I’m proud to have a story and a poem in the February 2017 issue of The Honest Ulsterman, a venerable Northern Irish mag. The story is called “Subheading: Eloise,” an odd one I wrote almost two years ago while living in Edinburgh, doing my postgrad research on George Saunders. I’m afraid I might betray the influence in one or two places … The poem is “Up Lethe, Down Lethe,” a little lyric, and a more recent effort. I hope you enjoy them.
“UP THE MOUNTAIN ye were?” the woman said to me. I tried to look at her from the passenger seat, though my glasses were bedazzled with raindrops.
“Picked a day for it, too,” I said, and she laughed, and clicked her tongue. She was in her mid-seventies, wearing a corded cream wool sweater and speaking to me in that rough thicket of an Irish country accent that I encountered anytime I left the main towns and met a sexa- or septuagenarian. “My name is Aidan Ryan, by the way,” I said – appropriate, it seemed, now that I’d been soaking her upholstery for a few minutes. “Oh, not many Ryans here,” she said. And that was all I got out of her. I never learned my driver’s name.
I recently discovered the website Atlas Obscura, run by a group of dedicated travelers passionate for the weird, the forgotten, the unacknowledged and the almost-unbelievable. Aside from allowing users to create profiles with maps of all the places they’ve been and bucket lists of the things they’ve yet to see, it’s a great platform for sharing weird discoveries that might not find a home in a Rick Steve’s travel guide or a Buzzfeed article of “Must Sees.”
You can find my entries – places and articles – on my AO profile, here. I’m sure I’ll be adding more soon (expect pictures of one of Edinburgh’s underappreciated ruins, hidden, as it were, in plain sight) – in the meantime, here are two of my entries into AO’s compendium of fascinating places:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open
-Seamus Heaney, Postscript
I wrote two weeks ago that I’d have to delay blogging about my trip to Carrowduff, Co. Clare; that was because I was at work on a longer travel memoir, published today on CNN. In it, I talk about my own journey, about County Clare in 2014, and about the challenges to the American sons and daughters of immigrant parents who left them with a few stories, a few pictures, and little else with which to shore up their vague cultural inheritances.
Like so many American descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants, I have no family albums tracing my lineage back to New England ships, to British houses or German hamlets echoing back my own surname; the portraits in my parents’ dining room — a long nose here, familiar deep-set eyes there — are to an unsettling degree nameless. …
There was a thud and a fizz and white foam sprayed all over the crowd around the wine table. There was no champagne to mark the launch of “32 County Poet” Michael Longley’s tenth collection, The Stairwell – this was a toppled two-litre of 7UP – but the accident was in the spirit of cork-popping and it set the tone for the rest of the night.
With Yeats Society President Damien Brennan as Master of Ceremonies of the 7pm reception, things were bound to get bubbly. He began by acknowledging Michael’s wife Edna Longley, who that morning had delivered a lecture at the Hawk’s Well on Yeats, Joyce, and the 1890s.
“Can you imagine the bedtime thoughts they have together?” he asked. And I suppose we couldn’t help but wonder.
Brennan also referenced Postscript, Saturday night’s tribute to Seamus Heaney, at which Longley spoke. Brennan was hardly the first to note, then, that Heaney was born in 1939, the Year William Butler Yeats died, at the age of 74. Heaney died in 2013, also at the age of 74. Last week, Longley turned 75.
“You’ve made it past the post,” he told Longley, to shocked and not-so-shocked guffaws.
Brennan’s is always an interesting act to follow, but Longley earned more laughs. He told about his father, about meeting the British Queen, and about “Lauren Bacall, who had a walk-on role in my fantasies.” (Perhaps he was thinking about the unforgettable line from To Have and Have not?)
Though he has made it past Brennan’s “post,” Longley didn’t seem to be counting. His new poems in The Stairwell dwell on death – his own and the deaths of close friends and relatives – but they aren’t “last words.”
“The next poem is what matters,” he said. “It’s the only thing that matters.”
At 8pm, at the Methodist Church, summer school Assistant Director Matthew Campbell re-introduced Michael Longley with a selection from his new book – the one phrase that makes any new volume of poetry worth the price of admission.
“Bone shapes out of our gloomy womb-tangle,” Campbell recited, a line from “The Feet,” a poem about Longley’s late twin brother Peter, dedicated to Peter’s widow Catherine. “An experience that has found its words,” he called it – something Longley’s been giving the poem-reading public with regularity for the past fifty years.
Many of the poems were somber and elegiac (though Longley asserted that elegies were balanced by “birth poems”), but not matter the subject, the laughs didn’t stop.
Longley read a poem “For my granddaughter, Amelia, who’s 11 … No, it’s on page 11 … She’s only one … Where would I be without you, Edna?”
He read through a brisk selection of poems from The Stairwell as well as three unpublished poems,
“only a few weeks old.”
“A lot of my poems are short. I think most poems are too long, really,” he said later, in his dry, clipped deliver, something like a Belfast Dumbledore. “ I have a one-line poem,” he said, and read it. “They’re making a movie adaptation.”
Longley, like Yeats, has a mixed poetic, political, and familial heritage, both Irish and Anglo, sometimes both, often neither. Longley claimed Yeats as the greatest English-language poet after Shakespeare, and of course had to qualify this: “He could be so foolish and silly, and that moves me too. A great man making a fool of himself.”
“It’s amazing writing poems at 75 … and feeling that I’m only beginning, you know,” Longley told his audience as he began to wrap up.
After fierce applause for what could have been Longley’s final poem, Campbell took the podium and coaxed him into an encore – not a task, given the crowd, and given the poet.
“I forgot a poem,” Longley said, and after the applause died down, he began again.