Monday, April 12, 2010

378. Witness to His Century

The light, I see, is fading,
infinitessimally shading

daytime colours into tones of grey.

Twice have the servants come
offering to light the candles,
twice have I waved them away.

I know I am but a guest,
and I know the servants need their rest.

I sigh. I have little time. Come close and let me begin ...

I sit with this blanket on my knees,
obdurate, unmoving,
alone in this oh so familiar room,
communing with the dust-motes of the past.

We had returned in a lather after the hunt
Look here, old boy, don't be a c--t!
bellowed Ivo, expounding the need for war
just over there -- there by the cloissoné table;
(yes, we did use THAT kind of language then!)
This bloody old Kaiser needs what-for!

Ivo copped it in the first few days
along with his brother and four of our cousins
and Death became known in ... industrial ways
to all of our class and generation;
I was out there, of course, beastly drunk
from start to finish, can't recall a bloody thing

before drifting home, being let go,
to indifferent thanks from a shattered nation.
I still have the medal, you know, it reads
"The Great War for Civilization"

The Twenties passed in a cocktail haze
of very long nights and very short days;
I believe I got married once or twice,
so hard to recall, I was never quite sober
after Passchendaele, I can remember fondling
short-skirted girls, rubbery, frightfully nice!

And I seem to remember some trouble and fuss,
that was '26, I think, I was driving a bus.
There was a strike of some kind, and the 'civil power'
hadn't expected me to run over their own policemen,
which I did, I'm afraid, and when the crowd closed in,
they cheered the hero of the hour!

In the Crash my chums lost all their money,
silly asses, and none of them could quite see the funny
side of things, as I did, who lived on land,
or rather on the backs of my hardworking peasants;
and so I flitted about town, much the same as ever,
charming to a slight but unforgiving degree,
distributing wicked ... calculated presents.

The Thirties were long and infinitely weary,
the people poor, bad-tempered, resentful, dreary;
I considered a sojourn in warmer foreign climes
but was consumed with such malignant hatred
for Mosley, AND for that bastard Churchill,
that I chose to wait.

We should have gone to war in Thirty-Eight,
could have wrapped it up: '39 was too late.
But -- the pusillanimous politicians still held sway,
Halifax; and that grisly Birmingham tosspot, pallid
Chamberlain, "J'aime Berlin"; there was only Winston,
half-mad, a glowering crackpot, to lead the way.

I had quite a jolly war, I must confess,
half-sober, exciting, but you must not press
for details. Mum's the word, (dear lost and darling mother)
for it was a world of codes and radios,
parachute jumps and secret agents,
and when it ended, I prayed for another

being flushed, arrogant, never dreaming that

many years on, I would get my other war
but not the one I'd bargained for. Now, this moment,
as the room grows dark and the staircase creaks,
I sit here alone with this blanket on my knees,
straining hard to hear the echoes from the past,
voices, sounds, little leaks from shameful memories.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

377. On the Death of a Deeply-Loved Aunt

( a poem primarily for the 15 McCarthy cousins )

Lift up the latch on the creaky gate,
once flaky green, now painted silver,
and it’s seven steps on the narrow path
to the stained-glass door of 34.

To the south, once, was a trellis of roses
just at the top of the slope of the garden
in which Pop-Pop planted a crop of potatoes
in the long summers of the "Emergency" --

an event never quite acknowledged
by the new Irish nation, although
over the waters east beyond Clontarf shore
people called it the Second World War.

Then the house stood solid, square and new,
a redbrick perched on the brow of a hill,
looking down on the long broad valley of Dublin,
on a turbulent old city hugging an ancient river.

But this semi-tragic city full of cheerful ghosts
appears snug and lightly-grey now, quietly pretty,
and beyond it rise the blue and lavender hills
of Wicklow, where the rest of Ireland begins.

Stand on the green and now potato-free lawn
(mowed by Uncle Thomas over so many years),
or even better leap up to the grey stone wall,
and you can see this same old oddly soothing sight ...

as the children, our parents, did before
stepping out the door of 34.

Abundant life and voices seeped slowly away
as they begin to do, must do, in all large families;
there were the two never-known uncles who died of TB,
two laughing young men who never grew old

in the natural way that our own parents did
and over whom our Nana wept scalded tears,
inconsolable, remembering their eyes and faces,
by the black fireplace in the sunken scullery.

But then there were the courtships and marriages,
the setting up of new hopes on low wages
(“Sure, won’t we drop in to see you on the weekends!”),
and poor dear Lily going off to God-knows-where

and with her children barely known to anyone.
Soon there was only Pop-Pop, Nana, and Kathleen,
and then there was only Nana and Kathleen:
after that, for many years, only Kathleen.

Now there is … what? A silent sturdy old house,
familiar to us all, once a symbol of permanence,
but also an impermanence we should have seen coming,
and which we did see coming, but turned aside from.

Where now is the spirit of that house on the hill?
Four -- and now five -- generations of our family
have been loosed from the moorings from whence they came
and only an emptiness, an absence, and silence remain:

No more come the excited shouts of young children,
Auntie Cack’leen, Auntie Cack’leen!!
Well, I might just find a few sweets and chocolates,
I might, only if you promise to be very very good.

No more come the hurried calls from the Airport,
It’ll only be two weeks and we’ll fend for ourselves!
Well, ye’ll blutty well have to! I’ll put on the tea now,
but I’ll not be doing the cooking for the lot of ye!

And yet there’d be Irish rashers and sausages galore,
(not the very items, I confess, I’ve seen Kathleen enjoy!)
and not only for the arrival but for every morning after
because there was no boundary, no limit to the kindness,

and no limit to the love. Then, of course, there was
that bouncing little cutie from Japan, Brendan’s child,
all of six-years-old, a self-important miss at Marino School,
who set out, strictly, impatiently, to teach Kathleen Irish!

Immense progress, I’m told, was made.
Yes, immense progress was made in many many ways,
and perhaps it’s only now we can come to realise
how central she was to us all.

For how can you say that you’ll “miss” a river,
or a mountain, a valley … or even a whole country
that no longer really seems to exist without that
central someone? You do, though; you carry on.

The family is large, active, supremely vibrant,
quick-witted, quick-speaking, in the good Dublin way,
but the house we all came from lies now cold and empty
behind the stained-glass door of 34.