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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Things I’ve learned from a 10-month-old puppy

Hadley

Hadley

Hadley is a miniature dachshund who lives in our house. More accurately, as we’ve discovered since she arrived here at the age of seven weeks, we live in hers.

She’s trained us to dutifully attend to her toilet breaks, prepare meals and retrieve any and all toys that fall underneath the sofa. She’s working on training us to toss those toys to her on a bark command, but it takes time to break in humans.

Hadley is also the first dog I’ve shared a house with, which has led to some insights (apart from the fact that a dog is a constantly-flowing fountain of affection, expressed through face-licking and frantic tail wagging).

Here’s what else I’ve learned since our puppy arrived nine months ago:

  • There is no limit to the amount of fun that can be had by tugging on a fake pizza slice. None whatsoever. At times I feel like we could make a whole afternoon of this.
  • If your puppy rings the pee bell (OK, bops it with her nose) twice in quick succession, you best move quickly.
  • The climatic moment in that Sherlock/Narcos/Sharp Objects episode will correspond precisely with the moment your neighbor walks up her stoop, prompting a flurry of frenetic barking from your seven-inch-high, territorially-obsessed watchdog.
  • If it’s on the floor, it’s fair game. And good luck getting it back.
  • Chewing on a stinking, desiccated bull’s penis for a hour is a perfectly acceptable indulgence. (Hey, if that was the worst thing humans did, it would be a nice world.)
  • 4 a.m. playtime is a good idea. Announcing this by jumping on your sleeping human’s face is an even better one.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff either. In fact, the only things you should sweat are the availability of treats, getting your blanket perfectly situated to sleep for another hour, and the fact that you haven’t licked someone’s face yet this afternoon.
  • Anytime playtime is a good idea. In fact, if you’re wondering if it’s playtime yet…it’s playtime. On that note….

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Music to waste hot dusty days to

Alfredo Bolona

Alfredo Boloña

Mid-August. A time of absence and lassitude, not helped by the smoky wildfire air that’s infesting Portland.

It’s a time of year when it’s all I can do to maintain my nine-to-five – it’s hard to raise the energy for much outside of that – or outside at all, given that temperatures are regularly hitting 35c.

Walking along Killingsworth Street in such heat last weekend I thought: what’s the perfect soundtrack for these days? One recording came to mind, one which sums up the slow, languorous nature of a hot August day.

“Aurora En Pekin” is a performance by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos, a version of a song written by the Cuban guitarist Alfredo Boloña. Over the course of its five and a half minutes the pace, and the volume, rarely rise above a gentle whisper, the percussion slowly ticking the beat while Ribot’s guitar line meanders in and out.

It’s not urgent music, or music that draws attention to itself. It’s just there, simmering away, softly marking time until things become more urgent, more on-track, more September.

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Strolling around, waiting for the death-blow

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Sometimes a busy week leaves little mental space to write. So it’s been in recent days – a confluence of factors has ensured that it’s been about all we can do to keep up the daily schedule of work, chores, puppy-raising, etc.

The one exception was a stolen hour this morning, when I went for a three-mile dawn walk. And a recent resolution of mine is to listen to a new or old or heretofore-ignored album on such Saturday morning rambles.

What albums have I uncovered while strolling through sun or mist or (last Christmas morning) snow along Ainsworth Street?

  • Gerry Mulligan – “Night Lights”. Relaxing, very relaxing, not least Mulligan’s piano on the title track.
  • Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”. Fast and harsh and very good, not least Steve Nieve’s thumping piano.
  • First Aid Kit – “Ruins”. Sorry, I just don’t get it.
  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”. A trimmer, angrier version of Radiohead. Not bad, and “Harrowdown Hill” is one of the scariest songs I’ve heard in an age.

There are others, some that either elude me or that I didn’t engage with enough to rate. This morning produced the best find of the lot though.

I knew little about The Cure’s 1982 album “Pornography” before today. I had a vague impression that it was peak-Goth, not necessarily something I’d want to listen to 45 minutes of. But I love “Disintegration”, and those in the know rate “Pornography” up there with that one.

Turns out they’re right. Pounding drums, a searing, echoing guitar line, Robert Smith at his most echoey and depressed (the album’s opening vocal line is “it doesn’t matter if we all die”, and it goes downhill from there) – and that’s all on the first song, “One Hundred Years”.

It’s the sort of song that lesser acts have based careers or – at the very least – albums on (Portishead’s “Third”, for a start). As for me, walking around the polite streets of Northeast Portland singing “Creeping up the stairs in the dark, waiting for the death-blow”) made for a different sort of Saturday morning.

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Playing anthems…to 20 people

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

Some bands can’t catch a break.

Last week I saw The Low Anthem at Mississippi Studios in Portland, a small (smaller than intimate, in truth) venue. Just as well, as there were about 20 people in the room.

How could this be? Surely some mistake with the booking or the promotion? Were The Decemberists are playing an impromptu set in the bar next door?

Nope. Just the vagaries of popularity and music and trends and time. The one unimpeachable thing was the night’s music: a full rendition of the band’s latest release (a concept album about a salt doll immersing herself in the sea), followed by some older songs. It was a sublime, if unnecessarily low-lit (see above), evening.

Leaving the venue I cast my mind back a decade or so, to a time when The Low Anthem were being heralded as the new Fleet Foxes of sorts, and tickets to their Dublin shows were hard to get.

Somewhere along the way something changed – not least the band itself, whose members turned away from the ‘new folk’ (or whatever) label to indulge their own, more niche, interests (including building their own studio in a restored vaudeville-era theater).

Nonetheless, one assumes that when artists reach a certain plateau – of recognition at least, if not success – they remain there, maybe not ascending to the next level but, at the very least, not slipping down the hill.

Why care about this? Because The Low Anthem makes music that deserves to be heard, that may at times require immersion and focus but may also – when it comes to beautiful song like “Gondwanaland” – be the most sublime thing you’ll hear today.

 

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Islands I’ve made my own

Columbia River from Sauvie's Island, July 2018

Columbia River from Sauvie’s Island, July 2018

I’ve always lived near marshy islands.

As a kid I remember taking part in the religious processions around Our Lady’s Island in Co Wexford. Thirty years later I ran most days on Bull Island in Dublin, when we lived in nearby Raheny.

This weekend I paid my first visit to Sauvie’s Island, just outside my current home in Portland, Oregon. It’s a little larger than its Wexford or Dublin equivalents, but it has many of the same features: low brushland, boggy beaches, and a huge sky above.

I can’t offer any great insight into why I’m attracted to these peninsular places, other than the solitude and immersion in nature they offer.

Aside from that, each place has its own unique feeling. To this day, Our Lady’s Island remains a ghostly place in my mind because of the exposed and lonely grottos that pilgrims stop and pray at as they circumnavigate the island.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island is weather and wind, an elemental place near – but completely alien to – Dublin city. My main memories of the place are of running there on a summer morning before dawn, and walking over it on a winter night after a huge rainstorm. On both occasions it was a vast, cacophonous place, even when silent.

I don’t yet know what Sauvie’s Island offers. The ghosts of dairy farmers and Indian tribes, perhaps. On the summer morning I walked there it was a calm – I imagine its shoreline is a very different place on a December night.

Thinking about this at my desk, I came across these lines written by the 19th century New York poet Emma Lazarus, about Long Island, which go some way to explaining the lure of my three islands, and why I’ll return to all three some day.

The luminous grasses, and the merry sun 
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide, 
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp 
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide, 
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep 
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon. 
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own. 

_____

 

 

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Listening back to Dublin in the 2000s

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

I wish I could remember more.

About my twenties, but more specifically about the music shows I attended back then. This occurred to me in recent days, when I listened to an album I hadn’t heard in a decade, by an artist who was once a major part of my musical life. The recording was “Ease Down The Road”, the artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham to his mother).

In the early 2000s I was a devotee of Oldham’s music – not as hardcore as some, but I knew his albums “Master and Everyone”, “I See A Darkness” and “Ease Down The Road” very well. Then, for some reason, I stopped listening.

This is one of those curious things that I’ve encountered in my relationships with certain artists – in music or literature or art. One day I’m deep into their rare studio outtakes – then I blink and it’s 10 years later and I can’t even recall the name of the record I played constantly for two months.

It happened with David Gray, with Jan Gabarek, with Francis Bacon and with Jonathan Franzen. One moment I’m hanging on their every note, brush stroke or sentence, the next it’s “oh, that guy”.

It seems, though, that if the roots have been laid deep enough, I can return. So it was with “Ease Down The Road”, which I came across while mindlessly browsing my music streaming service.

A single listen was all it took to bring me back to Dublin 18 years ago, to a friend who pushed a copy of “I Can See A Darkness” on me, to an ex-girlfriend who was even more into “Master and Everyone” than I was, to a half-remembered night at Whelan’s on Camden Street, where an irate old guy (who was probably younger than I am now) kept hissing “quiet!” at tipsy gig goers, cupping his hands around his ears to get his deep dose of Oldham’s gothic folk music.

At times it was hard to fight off a feeling of nostalgia. But this was outweighed by one of regret – that night in Whelan’s was one of many in those years, the highs and lows of which I’ve forgotten. Where are the crew I used to go to those shows with now? Why did they rebuild Whelan’s (to my ears and eyes it was an imperfect gem)? Could me-then have predicted than me-now would one day look back on that scene from a distance of almost two decades and 5,000 miles?

And why should any of this bear thinking about? Isn’t every day a new one? What’s the value to tracing past experiences?

Finally though, a most important question – how could I live through those intervening years without listening to this song?

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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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The dirty dream of the nineties is alive in Portland

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Much time has passed since I first heard the Scottish chamber pop outfit Belle and Sebastian.

I have a vague recollection of seeing the video for their 1998 song “Dirty Dream Number Two” on MTV, back in those ancient days when music television was a thing. I remember a college housemate singing the praises of the album that song featured on, “The Boy With The Arab Strap“.

But my listening interest was truly sparked when I picked up a copy of their debut album “Tigermilk“, likely in Tower Records on Wicklow Street in Dublin (now gone the way of MTV), and played it endlessly through fourth year of university.

For a number of years after that I dutifully bought Belle and Sebastian albums on their release, always intending to see them live one day. I never did of course, as the fates and my best laid plans conspired against it. In time, though no reflection on the quality of the band’s output, I eventually gave up buying the latest B+S album.

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

But ageing and perhaps nostalgia and – more likely – distance from Europe has recently led me back to seeing bands from my 20s, acts who heydayed in the late nineteen nineties and early noughties. And so, in the past year, I’ve seen live performances by Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lloyd Cole, to mention four.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining how, on a sunny Saturday evening last weekend, I sat amid the toddlers on the grass, the 40-something indie kids and a family of bored elephants, watching Belle and Sebastian perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

The music was – as I expected – wonderful; bright, melodic and witty, it was easy to link the best of the evening’s songs to their writer, front man Stuart Murdoch, who himself looked just as he did in the MTV videos of my memory.

That was the charming thing about the evening. Belle and Sebastian didn’t sound or feel like they’d aged. Nowadays, when I look at pictures, or read cards, or reminisce about the nineties, my reaction is usually: “God, we were so much younger” or “what the hell happened to that guy?” or “I wish I’d time to read that book again”.

But for a couple of hours in a zoo in Portland my knees didn’t feel the ache of an old running injury, and my hair didn’t appear as gray as usual in a photograph. Nor did I have to fight through the mental distractions of everyday life just to focus on the music.

Twenty years later Belle and Sebastian were there and so was I. Ain’t that enough? And they even played “Dirty Dream Number Two”.

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All you need is…Paul McCartney in a car

A short post is in order this week. But it’s a good one.

Like most people, I’ve long since tired of the 24-hour news cycle, the depressing tumble of event-reaction-counter-reaction-analysis-argument that surrounds most major news events. (And this from an ex-journalist, too – I should probably just look at less online news.)

There are times, then, when I simply want to go online and see something that lifts me up, that brightens the world for a moment. For a brief 23 minutes this week, I’ve found it.

You’ve likely heard of “Carpool Karaoke“, a series in which late night host James Corden rides around with celebs, singing, quipping and gurning (he’s something of an acquired taste, and I’m not 100 per cent sold).

I’ve enjoyed some segments I’ve seen, but his piece with Paul McCartney, released yesterday, is one of the most heartwarming clips I’ve seen in a long time. It’s simple – McCartney and Corden driving around the former’s old Liverpool haunts, meeting old dears, shaking hands and kissing babies (McCartney mainly), culminating with a great reveal.

Death, ageing, the past – they’re all covered. But, because this is Paul McCartney, it’s all very “get on with it, always look on the bright side”. I could write more – not least about the bit that had me tearing up – but I figure you best watch it for yourself.

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