Friday, January 27, 2012

For Holocaust Memorial Day

Evening shadows, Nassau Street


Someone is at work, prising out paving stones.
The work looks proper, official, though he is wearing
a cement-dusted leather cowboy hat.

Someone has made space for something, a little block capped
with brass, a square palm-print outside one
of the houses of the nameless.

Someone has done his homework: HIER WOHNTE _____
a name, date, whatever’s available and
can be packed.

Someone has hammered in, punched each letter and number,
each dent in the silence of the clean sheet,
each word ringing with blows.

Someone has laid it in your tracks, something to stumble on:
a street testing its voice, ghost of a shine,
blind spot flickering off.

*‘Stumbling Blocks’:  German artist Gunter Demnig’s ongoing project: memorialising those murdered in the Holocaust by setting plaques outside the houses they originally lived in. His website is www  dot stolpersteine dot com

Superstition & Sentimentality vs Childhood

cuttlefish cloud

Father (seeing a magpie): Hello Mr Magpie, and how's Mrs Magpie?
Child: Hello Mr I'm Going-To-Kill-You, and how's Mrs I'm-Going-To-Kill-You?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'I'm The The King Of The Castle'

Killiney Hill from Dalkey

After school, I took the wean to visit mum in the nursing home in Dalkey. This has become our routine now, since she  became too weak to bring home around a fortnight ago. She has recovered considerably, enough to have short conversations.

Before returning to the car, I waited for him to do his sprint up the steep little path to the railway bridge behind the nursing home (this is an older, more established routine, really a tradition). He shouted his old war-cry, then began again and interrupted himself, thus:

'I'm the king of the ca... I'm the king of nothing at all cos I'm just a kid.'

Not that this knowledge seemed to faze him. Just something he needed to get off his chest.

(photo, taken near the nursing home, shows the castle on the rim of Dalkey hill in the lower left corner)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pearse Hutchinson's 'Watching The Morning Grow'

Kilmac Co Wicklow: Coffee & Sugarloaf

I read Pearse Hutchinson's obituary in this morning's Irish Times, having first learnt of his death a couple of days ago (Ian Duhig posted one of Hutchinson's poems as a tribute on Facebook). 

When I first began to write poetry in the 1970s, Pearse Hutchinson was an important discovery. His poems meant a great deal to me, and still do. In 2006 Peter Sirr, who was editing Poetry Ireland Review at the time, asked a number of poets to select a 'crucial' poetry collection to write about, one that had had a significant influence on their work. I chose Pearse Hutchinson's 1972 collection, Watching The Morning Grow. The essay I wrote (first published in PIR 87 in August 2006) is reprinted below:

In the early 1970s I discovered the Eblana Bookshop, near the top of Grafton Street. Inside, poetry was the Good News; the latest publications were arranged near the door, on the ‘altar’: tiers of narrow shelves designed to prop them with the covers facing out, like a display of pamphlets inside a church.

My school poetry anthology, Exploring English 2, had given me a tantalising glimpse of contemporary Irish poetry in Thomas Kinsella. But browsing these shelves I came across, for the first time, such poets as Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Hartnett, and later, from across the water, Philip Larkin’s High Windows.

The first collection I bought was Pearse Hutchinson’s Watching The Morning Grow. The cover was striking, a boldly emblematic flower linocut –– appropriate, since flowers are a recurring and important motif.

Heaney has described Hutchinson’s poems as ‘first footers, coming to the reader with personal news to tell, keeping him “in the presence of flesh and blood”.’ The news was certainly personal, candid too. Watching The Morning Grow broached feelings I had yet to come to terms with: the underrated importance of friendship, gentleness and human warmth, openness to other cultures and people, an invigorating  sense of solidarity with anyone brave enough to do or say something that rang true.

The first two stanzas of the opening poem, ‘Ringing the changes on Mistral’, recall a local custom, whereby a child was brought round the neighbours, given

a couple of eggs,
a cut of bread,
a grain of salt,
and a match-stick,

and told to be

as full as an egg,
as good as bread,
wise like salt,
straight as a match.

As with some of the other poems, it is like a little prayer, exhortation or memo to the poet (and, by implication, to the reader).

Hutchinson is comfortably at home in several languages, among them Irish, French, German, Spanish, Catalan and Rumanian.  In a poem like ‘Ode to the Future’ this linguistic freedom, and the array of characters from different cultures and countries who make brief, epiphanic appearances and utterances, could seem rather bewildering to a monolinguist such as myself. But the rhythm was never less than compelling,  and the voice trustworthy, someone for whom these languages were pulsing, alive. As ‘Ode to the Future’ puts it:
“whenever I smell a rose I hear / a trandafír breathing”  (trandafír being Rumanian for rose).

The second poem in the book, ‘Gaeltacht’, made inroads in my imagination that remain to this day. It begins:

Bartley Costello, eighty years old,
sat in his silver-grey tweeds on a kitchen chair,
at his door in Carraroe, the sea only yards away,
smoking a pipe, with a pint of porter beside his boot

The portrait, from pipe to boot – taking in the sea – is startlingly complete. I am reminded now of other iconic portraits, from Montague’s poem, ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People’ or Mahon’s “lamplighters, sail-makers and native Manx speakers” from ‘A Dying Art’ (another of those first, inroad-making poems).

Some of the most memorable phrases are delivered in Irish (translations given in the notes at the end of the book). As one of the characters says, ‘Labhraim le stráinséiri. Credim gur choir bheith ag labhairt le stráinséirí.’ (I speak with strangers. I believe it’s right to be speaking with strangers). Here was my country as I had never experienced it: exotic yet down-to-earth, a dream-territory that did not seem too out of reach to come to terms with; and the Irish language  (that had sent me to sleep in school), out in the open, free of chalk-dust and nationalism.

Perhaps my favourite poem from the collection is the third last, one of the apparently simplest, ‘Bright After Dark’. Each of the three stanzas is a vivid bat-swoop into a different country, unnamed except in the notes at the back of the book. Superstitions are relayed as facts, thus:

In the first country,
what you must do when the cow stops giving milk
is climb, after dark, a certain hill,
and play the flute: to kill your scheming neighbour’s curse.
If you can find a silver flute to play,
the spell will break all the faster, the surer.   
But silver is not essential.    But: the job must
be done after dark:
otherwise, it won’t work.

It isn’t always necessary to ‘load every rift with ore’. What makes this work, what gives it its rhythm and hypnotic music, is its prosaic, halting, matter-of-factness. Even the odd punctuation plays a part: those colons, like dramatic pauses.

If, as Helen Vendler suggests, poetry ‘insists on a spooling, a form of repetition, the reinscribing of a groove’, ‘Bright After Dark’ embodies that movement in each stanza, each country, each setting-out. And it ends perfectly, with a directive to ‘…drop / grains of maize for whoever comes after you: / for only maize can light the way on a dark night.’ So the poem’s talismanic brightness shifts from incantatory music to cinder/guardian angel and finishes in an imaginary ellipsis, a trail of light-seeds.

Hutchinson’s collection was one of the first that gently but firmly shook me, and woke me up.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


desk, De la Salle, Waterford, 2011

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces
–– Alice Cooper

Kindergarten, St. Kilian’s

A grey house lost in a big field
is ‘the German school’. Herr Schmidt’s eye-patch is real.
Herr Müller does not smile.

During break I learn how to slot together two dry
stalks of horse chestnut leaves to make
the bones of an airplane. When I try

the new noise on my tongue, it gets stuck
in my teeth, though I can count from null
to elf, and bid Guten morgen, Gute nacht ––

Merit Cards, St. Conleth’s

Stiff, with rounded edges, like invitation cards,
there are three kinds, three colours.

The best, to say you are doing good work or great,
is pink as a strawberry milkshake.

My later ones, anaemic blue, carry ‘Remarks’
such as my mother’s ‘I’d like to see higher marks.’

The rarest, iodine yellow, you can almost smell:
miching? stealing? –– one stop from being expelled.


There is his specially made
leather ‘biffer’ –– hand-sewn for the trade?
He calls it Lizzy, and there is a Big Lizzy too.

He has his eye on me, on you,
‘gurriers’ in our army coats of ‘bull’s wool’.
When he warns ‘There’ll be wigs on the green’

my blankness flickers, screens
some antique scuffle: a lawn, powdered rugs
flying from what must be our own heads
done up as Ladies, M’Luds.

So I am almost prepared when he brings in
a new boy (who looks already old and beaten)
and heartily invites him
to ‘tell us how many schools you’ve been expelled from.’


Clear as Once Upon a Time, we arrive
at the three states of being:
Never Alive

Two Maths Teachers

Red-faced O’Byrne, rasping in his chalky cloak,
swirls and pounces. No use, something un-
clicks when numbers wink
into letters.
                   Murphy, like Groucho,
raises a clownish eyebrow:
‘I’ll tear your hides off and hang ‘em up
like strips of bacon!’
                                The blackboard is a prop
for what sizzles and smokes: entertainment, exit lines. 


The lovely wrongness of mercury.
I ask Paddy where we can get some, so

he asks the Japanese boy, Sato,
who escorts us into the empty lab

as if he owns it. We tip
a whole Aspirin bottle’s worth out of a tube

and before we can wonder
what to do with it, Paddy –– in secret communion

with some inner double-dare –– rolls
one of those molten heavyweight pearls

off his palm onto his tongue.

New Teacher

My coddled home-life couldn’t have prepared me
for Poole –– flushed, freckled, big as a bull,
always on the simmer. Catching me
dozing again, he puts his full weight into it
and the telephone in my left ear is ringing for weeks.


Dr Goldin (Butsy): too old, too gentle,
his heaped ashtray a caldera of crushed words.
Each time he turns, we hum behind his back
till he stops, flings the duster –– a jarring clack! ––
glares at us and erupts: ‘You pack of bastards.’


Of what? And how difficult could it be?
Transubstantiation? The Trinity?’

But when the soft face under the tall hat mouths
‘Who made the world?’ it wafer-melts

into its echo: the one test
you couldn’t fail to pass, or digest.


Mr Banks’ drone could not be drier
as he conjugates: amo, amas, amat…
till a terrible drought rolls in along the Tiber,
the flagons empty, love itself gone flat.


‘I wandered lonely…’ as Gardner (Weedy)
passing our window –– in his hands
a book held open like a breviary.

Poetry, since now and then he’ll chance
on a nugget and halt to tilt his face
at the sun: a practiced smile, radiance

A Reading

No matter if you’re a dosser or a swot,
when asked to read a poem aloud the protocol
is to sound like a bored robot ––

then Kinsella’s Garden on the Point
where ‘the speckled bean breaks open’ and ‘the snail
winces and waits’, and the brunt

of some odd imperative pushes me ahead
of myself, to brace my elbows, cover my ears
and read it, for once, the way it should be read.


Mr Feutren (Fruity) isn’t from France
but Brittany. Important. Make no mistake.
Something –– anger? passion? –– has shorn his face
to a bald, beak-nosed, hunched-electric presence.   

Yes, he fought with the SS during the war.
A Breton nationalist, why should he hide
what he believes? What he did was justified,
though I’m not sure who these justifications are for.

The Irish, so stupide! Hard to believe
how little we know, and how can we make a start
when, in restaurants, we ignore the heart
of asparagus, to nibble at the leaves.

Now he has lost patience and swoops to wrench
some slowcoach from his desk. I am in his sights
and will be next. Because of (or despite)
whatever he fled, he teaches excellent French. 


On a wall in the jacks: I am 13 and I love gees ––
‘The penis is then placed in the vagina…’ ––

breaking the seal, entering the soft-lit harem
in a smuggled Penthouse (all those misted women) ––

but when a 5th year boy unfolds a page of these
close-ups –– cunts in lurid mugshots –– we’ve skipped

to a field manual, a dressing of wounds, ripped.


A door swings open or shut
for good, when in the midst of it
I discover I’ve laced
my ugly, new, unbroken pair of boots
to the wrong feet.


–– da-Ding, da-Ding, da-Ding       
                                                 the hand-held bell
swarms us onto the concrete, voices up
and over the high stone wall ––

Get up the yard! I’ll swop you…   Whew, just saved!
What’s white and moves quickly across the floor?
What’s the definition of agony?
Show us your steely!  I’ve heard that before.
Quickly, which would you rather be

–– da-Ding, da-Ding, da-Ding

Coláiste na Rinne: An Interrogation*

–– Ar dhúirt tú rud mar gheall ar shite?
–– Ní dhúirt mé.
–– Dhúirt tú.
–– Ní dhúirt mé.
–– Dhúirt tú.
–– Ní dhúirt mé.

–– Dúirt!


–– Scríobh!

Prefect, Sandford Park

Lunch queue: someone shouts (his voice and face
straight out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays):
‘You! Boy! Bring me a jug of water!’
Can he be talking to me? ‘You must be joking.’

But as he looms, long and tight-lipped, I see
no joke, unless he thinks it funny
to noose my tie until I almost choke.

The Mock Leaving

What can they make of me, so studiously dreamy
I fall asleep in strict Bill Tector’s class ––
my ear tuned to nothing much at all

unless it’s the sotto voce lullaby
from the desk behind: Rooney
intoning the same Pink Floyd line

over and over: ‘the lunatic / is on the grass…’

The Leaving

I never miched before, so it feels strange;
too easy to stay in my seat as the bus pulls
away from my stop in Ranelagh, where the push
is on for the Leaving Cert. Well out of range,
I hop off, drift downstream on Grafton Street’s
quick/slow shuffling pavements, where I catch
the breath of roasted coffee beans and let
Bewley’s (The Church of Take-The-Weight-Off-Your-Feet)

inhale me. In the basement, lunch money spent
on hot milky coffee and buns, I begin to orient
myself among the tidal people, drag and flow
of conversation, places and to be or go.

For three weeks I hold this course, till I can say
I took my Leaving in Bewley’s Oriental Café.

Art School, Dún Laoghaire

Army-jacketed, smoking a roll-up, safe
in my hair –– so long I can almost sit on it ––
am I too early, too late
or somewhere in between? Time to move on
from that open-mouthed self portrait
that might be a scream or yawn.

*Footnote: Ring College: An Interrogation
–– Did you say anything about shite?
–– I didn’t.
–– You did.
–– I didn’t.
–– You did.
–– I didn’t.

–– You did!

–– Write it out!