The following three poems are taken from Paula Meehan’s Mysteries of the Home (Dedalus Press, 2013). The volume gathers together the poems from her two seminal 1990s collections The Man Who was Marked by Winter (1991) and Pillow Talk (1994).
Included are some of her best-known and best-loved poems — ‘The Pattern’, ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’, ‘My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis’ and ‘The Wounded Child’ among them. They show an artist at the height of her powers producing work of “remarkable candour and … stunning lyricism” (The Colby Quarterly).
I know this path by magic not by sight. Behind me on the hillside the cottage light is like a star that’s gone astray. The moon is waning fast, each blade of grass a rune inscribed by hoarfrost. This path’s well worn. I lug a bucket by bramble and blossoming blackthorn. I know this path by magic not by sight. Next morning when I come home quite unkempt I cannot tell what happened at the well. You spurn my explanation of a sex spell cast by the spirit who guards the source that boils deep in the belly of the earth, even when I show you what lies strewn in my bucket — a golden waning moon, seven silver stars, our own porch light, your face at the window staring into the dark.
My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis
for Brendan Kennelly
It was the piebald horse in next door’s garden frightened me out of a dream with her dawn whinny. I was back in the boxroom of the house, my brother’s room now, full of ties and sweaters and secrets. Bottles chinked on the doorstep, the first bus pulled up to the stop. The rest of the house slept
except for my father. I heard him rake the ash from the grate, plug in the kettle, hum a snatch of a tune. Then he unlocked the back door and stepped out into the garden. Autumn was nearly done, the first frost whitened the slates of the estate. He was older than I had reckoned, his hair completely silver, and for the first time I saw the stoop of his shoulder, saw that his leg was stiff. What’s he at? So early and still stars in the west?
They came then: birds of every size, shape, colour; they came from the hedges and shrubs, from eaves and garden sheds, from the industrial estate, outlying fields, from Dubber Cross they came and the ditches of the North Road. The garden was a pandemonium when my father threw up his hands and tossed the crumbs to the air. The sun cleared O’Reilly’s chimney and he was suddenly radiant, a perfect vision of St Francis, made whole, made young again, in a Finglas garden.
The first warm day of spring and I step out into the garden from the gloom of a house where hope had died to tally the storm damage, to seek what may have survived. And finding some forgotten lupins I’d sown from seed last autumn holding in their fingers a raindrop each like a peace offering, or a promise, I am suddenly grateful and would offer a prayer if I believed in God. But not believing, I bless the power of seed, its casual, useful persistence, and bless the power of sun, its conspiracy with the underground, and thank my stars the winter’s ended.
Patrick Deeley shares his thoughts on poetry with Aoife Byrne, following the publication of Groundswell, his New and Selected Poems
(Interview first published in July 2013)
Do you have a particular method of writing?
Each collection seems to tie in with a particular period of five or six years in my life. I have to live a bit, to gather fresh experiences as raw materials for poems. So for example the new work in Groundswell, recently published, has to do with my ongoing preoccupations – landscape that’s both rural and urban, stories from history and modernity, meditations on nature and folklore – but now as well there are poems that dwell on ageing, on art and music, on the sustaining of love over time and on the nourishment that comes from a long-lasting love. These themes have come more and more to the forefront.
“I write mainly at night. I enjoy the quietness. The poem often starts with an image, and I build on this and see where it goes.”
I love the physicality of being in the world. I plunge in. Images come of that sensual engagement, but then there’s narrative as well. If I’m lucky the poem gathers to some kind of earned wisdom or insight. After the rush of the initial draft I have a fair idea whether there’s something worth keeping or not. Then I edit. This job of editing is about as much fun as trying to extract a thistle thorn from your finger with a sewing needle – but crucial if the poem is to have a chance.
How has growing up in Ireland influenced your poetry?
I spent my childhood in rural East Galway in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My father was mad about machines and timber. He had a sawmill and a carpentry workshop where he made all manner of things – hurleys, furniture, cartwheels, farm implements, even coffins at one stage. I loved watching him shaping wood. My mother as well as being a home-maker did much of the farming. Part of the farm consisted of a Callows or wetland meadow, with its own specialised flora and fauna. I skived off there just to avoid work. Both the beauty and solitude grew on me, and influenced my poems, later – I saw nature in its raw state, up close, at first hand. But the skills my father possessed, and the lives of local people who lived round about us, and their colloquial speech, also chimed with me when I began to write.
My grandmother made ballads. Seumas O’Kelly, a relation of my father’s, wrote the highly regarded novella, The Weaver’s Grave. But there were few books in our house. My parents were pragmatic. They worked hard. They loved talk, the oral tradition. I began to write only after I’d moved to Dublin to train as a teacher. The home place and the memories came back to me unsentimentally. I enjoyed the quickness and the freedom of city life, and that also has shaped my poems. I still return to County Galway every so often, to meet my family. It’s the trigger of childhood memories, but when I splice these with later experiences and events from the present the poem happens out of that.
Landscape is sometimes still the spur, but I’m more interested in how we’ve harnessed and transformed it. My own memories, as well as more general notions about the primordial, can work as a starting point, but the poem must catch and connect the old world up with the possibilities of now. That, for me, is the challenge and the excitement. Somebody remarked that you have to keep glancing around and behind you while reading my poems. I like the implication, the ghost lurking in the machine of the poem at any moment liable to jump out.
Are there any particular themes that, as a poet, you feel compelled to write about?
Yes. To do with nature, but not simply as nature poems, more a case of how we impact on the earth and how the earth impacts on us. Groundswell: New and Selected has five sections and these sections have themes in common as well as specific themes of their own. In the first section, ‘The Hidden Village’, I address my early life and the lives of my neighbours in Foxhall, the townland where I was born.
In ‘King of the Wood’, trees are the compulsion, for themselves and for the myths and folktales associated with them. These are frequently given a modern twist or written at a slant. My father lost his life in a tree-felling accident, and maybe it was a working out of grief at what had happened that brought me to face up to trees, their beauty and their versatility, their panoply of legends and their mystery, and the sense of loss I felt for my father, with his sawmill and workshop and the machines and implements he had put his hand to left behind as a reminder of him.
In ‘The Flowing Bones’ section I examine aspects of the earth and its creatures at ground level, to find out what makes them tick, and I focus more on city life as well as on the increasing urbanisation of rural Ireland over the past decade or so.
In the fourth section, ‘Fear Bréige’, I’m having a lash at the recent economic disasters that befell our country – using as catalyst a rudimentary scarecrow or ‘Fear Bréige’ who finds himself in Dublin, living with some builders and made to serve as an ineffectual witness of the entire boom and bust.
And in Groundswell, the substantial batch of new poems that comprise the fifth section of the book, well… I’ve talked about some of the themes there earlier.
Has your idea of poetry changed since you started writing?
“I think poetry – the reading and the writing of it – helps to enrich and develop our consciousness.”
In my classroom in Ballyfermot when I was a teacher I encouraged the children to write poems in their own language and out of their own experience, for precisely this sense of personal enrichment – not just in terms of vocabulary but because poetry helps expand our ‘creative space’, where alternative possibilities in the way we live our lives can occur to us.
For my own part, each poem is always a beginning, a shot in the dark. It’s a more studied undertaking now, less fun perhaps because I’m trying to ratchet it up in terms of stretching the language as fully as I can, and deepening the layers of meaning or potential meaning, and aiming for beautiful expression always, even when the world the poem confronts is distasteful or unfair or considered ugly. I hope that the ‘argument’ in my poems has caught up with the imagery, that the wonder remains, and that the payoff for the reader is in finding more pleasure, greater reward in reading the poems.
Do you think that the core ingredient of a poem is that it should be read aloud in order to be fully appreciated?
It depends on the poem, I think. Some poems are slow-burn, and need a good mulling over. Others demand the carry of the air. Others still may fit both forms of presentation. People who attend poetry readings often say that the poem read aloud by the poet enables them to appreciate it more. But then, reading poems aloud to an audience is its own knack, one that not every poet can manage effectively.
What do you think constitutes a successful reading?
A big and happy crowd held spellbound by a poet performing at the top of his or her powers?
Are there any other poets to whose work you continually return?
“There are several poets I admire, but what I tend to do is return to certain poems which I consider to be great and which I never tire of reading.”
I admire the way Hopkins mints a language to match his restless search, and the passion of John Donne expressed with tremendous technical excellence. The pure vulnerability of Theodore Roethke appeals to me, his lyricism hitting the spot, taking you there. I met him once, when I was a child. He bought drinks for my father and the other men in John Joe Broderick’s pub in Kilrickle.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Making Way, a novel by Theo Dorgan, and Savage Solitude, a book about the nature of being alone, by Máighréad Medbh. I’m also reading current issues of The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review and The Shop – but not just because I happen to have poems in them!
Are there any creative mediums that you’d like to pursue that you haven’t yet?
Recently I took early retirement from the job of primary school principal in order to devote more time to writing. Memoir interests me. At some stage I’d like to write about my father’s life – spent, as he would have it, “following tractors and various other contraptions”. I’ve had works of fiction for young people published by O’Brien Press, and if or when the poems leave me alone I may go back to that.
Which other contemporary Irish writers do you admire?
I admire far too many contemporary Irish writers to even begin to mention just a few.
Do you often find yourself in the company of other poets? If so, how do you think this might influence your work?
I don’t often meet other poets, except at the occasional book launch or festival. I never discuss my work with them – apart from with my editor, Pat Boran – nor do they discuss their work with me. I do feel that we recognise each other’s struggle, however, and the odd word of praise back or forth for work published does matter, especially from someone whose own work you admire.
Do you think the reading public has any preconceptions about poetry? If so, do you think that they are correct presuppositions?
The poetry reading public is small but passionate about poetry. I really don’t know what presuppositions there may be out there generally or even among poetry followers, but people who attend poetry readings seem well informed about the contemporary scene. What I would hope for are more informed anthologists, some of whom seem led by media perceptions of ‘who matters’ and ‘whose work is important’. I would in common with other poets also welcome more space for reviews and critical attention for poetry.
Do you use the Internet to find new poetry? If so, where do you go?
I go to various sites including that of The Munster Literature Festival and The Irish Literary Times. Naturally I go to the Dedalus Press website for their ‘Poem of the Month’ and to see what’s up. I often use the Internet to locate the work especially of the poets of old, when I can’t find their poems in books, but I still buy a fair amount of poetry books. I’ve a roomful of them, going back over thirty years.
What about some advice for aspiring Irish poets?
Apart from the obvious things such as persevering at the craft and reading the work of proven poets, I’d say follow your own path, but with an open mind and out of an emotional imperative.
What is it about poetry in particular that attracts you as a writer?
“Writing poems helps me to stay open to the world. I enjoy the pressure it puts me under, and the pleasure when the poem catches fire. It’s a solitary task and while I tend to be gregarious the solitariness of poem-making draws me in.”
As a child looking at nature, I often fell into a trance. People say of the new poems in Groundswell that the wonder is still there. The poems help me come to terms with things, in a sense preserve the experiences and the wonder. Writing poems is for me an affirmation of the world and of my place in it. And the world, for all its faults and failings, deserves to be sung – passionately, beautifully, even in the cracked voice of a poet.
3 Poems from Groundswell: New and Selected Poems
Again we find ourselves carried away by the thought of having discovered each other. And in your garden now this monkey-puzzle, fossil mother of suburbia, suggests South America. Wild, we both say, in the parlance of today or yesterday. Except it all started ages ago – the way we talked to beat the band, the love play we wanted to make before the diplodocus that peeped shyly round a tree could be taken for a common streetlamp, the blundering brontosaurus trembling hedge and tarmac become – in a heartbeat or a time-slip – our last bus back, the one we might run to catch or contrive to miss on purpose.
Perspectives through sound: a blackbird’s oath, sworn from a chimney-stack; the mellifluous coos of woodpigeons conjuring sunbeams amid high ivy clusters; a robin’s pipe, happening to approve of cotoneaster berries. But if the tremulous, piercing notes of the thrush are expansions of space and time, rolling me wide and far, I still hear the magpie’s screeched assertion from a wall overlooking the covered-in quarry, that all was winter yesterday, was stone the day before.
Apollo did the dirt, slew poor old serpent god Python, whose corpse gradually decomposed – the smell, initially horrible, had tempered itself by the time the Sibyl breathed it in, and was now an entrancing perfume.
Rubbish, say the experts, that Delphic whiff was naturally occurring ethylene. But what a gas, still, what prophecies came to shape the destinies of peasants and kings trying to live up or down to them.
And if my wetlands will-o’-the-wisp must turn to methane, or luminosities glissading my skin as I rise from the turlough are to pass for algal fluorescence, they’ve long since exerted their influence.
Here is ground and groundswell, fit matter for a day’s dalliance or a lifetime spent deliberately looking. Here we speak to each other because of the river – not the fact of the river but the mood it pushes,
the clay-coloured flood so deep the heron must step aside from it, the water-hen retreat under St. Patrick’s cabbage. And, fresh as Hopkins saw it, ‘Kingfishers catch fire’, their orange bellies flaring from a blue-plumed bush.
The following three poems are taken from piano, Eva Bourke’s 2011 collection of poems.
“In these new poems Eva Bourke leans into what she calls the “heart of things,” discovering for herself, and us, time and again that there truly is a heart of things, and to things, and that it might well survive all that conspires against it, even in the most war-broken, besieged, and harm-full places on earth. These poems suggest that the soul is an enduring gentleness in us, in others, in perhaps everything, and that it needs us to release it, to let it breathe, to nourish it with what we create rather than destroy. That gentleness is what we hear throughout the ample and beautiful margins of this book, the notes of its music being played with such care, and played softly, piano.” —Fred Marchant
August Near Südstern
The sturdy gentleman outside the Café Lux devours his meal, his dog takes careful note of every bite. The red and white umbrellas flog
high garden spirits, and the sunlight passes through empty pools of mirrors in the bar, each green-blue vein in cocktail glasses a drunken streak. August, a shaggy beast,
sleeps stretched full-length beneath dead leaves—they’re this year’s first— and an unseasonal tristesse creeps grey and cold among the trees
inching past couples in the shade, until at last it settles down next to a woman on her own talking in whispers to herself who tries
recalling what she had known best in all the years: the names and faces of friends and lovers, the familiar places so dear to her, all gone, all lost.
The Garden at the Road’s End
Turn left at the elm with the heron’s nest, go past the Forbidden Village sign, then right where the two thieves on the cross hide under mounds of mildewed brambles, take the long and narrow path for a mile or two till you come to the garden at the road’s end. Three magpies, those bêtes noirs in their chalk and ink plumage will spy you first, cackle and mock you, trotting around on the grass over flinders of eggshells—relics of a recent murderous foray—then flap onto the thatch for a better view. A wren seizing his chance will speed into the white thorn hedge. The sun will stare through the spokes of an old motorbike parked in the yard, nettles and dandelions open green telegrams beneath the trees that stand in a circle around the house, stiff and tight as police cordons. Silence and absence. Go up close. Your heart in your mouth. Pressing your ear against the door, listen to spiders glide across the black and white piano keys, the hammers softly touch the strings, the pedals—or somebody’s breathing—rise and fall, the wind play funeral marches on a minor scale.
Four People on a Lake
Three hundred and sixty-five volcanic islands scattered along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, each with barely enough room for one house.
No human is an island perhaps, but each of these isletas possessed a soul behind fringes of bougainvillea and tropical green.
There was a small church on one, it glinted in the sun, just discernible between tree tops,
on another a school, a corrugated roof on a few posts where wisdom could come and go as it pleased,
on a steep rock in splendid isolation a villa—the flag of the most powerful nation rose stiffly in the breeze above it—
and on an island with a landing pier of rough planks tables were set offering food and drink in the shade of a mango tree.
Our boat glided along narrow channels through the reeds. We sat in silence, four people from four different countries.
White herons stood sentry-still, in the shallows. Forgotten were sleepless nights, regrets, worries, heart-ache. A jewelled bird swayed on a branch, water lilies dallied in yellow birthday hats, sea lettuce was everywhere, rootless, adrift
on the glittering surface. The Danish woman stared through the lens of her camera, unable to believe her own eyes.
The young boatman who ferried us asked her politely to post her photograph of him to the second last house
before the old jacaranda on the León road. All this time islands, boatman, ourselves and all else on the lake the lake itself and all its creatures
the trees, plantations, fields and deserts around it, the far-away coasts of two oceans, dusky cordilleras, cloud forests, volcanoes beneath smoke rings
farms, villages, cities, people and animals were held in the dispassionate gaze of a pair of maritime eagles that circled
and cruised overhead, air-lifted by the thermals into a blue way beyond our mortal vision.