Category Archives: Poetry

On reading Chekov’s “Gusev”

A soft lilac sky spreads above a calmed, welcoming ocean,
That accepts a dead soldier – nature looking after one of her own.

It reminds me of a funeral I attended as a child,
The yellow sunlight bathing the altar and casket, blessing the final going.

And tells me an impossible truth, that the world can sometimes stop,
And breathe, and briefly mark, a spirit flown.

_____

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Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

_____

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Five years on

Co. Kerry, 2009

Co. Kerry, 2009

Five years have passed

And you are missed as much today
As you were on that first day.
And even more.
We cannot turn to you
And chat, and have you there,
So instead we will reach out today
With a thought, or a prayer.
_____
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Seamus Heaney and loss

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney died five years ago, on August 30, 2013. I remember hearing about his passing as I drove from Dublin to the small nursing home in Co. Wexford where my mother lay grievously ill. She passed away five weeks later.

At the time the two events didn’t seem connected. Then, a month after my mother’s death, I bought a copy of Heaney’s “Selected Poems”. In it, I came across “Clearances”, a set of sonnets the poet wrote following the death of his own mother.

One – sonnet 8 – stood out, and came to be an evocation of my own mother, an elegant summation of grief, and a confirmation, a reassurance. (I now think of Patrick Kavanagh’s lines, “others have been here and know, griefs we thought our special own”.)

It needs little exposition, or none, in fact. It should simply be read, as I now do on occasion, when I want to remember, return, or be thankful.

I thought of walking round and round a space

Utterly empty, utterly a source

Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place

In our front hedge above the wallflowers.

The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.

I heard the hatchet’s differentiated

Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh

And collapse of what luxuriated

Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.

Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval

Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,

Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,

A soul ramifying and forever

Silent, beyond silence listened for.

—–

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The Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

Rock swirls and moss green

Surrounds chatter and cell phones –

Someone’s missed the point.

_____

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Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

—–

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Raymond Carver

I’ve just told my wife
That we need to visit Clatskanie, Oregon, your birthplace.
And I often think to myself “I should take a trip to Port Angeles
And see the great, gray light on the Pacific and visit his grave site”.

But then I think “What’s the point?”
Why bother with places, the faint traces of memory on streets and buildings, with plaques on walls?
All we have is the words, you wrote,
And they better be the right ones.
_____

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Immigrant songs – Heaney, Joyce and Ronnie Drew

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

As an Irishman, it’s rare to find a fresh take on emigration. The culture of leave-taking and return, post-Christmas news reports from the departure gates at Dublin Airport, regularly thinking eight hours ahead, finding yourself in an Irish bar at 6 a.m. watching a sports game “from home” – most of these are familiar to the Irish emigrant.

Along with the songs and stories of course – from John Healy’s “The Grass Arena”, to Ronnie Drew’s recording of “McAlpine’s Fusiliers“, to the granddaddy of them all, James Joyce’s “Ulysses’, written in three continental cities but a chronicle of only one.

Historically the message has usually, ultimately, been one of exile – whether by force or choice. This ‘push’ story has often obscured the ‘pull’ narrative, the story of the return to Ireland: there are not as many songs about the prodigal Irishmen and women who came back.

This “pull” is the subject of a short, early poem of Seamus Heaney’s. “Gravities” appeared in Heaney’s first collection, “Death of a Naturalist”. It’s a poem that examines the “strict and invisible” force that pulls people back, to relationships and to countries.

Reading it also reminds me that even some of Ireland’s most famous exiles, Joyce and the monk Colmcille, for all their achievements in other countries, never escaped the pull of the home. (Even if, in Joyce’s case, they would never return.)

“Gravities” 

High-riding kites appear to range quite freely

Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.

The pigeon that deserts you suddenly

Is heading home, instinctively faithful.

 

Lovers with barrages of hot insult

Often cut off their nose to spite their face,

Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,

Re-enter the native port of their embrace.

 

Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece

Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street

And on Iona Colmcille sought ease

by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.

_____

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Death mask in North Great George’s Street

Death mask.

Death mask.

It’s himself.

In a black box, glass-faced, placed in a room on the top floor of a Georgian house.

Looking peaceful.

Little sign of the ulcer that killed him, or the stress of the years unpublished in exile,

Or the pain of the eye operations.

It’s not the original death mask – instead the product of revisions and iterations.

But it’s his parting glance to the world.

Smaller than his stature suggests, and gentler,

James Joyce sleeps in a quiet room, four storeys up, between Eccles Street and Nighttown.

Oddly, he looks at home.

_____

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Rest stop

We arrived the night after a hurricane’s last winds

Had whipped their way over South Carolina.

The beach and the trees were still and empty – the summer washed away,

A clean slate for Autumn.

We had driven from California, three weeks across the country,

And this driftwood beach and empty tourist town was ‘it’, the moment we reached the other coast.

We had arrived.

In 24 hours we would move on. For now, all was clear and endless.

The years of college were over, ahead lay possibility, calm water, storms, inconceivable events,

We ate by a beach campfire, and slept heavily that night, unburdened.

_____

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