Category Archives: Poetry

Along the Lines by Dermot Healy

dhealy1

Dermot Healy who passed away yesterday.

He lived in an ancient place. His house of three rooms sat to the side of a fort. Stone walls ran through the fields.

His back yard was a field of whins and grey gravel. Beyond it was the railway line where a few trains a day ran over and back between Sligo and Connolly Station in Dublin.

He was always at the back door to watch them go by as he learned his lines. After the first train in the morning he made the porridge. After the second he ate the pancakes. The midday train meant a shot of Bourbon. The one heading the other way in the late afternoon meant climbing on the bike, and heading for Henderson’s pub where the carpenters, plumbers and house painters gathered and met up with local farmers.

They talked of nothing but money, local deaths and shouted out laughter in a nearly insane manner.

He grew to hate that laugh.

It was not humour.

He could not enter the banter. He grew to hate that talk of hard times as more drinks were ordered. His face grew grim. They thought he thought he was above them. Sometimes his face would suddenly appear in an ad on the TV, and there’d be a momentary silence as they grinned and looked at him, and then at each other, and shook their heads before they re-entered the aggression of the recession while he checked the time.

Good luck men, I have to go, he said downing his glass of gin.

Goodbye Mister O’Hehir, nodded the barman.

Good luck Joe, called the plumber.

I would not like to be here after I’m gone, he thought as he stepped out the door.

Joe O’Hehir hopped on his bike and rode to The Coach Inn which was surrounded by cars. He sipped his Sauvignon Blanc and ordered goujons of cod with chips, and then sat by himself for two to three hours watching the old folk collect for meals alongside groups of young folk. Old professors, architects and electricians, sat alongside ancient nurses, doctors and secretaries. A nun and priest led a funeral party all in black to a table. In the background Frank Sinatra was singing, then along came Dean Martin as soup bubbled in spoons and prawns slipped through leaves of rocket. Joe read his books on Ghosts and Mysteries, then headed back to his script and began mouthing the lines to himself.

silverthreadsOver the speakers came I got you Babe, I want to go home, Take a load off Sally.

For weeks he’d disappear, take the train to Dublin and enter rehearsals, and eventually take his place on stage. He always stayed in the same B&B, a place filled with tourists and backpackers and computer screens. Amidst the entire furore his silence grew.

He’d stand under the bridge down the street to hear the train pass over his head. He reread old scripts in Mc Donald’s Café. The hallucinations grew.

Then on the opening night of the play towards the end he dried up. The others waited. He stared out at the audience. It was a sad moment in the script, and the distress the audiencre saw in his face they read as part of the character’s inner self as he approached the bad news.

Off stage a cue was whispered.

It looked like a tear appeared in one of his eyes.

He lay his head down, and the other actors watched their mate’s extreme trauma. In rehearsal the sadness lasted only a minute. Now it had reached three minutes of silence. Then suddenly he threw up his head and out of his mouth came all the mad laughs from Henderson’s, the laugh at what was not a joke, out came scattered lines with always the Ha-Ha, Jesus there’s not a penny to be had, Ha! Ha! Bastards, give me a half one, Ha! Ha!; he bobbed to and fro tossing imaginary glasses into his mouth, read imaginary papers for a second, Look at what’s going on down there he said prodding the non-existent article, Ha! Ha! They know nothing, nothing, do you hear me, nothing! Win a stroll in Christ! and he roared laughing as the curtain came slowly down and the lights went off, ten minutes before they should have.

I have inherited the gene, he said to himself as he ran down to his room, undressed and prepared to go.

Joe, stay there please, shouted the director. We need to talk. Badly.

Joe eyed him.

What happened? he asked.

*********************************************

dAlong the Lines was originally published in Silver Threads of Hope (New Island) in 2012. Sinéad Gleeson very kindly allowed me to use this story on my blog in Dermot’s memory.

His books include Banished Misfortune (stories), The Bend for Home (memoir), Fighting with Shadows, and Long Time, No See. which was selected for the International IMPAC Literary Award by libraries in Russia and Norway.

He also wrote and directed plays including The Long Swim, On Broken Wings and Mister Staines. He won the Hennessy Award (1974 and 1976), the Tom Gallon Award (1983), and the Encore Award (1995). In 2011, he was short-listed for the Poetry Now Award for his 2010 poetry collection, A Fool’s Errand.

Born in Finea, Co Westmeath, Mr Healy spent his childhood in Cavan before moving to London and back to Ireland, to Sligo.

Saturday poem #15 – Piano

PIANO

By D.H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Saturday Poem #14 – What the heart is like

What the heart is like (by Miroslav Holub)

Officially the heart

is oblong, muscular,

and filled with longing.

But anyone who has painted the heart knows

that it is also

spiked like a star

and sometimes bedraggled

like a stray dog at night

and sometimes powerful

like an archangel’s drum.

And sometimes cube-shaped

like a draughtsman’s dream

and sometimes gaily round

like a ball in a net.

And sometimes like a thin line

and sometimes like an explosion.

And in it is

only a river,

a weir

and at most one little fish

by no means golden.

More like a grey

jealous

loach.

It certainly isn’t noticeable

at first sight.

Anyone who has painted the heart knows

that first he had to

discard his spectacles,

his mirror,

throw away his fine-point pencil

and carbon paper

and for a long while

walk

outside.

One of the major Eastern European poets to emerge after World War II, Miroslav Holub was celebrated for his surreal mixture of scientific exactitude and absurdist humor. The poet Ted Hughes called him ”one of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere.’ In The Government of the Tongue Seamus Heaney praised Holub as a poet who could lay things bare, ”not so much the skull beneath the skin, more the brain beneath the skull.” Mr. Holub’s poetry, he wrote, is ”too compassionate to be vindictive, too skeptical to be entranced.”

Miroslav was born in Pilsen, Western Bohemia, on September 23, 1923. His father was a lawyer who worked for the railways and his mother was a language teacher. After World War II, he studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, and worked in a psychiatric ward there. His dislike of “poetical” embellishment, his concern that poetry should be rooted in plain, unadorned fact, is a product of years of Communist propaganda in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. As well as Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations(1990/2006), Bloodaxe publish The Jingle Bell Principle, a book of his prose pieces, and Supposed to Fly, a highly original and entertaining illustrated gathering of poems with some prose interruptions drawn from his native city of Plzen (same as the beer).

Work, read, sprint through poetry

Denise Blake is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre (1pm), the last in the popular Lunchtime series. She was a participant on a creative writing workshop I attended two years ago at the Boston College with Dr Brenda Flanagan, Cultural Ambassador for the United States Department. Denise’s first collection of poetry, Take a Deep Breath, was published by Summer Palace Press. Her second collection, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, was published in Spring 2010. She’s a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and her work has been published in The SHOp, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly and West 47. She is a founder of the Errigal Writers’ Group and received an MA in Poetry from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House. Here’s a quick Q&A I did with her this week:

When did you start writing poetry? Firstly, I know the moment when I started to love poetry, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Docker. We were studying the poem as part of the English segment in a foundation course in Magee College and I loved the imagery in the line; He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross. It was the first time that I could see into a poem for myself. The course was to be my return to education but instead it was my awakening to poetry. I was in my thirties and I had young children. I would never have considered writing a poem before that time. I started reading poetry and writing my own pieces. I was so thrilled with myself when I started producing work. The excitement of seeing new words appear has never left me. There were two strong forces in Co. Donegal at the time – The Killybegs Writers Group and Letterkenny Writers Group – so there were people who were supportive and showed great encouragement. Eventually a group of us evolved into Errigal Writers and we still meet twice a month.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? The “who do you think you are?” chorus sitting on my shoulder. But the question could be; what has helped you stay writing? This is a great country for writing and I have had so much support, starting with my local community. There isn’t a week goes by that I am not asked “are you still writing?” by someone who is willing you on. When we first started Errigal Writers we organized Gerard Byrne to give us workshops and the Irish Writers Centre helped us out. We continued to bring other established writers to Donegal over the years and they have all treated us with a professional respect. I was lucky to be chosen for the Writers Workshop in UCG ( as it was then) with Paula Meehan as our facilitator. You can’t get a more professional, and yet compassionate, person to work with. I was fortunate also to be able to do the MA course in the Poets’ House in Falcaragh. There are so many established writers who are generous with their time and energy. I’m on the directory for Poetry Ireland’s Writers in the Schools and that experience is wonderful.

What gets you started on a poem—idea, image, personal experience? The greatest motivation I have is being a member of the Errigal Writers. When I know we are due to meet things start moving in the back of my mind for a while. I become more aware of my surroundings and more susceptible to imagery around me. I will read more poetry in those days and watch performances on you tube. And then I try to find a silence that lets creativity come into the room. I have found my favourite type of moleskine notebooks and I always write the first drafts in longhand. I just love that moment when the first draft is finished.

How did you go about getting your poetry published? You have to get work published in magazines; Poetry Ireland Review, the Stinging Fly, The SHOp were the magazines who first accepted my work. I also had pieces on Sunday Miscellany and I love recording for radio. Again I’m fortunate in that Joan and Kate Newmann of Summer Palace Press have a home in Donegal. They used to hold wonderful workshops and readings in their home in Kilcar. Eventually they accepted my manuscript and published Take a Deep Breath in 2004. They put so much work into the editing process that it is a gift when the book is published. My second book, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy came out in 2010.

You’re very involved in community-based projects, how did this happen and why is it important to you? I’m not as involved as I should be but I live in Co. Donegal, we don’t have organisations running readings and workshops on an ongoing basis so the Arts Scene kind of works from the earth upwards. Our Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain is very approachable and he encourages us to create events. There were times in the group energy where we needed to perform, or meet other writers, or work with established writers or publish work, so the only thing for it was to organise it ourselves. North West Words is a group who now hold readings with featured writers and open-mic on the last Thursday of every month. I do think there is a hunger for poetry readings here.

Are festivals a good outlet for poets? Festivals have the funding for organising events and advertising. Anything that gets poets and writers performing in an area is good.

Do female poets face particular challenges? Do young male poets seem to have a higher profile? Yes. But whether that means that female poets face more challenges I’m not sure. It is a very long road.

What are you writing next? I’m writing poems for now. That is what is coming when I put the pen to paper and I’m grateful for them. Hopefully it will shape into a third manuscript.

Any advice for emerging writers? Love what you are doing. Work at the craft. Read. Be prepared for the long distance not a sprint. Don’t be crucified by rejections. Look carefully at the word emerging, it carries hope and a future. It isn’t: never-going-to-happen writers, but emerging. I love the feeling that anything can happen once you are writing and sending out work.

A pen and a pot to piss in!

Daytime Astronomy, published by salmopoetry.com

How did you become interested in poetry? Betty McMahon. She was my primal Jean Brodie, my crème de la crème, my Sweet Afton twenty a day tab merchant, for five out of seven years at St Mirren’s Primary School. We had a text-book way back when, something like ‘Mainlining English’, so I was clearly a word junkie from around the ages of eight or nine I reckon. At home my Mother was a fierce reader of devoutly catholic tastes, still is, lovely pocket leather-bound sets of Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, Austen, the Brontes, Faery Tales – Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. My Father was more of a Harold Robbins/Mickey Spillane/Willbur Smith kind of prod but as a young Glaswegian Merchant Seaman, he’d picked up a hard back copy of ULYSSES in some port of ill-repute – it’s the ‘durty’ Bodley Head 1967 Seventh impression, with the wrap around black & white cover of stills from Joseph Strick’s film version, with Blazes Boylan and mad-eyed Molly staring up from the crumpled bed sheets on the front cover and Milo O’Shea as Bloom, looking pleased as punch beneath his Homburg on the rear. The sleeve note talked about its wit, its poetry and it sat on the shelf with its white spine greying untouched and unread – my Da’ having quickly discovered it wasn’t the kind of filth he’d been led to believe during the ‘cultural revolution’ – until I was able to reach on tiptoe, able for the first few pages, to swim in its forty-foot echoes of Introibo ad altare Dei. Betty McMahon taught me poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. She also told me I wasn’t as green as my cabbage looked. I was and remain confused. And smitten.

Why poetry (as opposed to other forms)? I don’t think of poetry as being ‘opposed’ to other forms (see above). Look at Tarkovsky and the primacy of music in his compositional approach to cinematography, his ‘poetics’. Or Bill Douglas in his use of silence to embody specific sounds, amplify images that might otherwise go unseen. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”,  and later you have Rilke saying of Klee, ‘even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music’.

Your latest collection, eight years in the making: Daytime Astronomy covers topics as varied as abandoned love, prison camp, birds, birth, death, hill climbing, body painting, and recession. Do you choose the subject matter or is it the other way around? Me…Prison camp, birds, body painting? Sounds kinky. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell citing Heraclitus, ‘The Lord who is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign’. Or as a wiser man than me once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.

Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? If I’m any kind of poet, a lucky poet; lucky to be alive and out of hospital; lucky to be a peredvizhniki with a pen and a pot to piss in.

How long do you spend on a poem? How long’s a piece of string (theory). As long as it takes, I suppose is the honest and mundane answer. I used to measure them in cigarettes, but the price of a twenty deck these days, it’s just not on. I tend to work like the kind of painter who goes at several canvases at once, sometimes concentrated bursts, other times constipated fits of rage. I’ll stop that when the oul’ Duke of Argylls kick in.

What’s your favourite poem by someone else? The Tryst, by William Soutar, gives me the horn every time but the poem I’d go to the wall for is Water, by Robert Lowell.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? My undiminished fondness for the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.

Do you think a poet’s power diminishes (or grows), as the poet gets older? Indubitably. Dependent on the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction.

Is too much Irish poetry rooted in the soil, too much of it centred on rural existence and nature as opposed to the urban experience? As a blow in, I wouldn’t like to say. But between yourself and myself, It seems to me that for every Rough Field and Great Hunger there are five hundred poems about fuchsia and having the quiet pint in some Nama infested rural bog water. Bertie had the right idea with beacons of shite like Adamstown, a car park and a carvery for everyone in the audience and not a blackthorn bush or dry stone wall left standing.

Is poetry in Ireland perhaps too serious? Are we not in need in these gloomy times of some mock-heroic/satirical poetry? Proper order! My next collection is provisionally titled: I Rattled it into Gerty, While her Mother was out for Turf.

How much does poetry intersect with forms of popular culture such as music lyrics or rap? When its horses for courses, my horse is distorted, as Scroobius Pip would have it in his introduction to Distraction Pieces.

We have a president who writes poetry. Is Michael D Higgins’ elevation to the highest office in the land an opportunity for poetry in Ireland? Can he be a force for encouragement? That would be an ecumenical matter.

Who were/are your biggest influences? See first answer, above.

With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—what do you see for the future of poetry? It will all end in tears, under a bridge or in some batshit besmirched cave, two fetid packs of homunculi gouging lumps out of each other with the sharpened ends of their iPad 3s and Kindle Fires. This way to the Zombie Apocalypse Ladies and Gentlemen.

Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader? Be wise before you rise. Protect your vulnerable brain. They will want to eat it.

Paul was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1971. He moved to Northern Ireland in 1995, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Poets’ House/Lancaster University; studying under the late James Simmons. In 2002 The Edinburgh Review published his first collection, The End of Napoleon’s Nose. His work has appeared in several anthologies including: The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004); Magnetic North, ed. John Brown (Lagan Press 2006); The New North, ed. Chris Agee (Wake Forest 2008); Landing Places, eds. Eva Bourke & Borbala Farago, (Dedalus 2009). He lives in Belfast and is currently researching a PhD on the work of the Scottish poet and cultural philosopher Kenneth White for the University of Ulster. Paul’s most recent poetry collection Daytime Astronomy was published in 2011 by Salmon Poetry. If you’re interested in seeing Paul Grattan perform, he’s taking part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Luncthtime Series, next Friday, 17th February.

Saturday Poem #12 – & Forgive Us Our Trespasses

& Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Sinead Morrissey

Of which the first is love. The sad, unrepeatable fact
that the loves we shouldn’t foster burrow faster and linger longer
than sanctioned kinds can. Loves that thrive on absence, on lack
of return, or worse, on harm, are unkillable, Father.
They do not die in us. And you know how we’ve tried.
Loves nursed, inexplicably, on thoughts of sex,
a return to touched places, a backwards glance, a sigh –
they come back like the tide. They are with us at the terminus
when cancer catches us. They have never been away.
Forgive us the people we love – their dragnet influence.
Those disallowed to us, those who frighten us, those who stay
on uninvited in our lives and every night revisit us.
Accept from us the inappropriate
by which our dreams and daily scenes stay separate.   

Bibliography

2009
Through the Square Window, Carcanet
2005
The State of the Prisons, Carcanet
2002
Between Here and There, Carcanet
1996
There Was Fire in Vancouver, Carcanet

Awards

2010
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), Through The Square Window, shortlist
2009
T. S. Eliot Prize, Through The Square Window, shortlst
2007
National Poetry Competition, winner – ‘Through The Square Window’
2005
T. S. Eliot Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2005
Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry
2005
John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2002
T. S. Eliot Prize, Between Here and There, shortlist
2002
Rupert and Eithne Strong Trust Award
2002
Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship
1996
Eric Gregory Award
1990
Patrick Kavanagh Award

Saturday Poem #10 – What the doctor said

What The Doctor Said (by Raymond Carver)

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Saturday Poem #9 – For What Binds Us

 
For What Binds Us (by Jane Hirshfield)
 
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
 
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
 
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
 
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
 
Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, which include Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) and After (2006), Hirshfield has translated works by early women poets in The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) and in Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). Inspired by both Eastern and Western poetry, Hirshfield’s work often utilises a short form and hinges on a turning point or moment of insight. More info on Jane here

Saturday poem #7 – Elegy For A Basset Hound

Poetry is a craft as well as an art, and all poets, whether beginners or advanced, need to master the tools of the trade – form, language, pitch and tone. But over and above that, the poet needs to find his or her own individual voice, which takes time. So says Poet Michael O’Loughlin, who spoke at the Irish Jewish Museum on Thursday. He gave a great talk about the challenges he’s faced over the years as a writer, time spent living away from Ireland for 20 years, writing as a vocation (and a pain in the arse). I hadn’t realised but he’s also a short story writer, translator & screenwriter. His feature film, Snapshots (2003), starred Burt Reynolds and Julie Christie and an award-winning Holocaust drama, For My Baby, starred Alan Cumming and Frank Finlay. “I’ve never really distinguished between my activities as a writer of poetry, prose, screenplays and criticism – even translations,” he said in a recent interview with the Dublin Quarterly. “To me, it’s all a question of how the subject matter or the initial impulse presents itself. I suppose, ultimately I see everything I write as part of the same project.”

He believes that the job of the artist is to confront society with a different reality, and not reinforce stereotypes. “One thing that strikes me, as someone who lived abroad for many years, is how low a threshold we Irish have for self criticism. The mark of a mature society will be when we actively encourage opposition to the accepted social realities. There are many Irish writers who while they have created work of real artistic value, do encourage the cosiness, the consensus. I’m thinking in particular of theatre, which is the biggest offender. In general, poetry doesn’t figure very highly in this because nobody actually reads it, and when they do, they don’t usually read it properly. But again, I think the crunch has yet to come.” Michael was born in north Dublin and has published many volumes of poetry and translations, including Another Nation: New And Selected Poems. He’s been Writer in Residence in Galway and Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. His newly published collection, In This Life, is dedicated to his wife and daughter and is published by New Island. Here’s one of my favourites from his latest work:

ELEGY FOR A BASSET HOUND (by Michael O’Loughlin)

Other dogs feared you, perhaps rightly –

All that weight so close to the ground

The heft of those padded shoulders

The not-so-comical teeth concealed

Beneath your sadman jowls and pouches.

 

English-bred and born, according

To the Basset experts, my neighbour plucked

You off the autostrada near Lucca

Where you were wandering confidently

Like a nineteenth-century English explorer,

His mind gone in Antarctic snow.

 

You settled into an Amsterdam bookshop

Your basket firmly placed between

The New York Review of Books

And Literature in Translation

Where you accepted the ministrations

Of single gentlemen, but fell in love

With my wife and daughter,

Running away from home as often as you could

To climb like a legless man onto Judith’s lap

Where you slept for hours with one eye open.

 

Untrainable, unbiddable, I could barely hold you

Back on the days I took you with me

To collect Saar from her school, and

You made a beeline through the crush

Of mothers and bicycles, to the class where

The children fought to touch your mighty ears

As you gambolled ponderously on giant paws

Like an Ottoman pasha in his harem.

 

And yes I loved you for something else:

How on a brown December night

When the light had soaked into the wet ground

I saw you through the dusk of Utrechtsestraat

With trams and teatime traffic crashing between us

Out of earshot, almost out of sight,

You turned on the crowded pavement

And, like the old God of the Kabbalah

Lost in the darkness and unknowing before Creation,

You raised your nose and sniffed the fouled air

And I knew that you had found me

Saturday poem #5 – I Go Back to May 1937

I Go back to May 1937 (by Sharon Olds)
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

This poem of Old’s has been dubbed ‘formulaic’ by critics – it probably is – but given that she’s never spoken about her family, and so little is known about her personal life, it’s a valuable insight all the same. We can only assume by the theme and time-frame, it’s about her parents. Her poetry has been described as ‘morality plays’, to ‘pure fire in the hands, risky, on the verge of falling’…as well as rough, funny and grim. Born in 1942 to a ‘hellfire’ Calvinist family, she graduated from Stanford and then moved East  to do a PhD at Columbia. She struggled a lot with her writing and didn’t get too it ‘seriously’ until her mid-late 30s. After nabbing her doctorate, she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and vowed to give up all that she learned at Columbia in order to write her own poems, even if they were bad. “No one knows what poetry is,” she later said in an award acceptance speech. “But each tribe has had it, there’s never been a group without it, it’s as necessary, as automatically there, as government or medicine. As a species, we seem to be in great need of imagining each other.” She’s published 11 volumes of poetry since 1980; the latest: One Secret Thing was published by Random House in 2008. Here she is reading two poems:

Satruday Poem #3 – Oh God, Fuck Me

This poem may seem like an ugly tease at our recently updated Blasphemy laws but I find it saucily life-giving and intellectually stimulating! Funny as hell too, oh, and clever. A conceptual poem. Schwartz has a real talent for writing about sexual truths, and women’s sexual desire in particular, with a heady level of explicitness. More power to her elbow, I say. Down with repression and all who ride in and around her!

Oh God, Fuck Me (by Ruth L. Schwartz)

Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things
the things you love best in the world –

like trees in spring, exposing themselves,
flashing leaf buds so firm and swollen

I want to take them in my mouth.
Speaking of trees, fuck me with birds

say, an enormous raucous crow,
proud as a man with his hands down his pants,

and then a sparrow, intimately brown,
discreet and cautious as a concubine.

Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping
like a nymphomaniac,

all night slowly filling and filling,
then overflowing the bowls in the sink-

and with the downstairs neighbour’s vacuum,
that great sucking noisy dragon

making the dirty come clean.
Fuck me with breakfast, with English muffins

the spirit of the dough aroused
by browning, thrilled by buttering.

Fuck me with orange juice,
its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,
leaves sweet flecks of foam like spit

along the inside of the glass.
Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,
blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.
Fuck me with the ticking

clock, which is the ticking
bomb, which is the ticking heart –

the heart we heard in the first months,
in the original nakedness,

before we were squalling and born.
Fuck me with the unwashed spoon

proud with its coffee stain –
the faint swirl of a useful life

pooled into its center, round as a world.

****************************************

Ruth L. Schwartz is the author of four award-winning books of poetry and a memoir: Dear Good Naked Morning, selected by Alicia Ostriker for the Autumn House Poetry Prize (Autumn House, 2004), Edgewater, selected by Jane Hirshfield as a 2001 National Poetry Series winner (HarperCollins, 2002); Singular Bodies (Anhinga Press, 2001), winner of the 2000 Anhinga Prize for Poetry; Accordion Breathing and Dancing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), winner of the 1994 Associated Writing Programs Award; and Death in Reverse: A Love Story (Michigan State University Press, 2004).

She’s won over a dozen national literary prizes, including two Nimrod/Pablo Neruda Awards, two Chelsea Magazine Editor’s Awards, the North Carolina Writer’s Network Randall Jarrell Prize, and the New Letters Prize in Poetry. She has received grants from the NEA, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Astraea Foundation. Her poems have been anthologized in The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), American Poetry: Next Generation (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2000), The New Young American Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), and elsewhere.

Born in 1962 in Geneva, New York, Ruth spent her childhood and early adulthood moving around the country. She received a B.A. in Women’s Studies and Writing from Wesleyan University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from the University of Integrative Learning. The San Francisco Bay Area has been Ruth’s chosen home since 1985; she’s also travelled extensively in Latin America, and speaks fluent Spanish.

Saturday Poem #1 – I love drunks

Poetry makes me giddy but sometimes my bum muscles clench in the same wrung manner as a bad Eastenders story plot. Cringe factor heightens when poets with berserk eyes retch feelings onto the page, without any care for how layfolk should attempt to translate. At the same time guesswork of meaning is aerobic for a mind overbrimming with cabbage leaf. Good poetry, for me, is a platter of desserts that keep only the soul fat and the heart floating. You simply can’t go wrong with a shiny new Bloodaxe ensemble or the beautiful crazed utterings of a dead genius like Miroslav Holub. Just a pity that most living poets are brazenly, unabashedly mad and nearly always dreadful company.

I unwittingly fell into a poetry class on the MA in Creative Writing, chosen by mistake as I’d read the course criteria incorrectly (pick two of the following: poetry, prose, playwriting – I read that as ‘pick two subjects’ – when in fact it was pick two classes under the same topic umbrella to specialise in). As a result I did poetry and fiction, learning little from either, but finishing both to the worst of slipshod. Even now it’s hard to fathom what those two maniacal hours of attic neurosis actually entailed. The sheer torture of hauling my billowed boobs and cement hip up five flights of stairs, reading aloud the tutor’s Christmas cards for no apparent reason and being compelled to listen to jingling bells on a random lunatic’s skirt. Even the honeycomb brittle egos of the ‘serious’ poets falling apart when criticised didn’t get to me as much as the complete lack of instruction or learning did. That somehow being so near the curtain in Oz with this ‘revered’ poet who’d made it to a level we’d never lick, was enough of a résumé-adventure in itself. What did it matter if every single poem any of us wrote was construed and metaphrased as just another fold in a big menstrual minge? Even when a [male] classmate wrote a poem about views of Belfast a la whizzing bicycle, the tutor still managed to turn it into a sheela-na-gig blood cake. No difference at all between Dorothy, Scarecrow, Toto or whoever else was sitting on the other side of this soiled drapery. Most of us left none the wiser and twice as disoriented. I raved as if brain-burgled, after every single class. In the end I wrote my ‘project’ in one night and bastardised everything in sight from TV ads to antiquated indexes in out-of-print bird watching books. Not that it made any difference to the marks: in bought MAs nearly everyone ends up in the same passable, plastic category. It’s almost poetic, come to think of it.

Thankfully that naff experience hasn’t turned me off reading poetry or even occasionally, writing it. Last autumn, I sat through a truly delicious course at the Irish Writers’ Centre – taught by Peter Sirr – who recently won the 2011 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award. The course was a wonderful grounder and all-rounder. Peter showed us where and how to source poetic material, blurring boundaries between poetry and prose, the beauty and diabolism of staying with a poem until done. Brief interesting snippets too of poet lives and the conscionable lonely journeys to publication. I was introduced to poets I’d never heard of: Penelope Shuttle, C.P. Cavafy, Jane Hirshfield, Les Murray. “Terrible things happen and people reach for poetry to deal with it,” he told us. Poetry can make sense of horrible events but can also illuminate life’s brief thrills. You can goo the weekly schedule, complete with resources and tips, here. Meanwhile, I thought it’d be a good idea to post a poem on the blog every Saturday. I like this poem by Fay Hart for its elegant no-bullshit simplicity!

I LOVE DRUNKS

by Fay Hart

I love drunks, I always have.

I love guys that laugh,

hairdressers that gossip,

bouncers that scowl and tv presenters

that wear stupid wigs.

And I just love has-been rock stars that

blubber into their bourbon

about some distant drum solo

that I vaguely remember from

Ricky Munch’s bedroom on acid.

I like new young designers

and entrepreneurs

who always wear the right stuff

and have cute chicks with them.

I like big homos who call me

dahling and step back,

shaking their head in admiration.

Miss Thing, one of them once said,

we have just got to get you

your own talk show.

I like somebody’s dad

who spends half the night

trying to pick up girls

his daughter’s age

and the other half crying into his beer

about how his little girl never

calls him anymore.

I love caterwauling women

who take their tops off

just before last call

and shake about the place

like goddesses with bourbon breath.

I love drunks, I always have.