poem: AN IRISH LEXICON

The poem below may prove a little elusive to readers outside Irish culture. It was published in Poetry Ireland Review during 2013. What I wanted to do was write out my ‘lexicon’ of the aspects of life on this island that in some way have marked or nudged or impressed themselves on my life. It’s based on the realisation that there are things I take for granted, such as the place names and place sounds (listed in the first section), and which have always seemed part of the place. This is the lyrical but also raw Ireland, the Ireland of archaeology, of natural phenomena, of place names which echo the passage of time and endurance. Another part of me reacts to what I see as the over-celticisation ofIreland, the easy cultural tourism which insists we are X, Y and Z, and which is as far away from the truth about us as a people as wearing a ‘lei’ is in Hawaiian culture.

Then there is also the matter of what is remembered, what is mis-remembered, and what is forgotten. Some things are forgotten by design because they simply do not ‘fit’ the customised view of Ireland that is sometimes tauted around the globe as authentic. I believe we are a talented people, I believe that we retain strong strands of individual originality, and that this is strongly evident in the younger generation who are often educated and full of a self-belief that has not been threatened the way self-belief was for earlier generations (apart from the privileged).

I’ve written a little about my mother in this poem, and about small town Ireland, in which the ‘telephone girls’ were thought to listen in to phone calls (whether this is true or not, it was the perception). I’ve also touched on the possibility of how some married couples were able to lead unique lives that encompassed diverse reading materials.

I had to offer a rebuke to ideological feminists as well. How could I not – as a poet who happened to be also female, but who discovered that agendaed poetry, or poetry that offered the most politically correct poetic shibboleths, was that which was often most welcomed when I was a young woman? It was difficult to simply ‘be’ a poet.

And finally, I had to look to England and Ireland’s relationship with it. A tired old subject, some might say, but one which interests me to this day, especially the Orwellian notion of “Unthink”. England brought us riches, yes – riches, but it also brought cultural torment, and the mixture of the two created an inheritance of awkward dialectic, of uneasy dreaming, indeed an inheritance that formed us significantly.

An Irish Lexicon

(A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U)

Twilight, and the deer are grazing in the Phoenix Park.
Someone dreams of Arkle, Beara, Drumlins, Errigal.
A poet writes of Dubh Linn, Lonndubh, Belfast,

Glens of Imal, Antrim, The Downs,
Devil’s Bit, Vinegar Hill, The Hook, Bannow,
Ships, helmets, Ogham, Newgrange,

Dawn chorus, dawn light, grave passages,
Burren limestone, dolmen, capstone, and Dowth.
In school they speak of Flight, Grammar, Imram,

Lir, Marian, Naoise, Oriel, in the Dáil it’s Partnership,
Rights, salmon, Taoiseach/Toscairí.
Sea fog and frost are rolling in. Land holds its breath.

*
The SOMEONE, the TEACHER, the POET,
the POLITICIAN weave a dialogue of badger-bait,
bull-bait, dog-fight, and greyhound,
Cú, Cuchullan, Dun Dealgan, Eamhain Macha,
Tháinig long ó Valparaiso, tá tír na n-óg
Ag cúl an tí, tir alainn trina céile,
Mise Eire, Micheal Ó Suilleabhán,
The Long Hall, The Brazen Head, The Oliver
St. John Gogarty, The South Pole Inn, Omagh bomb,
Gugán Barra, Guests of the Nation, La Mon,
Oedipus Complex, Lough Swilly, Anna Livea,
National Museum, Síle na Gig, jigs and reels,
Riverdance, Liberty Hall, the Limerick pogrom of 1904,
the bee-loud glade, the beehive hut, Georgian Dublin,
Liberty Hall rebuilt and scaling the clouds,
Custom House, Guinness, the fighting boys of Annabelle’s,
Fairview Park, The George, Dawn Run, the Curragh.

Wren Women, Glencree, Synagogue, Germans and Jews,

Wicklow Jail, ghosts, Kilmainham,
Dawn executions in Dublin,
the Disappeared, Jean McConville, 1994, Abercorn, poteen,
the Black Pig’s Dyke, De Valera, Crazy Jane,
Old Croghan Man at rest in the his glass box,
clean as a newborn, renewed for viewing by MILLIONS.
Arigna, slit nipples, The Clonskeagh Mosque,
laundries, the Imam, Good Shepherd Convent,
CPRSI, Bessborough, the Protestants of Cork in 1921,
Monaghan 1974, Belfast Agreement, Fish on Friday,
Good Friday Agreement, that blackbird over Emy Lough,
gold at Clontibret, ghost estates in Laois, a haunted house
in Lucan, golden apples of the sun, whatever-you-say,
oil off Cork, Daghda, the Boyne, UB-65,
September 1913, extra points for Honours Maths,
Gaelscoileanna, Bodhráns and spoons, harp-making
in Portlaoise jail, piebalds in Jobstown, free buggies
for immigrants, free curtains, money-for-old-rope-
single-mothers-of-four, Arkle, Beara, a wherewithal
for bags of coal, turf, as a wretched frost descends.

And yet we have a fabled coast, where sea-cattle plunge
into the WAVES. Inland, hill-sprites on DRUMLINS,
pismires on the bog, all CELT and tribe in South Ulster,
further north there’s ERRIGAL, but speak not,
SAY-NOTHING, for words will never count so much as
gesture.

Flight of the Earls, O’Neill in Rome, Michael Robartes,
Kenny in D.C., Irish artists in New York,
bringing-It-All-Over-there, the knowledge,
the Gathering, the sliver of salmon, the sucked thumb,
Fairtrade, Taltainn, free-range eggs, free-loaders,
curlews, buzzards, Lissadell.

Twilight, and the deer are grazing in the Phoenix Park.
Someone dreams of Arkle, Beara, Drumlins, Errigal.
On the Curragh, whin bushes dream, and horses
are stabled for the night. Frost bites down.

*
Celts

The exotic myth of origin, spread its cloak
from Eire to Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Galicia.
Even today, defies the MONGREL MIX.

I’m an Irishwoman (you’re Irish? I love
The way you people speak!). Then part Scotwoman,
part Norman-maid, part O’Donnell on the way home
from KINSALE, some fragment of embattled clan,
lingering in Limerick, not a Donegal gene in my bones.

IT DOES NOT MATTER, WHAT WE FORGET,
AND MYTH IS NOT EXOTIC, (in text-speak this is
SHOUTING, but to stretch the letters high,
to break the stifled code of poetries on the Island
of the Mongrel Mixture of frayed saints and devils.
Search for SCHOLARS. All gone to homes
in America’s universities. The saying used to go,
‘At least, we’re not British’ as the gombeen men
set up their 70s supermarket empires in ribboning
suburbs, ran despite themselves away from rural,
Catholic, the West, in denial until Robinson
hit the Presidency: how we rejoiced at her inauguration,
at the chewed-wasp faces of Lenihan and Haughey.

But in denial till then,
I AM A BECAUSE I AM NOT B. I AM IRISH
BECAUSE I AM NOT BRITISH

*
Máthair mo Chroí

Front line of the defence, a line with no power
unless in the home, twisting sons into priests,
daughters to carers like themselves. Mine simmered.
EDUCATION! she cried, IT’S CARRIED
LIGHTLY ALL YOUR LIFE, MY DAUGHTERS!
In old age, educated, with three university
degrees, her modesty comes from knowing
we know nothing when facts are put to bed,
and all that’s left is the heart-thorn of experience,
although she does not refuse her HAUTE COUTURE,
smudge-pot colours brightening her eyes at eighty-six,
alive and equivocating to the end, but moved
by The Deer’s Cry, The Fox-Hunt,
music from the culture dancing in her soul.

Mise Eire and O’Riada once strung and boomed
through the house of my girlhood, between Acker Bilk
and Renata Tebaldi. Music, she said,
WAS PORTAL TO THE SOUL.
And so she taught her daughters, guiltless.

*
Mise le Meas

Everybody knew the telephone girls listened in.

You had to be careful what you said, and women
having affairs around the town learned fast.
The phone was not safe, and the local MI5
custodians of half-baked morality liked to chatter.
But this was Monaghan. Nobody had affairs
in the 1960s, did they? Nobody committed suicide,
did they? Nobody was gay. Some parents
had a copy of TANTRIC SEX, beside
THE CATHOLIC MARRIAGE, secreted in the high
wardrobe, and Mary McCarthy a presence
in that east-facing bedroom, where my parents could see
foxes at play in the high field,
beyond wind-tilted knots of holly trees.

But the telephone girls, those telephone girls,
how they tattled in the town! They knew
who owed what to whom, who in HIGH POWER
was doing his secretary, and the garda known
to lightly squeeze a woman’s breast, great paw
in through the car window as he advised her
on traffic conditions.

Hear them, that Irish sibilance: Putting you through now. . .
Hello Clones, call for you . . . ah how are ya Elsie, not a bad day,
yesterday was pure shockin’ . . . right now, call waiting . . .
Caller? Putting you through now . . .

*

Rebuke to Ideological Feminists
“I was not one of the popular feminists who knew what a sound-bite was . . . never took the Contraceptive Train north, nor went to Greenham Common . . .” (the poet, 2013)

We never moved as one, ladies, girls, women,
to suggest that it was otherwise would be a lie.
Today, some of you are CIVIL as any servant,
as IVORY-TOWERED as any ruminating scholar,
as unsmiling, grim and frightening as women would be
who thirty years ago spent time contemplating cervixes,
took classes in How Not to Smile All the Time.
Too much smiling – agreed – too much compliance
and willingness. You can be anyone you want!
Self-invent, renaissance women all!
We’ll help you on the way to smash that glass ceiling!

(If we are to believe the weekly Elle, the woman of letters is a remarkable
Zoological species: she brings forth, pell-mell, novels and children.
We are introduced, for example, to Jacqueline Lenoir (two daughters, one novel); Marina Grey (one son, one novel); Nicole Dutreil (two sons, four novels), etc).

But what does it mean? This: to write
is a glorious but bold activity; the writer is an ‘artist’,
one recognises that he is entitled to a little bohemianism …

Even so. It does not include the ordinary women
getting on with ordinary lives, the ones who wrestle
infant feet into little shoes, who wipe up puke, wipe shitty bums,
clean the rooms where some of you work out the policies.
But make no mistake: Let no women believe
that they can take advantage of this pact without having first
submitted to the eternal statute of womanhood.
Women are on the earth to give children to men;
let them write as much as they like, let them decorate
Their condition, but above all, let them not depart from it …

Some of you never recognised that we were not so helpless,
despite biology, so victimised, or speechless,
nor saw that we were ON YOUR SIDE.

The suspicion often fell that this was how you wanted it:
you, on the band-wagon, questioning the language
(that remains a GOOD IDEA).

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship
at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals
its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship
involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient,
listening objects (the students).

The sexuality, the mode d’emploi of every bloody thing
not quite your business. Your business was – is –
JUSTICE, FAIRNESS, HUMAN RIGHTS, not
CONDESCENSION AND KNOWING WHAT WAS
BETTER FOR YOUR MINIONS.

The battle goes on – ladies, girls, women. The principle remains correct and this enquiry asks that you get your hands dirtied in the ordinary smut, break your own networks and move into the favellas, the country, wherever the road is twisted and UNTHINK IS IN CHARGE, get working with the people, SEE WHERE JUSTICE IS DONE and learn from that. Or: remember Orwell, that thing about everyone being equal, But some are …? He got it right, all charged up with a memory of native male backsides skinned by the bamboo rod, released from prison to impoverished wives who soothed it all with mashed banana. M – A – S – H – E – D B – A – N – A – N – A .

*
So Unthink the Englishmen were let loose.
But to each generation its Unthinks. Unthink the Nation,
the State, the Federation, the Republic, the Monarchy,
the Commune, the Parish, the County, the GAA, League,
Union, Association, Gathering, Meeting, in every unstarry
constellation where people meet there’s a Mr. Unthink,
partered by Ms Unthink and all the Littler Unthinkums.

All Unthinking how they need LOVE, how LOVE rules the world,
how LOVE is everything and we surely ALL LOVE one another,
thee-most-bee-ewt-iful-word in thee world! But the same one
all the same for man-woman, mother-child, child-parent,
bro and sis, covering the spectrum as if it were one colour.

It ain’t one colour Ma’ams: it’s not black, it’s not white,
it’s all and any hut, it hides so deeply it’s like Mars the planet,
people wondering if there ever was life, and if liquid water
ever flowed in that barren territory. That’s what LOVE is.

And then love flows into politics. Into ideals. Into agendas.

Enter: Stage Right: The Leader of the Women’s Forum
presides at her Constituency, plus Chief Female Poets,
addressing the great iambed on cross-rhyme
and good-tempered rhyme, Being one’s Own Best Critic,
and Seizing Permissions.

Stampede Stage Left: the confused massing women,
their fret and fever about window cleanliness,
toilet-bowls, children and curries.
Until: behind them,
a quieter entering: the old, the weak,
the sick, the confused, the mad, the neurotic, the demented:
such fill the stage, while behind them again serried lines
of workers, bee-women, the soft hum of labour, creased brow,
compliant to the nature of life’s business:
love of the task that transforms.
The only love, perhaps.

*
Twilight, and the deer are grazing in the Phoenix Park.
Someone dreams of Arkle, Beara, Drumlins, Errigal.
A poet writes of Dubh Linn, Lonndubh, Belfast,

Glens of Imal, Antrim, The Downs,
Devil’s Bit, Vinegar Hill, The Hook, Bannow,
ships, helmets, Ogham, Newgrange,

Dawn chorus, dawn light, grave passages,
Burren limestone, dolmen, capstone, and Dowth.
Whin bushes on the Curragh toss and dream

as the wind untethers them. Horses are stabled
for the night. A fox runs close to the ditch,
beyond the steady shearing of evening cars, headlights.

Frost trembles on the air, falls firm across the land,
cooling an ardour of wintry argument.
The earth rounds in on its prayer to itself.

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