Friday, December 23, 2016

Wild Cherries - poem

I never knew my maternal grandfather. When I try think of him the image that comes to mind is that of his namesake, my Uncle Dinny. I was so delighted my uncle made it to my launch in September but saddened to say now that he died a few weeks ago. So, I'm not sure if this poem is about him (indirectly as a guiding character) or my granddad himself, but either way I thought I might share at this time. I also can see no immediate place for this poem in terms of work I am currently writing but am still proud of it and hope it captures something of both men.

This, then, to Denis and Dinny O'Brien, great traditional musicians and great characters both.


Wild Cherries 
In Memory of Denis O’Brien

i. Prelude

You were a man I never knew
and never will – one whose life
mine depends upon, yet you are ghost
to me, grandfather, dying far away
across the sea before I was born,
fading like all others to an imagined past
that I will never understand or fully grasp.

ii. Kilsallaghan

O’Brien’s Bridge and the stony fields,
the lands your father and his brothers ploughed,
their lasting mark upon the landscape
of their birth to leave their old life behind
with the promise of a better future
in this newly-minted Nation: a good holding
far from the wild Atlantic shore
and the winding roads of County Clare,                   
a farm in north county Dublin, Kilsallaghan,
as much country back then as the lands
your father had come from, its soil
dark and rich and good, but too little of it,
in the end, for all his sons to prosper by.

Young you left and went to the city.

iii. Uniform

My mam said you looked as smart                
as a policeman in your dark navy uniform,
the JJ&S insignia on your cap marking you
employee of John Jameson & Sons,
Whiskey Makers since 1781, a good job
by any measure as you led your dray horses
down along the banks of the Liffey and on
to the docklands where the barges waited
with their cargo of amber, ready to move
this seemingly inexhaustible bounty
to the four corners of town and country.

iv. Music

I will never know your gait or manner
or how you held yourself as you walked
into a room or pub, though I heard once
that you could set the place alight with talk
or your playing on the fiddle, a Woodbine
browning your fingers at the tips as it burnt
down to a butt, a pint of Guinness and a Jemmie
on the table before you as you played reels
and jigs at the barroom or kitchen session,
these places where happiness found you, music
your one true gift to those you tried to love
though sometimes failed, you sliding then into the well
of drink and the sinking regret that fell over you,
stumbling home late below the Harvest Moon
rising above the rooftops of these regimented streets,
no crops to be gathered in this over-filled place,
just to walk and walk and never reach home,
the darkness and the dark thoughts descending again
as if the very stars had died and dimmed to silence.             

v. Wild Cherries

So I give you this memory now as passed to me
by my mother: how on the first Sunday
of summer months you were given the task to take
the dray horses out to Kilsallaghan for pasture,
a place you came now to only half-think your own,
better here though than in the maze of streets of Cabra,
chatting instead to farmers in hedge-lined fields
discussing the high price of barley and wheat
and the burden of Independence on the farming life
–  though at least the British had started to trade
in our beef again, the war forcing them to depend on us;
and all the while the farmers’ wives fussing in kitchens,
giving you punnets of wild cherries and apples
to take home with you as a treat for the children,
so many the family could feast on for a month, 
grandmother making jams, sweet tarts and cakes.
A time when happiness reigned in the house.

vi. Memory

I try to fill the gap with fragments, anecdotes
and clues, though no concluding image comes
to mind to complete my rag-tag picture of you.
How we each pass with our dying breath into
the foreverness of forgetfulness – like the land
you once walked with your brothers so many years before,
the hope you felt out there in the wide open fields
fading now to a monochrome photograph
of another time, a different place; and the stories
that may yet still await to add again your human face
to those gathered around the family fireplace:
this partial and imagined portrait I try make for you
– grandfather I never knew.