Friday, March 11, 2022

Poetry Again

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. Well, I'm always thinking about poetry, but it's been especially on my mind recently. The contrarian part of me reacts against the assumption (unspoken but widespread) that poetry should belong to adolescence-- that adolescence is the time for reading poetry, studying poetry in school, and writing angsty poetry in your bedroom. Then you grow up and you get over it. And indeed our entire society seems to have decided that it's "outgrown" poetry.

I've been going through my old poems, and decided I'm going to type them all up. So there will be a lot of poetry posts to come.

Here are some poems from the first few years after the millennium. The themes and atmosphere are fairly obvious; melancholy, the futility of mortality, memory and oblivion, the difficulty of meaningful communication, and lack of connection of one kind or another.

First up is a poem I wrote in 2001. It's based on actual experience. In the flat where I grew up, we would regularly receive postcards for a woman named Jacinta O'Sullivan. This despite the fact that we had been living there for decades.The postcards were every bit as impersonal as those described here.

Jacinta Simons

A card for Jacinta Simons came today.
They come about three time a year, or less.
You'd think they'd know they have the wrong address
It's been so many years she's been away.
I never saw her face. I'd have to say
She's getting on by now. I try to guess
The type of girl she was, her face, her dress;
But everything to do with her seems gray.

The postcards are no help. Some beachy scene
In front, some scribbled words from Ross or Paul
Or Carol on the back. Maybe they'd mean
A lot to her, but what they say is small;
So short and sweet, they might as well have been
Addressed to me, or anyone at all.

This is a poem I wrote in 2002, very quickly, when I was staying in my aunt's house in Limerick. I was experimenting with formats at the time.

The Inverted Commas

Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas
And perhaps the smile I get back won't be a sneer.
I am tired and lonely through being a doubting Thomas;
Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas.
My heart beats so fast that I feel like forgetting my promise
But I can't wear this cynical smile for another long year.
Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas
And perhaps the smile I get back won't be a sneer.
Here is a poem defending computer games. I've never really played computer games, but I've always been drawn to celebrating things that are generally dismissed, and to celebrating modern suburban life in general. "Power is the only healthy thing" is a line I would never have written in any other context.


Those gruelling hours have done less to dishevel
That pasty face, than healthy morning air;
The sanctioned sadists of the schoolyard's square,
The sermons of some paunchy, chalk-choked devil.
Somewhere, his classmates insecurely revel
But here, the screen keeps fixed his stony stare.
Nothing can touch him when he's in this chair
Or hinder him from making the next level.

Power is the only healthy thing; his thumb
Destroys a planet, keeps alive his soul.
What keeps him human? This robotic hum,
This pixellated world he can control;
All that the suffered sneer, the hopeless sum,
Had almost taken as their rightful toll.

The next poem is one I wrote quickly and then put away and rarely looked at again. Somehow I found it embarrassing. As someone who didn't have much life experience, I came to dislike the "wise old soul" tone I used in poems like this one. However, it's not that bad. It's a bit too sad for my taste today. I think I wrote it around 2004. It's autobiographical only to the extent that I myself have a vivid image of a labyrinth from my childhood, and I don't know if it's a memory or a dream or simply something imagined.


In a mist between dream and memory
A young girl walks through a leafy maze.
High shrubbery far as the eye can see
And lanes that wander a hundred ways.
Perhaps she was never in such a place
(Her sister said that it wasn't there)
But she'd dream of it, ogling her mirror face,
And combing out tangles of straw-blonde hair.

Forgotten tunnels and secret caves,
Old attic hideaways filled her books
And she wondered if every shy heart craves
A place apart from their puzzled looks.
She giggled with girls, and she kissed the boys,
But no-one could follow her to her lair.
As if the only paradise
Was a paradise that she couldn't share.
And sometimes a ship passed by at sea
And came in sight of her little isle;
But the words would never come properly
And the eyes would darken behind the smile.
Till one night a man seemed to understand,
And his drink-roused eyes held a tiny glint;
So she thought she could take him by the hand
And lead him into her labyrinth.
It must have been lust. He could never enter
Her private garden, although he tried.
The endless maze with the secret centre,
The kingdom of all her shame and pride.
And sweet Samantha, their only daughter,
Belonged to a different world than her's;
Her mother's lullabies never taught her
The labyrinth's lovely, deadly lures.
She visits her, Sunday. But Matthew's dead now;
Her grandson Dominic tells his friends
His Nana's a little gone in the head now.
All day she looks around ghostly bends.
The words of the others grow fainter daily
Her eyes are filled with a distant gleam;
The little girl wanders her maze so gaily
In a mist between memory and dream.
The next poem is from 2003 or 2004. I was writing a lot of sonnets at this time. It seems lazy to me in retrospect that I consistently chose a sonnet format for so many different poems. It doesn't work too badly here, though.

A Liberal Reads His Calvinist Grandfather's Bible
Amazed that even man could be so cruel
To dream up such a God, he turns the pages
And shudders at the bigotry of ages.
Shouldering all men's guilt like some tired mule,
He wonders at the God whose angry rule
Was stamped in blood. Like tigers in their cages,
Within him surely lurk those tyrant rages;
He will not be his inner fascist's fool.
His thumb rests on the spot his father's sire's
Own thumb once rested, when a flood of fear
Passed through him for his own depraved desires,
The certainty his sin would persevere;
That all the terrors of Gehenna's fires
Could never hush the serpent in his ear.
Here is another poem from 2004. I think this is probably the best of this group. I sent this to a literary magazine and the inevitable rejection told me it wasn't bad...apart from the last line. I think anyone with any taste at all would agree that, if there's anything good about the poem, it's the last line. But it was obviously too pithy and epigrammatic for the fastidious editor. I'm baffled as to how these modern editors and critics, who seem to detest anything that resembles a flourish or an epigram, can evince an admiration for Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats and Lord Byron and all the multitudes of famous poets whose verses are studded with such lines. Perhaps Keats would have been told that "seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness" or "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" was a bit too snappy, a bit too much like a marketing slogan. Rrrr.
Life after Death
Stout and sandwiches and endless stories told
Of the man who lay in the middle, arms across his breast;
Of how he had tried to fly to China at ten years old
Or the fifteen years that it took him to pass his driving test.
His Barbara sat in the corner and flinched from the touch of hands,
And wondered if anyone actually listens or hears us in his life,
Or if when they do, there are moments when anyone understands;
She wished them to hell and she smiled like a dutiful wife.
But when they were gone and her husband was safe underground
She sat in the kitchen they'd sat in for so many years
When maybe they had heard each other; his voice had that sound;
Then washed out her cup and tidied the kitchen and switched off the lights.
And she would remember him always, and people would talk of him often
(For a time has to come when a dead man's name doesn't sound rude).
His memory turned to a memory. Time works to soften
A copy made out of a copy, a penny rubbed smooth.
His sister's first granddaughter sat in the kitchen, alone,
And filled up five boxes that no-one would open. Next day
New owners were coming. She paused at a face she'd not known;
She peered at the picture. Great-grand-uncle Willy, she'd say;
Or had it been Danny? She thought Danny suited him most.
A century lay between her and that sepia stare.
But she packed him away with the rest, never feeling his ghost
Disappear like an echo in silence, or smoke in the air.

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