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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Songs of Earth and Light
Barbara Korun poems translated by Theo Dorgan
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by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey
Winner, 2008 Fool for Poetry Competition
Richesses: Francophone Songwriter Poets
Edited and translated by Aidan Hayes
Munster Literature Centre
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When I venture anything about my work, I think of Richard Serra, who said, "What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are, by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are.” That’s really, for me, kind of the grail. So I hew to Dylan Thomas's insistence that a writer “work from words, from the substance of words and the rhythm of substantial words set together, not towards words.” It matters, as Thomas says, to be "painstaking, conscientious, involved.” Language that does not fail its harrowing experiences has the special situation as Serra describes it of “avoiding theatrical effects.” Which is why Dylan Thomas made the point, "Poetry is a medium, not a stigmata on paper.” I just love that.
1st Prize in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
It’s written down about me, a book my gran kept. As a baby I’d sit and suck my thumb, and stare out the window for hours, quiet.
Also, that I would hit my da whenever he tried to hold me.
A yearling, me, bottle fed five months then propped with a pillow and a rope to a hard high chair, put to the spoon and cup. My mother was a stalk of seething body, a tough stem descending toward my days, a dangerous pendulous head, a chrysanthemum broken at the neck. Violence rotated most unpredictably regarding me, blossoming from the steam and vapor of her wishes. She was a place of frequent fogs and howling.
At ten weeks old I had already almost died from exposure to her, but a neighbor distracted my mother with a fist full of fresh mint leaves and a True Romance magazine. She plucked me blue and soundless from my mother’s hands, she saved me. Otherwise I would have drowned in my mother, held down. She thought I’d go through her back where I came from.
After the oxygen tent, my mother framed our contests with her tease of lacquered hair, wondrous ever changing of curl and color, o she was my seasons: blondes from bottles ran platinum to honey; those determining reds and auburn coasts; solstice days of black and brown brindle brunettes. Blushing shanks of tress at her forehead slid on a breeze of aerosol into the overhang of cheekbone. Not her eyes though, they never changed. Color: molten, my mother’s eyes, fixed in their helmet of teeth.
Our linoleum kitchen with its sheer of screen door rolled and foamed under the gleam of aluminum edges, a chasm in the cliff face of cupboards. The heats shimmered and plummeted the countertops, the sharps perched whistling on the tabletop, o weathers of aeries above my soft open skull. My feathers and dimples were dandled by heeds that pulled me to her between them, ears like fierce archangels, birthed to me by her for boxing, inescapable ears for a cuff, they hurt, o they struck me, ringing me when my ma who was tired, who was teenaged, spelled me singing the noise of her undertow, as I was sucking my thumb, as I was want so wanton, so wanting to do.
For I was once upon a time about the world of things that needed a looking at, not noticing her stalk until it amazing cracked at the waist and fell to my gaze with syllables of every sort shoveling her lips up and down distorting her face, a spilled soup, a ragout, a heartburn of harrying sound this creature, this unpredictable, damnified-by-her-cranky-little-god gash was waving in my serene face. The crook of my eye stole past her looming, spied behind her, where upward reached her hand, a vine, it had businesses she’d sent it on. She detained me there by the chrome leg of a furniture. The hand reached a potion to her from a far away cupboard. What flask is this, brown glass and narrow of throat?
Swooping, the other hand passed between her face and mine, caught the fist of my thumb which it popped from my sociable, quietly sated, curious intelligent mouth, my baby lips, just a bit wet where the spit slipped out consequence of the yank of my thumb, my tongue, small delicate, at home in her castle of strong gums and ivory.
This grip, my ma, had my thumb now pushed through the neck of the vinegar bottle and quickly while the screeching and cawing of her distress continued to buckle and bow – o such cacophony, what ails this woman – then that hand of hers pushed my thumb back into my kingdom.
Can I remember my face? Yes of course, the way that my cheeks pulled my eyes into narrow corners in an attempt to stop the spread of this sour, this doltish, this scorching taste. It drew even the roof of my mouth so tight that my lips clung to the chips of root teeth to hold my skull to its roundness, to keep it from deforming.
What an assault. I
remember looking at her.
She continued, she was prizing, she was pleased o that crowing. I was watching her, I was thinking, I was knowing this woman thoroughly just then. This woman could never touch me, I realized, though it would, for aeons, appear otherwise.
I folded my thumb into a safe place; I put my finger in my mouth.
There was shrieking, from above me there was huffing, but I skedaddled she was addled, I had things to do in the world. I was off with a rustle of my rubber pants.
What did she want us for, that sister and me?
Yes, a sister. She was first. Now, there, o there was something fabulous. She could giggle, and did. Kisses and chatter flowing out of her she was like a bird in a diaper. I could be her size when I tried and I would, all lovely on the floor we played. I was a shell in the tide of her heavy white shoes that could bop you, watch out for that, but I could open and close her eyes with my own fingers and also, she did hiding from the stalkharpy. I followed her. I learned.
This is what I knew: be careful. That sister was meant to be here. She fell into my mother’s body when my mother was hallucinating and thought that her god did not see her fornicating before marriage with my da. For I your god am a jealous god and my mother got my sister stuck inside her, stuffed up under her ribs to suffocate her. She didn’t go to school any more.
Swift and ugly, their Adam and Eve hands across their faces, they fled to Maryland where it’s possible to oath at sixteen without anyone’s permission. Then having no thoughts in their dopey walnut heads they came home and confessed everything. My ma was sent to her room atop a caving-in farmhouse in the nowhere-ness without end, without even my skinny da to pork her, while her seven nested siblings were not allowed to see her lest she, my mother, should cause them to sin, lest she corrupt them with her belly full of sneaking off into the woods or the back seat of a car.
My sister’s book bag began to walk her to school leaving me alone with our mother. I sat in my sister’s hidings looking at her books. The place by the hamper was good when the heeds on my head began not to be found by my ma’s calling. I would hold my breath waiting for my mother to be lost in her voices and smoke, but I would hide too long. I was not housebroken, I would puddle.
My mother in seizures would come for me fast, I would bolt. Out to the yard, the sound of her storm at my heels, wooden door frame smacking the stone house wall, my feet across the painted cement porch over the grass to the end of the world. She would catch me and throw me to the earth, flapping and banging again and again. I was somewhere then like the carrots in the garden, deep, just the spray of my hair left in her snarling wake, in a pebbled sea with a hand coming down.
When my mother went out later to put clothes on the line, I would pull myself up on a chair in the kitchen, reach across the plain of the table top to the cut glass bowl with the spoon stuck in it, the sugar for the tea and the stalk’s coffee, and put a whole spoon of it right into my mouth, the feeling of the sandy sweet crunching, melting. Then down from the table to hide.
Eventually the school sent for me too and she brooded, my mother hesitated in a sleepwalker’s stagger. Her lead bullet gaze slow and undifferentiated when I got home afternoons, she was out of focus. She was stupefied until aroused by her hungers, then her eyes would shape shift, dart flicker appraising the worth of things, and I, o I was worth it.
That’s how it felt in the middle of having her, the years she would come for me that it might be love, I would have to stand still, don’t run, to find out. I would have to take in the crushing absence of air as her force overwhelmed me, tethered like an astronaut without a pressurized suit, or the bends, the sea pressure foaming and cracking my ears as she engulfed me with her need. It might be it might be love, her I made you. It would inform pierce intrude upon, silence entrap sink swallow, warp fuel burn consign to failure, smother, desert, instill longing and above all mystify every love I would ever know. I tried to make sense of love. I tried to make sense of her.
She, woman of twenty voices: they erupted from her, voices, followed with the faintest latency by personalities who took them up, the voices; shook them at me in her hand, an anger that rose like violet cumulus, startling.
My cousin, pregnant at fifteen, had to be explained my mother decided. Several of the voices instructed my sister and me, in the terror of our bodies, the opportunities of evil and betrayal, as my mother put us to the waxy formica table, our sets of forearms in the place of supper plates, or hands short-nailed in front of us for forks and knives, the voice out of the spookaland valley shaking the afternoon at us, but I was not afraid. My sister was there to shine her impatience when my ma asked did we have any hair down there yet, or under our arms, her face a mask of greed.
Then I understood what she had been saying to me, years: my mother would turn every wistful peppermint-breathed thing I said into something about sex, and I hadn’t known even what it was.
Our neighbor’s daughter Noreen kept a horse in the field behind our house. I would go to the neighing for company after school and my chores. I had become a place in my own life, a destination of the conjuring between words and material things, their harboring a new mystery, a beauty. I thought it might have something to do with love or God, and the horse was there in my education, along with Moh’s scale of hardness, the distance of planets from the sun, and deciding if I were Greek or Spartan in my nature.
I liked the denseness of the horse, the satisfying combination of sound and feeling and breathing and wild timothy when I patted him, that thunk thunk on his side. The flesh and bones under the skin, the tone of the organs resounding to my hand drumming gently on the outside: it came to me, these were of the same substance as the way it felt to my very own body from the inside, when our doctor tapped my belly or chest.
The horse and his whinny, between us the blistered day cooling and crickets getting going. I could not have said more about how the sounds and the feeling belonged to each other, the way the being of that horse in the field had hours of my silent gazing in it. Not only could it all be true without anyone doing anything, without anyone even noticing, but there might be words in it.
My mother asked where I’d been. I said something to her about the horse, something I read in a book about patting the horse’s flank. I liked the word, flank, I liked the topography of horse-ness. I was feeling into the life of an animal the way I imagined the dark side of the moon, but the horse was here, the horse was alive. Held by the pasture fence against his better ideas, against his having any notion of the status of pet, like the cat or the dog, yet he agreed to this cupped hand of percussion. He accepted my thinking about things.
We were in the kitchen when I said this to my mother, about the sound of the thunking. She answered me with a harsh laugh, I should keep my hands away from that horse’s flanks, her head thrown back then and the scrape of her voices turned her eyes to blankness. Her iron clanging choked on about my getting the horse excited and what then! But, maybe? She wanted to know, she leaned into me, maybe that’s what I intended? Was that it, was that where I’d been all this time? Getting that horse excited? I was, I suppose, ten years old. I remember the taste of disgust in my mouth, the shame of having been robbed like a fool. The loss, forever, what my mother was stealing from me. The grief.
There was something about me that she would try to make hers, there was something she was recruiting, tormenting into submission, there was something she was compromising and humiliating in me. I lay in the grass of our yard reminding myself of the real planet under my back, the thousands of miles through its hellcore to the space on the other side. I understood that it wasn’t merely that I would be without what my ma ruined, but that those places hollowed out by her— they would become her in me, remain long after I had fled her, long even after she was dead.
That voice makes my skin crawl remembering it, her eyes muddy bottom stones turned outward to suck the space around her; I’d want to run to the wall, hold it down against the floor. Or else, be held myself by its cold plaster arms. O stay, I’d want to beg, afraid, afraid of the light sucked out of the room by voices, by those anthracite eyes: the world being sucked away, the undertow of the light withdrawing, and the whole world untold from its existence by her.
Smoldering eyes. My mother knew how to glower, she looked my da into bed. Her gargling after it, the door to their bedroom would open. Out, out she would slum to the wretched little bathroom in the hall; the red douche bag hanging about, humid by the soap dish. How did we know not to ask about these things? The house permeated with spermatozoa dried and raised in the dust. The house smelling like a stainless steel sink.
Why did my sister want to sear herself as our ma had sizzled, into the warp and weft of being cheated, to earn the daylong rewarmed coffee of gossip, share the passed around checkout counter rags, in which virgin nurses offered themselves to dying soldiers for unbelievably hot hospital sex, in which teenage girls like the one I was scheduled to become were fodder for neglect and fondling and the shame of their uncles molesting them, proud of still getting it right, after all, the right man showing up, saving their honor, putting them to rough order? My sister chose, sank, and mocked me.
I left that house the day my mother last struck me. I was sixteen. My mother claimed my da was watching me, that way. My mother naked in the bath; she must have called me in to show herself off. I was still fuzz and green hipped. My face plain as day when I saw her haunches, dark and menstrual, as I got her the towel she wanted. I left. I went to my room. She was there almost before me.
Laughing, still smelling of blood she came for me fast, struck me across the face knocked me to the floor dragged me by the hair to my feet. My ma livid like an unleashed dog lunging, to bite my mouth tear my lips, scar the smooth clear skin beneath my eyes. She yelled she flared she flamed, she snarled in that particular of the voices, the guttural female throaty voice of availability of appetite, a siren, a woman completely in control of her cunning, her visceral thirst for violence in full cry daring me, dominating my strong my fine my young body. I could so easily, we both knew this, so easily have broken her.
O temptation and where would it all go to then. My ma’s voices warned don’t you dare look at me that way or I’ll hit you again which she did, knocking me to the floor, again, and did I, did I go on looking at her that way? No I. I.
I turned my eyes away.
The language of dominance is remarkably efficient in its instructions, for ten years later my husband said the very same words to me, a month after we married. I wanted to go for a walk. He said no, which I did not understand until he threw me on the floor and said, you might as well stay there because if you get up I’ll throw you down again, my love.
I remembered the vinegar, then. I remembered my ma and the day I examined my hand, carefully, for a moment, and leaving aside my desecrated thumb, chose the first among my fingers for my pleasure.
How odd in my mouth it felt, foreign its shape, its angle. How comforting was the smooth skin and the new surfaces of my flesh, soft to me sucking away that taste.
I put my ring finger in my mouth and juiced his band of gold, I laved it with spit until it could slip.
Slip away to the floor under his fury. I was gone before he came for me, fast, but defeated, the way my mother had come.
©2015 Susan Maier-Moul
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