, dispatched the nose.

The offense continued.
Imagine my chagrin. [etc.]

My friend Anthony wrote a two-liner in praise of DM, which can safely be regarded as light:

'Wonders are many and none
Is more wonderful than Mahon.'

Short and sweet. And my favourite kind of light verse is usually just as brief, like Thom Gunn's:

Barren Leaves

Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.

Which reminds me of Gavin Ewart's even briefer:


The clanking and wanking of Her Majesty's Prisons.

Or his lovely little erotic:

The Sexual Sigh

The small buttocks of men, that excite the women...
but ah! the beautiful, feminine broadness!

I think that at least some of my own stuff might be described as light (though hopefully not trivial) verse. Perhaps the following examples:

Advice To Adolescents

Rave to the slackly made and woefully sung
(the worse the better); be moody, unstrung

for days, in love with drum-rolls of doom.
Never tidy your room.

Airborne (2001)


Ever clever
in all weathers
Paul Klee's Twittering
Machine's perched
on a hurdy-gurdy
tickling tree
in the forest
of feathers

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Time Piece

Still Life
Nothing on the windowsill in my aunt's bedroom
but this faceless mantel clock: a boxed porthole
looking straight through itself to capture a round

of net-curtained window. Where did I see it last –
on the upright piano? Why did she move it here?
And where did the face go? I could ask, but don't,

the time being perfectly kept.

Dream Vertigo

Near Guimar, Tenerife

Alarming dream last night. I was in a jeep with an old friend of mine, R, who was driving up a steep, slushy, slippery incline. I looked up and suddenly realised where we were headed, towards the distant crest of a mountain, the road as straight as a ski-jump, becoming vertical towards the top. I asked to be let out and he obliged. Then I watched as he continued to race up the mountain, till he skidded and stalled and came sliding backwards, rocketing past me to fly off the edge of a cliff, at which point I jolted awake. I must give R a call.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

No More Totem Nos

Totem Pole, Merrion Square, Dublin

... and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again no and then he asked me would I no to say no my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him no and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume no and his heart was going like mad and no I said no I won't No.

My country has finally copped on (no thanks to Cowen & Co). There are times when it is preferable, if not desirable, to be a yes woman/man.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Holocaust As Joke Fodder: Tommy Tiernan's 'Joyous' Rant

I heard about stand-up Tommy Tiernan's anti-Semitic 'rant' third hand, from a rather outraged friend. So I was cautious about judging it too quickly. As I said to my friend, I'll wait till I can put it in context. Then I read the article by Brian Boyd in The Irish Time's Friday insert,The Ticket. Context is the very word Boyd brings up, in his second paragraph:

TOMMY Tiernan used to do a joke about the old Christian contention that the Jews killed Jesus: “The Jews say they didn’t kill Jesus. Well, it wasn’t the f**kin’ Mexicans was it?” In the context and confines of a live comedy club, it was a line that always worked well for him. He brought this joke up in a question-and-answer session [with Olaf Tyaransen] arranged by Hot Press magazine at the Electric Picnic earlier this month.

Asked by an audience member if he had ever been accused of anti-Semitism (Tiernan has been accused of many “isms” during his career), he replied that the above line had upset two Jewish people at a show he did in New York.

They approached him afterwards to remonstrate with him about the nature of the joke. The couple’s complaint, he said, was that “the Israelis are a hunted people” and therefore the joke was insensitive.

Only two Jewish people complained? Well, perhaps they were the only ones in the audience.

Boyd then continues his short lead-in to what Tiernan called his 'rant'. I'll give that lead-in, because it does provide a kind of context, which I have come to think is actually as good as (perhaps even better) than the live interview itself:

He spoke about the nature of his material and how it can cause offence: “It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... and mannered. It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously."

“But these Jews, these f**kin’ Jew c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-killing b**t**ds! F**kin’ six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your teeth and your glasses!”

As Boyd admits, the written words are shocking, even with those euphemistic asterisks. 'Context' is being asked to bear an awful lot of weight here.

Tiernan, on his own website, is clearly on the defensive. Here's his 'statement' about the rant and some peoples' reactions to it:

Firstly, I would like to say that as a private individual I am greatly upset by the thought that these comments have caused hurt to others as this was never my intention; yet, the Electric Picnic public interview with Hot Press Magazine has been taken so far out of context that I am quite bewildered.

The things that I said in front of a live audience were in an attempt to explain my belief that one of the duties of the comic performer is to be reckless and irresponsible and that the things that they say should NEVER be taken out of context. If you read the full transcript or listen to the podcast you will see that I preface my rant by saying that it should not be taken seriously and as such, the rant took place as an example of my argument. While it is out of context, which it most definitely is now, it seems callous cruel and ignorant.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. However, as a public performer I can only hope that whatever wild, irresponsible and reckless things that come into my head will be taken in the context in which they were said.

According to Hot Press editor, Niall Stokes: “if you see or read it in context, there is a comment in there about people who are fanatical and who can’t take a joke. But to interpret it as anti-Semitism is wrongheaded in the extreme. The way I see it, he is satirising anti-Semitism, while making a more general point that we should all be able to laugh at ourselves.

Tommy Tiernan

That word context, again. I suppose much of this depends on whether you go in for Tiernan's kind of stand-up/rant comedy, as delivered by Tiernan. Boyd obviously does. And Niall Stokes, the editor of Hot Press, also defends Tiernan. He dismisses Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter's statement in the Sunday Tribune, that Tiernan's was “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst” and who thought it "particularly sad that people found this sort of outburst in any way amusing.” As Stokes [quoted by Boyd] puts it:

“If Alan Shatter reads the interview and comes to the conclusion that Tommy Tiernan is prejudiced against Jews, then he is suffering from a life-threatening humour by-pass and needs to get it attended to quickly ... The fact is that the interview turned – as many of Tommy Tiernan’s interviews do – into a spontaneous comic performance in which he improvises around whatever subjects are thrown at him ... What he said was strong, referring to the fact that he’d have killed not six million but 10 million or 12 million Jews.

“But, while you have to read the full interview to understand what was going on and to see it in context, only an idiot could think that he was expressing his own feelings.”

Context yet again. Well, I did better than read the interview. I listened to the whole damned podcast, which is downloadable from Tiernan's website.

Boyd's article presents Tiernan as a hero (what Americans might call 'a maverick'):

Tiernan is not your typical comic, chucking out tepid observational inanities to get a guest slot on a TV panel show. His is an intense and passionately felt style of comedy.


The attraction, for many, is that he is not just a gag-merchant but someone who dances around the lines of taste and decency. Controversy follows him around like a stalker.


If you were to take Tiernan’s remarks about the Holocaust at face value, it would be hard not to view them as wicked. But you might also choose to see them in the way he says they were intended. He asks that we consider them in the context of an entertainer reaching around during a live interview for dramatic and extreme imagery. The decision on how to interpret them lies with the receiver.

'Remarks about the Holocaust'? I didn't hear any remarks, just a remarkably vicious diatribe. And if 'the decision on how to interpret [the so-called remarks] lies with the receiver', well, that receiver might interpret them very differently to how they were intended (though the intention seems to me to be far from clear). In any case it is is not humour as I understand it. Listen to the podcast. It's a Tommy Tiernan love-in (at one point the crowd starts chanting 'we love Tommy'). Certainly a 'well-protected environment'. No wonder Tiernan felt he could say whatever he pleased. But, why would he (why would anyone) actually want to say those things? What 'feelings' or 'lunacy' is he actually expressing? Not mine. Yours perhaps? Or yours, over there in the back row?

I must be an idiot, one sandwich short of a picnic, lights on but nobody home. Because I just don't see how raving about 'Jew c**ts' being shoved 'two at a time' into the gas chamber, is funny, in any context. Nevertheless, I listened for a 'context' in the podcast interview. But I am obviously stone deaf.

The Holocaust has left us with some of the most disturbing, heartbreaking and enraging images from the 20th Century. We know what these images are, and I think most people with a modicum of imagination sense what they mean, how they stand as indelible proof of precisely what we are capable of when supreme arrogance rules and we forget how to reach out and touch each other. So we should take such things very personally. Because they ARE personal; they are part of our reservoir of grief, even if we are barely aware of this. Anyone who dips into this reservoir certainly needs more of a context than Tiernan provides, essentially declaring that the mere act of voicing a bottom-feeding scumbag's point of view, stinking and harsh as vomit, creates its own context. If this is true then the likes of Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning are great comedians, pure geniuses. And if you really think Tiernan's Holocaust routine is hilarious how about replacing it with something closer to home? I'm not talking about Catholicism here, which Tiernan mocked on his first appearance on the Late Late Show (afterwards he was apparently detained in the studio for several hours after irate members of the public came looking for him). But priests and Catholicism, like Nazis, are woefully soft targets nowadays. Instead of laying into the perpetrators, how about making a few nasty jabs at the innocent victims of the ongoing clerical abuse scandal, or The Famine or The Troubles? Let Tommy give those a go, and see what 'dramatic and extreme imagery', what 'wild, irresponsible and reckless things', what 'lunacy' he can pull out of his hat.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spot of Dying

Across The Road From The Graveyard, Achill, County Mayo
Conversation between my wife and our five year old son:

Son: Mummy I don't want to die.
Mother: Neither do I.
Son: But you get to choose when you die.
Mother: Really? How do you do that?
Son: You go to the dying spot and jump in.

Death has been on his mind recently. Of course, we have explained already that he won't die, not for a long, long, looooong time, that he's safe, we're safe, etc. Nevertheless, death resurfaces, bobbing into the conversational slipstream at odd moments. What probably brought it up today was the fact that I had let slip that I'd attended a 'removal' yesterday evening, a septuagenarian relation of ours, who contracted cancer of the liver and was gone in eight months: a kindly man, 'a gentleman', as people noted.

If we were religious, we would have been quick to reassure our son (largely the whole point of religions) that he will never die, not really, and that his parents will no doubt be waiting for him when he eventually does die, having wiped our feet on Heaven's welcome mat and joined the party; as Donne so eloquently (and comfortingly) put it: 'One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.'

But neither of us is religious. My wife is cheerily atheist and I am strongly inclined that way (though hedging my bets behind an all-but-hopeless agnosticism). My gut tells me there is nothing afterward, nothing but our cheerless, time-leased apartment in nothingness, the same infinitesimal/enormous place the galaxies are speeding to. So it is a little chilling to hear the d-word being shaped by a five-year-old's lips. But it is also, I believe, natural, and rather healthy. His 'dying spot' could hardly have anything to do with suicide, a concept we have never discussed. It is far more likely what my wife suggests: a way of exerting control over something which he is, some day, in danger of being controlled by. He is right to be indignant, even appalled. But he knows he is well-loved, and I trust it is this (and the assurance that he is here and now, in the infinitely present present) which will allow him to deflate death and stow it in its proper place, for now.

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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Failed Career

as a cartoonist. failed glorious career, as a cartoonist

In the mid 1980s I sent this in to a magazine, where my girlfriend, who had recently broken it off with me, was working. She wasn't on the editorial board, so I hadn't addressed it to her. Anyway, they rejected it, as I imagined they probably would (my first effort, after all). She rang me about a week later, to ask if we could meet. This got my hopes up. Perhaps she wanted a reconciliation (the cartoon was the furthest thing from my mind). No, she wanted to know how I could be nasty enough to send in such a thing. What did I think I was playing at? I was mystified, almost speechless. Surely, if anything, it was aimed at men, perhaps even myself. Had I missed some vital clue, broken some grave protocol?

Eventually, she admitted that it was a fairly accurate portrait... of her current boyfriend. I had heard rumors about her seeing someone. I knew him to speak to, but not nearly well enough to make assumptions about his character. Even if I had, I would never have presumed to parody him (utterly pathetic, someone slagging, without provocation, his ex-lover's lover). Furthermore, he certainly didn't look like the John Travolta wannabe in my drawing; if anything, his attire was the opposite: permanent student-drab, rather like myself. I burst out laughing, and continued till my ex asked me to shut up.

I was stupid, of course. A satirical cartoon, sent to an ex-lover's workplace, is going to damn well look like some kind of message, no matter how obscure or unlikely. And, as luck would have it, this one didn't seem obscure at all.

We've had a friendly enough relationship since, though we rarely meet (she doesn't live in the neighborhood any longer). I hope if she ever reads this she'll forgive me for airing it. I believe the joke was on both, or perhaps all three, of us.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


poem in a cloud is a website that generates 'word-clouds'. That is, it takes whatever bunch of text you want to dump in it and turns this into a randomly arranged graphic word-picture. More interestingly, rather than using all the words in your text, it sorts out the less interesting chaff (definite articles, and, a, etc.) then, for the remainder, "uses the number of times a word appears in a text to determine its relative size." So you get a snapshot of how often you've used (or overused) a particular word. Sometimes this can be misleading; I altered my text (the MS of my latest poetry collection) when I realised that 'James Joyce' was one of the largest words, which would have given the impression that I had written a series of odes to the master, while in fact the name was simply repeated in one small poem.

If you don't like the fonts/colours or whatever you can get another design by simply clicking the 'randomize' button. So I tried a few till I found this. I like the colour and design, but most of all the random 'poem' top left:

little Ghost
called Life

You can then exhibit these little concoctions in the online gallery or on your blog (the instructions are in the FAQs).

So how about that? Properly postmodern randomness, DIY "visual poems" far better than those I've come across.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bad Word?

bad word
I like finding handwritten comments in the margins of old books, especially if these spontaneous notes are, potentially, more interesting than the text.

When my friend, the poet and music teacher Anthony Glavin, died three years ago he left me his books. Many volumes of poetry of course, (a library within a library), but also music, art, biography, philosophy… and a good deal of literary criticism.

He often wrote comments in the margins: questioning, reprimanding, elaborating, etc. He also underlined, copiously. Reading or idly skimming some of his books, I have often compared what he has marked or underlined with my own marks/annotations, or ones I might have made had he not got there first. So a space opens for an imagined dialogue, an agreement or argument, a species of communication.

This morning I picked up a paperback copy of E.M. Forster’s ‘Aspects Of The Novel’ (immaculately preserved, the only damage age itself: air and light leaking in from the tea-coloured edges). On the title page, a 20-year-old Anthony had written in black marker, in his elegant, neat-but-unfussy handwriting:
Anthony Glavin.
Dec. 1965.

That single word in the third line is interesting. I presume it refers to the long-vanished Eblana bookshop on Grafton Street, a tiny but well-stocked Aladdin’s cave that specialized in literary publications, particularly poetry. Anthony seems to have rendered the name as a verb: Eblanaid, as in: acquired in the Eblana bookshop. This is in keeping with an aspect of his sense of humour, which I greatly miss: obsessive wordplay.

I am not certain what Anthony thought of Forster’s book, since he never discussed it with me, but I imagine him becoming impatient with the rather orotund and professorial style, which employs the majestic plural (perhaps fashionable in 1927), and I can hear him snorting derisively at the vague but elaborate scenarios Forster dreams up with all the enthusiasm of someone warming to a theme that isn’t.

At the top of page 21 (by which point Forster is well into his “ramshackly” rambling about scholarship, pseudo-scholarship and genius), I found what amounts to a condensed, scathing review: “The novel as abstract, unrelated creation, separate as a stone or hypothetical ant-heap on a far distant planet. Rubbish!” Later, at the bottom of page 37 (in blue marker this time) Anthony has written “Beckett; Krapp & Malone”, followed by an exasperated double-question mark, and with an arrow jabbing upwards at the belly of this sentence: “All these devices are legitimate, but none of them contravene our thesis: the basis of a novel is a story, and a story is a narrative of events arranged in a time sequence.”

However, it was a much smaller note in the margin of page 57 that caught my imagination and set me to writing this blog. Forster begins a paragraph thus: “So let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand.” As you can see from the photo above, Anthony has underlined “understand” and written in the margin “bad word”.

Is it a bad word? Coming at the end of that sentence, it might seem a little inadequate, though hardly erroneous. After all, we can claim to understand death, both as a concept and viscerally, shatteringly, through grief. And if we live long enough, at some stage in our lives, usually around middle age, Martin Amis’s “information” arrives, that confrontation with mortality which (for any halfway contemplative person) is part of the package, a truly ‘done deal’. Would you deny that the speaker in Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, waking “in soundless dark” in the early hours, understands his “unresting death, a whole day nearer now”?

Anthony was not religious, so his objection to Forster’s chosen word rested solely, I believe, on what he considered its inappropriateness. But would any word be appropriate, or adequate? What word or words might better encapsulate our ignorance of what Larkin termed (apparently in his actual last words) “the inevitable”? I thought of one word but I am not convinced that it is much better, and it may well be worse. I won’t say what it is yet, only that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find a full rhyme for it.

Between page 11 (where the book begins) and 57, Anthony left some kind of mark on 16 pages, whether it was half a page of meticulous notes or just one underlined word. After that, perhaps he became too bored to finish the book, or perhaps he skimmed it or put it down and forgot to resume it, because those two words in the margin of page 57 are his final written verdict on ‘Aspects’. The rest of its 115 pages are unmarked, pristine.

Here’s Forster’s sentence again, with the last word removed:
“So let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot ____________.” If you can come up with a better word than “understand” I invite you to comment and fill in the blank.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Don't End With History Or The Sea*

Beware Suicidal Hearse

a poet warns us, or you’ll make each thing
"sound like everything else."

Here, above Blackrock, everything slopes
to that great, warped lens.
Buildings stand in the way, borrow the light.

Stars, of course, and mountains, heavens and hells
can rattle like anything else.

Days, nights, when there is nowhere better to look,
I sometimes drive there, park at a low wall
in Sandycove or Seapoint,
to write or just sit, long enough to take home

equilibrium, one little bucket of history
slopping gently on whatever scales
register these things.

*the poet is Kenneth Koch

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Private Performance

London Bridge

Just now, over a late breakfast, I listened to Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage & Sir Les Patterson) talking on Desert Island Discs.

When he was a young man in Sydney, ages before his Dame Edna persona began to emerge, Humphries did a spell as a 'performance artist' (he also went on to play Estragon is Australia's first ever production of a Beckett play). One of his artworks was the following. He would take a seat among 'the captive audience' on a morning train (he didn't say during the rush hour but I imagine it might have been). He was probably fairly inconspicuous (though again, he didn't say), just a man sitting on a train. At a certain station he would open the window and someone (his accomplice) would hand him a grapefruit. At the following station another person would lean in and hand him some toast; next it would be an egg, cup of coffee etc., until, presumably, all was assembled and he could begin breakfast.

He called this a 'private joke' (between himself and his accomplices). Apparently the audience was captivated. I can believe it. I love the gentle, Charlie Chaplin deliberation, the gradual, unspoken unfurling, the subversive silence. This is what most (if not all) performance art/installations etc. should aim for, the private public performance, the invitation to participate in something that only needs your dawning awareness to make it complete, since it is nine tenths complete already (i.e. its end is clearly in sight, wedded to its beginning). The assembling breakfast beautifully opposes Patrick Kavanagh's idea of Tragedy ('underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born'). Hats off to Humphries.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Seven Songs For Puthwuth

gramophone handle

Puthwuth has 'blogtagged' me to write something about seven songs/pieces of music I am listening at present. Since I don't listen to nearly enough music (no excuses, I just don't seem to get round to it), I have simply selected what I have listened to most recently or last recall listening to or will listen to again in the near future.

The picture above is a closeup of my grandfather's portable gramophone. He died in 1984. Note his last DIY job on the handle; either twine or Sellotape (or both) was his solution to most mending jobs: door knobs, cutlery, tools...

As far as I recall, Grandfather only ever played one record on his gramophone, Phil Harris's 'The Darktown Poker Club', and that is the only record I found inside the lid/holder when I inherited it. Maybe once a year (Christmas?), grandfather would ceremoniously open the little black box, slip the winch into its hole (visible above the handle), wind it swiftly for a few seconds, slip the record out of its brown paper sleeve and lay it on the brown felt turntable, push the little dial to set it spinning at 78 rpm, pluck the steel arm from its cavity and settle that big, tarantula-tooth needle in its groove, immediately encasing the room in a husky hiss I can almost smell, as if the gramophone was, like its owner, a cigar-smoker, our outlines beginning to blue and soften in the layered clouds of that poker club from the 1940s:

"Bill Jackson was a poor old dub,
Who joined the Darktown Poker Club
But cursed the day he told them he would join.
His money used to go like it had wings
If he held Queens, someone had Kings
And each night he would contribute all his coins..."

Fionn Regan's 'Put A Penny In The Slot' (from 'The End of History')
I heard this for the first time on RTE Radio (Tubridy played it as an intro to his programme). I was enjoying the song, but what made my antennae twitch was a reference to 'Naylor's Cove' in Bray (the only reference to it in a song as far as I know: and I now have a poem with that title). When I heard the name Fionn Regan I realised that I recognised it. I don't know Fionn, but I know his mother, A. We hung out together when I lived in Bray in the 1990s, and we both worked in the local Signal Arts Centre (the name was my idea) near the station. A was a designer, and she and I won an ad contract for the Dept. of Health around that time, for their AIDS awareness campaign. The only time I got a foot in the advertising door, which swiftly clicked shut again.

Pink Floyd's 'Great Gig In The Sky' (from 'Dark Side of the Moon')
This was the first album I ever bought, prodded by my friend/cousin Pat. I have started listening to it again and it holds up wonderfully. I love the following track for its gutsy, wordless sensuality.

Bob Dylan's 'Shake Shake Mama' (from 'Together Through Life')
I've only just bought this album (the first new release I've bought by Dylan in decades, maybe the first ever). So far, I love 'Shake Shake Mama', 'It's All Good' and Beyond Here There's Nothin'.

Arthur MacBride by Paul Brady
I have a vivid if somewhat blurred memory of attending a performance by Planxty at UCD in the 1970s, during which Paul Brady sang this version, or one very like it. I have sat with the wean on my lap listening/watching this a few times. He seems to like it, asks questions about the sergeant, drummer etc. A great relief from Thomas The Tank Engine and the excruciating 'Lazy Town' (you don't want to know).

Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire' (from 'New Skin For the Old Ceremony')

Yes, I am one of those, a Cohen-Head. Cohen seems to sharply divide people (Listeners of Love and Hate). Paul Muldoon has written in his 'Sleeve Notes' that Cohen's "songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” He elaborated on this (in an interview with Sven Birkerts, published in Ploughshares):

“It does seem a little excessive, I suppose, but I’m going to stick to it. I’d say ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Bird on the Wire’ or ‘Joan of Arc’ are much better constructed, are built to withstand more pressure per square inch, than most poetry we meet in most magazines and, alas, find collected in most slim volumes. . . . Cohen has a fine ear, too, something that’s rare enough even among quite highly respected poets. So, I’d go so far as to say that, despite the fact that they’re involved in a project which is not strictly ‘literary,’ writers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or Warren Zevon score an extraordinarily high number of successes. The fact that they are involved in musical enterprises to boot means that they are likely to ‘mean far more,’ if only because one’s more likely to be exposed to them. There’s nothing strange about this, I think. Nothing mysterious. It’s a function of the impact of popular culture, particularly on the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s one of the reasons my comment on Cohen might seem not in the least excessive to many people of my generation.”

On the other hand, some people simply can't stand him, such as my old friend, the piano teacher/poet Anthony Glavin. But then, Anthony probably wouldn't have had time for much of the music I listen to (folk music, for example, got a big thumbs down).

I first heard Cohen's delectable drone when a friend, Dominic, played me 'Songs of Leonard Cohen' on an enviously high-tech hi-fi (with real, proper speakers) sometime in the 1970s. Soon enough, I knew many of the songs by heart and would actually 'sing' them (didn't need to be pissed though it helped) at the slightest non-provocation, sometimes just sitting by myself at the top of a 46A. The one Cohen album I remember actually buying was 'New Skin For The Old Ceremony', partly because I loved the song below, apparently taken from an old Yom Kippur prayer. As far as I can tell, the song simply considers various ways in which we might step off the planet. I am delighted to have a ticket for the next Cohen concert in Dublin (a birthday present from my wonderful wife).

I'll finish with the voice of a certain Louis Prima (as King Louie, the orangutan king of the monkeys in Disney's 'The Jungle Book). Phil Harris is also in there, as Baloo the bear. Again, this is one I often listen to/watch with the wean. Listen out for Baloo/Phil Harris finally surrendering to the beat with "I'm gone man, solid gone..."

Louis Prima and Phil Harris in 'The Jungle Book'

And now I will pass the blog-baton to Paul Perry, The Cat Flap, Andrew J. Shields, Nightwriter, Baroque In Hackney, John C. Falstaff.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Unbalancing Act

Wimbledon Hotle, Bournemouth, Christmas 1960
Christmas, Bournemouth, 1960, Wimbledon Hall Hotel,
Mark in his red corduroy trousers –
red tie cardigan with red and blue stripes
playing with the owner and daughter.

The world is off-centre, tipsy.
I’m three and three quarters, lips slightly parted, gaze

sliding away. Someone has hubcapped my head
with a drinks tray – the owner

who helps me straddle a balloon, his cuff-linked hand
on my leg, keeping me steady

between rows of ladies watching something to the right –
razzmatazz! – a whole warming up decade.

The nearest of two bare-armed girls –
in matching polka-dot dresses and bobbed hair –

sits with her back to me, captivated or bored.
Her slender forearm is raised

to put a morsel in her mouth, kiss
her fingertips; unaware we’ve been slipstreamed,

wedded by light, how her big dress
is the bigger picture, flared, almost touching the floor.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My Portrait Of Jo Brand

Jo Brand, Belfast, 1994

Wikipedia requested permission to reproduce the above image on their page on Jo Brand, the well-known stand-up comedian. There were two drawbacks: no fee and (rather more seriously) a requirement that I alter the copyright status of the image to CC (or Creative Commons), since their policy only allows them to use images which can be downloaded for free.

Wikipedia, for all its faults, is an amazing resource, so it was nice to be asked to contribute something. Also, any image on their pages will obviously get far more hits than those gathering dust in some barely-known writer/photographer's Flickr gallery, and they made it clear that they would happy to provide a link to my work.

After a chat with a person I know who is well-versed in copyright law, I opted for 'Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons'(Cc-by-3.0), which allows me to keep some control over the manner in which my image is used.

I remember taking this portrait of Jo in Belfast in 1994. I think it was after or before a show, though I can't actually remember her performance. I've always found her droll-with-daggers-drawn humour hilarious (""men are fantastic – as a concept"). So it seems unlikely that I would have forgotten the one live performance I'd attended. It's possible that we had to leave before her show, to get back to Co Antrim, where I was doing an MA in poetry/creative writing with Jimmy and Janice Simmons.

Jo was a delight to photograph, funny, obliging, utterly unselfconscious and seemingly happy in her own skin. Much as I might have imagined her to be, judging from her performances. Great stand-up comedy has, in my opinion, quite a lot in common with great poetry readings (and I don't mean poetry "performances"). Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, James Fenton and Carol Ann Duffy come to mind (and maybe Paul Durcan, on a good day). There is a similar sense of confidence (but not overconfidence, nothing gauche), a clarity of delivery and, especially, a genius with timing. It really is "the way you tell em", with poems or jokes. If Jo ever glances at her page in Wikipedia I hope she likes the picture.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Recycled Ra

recycled ra

That aside, some recyclable verse:

New Year's

I ram bottles into the bank,
listening for the weak tink!

or the solid gratifying smash –
a breakthrough, a full-blown wish.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Bull Wall

Bull Wall, Dollymount, North Dublin

Blessed be the sadhappy walk in the rain
to the end of the pier and back again.

Praise be to friends, new-leafed and old
and those who’ve let go their hold.

Hail to the painstaking
good, slow, awkward work of lovemaking

that is never done.
Hallelujah what is hard or easily won.

A Soft Day from Airborne

Happy Newish Year and whatever you're having yourself.