This Sporting Life

Joe Dolan

Last Saturday was a night at the dog track in Mullingar with some college buddies and other middle aged guys for a Stag party to consign the last man standing to the wonderful institution of marriage.  In the course of the night I was recommending that a couple of the guys look up this poem.  Pertinent as it is also set in Mullingar.  It is both the saddest and the funniest poem I know about sport.

Sport; by Paul Durcan

There were not many fields
in which you had hopes for me
but sport was one of them.
On my twenty-first birthday
I was selected to play
for Grangegorman Mental Hospital
in an away game
against Mullingar Mental Hospital.
I was a patient
in B Wing.
You drove all the way down,
fifty miles,
to Mullingar to stand
on the sidelines and observe me.
I was fearful I would let down
not only my team but you.
It was Gaelic football.
I was selected as goalkeeper.
There were big country men
on the Mullingar Mental Hospital team,
men with gapped teeth, red faces,
oily, frizzy hair, bushy eyebrows.
Their full forward line
were over six foot tall
fifteen stone in weight.
All three of them, I was informed,
cases of schizophrenia.
There was a rumour
that their centre-half forward
was an alcoholic solicitor
who, in a lounge bar misunderstanding,
had castrated his best friend
but that he had no memory of it.
He had meant well – it was said.
His best friend had to emigrate
to Nigeria.
To my surprise,
I did not flinch in the goals.
I made three or four spectacular saves,
diving full stretch to turn
a certain goal around the corner,
leaping high to tip another certain goal
over the bar for a point.
It was my knowing
that you were standing on the sideline
that gave me the necessary motivation –
that will to die
that is as essential to sportsmen as to artists.
More than anybody it was you
I wanted to mesmerise, and after the game –
Grangegorman Mental Hospital
having defeated Mullingar Mental Hospital
by 14 Goals and 38 points to 3 goals and 10 points –
sniffing your approval, you shook hands with me.
‘Well played, son’.
I may not have been mesmeric
but I had not been mediocre.
In your eyes I had achieved something at last.
On my twenty-first birthday I had played on a winning team
the Grangegorman Mental Hospital team.
Seldom if ever again in your eyes
was I to rise to these heights.

For the love of poetry?

Leaving Certificate Exam, English literature paper is sat today in Ireland.  All those lucky students are now scanning their notes for the last time to remember the nugget that will land them an extra few points.  Have you tended your garden of knowledge well?  What was it that Iago said about Virtue and Figs?

“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.”             Othello, Shakespeare

Each year students in their tens of thousands play dice with the poetry syllabus.  They are given eight poets to study.  Eight wonderful poets with beautiful rich compositions.  Eight leading lights to brighten the dark corridors of your existence.  What do students do?  Study all eight?  No way.  They play dice, and gamble on how few they can study and land a question they can answer.

This year the poets are Paul Durcan, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Eavan Boland, Sylvia Plath, John Donne, John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Durcan, Bishop and Eliot came up last year, so unlikely to resurface.

There is usually a woman, so Plath is hot favourite.  There is always an Irish poet, so Boland is a favourite.  Fingernails are being chewed to the quick as the minutes tick by!  What do those mermaids have to do with the musical “Cats”?  Oh God, my teacher told me this……………..

 

The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; by T.S. Eliot

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?

 

And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

 

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

Timing

On Dec 9th in 1973 the Sunningdale agreement was signed, setting up a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland.  It was followed by a unionist backlash, a general strike and a breakdown in public order.  The agreement did not survive for six months.

As a result of the collapse of Sunningdale Northern Ireland, and the Mainland UK, were to suffer 25 years of tit for tat violence and terrorism.

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed, introducing a power sharing administration.  It was nicknamed “Sunningdale for slow learners”.

There is a lesson here for policy makers who are attempting to resolve conflicts between polarised interests.  Before any peaceable agreement can be implemented it must be sold effectively to both sides.  In particular it must be sold to the hard line extremists.

Moderate interests are always focused on the solution.  Hard line extremists focus on their positions, rights, entitlements, traditions.  They worry about symbols such as marches, flags, badges and language.  When finding a solution that includes the hard liners the devil is in the detail.

For any solution to work requires the hard liners to engage in the the process to find the solution.  If they are excluded from the process they will simply undermine any solution that emerges.

In many situations the Hard Line interests are operating outside of the sphere of legality.  They are often labelled as criminals and are wanted by the police for terrorist activity.  Any negotiation process must begin by recognizing the right of these people to be present at the negotiation table.  This in itself is often anathema to other interests.

Building agreement is a delicate choreography of acceptance, inclusion and negotiation.

 

 

Parents:  by Paul Durcan

A child’s face is a drowned face:

Her parents stare down at her asleep

Estranged from her by a sea:

She is under the sea

And they are above the sea:

If she looked up she would see them

As if locked out of their own home.

Their mouths open.

Their foreheads furrowed –

Pursed-up orifices of fearful fish –

Their big ears are fins behind the glass

And in her sleep she is calling out to them

Father, Father

Mother, Mother

But they cannot hear her:

She is inside the sea

And they are outside the sea,

Throughout the night, stranded, they stare

At the drowned, drowned face of their child.

A ship, a report, a presidential affair and a poem like Lorca.

Sapho

I am going to take you on a journey from Belfast to New York, then to Washington and Greece before returning to Ireland but just brushing against the coast of Spain.  It is a tale that spans from 1912 all the way to the present, whenever the present is for you the reader.

My story begins with a ship, the SS Vestris. And it begins in the Belfast shipyard where she was launched, only a month and a day after another Belfast ship, the Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage.  Vestris did better than the Titanic.  She made it all the way across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage.  She then plied her trade on the route between New York and the River Plate.  Those were great days for business in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

The SS Vestris became a troop transport during the Great War and recrossed the Atlantic to France.  Along the way she had a close run thing with a German Torpedo.  After the war she returned to passenger duties running between Liverpool, Buenos Aires and New York.  In 1990 she suffered a four day fire in her coal bunkers and survived the ordeal.  But her luck finally ran out in 1928.  One day out of New York, bound for Argentina, she sprang a leak, developed a fatal list and eventually sank with a loss of life of 111 souls.

So that is the ship.  Now we move to the report.  The New York Times printed the report of the sinking, written by Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock.  It was the first time the NYT printed a report under a female reporters name.  Lorena Hickock was nothing if not a ground breaking woman.  If you want to look for FIRSTS in journalism you need look no further.

Hickock was appointed by AP to cover the story of Eleanor, the wife of the Presidential Candidate Frankin D Roosevelt, in 1928, the year of the Vestris sinking.  The two women fell in love and had an affair.  This is the presidential affair of my story.  On the inauguration of her husband as president of the USA Eleanor wore a sapphire ring that was a gift from Hickock.  It does not take a great deal of imagination to see that Sapphire is a symbol for Sappho the Greek Poet and symbol of lesbianism.  Indeed the very word lesbian derives from the Island home of Sappho, Lesbos.

If there were ever any doubt about the presidential affair (many conservative apologists have tied themselves in knots to try to prove it was just a friendship)  the contents of the correspondence between the women, published as “Empty Without You” by Roger Streitmatter attests to a deeply romantic and physical relationship.  Given that the collection of letters was heavily edited to remove the most explicit, there can be very little doubt about the nature of the “friendship”.

One might as easily say that the poem below is about reading meters and the appointment of the Archbishop of Dublin.  Durcan’s detours around the female topography of his interlocutor are pointedly erotic, a celebration of female flesh and a worship of the sexuality of the fertile earth mother.  In that regard his poem reminds me of Serenata by Federico Garcia Lorca, which you can also find on this blog if you care to search it out.

And so in circular fashion, like a voyage of the SS Vestris, we have returned to the home port of Dublin.  I hope you enjoyed the trip and come again soon.

The Day Kerry Became Dublin ; by Paul Durcan

I was reading gas meters in Rialto
– In and out the keeled-over, weeping dustbins –
When, through the open doorway of the woman in the green tracksuit
Who’s six feet tall and who has nine kids,
I heard a newsreader on the radio announcing
That the Bishop of Kerry had been appointed Archbishop of Dublin.
I couldn’t help thinking that her bottom
Seemed to be independent of the rest of her body,
And how nice it would be to shake a leg with her
In a ballroom on a Sunday afternoon
Or to waltz with her soul at the bottom of the sea.
“Isn’t that gas?” – she sizzles –
“Making the Bishop of Kerry the Archbishop of Dublin!”
Under her gas meter I get down on my knees
And say a prayer to the side-altars of her thighs,
And the three-light windows of her breasts.
Excuse me, may I beam my torch in your crypt?
I go to Mass every morning, but I know no more
About the Archbishop of Dublin than I do about the Pope of Rome.
Still, I often think it would be
Uplifting to meet the Dalai Lama,
And to go to bed for ever with the woman of my dreams,
And scatter the world with my children.

Fresh new love

One of my guilty pleasures in having teenage children is that I get access to their English poetry syllabus.

Tonight I discovered a whole new poet lurking in the recited words of my daughter.  I shall get to know him well.  Introducing Paul Durcan!

Why should a foolish marriage vow ; by Paul Durcan

Dear Nessa – Now that our marriage is over
I would like you to know that, if I could put back the clock
Fifteen years to the cold March day of our wedding,
I would wed you again and, if that marriage also broke,
I would wed you yet again and, if it a third time broke,
Wed you again, and again, and again, and again, and again:
If you would have me which, of course, you would not.
For, even you – in spite of your patience and your innocence
(Strange characteristics in an age such as our own)
– Even you require to shake off the addiction of romantic love
And seek, instead, the herbal remedy of a sane affection
In which are mixed in profuse and fair proportion
Loverliness, brotherliness, fatherliness:
A sane man could not espouse a more faithful friend than you.