Friday, December 03, 2010

Metaphorical Portrait (Almost Finished)

Unfinished Portrait
Or perhaps I should say 'it will be nice when it's finished' (as one of the Python film crew apparently replied when asked what he thought of Scotland).
Or borrow that actual/metaphorical snow from Joyce's The Dead:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Or, hard on the heels of that, Derek Mahon's fabulous Snow Party, which has snow 'falling / Like leaves on the cold sea.' Here's the last three stanzas:
Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,

Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.
The newspapers are indeed right: snow is (almost) general. Outside my window, right now, the hedges are bowed under it, tree branches meticulously overlaid, wires in their winter coats, the large ceramic pot on the doorstep skull-capped with a perfectly white dome. Whiteout, bailout, our drained economy... there seems to be a metaphorical synchronicity at work. But of course, metaphors are cheap. Above is a snap of the old sod as it lay yesterday, on Dec. 2, 2010. Image from the NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response website, where there are many more, all in the public domain and free to use.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Coming On Here With Yer Oul Palaver

Pat Rabbitte and Pat Carey on Prime Time
Someone had to say it, finally, on TV, in this instance on RTE's Prime Time. Rabbitte's anger is refreshing, especially when it is articulated so concisely. Reminds me of Barney Frank's excellent response to the moron who questioned Obama's 'Nazi' health care policies.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Souls

Remember all the clocks glow
black tonight. Do you know
who that is, knocking VERY LOUD,
so the dog whimper-drags its household
under the table? Cacophony
is the new literacy, a library
of graves open their traps,
and walking dead are snapped
face-painting and jogging
in the park, a letterbox bangs
open its genie smoking (who sends
letters anymore? Fuck em!)
But who will blow-dry the choked
gutters? That man in the raincoat
keeps three suitcases stuffed
with leaves under his bed.
Air needs a new cocoon,
orange and black balloons
on gateposts, old crones
ubiquitous as traffic cones,
a stark simpler colour,
pumpkins and burnt paper,
the ink-spotted tree that burst
into rooks. And what's the worst
he can do? There he is again
(he always is) behind you
if you turn in the leaf-padded lane
behind the new houses where
we'd poke for hours – a stick
snaps, a distant firework –
and what's the worst game
we can play, and whose turn
is it now, who'll be It this time?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October Streetlight

Crisp Night, Car Roof, Bat-Leaves
A crisp night, enough breath to blow
a fallen sycamore leaf
in and out of its bat-shadow
on the car roof.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

For The Scrapbook: 10/10/10

I just wanted to do a post with that title, particularly the triple 10. So I drove out to the docks again and found this heap of scrap metal, which I've photographed before. But it was larger than I'd seen, and I liked the way it staged a mountain, a metal Sugarloaf, in front of the Pigeonhouse chimneys.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Detail: San Francisco, 1982

haight st pole
Even telegraph poles look foreign: tarry, scuffed
and twice as thick,

stapled with colourful fliers: travel ads, want ads,
apartments, missing pets, people –

When torn off to make way for new ones (torn in their turn),
the tiny corners remain,

a mesh of staked claims, stitches, a wound
that won’t close. I zoom and click,

wondering what my roommates will make of
the furious mosaic.

One thinks it’s a shanty town, another a beach
or city dump, or maybe a march

or sit-in, people holding up placards, right?
Close enough.

San francisco tramlines

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

In The Dead Zoo

Fin Whale, Dead Zoo, Dublin
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Seamus Heaney

Aflame with antlers,
almost tapping the ceiling, a roof-raiser
bursting with sex and death.

Should we view it from over or under –
stand on the tiled floor
or the tundra?


More inscrutable than the Sphinx:

the trophy-head of a rhino
shot and stuffed over a century ago

by Colonel Spinks.


Where is he,
my frog-hunting, 12 year old self,
soft-eyed hoarder
of Wildlife magazines, dogged haunter
of ditches and bogs?



the rhino’s tarry flesh
just yet –

wait for the rat kangaroo
and the parchment bats

to undo.


Here, touching what
he should not:
an elephant’s cunt,
a wound
in an old coat.


How to fade
from a dazzling op-art zebra
into just that shade
of sepia.


Upstairs, along the galleries,
dust-coloured moths and butterflies

(ribbons from an antique war)
recall the killing jar,

though one or two
flash – forget-me-not blue


Or here, this boy who holds
to his hiding place among
the grown-up coats hung
in a glass wardrobe.


Creaking Victorian ark
whose hold is a maze
of mirrors, our faces
float over the glass
eyes of your great
and less great apes,
your frozen tableaux
(white hares in the snow
from a snow globe),
libraries of learned
dust which is not returned.


The Fin Whale’s skeleton,
suspended on wires, swims
overhead. Its mammal spine
(black against fogged glass)
is an x-ray that might pass
for all of us.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fridge Detail: How Cool Is Cool?

fridge detail
I was reading a thread in an online forum and noticed that several people replied to a particular comment with that ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all adjective: 'Cool'. I have occasionally done so myself and can understand its attraction: a pleasantly retro, street-smart throwback to the Beats, or earlier, to the 'stay cool' 1950s, the jazzy 40s. It is one of those words with a variable temperature, depending on its user's tone of voice: from (often high pitched) red hot, gorgeous, superb, 'wicked', etc. to (flat, low-pitched) lukewarm, so-so, okay, a shorthand for 'can we talk about something else now?'

Reading about it on the excellent World Wide Words, I was only slightly surprised to learn that its roots (as a slang term) can be traced farther still,'a subtle transformation of a standard English form that goes back to Beowulf, in a rather literary metaphor for being unexcited, calm or dispassionate.' Apparently it resurfaced and became fashionable in the 18th Century, with those still-used phrases 'cool as a cucumber' and 'keeping a cool head', and began to shift into its current (more positive) meaning in the mid 20th century.

I think a large part of its attraction is in the sound, that refreshingly breezy double-vowel blowing through two portholes, and its tactility: hinged shut on the tip of the tongue's L, like licking a stamp, posting a seal of approval.

Fine and dandy, but I'm a little weary of its ubiquity. In fact, I've probably been weary of it for decades, like the American-Irish cousin I once shared a house with in the 1970s; whenever some visitor thought something 'really cool', my cousin's zippy retort was invariably 'Yeah, man, put it in the ice-box!' So, to resurrect an anachronistic antonym from the deep-freeze, I'm beginning to find 'cool' distinctly uncool.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saint Patrick On Nipples

I've just started 'Ireland: A History', by Thomas Bartlett. I'd read a couple of reviews and it sounded interesting, the kind of history I might actually read through (instead of making my way through the first 50 pages then setting it down to get a cup of coffee, never to raise it again). The reviewers noted, however, that he is rather scanty on the earlier bits, covering the pre-medieval period (431, St. Patrick's arrival, to 1541: Protestant Ireland) in under 80 pages. But I am greatly encouraged by passages such as the following, in which Bartlett quotes then comments on an odd phrase from the writings of Patrick (about his initial sojourn in Ireland, as a slave):
Lastly, as an aside, Patrick discloses than when he sought to flee Ireland on the ship, he entered into terms with the sailors, but that he 'refused, for fear of god, to suck their nipples'. This startling remark – given matter of factly – has been a cause of some embarrassment to Patrician enthusiasts, but it has to be seen in the context of Patrick's detestation of 'cults or idols and abominations' which he had dedicated his life to overthrowing. What Patrick was doing was pointing to the prevalence of pagan practices – sucking nipples was a way to pledge loyalty – and in doing so he was making the obvious point that the Ireland in which he had been a slave was largely pagan.
It is for revelations such as these that I persist in my lifelong battle to educate myself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Ars Poetica In Fragments

Melbourne Alley 2004

I am not familiar with Jennifer Moxley's work, though I have come across her name before, usually on Ron Silliman's blog. And it is Ron I owe thanks to for providing a link to her recent Fragments of a Broken Poetics on Poetry Daily.

Moxley concludes her series with an Afterword, in which she describes how 'three French points of contact converged to create the conditions for the writing and occasion of these fragments', such as René Char's Fureur et mystère

particularly his writing on the architecture of the poem, "Partage formel" ("The Formal Share")—that sparked some new thinking in me. Char's use of aphorism, as well as his delightfully fanciful logic, suggested a refreshing way to avoid the line-in-the-sand rigidity of writing a contractual poetics—those manifestos of orthodoxy that, in laying down the poetic law, always manage to spontaneously recruit an army of cops to enforce it. Reading these statements activated my critical muse and I began to write my own series of aphoristic statements; to think from where I was, to try and state—simply, concisely—what I believed at that moment about the poetic art.

I am glad she spared us yet another orthodox manifesto. And I have a fondness for aphorism (Auden and Don Paterson come to mind, as do Beckett's versions of Chamfort). I like the form's constraints, the way it pushes a thought or idea to be fully born then cuts the cord. And the aphorism's yen for clarity can certainly be refreshing, especially when many contemporary offstream poets seem less interested in fragmentation than disintegration; their poetry (or 'poetics') is all too often bursting to explain itself while simultaneously tightening the gag. Anyway, here's a small selection of Moxley's [apologies for the disrupted formatting]:


A poet only needs one poem, a poem only one reader. Moving from singular to shared in this instance is a rudimentary economy. It is less affecting than a mortal kiss, more than a passing conversation. The poem will always provoke an acute desire to know its creator, "acute" because hopeless.


The idea of audience is a nuisance born of the need for spectacle. Poems haunting the precarious dialectic between existence and extinction do not need it. Their magic is dependent on the private experience of separate individuals.


Poets whose readings lead us to believe ourselves part of a spontaneous and instinctive consensus have left poetry behind. Perhaps for the better.


In poetry, as elsewhere, nature isn't what it used to be.


The book is the means, not the end. It should conform to the poem, not vice versa. Otherwise the imagination becomes a small box, which thinks only of the larger box it wishes to resemble. An ideal book is a bed: a comforting place in which poems can sleep while awaiting illumination. Both poem and book, however, are subject to the capricious lens of human attention.


A momentary bewilderment arouses the mind. Many words, lines, and phrases may temporarily baffle without spoiling the reading experience as a whole.


The poet is buried in the obliterated whiteness beneath the dark letters of poem.


Poems demand a concentrated lingering to which we are unaccustomed. This is why they cause discomfort. When we stand still in one place, attempting to document and respect the details, we feel as vulnerable as a small creature in an open field beneath avian predators. Rapid and sequential page turning gives us a sense of progress and accomplishment, relieving us from the double threat of frustration and impatience.


Poetry is not politically efficacious in countries where it is not valued as a cultural necessity by the general populace.

I am not sure all of these work (though this may just be due to my own misunderstanding). For example, I suspect IX may be read in at least two very different ways. And XXVIII seems, to me, a bit overwrought. Overall though, many of Moxley's Fragments did what good aphorisms ought to do: they made me think.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Paintings In A Room

Watching CBBC
should hang true
as mirrors or windows

to be turned to

between the reversed shadows
and the stuff seen through.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Nuala Stephenson: 1920-2010

Nuala in her Garden
My aunt Nuala died on the morning of April the 9th, 2010. She was just a few weeks past her ninetieth birthday. Her children asked me to write something along the lines of a eulogy. My first thought was that I wouldn't know where to start, since Nuala has been so much a part of my life, particularly what are called the 'formative years'. But I soon realised where to begin, so things began to occur to me and the piece gradually took shape over the next couple of days. So this (with some editing) is what I read at the final stage of the funeral, the cremation in Mount Saint Jerome's:

Just a week before she passed away, Nuala left me a gift. Not directly, but in a talk with her son David. She told him that she remembered my original birthday. I never knew my father. But neither did I know, till last week, that Nuala was the only person present with my mother at the time of my birth, in the hospital at Islington. She remembered clearly seeing me lying on a towel, my first floor in this world. Nuala was my aunt, my friend and my second mother, and her children, my cousins Isobel, David and Susie, became, over the years, as close as siblings. I cannot remember how many years I spent with my second family in that amazing house in Avoca Terrace; I was in and out so often that it was more than a home from home; rather each of my homes was, to me, an extension of the other.

I was brought up by my mother and grandparents in a house called Rockville (perhaps because of the large rockery in the back garden). This house was on Stillorgan Grove, about half a mile from Avoca Terrace. If Rockville was not entirely dominated by my grandfather, his was certainly an important presiding spirit. The air was somewhat sober, an unspoken curfew was in place and late night chats in the kitchen were sternly discouraged (of course, not really that unusual in the 1970s). By contrast, Avoca Terrace really was a different planet, with a far lighter gravity. The largest, topmost apartment in a tall old Victorian terrace house, it was a place of landings, literally flighty, its huge, high rooms exfoliating off three steep staircases, the snaky-laddery stem of the building.

Nuala and her husband Desmond were both artists, and the evidence was everywhere: poetry books, books on music and art, a large heavy tome of Doré prints (with graphic illustrations for Dante’s Inferno), an old hard-backed copy of Ulysses that looked as if it had actually been read; on the walls oils, watercolours and reproductions of drawings by old masters, ceramics on the shelves and bookcases, little sculptures (such as the bronze Romulus and Remus on the mantelpiece that fascinated me as a child).

One room in particular, always known as ‘the orange room’ because of its old Tintawn carpet, was galleried with Desmond’s and Nuala’s marvelous landscapes, portraits and still lives. Its ancient, ceiling-high mirror enlarged the room even more. Portals were everywhere. The big window was full of trees and sky: all was light, buoyancy, space. Nuala and Desmond had met while students in the old NCA on Kildare Street. In the spirit of the times, Desmond courted Nuala, leaving a rose on her easel. However, somewhat contrary to the spirit of the times, both of these people were surprisingly modern; they were serious about their art, persevered with their studies and got their degrees. They were also adventurous, traveling separately throughout Europe for several years, before eventually marrying in Dublin and setting up home. And they were married for barely six years when Desmond died, tragically young in his 40s, shortly after the birth of their third child, so Nuala was left to the rearing of three young children.

Nuala and my mother were close as it was, but Desmond’s death brought them closer still. We went on many holidays together, usually to the West of Ireland, Galway or Barley Cove in West Cork. Myself and Nuala’s children have vivid memories of one particular holiday when we shared a cottage (in or near Connemara I think). I had recently entered my frog and newt-hunting phase and there was a luxurious stretch of bogland behind the cottage: tall reeds, mossy grass, water. Time thickened; we spent whole days there, weeks, lifetimes, the hot sun on our backs, iridescent dragonflies stopping overhead, our hands steeped in the orangy water, looking for froglets, or the dark little flickery newts (with gorgeous Turneresque sunrises on their bellies) that we could never quite catch.

Another tradition was the shared Christmas dinners, and the big decision: whose house (or later whose flat) to hold them in? It was often Nuala’s, if only because they had the orange room with the enormous black-painted German walnut table. I have a whole box of photographs that charts our aging at that table, above the turkey-aftermath, the half-full bottles, shreds of wrapping paper in the background, red-eyed, flash-lit faces (the boys' becoming bearded, longer-haired then balding), fashion-paraded in differently bright-dark jumpers and blouses.

Perhaps I was too young myself (or too dreamy, as usual) but I have no recollection of witnessing the devastation that Desmond’s death must have caused. And though Nuala was a widow I would never have attached to her that rather grim title. Nuala’s perpetual youthfulness, her curiosity and delight in life, was intense and insatiable, and as teenagers this curiosity, coupled with her readiness to talk (almost any time of the day or night), was wonderfully liberating; a grown-up, from another generation, one that had experienced the upheaval of the second World War (or The Emergency), yet she might have been one of us.

But of course she wasn’t. She was a mother who, like any mother, fretted about her children. But she also bequeathed on them her adventurousness and eagerness to travel, her curiosity and love of conversation and the arts (not to mention a wealth of talent ); she gave each of her children what Patrick Kavanagh might have called ‘a flavour of personality’; they are each, distinctly, themselves, comfortable and at home in their own skins.

I should mention Nuala had a great sense of humour, sometimes girlish and giggling, and often far from politic; when out ‘with the girls’, Nuala or Sheila, one might find oneself attempting to make like a chameleon in the face of a high-pitched voice commenting, quite loudly, on someone nearby (in a café, bus or cinema): ‘Look at that man, isn’t he odd!’ or ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ Nuala’s humour could also be sharp and sophisticated; she wasn’t above slagging you off. Like my mother, she had a great eye for colours, and would often tell me if my mine were mismatched. Her elegant daughters, like myself, were children of the 1980s, and Nuala could never quite appreciate their love of all things black. Not that many years ago, she confided in me (what was apparently a very old joke, though I hadn’t heard it before): ‘I call them the Little Sisters of The Avoca.’

So our universe was ruled by the female principle; ‘the mothers’ were a driving force. Both Nuala and my mother encouraged me to enter what was then Dún Laoghaire School of Art. They took seriously my attempts at writing, they nurtured. When my grandparents died I was living in Bray; my mother had Rockville to herself, so it was natural that she should wish to move out of that too-large-and-lonely house and settle in Avoca Terrace, in the hall flat, beside her sister. And when I came to live with and care for my mother a few years later, in a sense everything clicked into place. It was a kind of homecoming. It was my world, and it still is (and now it is also a home to my wife and our child, my mother’s grandson).

For this, and everything else, I give thanks to Nuala, whom I will miss.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dog Matter

black dog, Avoca Pk., Dublin
On the forum of a photoblog I am a member of, one of the bloggers recently posted the following query:
Sadly we lost our dog a few weeks ago. However, since we got his ashes back we have heard him a few times around the house – Physiological or Spiritual? Has anyone else experienced similar noises/ events?
Someone responded by simply stating: 'There will be a totally rational explanation.'

In all probability, yes, a rational explanation is waiting in the not-too-shadowy wings. Rational as in 'agreeable to reason', 'sensible'. But 'totally' rational? My innate scepticism doesn't incline towards a belief in a spirit world, but I am always open to being surprised (and I have been, at least thrice). And then, what is the rational explanation for our existence, beyond the big bang theory and the fact that the universe seems to be continually expanding (though, apparently, weirdly and too quickly and in odd clumps, due to dark matter/energy/flow etc.)? And what manner of infinite not-thereness did we pop out of anyway? That last question probably answers itself, without elucidating anything. The cosmological constant has been readjusted more than once. Perhaps they'll eventually find room for rationally irrational ghosts in the machine (or the dogged house).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fade Street

Fade Street
It's about time that I announced here that my third collection, Fade Street, is open for traffic; it now has its own page on the Salt website.

I'm also delighted that Chris selected one of the photographs I sent him for the cover. I think the book looks great, and I hope anyone who ventures inside it will find the inhabitants just as engaging.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Spot Of Dying: Part 2 (Planet Of the Dead)

B&W simon planet
'I hope there is a planet where nobody dies and there is no school because everybody knows everything.'

Friday, January 08, 2010

Portrait Of England As A Giant Snowflake

Image from NASAs Terra satellite on 7 January
Or a fragment of a steamed-up mirror or the lid of a frosted puddle (the 'wafer-ice' crunched by 'mass-going feet' in Kavanagh's poem): our big sister island, quilted and tucked in (20 below in some places, apparently the same as the South Pole), but getting on with it after a fashion. And snow is (almost) general all over Ireland too. And we are getting on with it, though less reliably, schools closed indefinitely, most roads ungritted, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey refusing to return from his holiday till the weekend (if the airport is open that is), the Environment Minister John Gormley not happy with his 'Minister For Snow' tag; some consider that Gormley has been made a scapegoat by Cowen, given a 'hospital pass' (no idea what that is, but I like the oddness of it). The local roads are frozen slush, to be driven dreamily slow, the car occasionally sleep-sliding towards the pavement, the steering wheel dangerously (but also pleasantly) light in my hands. Snow, as I pointed out to our son, rhymes with slow.

A little medley of winters:

Cold tonight is broad Moylurg
There is more than glass between the snow
Soundless as dots
(O loose moth world)
In the gloom of whiteness
John Donne has sunk in sleep
With all the numberless goings-on of life
Like jewelry from a grave
Between the woods and frozen lake
The snow drops its pieces of darkness
Soft as excrement, bold as roses
It is falling like leaves on the cold sea
Softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves

Each line is from a different wintery/snowy poem by a different poet (except for one, which is taken from a story that closes like a poem). Names of poems/poets below:

'A Song of Winter' by Anon (10th Century Irish trans. by Kuno Meyer)
'Snow' by Louis McNeice
'Safe in their alabaster chambers' by Emily Dickinson
'Lives' by Philip Larkin
'Elegy for John Donne' by Josef Brodsky
'Frost at Midnight' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
'The Imaginary Iceberg' by Elizabeth Bishop
'Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost
'The Munich Mannequins' by Sylvia Plath
'January' by R.S. Thomas
'The Snow Party' by Derek Mahon
'The Dead' by James Joyce

Image thanks to NASA/GSFC and the MODIS Rapid Response website, which allows free use of its images. MORE HERE

Monday, January 04, 2010

Butterfly Dad

I was finally reunited with our five year old son yesterday evening, after he and his mum had spent nearly a fortnight at her parent's place in Wexford. The delay was partly due to their being virtually snowbound, but he was also enjoying himself hugely: a tree-hut with snow on the roof, snowman, snowball-fights, his Jack Russell Pippa barking at snow, woods, presents, boundless space, etc., etc.

So today (with S back in work and school still out) we spent the whole day together. A little of playing a little hide-and-seek, of making up stories (sitting in my lap as ONE HUNDRED wolves closed in) and practicing numbers and letters. He's beginning to be interested in what these peculiar characters do, the sounds they make and (what I always encourage) the shapes they form on the page. He is well able to write his name now, in block capitals anyway, and he enjoys writing/proclaiming it. So his name was the first word. Mum, naturally, was the second (had to remind him how to make a U). Dad was the third choice. Perhaps because of his left-handedness, he got the first D back to front, which made an interestingly symmetrical graphic. A butterfly! he said. And so I am, hopefully emerging from my chrysalis the odd time at 52.

Friday, January 01, 2010

January 2010

New years snow, 12.30 a.m. 2010
At home, hearing the knock
of fireworks – Christchurch uncorked

shaking and shaking its bells –
I peer out, twitch my nostrils.

Real snow, newly laid
on steps, road – a decade’s

slippage underscored by black
street-lit tyre-tracks

looping the hedged corner
out of what was – just – there.