In memoriam

Mary Teresa Ann Lyons

These cold frosty mornings, such as the one I awoke to today, always remind me of the days my mother spent in the Brook hospital in Shooters Hill, towards the end of her life. The poem below was written immediately after visiting her one day in the hospital when I, like all her children, had been stunned by her sudden decline. The accompanying photo was taken two years earlier, around the time of her seventieth birthday and that is how I like to remember her. She was born in Tralee, Co. Kerry in 1922, and her family emigrated to Welling in 1937, for reasons I never fully understood. From the photo it can be seen that even at her age then, she had lost none of the beauty that led my father to call her his Rose of Tralee throughout their life together. But the radiance of her physical beauty was nothing compared to the inner beauty that glowed within her and was manifest in her eternal smile. She was blessed with the tough genes of the Kerry people and she worked tirelessly throughout her life as a proud wife and a mother of six and as a teacher of primary school infants. In so many respects she was the life and soul of the family, and if I had to sum up in one word what drove her to embrace life with such inexhaustible energy, I would have to say love.

Your final resting

Half-moon over November night:
      snow on the ground and icy dusting
of snow in the boughs of trees
      in the ancient woodlands by your last bed.
A barn owl sits motionless in the darkness,
      in the half-light of the half-moon.
A lone cry in the woodlands,
      the lone cry of the November owl
under the half-moon. And then silence.
      And then peace. A final flurry of snow.

That you should love and be loved.
      nothing more. That you should love
and be lived by that love. The two-way gift,
      the life-gift and the love-gift,
and not the one without the other.
      All life is two-way just as all love
is all life
      in the giving and receiving.
And so Divina asks me where was she
      before she was born,
because living and loving cannot understand
      the state of non-being.
And I say to her:
      You were there in our love
where you will always be,
            in our love.

And you, my mother—
      I gave birth to you
just as you brought me out of yourself
      and into the light,
barely a half-moon from now,
      barely three and forty years from here.
You born again in the moment of my birth
      into that deep love-gift of motherhood;
And I have loved you
      as the father of your motherhood of me,
son and father to you
      as the mother and daughter of my love.

And your dying — this two-way sadness
      which we call your death
is also a kind of lying in,
      is also a kind of new maternity,
a fresh maternity as you lie here now
      in peace and at peace,
nurturing us into that new life,
      that life with and without you,
that never-losing-you life of your death.
      Your six children
around your last bed,
      at the breast of your love.

November sun — and magpies soaring
      in the chill air,
seen through the window of your last resting
      A sadness yes, a grief
undeniably. And yet an overwhelming
      sense of love undying.
Not of ashes to ashes
      but of life to life
             through love.

23 November 1993


César Vallejo – three poems in translation

vallejoThese three poems by the Peruvian poet, César Vallejo (pictured), were among the first translations I undertook while I was at Oxford in 1969. A friend of Pablo Neruda, and a defender of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, Vallejo was a very intense individual and as he developed his poetry over the years, that intensity began to manifest itself in a density of language that is both beautiful and challenging. Not all poetry yields its fruit on first reading. Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, called Vallejo the greatest of all the Latin American poets. The youngest of eleven children, Vallejo lost his brother Miguel when he was quite young and later wrote a poem dedicated to the memory of the games they had often played together. Always was a most sensitive poet, Vallejo remained committed to the cause of ordinary working people throughout his life.

I am dedicating this post to the memory of Paul Kavanagh, a cousin of mine who died recently in Waterford, Ireland. As a young boy I would occasionally stay with his parents during the summer holidays, and Paul and I became very close friends. At that time my uncle owned a small bar on the Quay in Waterford and the family lived in the flat above. In the summer of 1963, the year John Kennedy was assassinated, I stayed with Paul and learnt so much from him. Among other things, I discovered the joys of fly fishing, and he taught me two essential skills for a young lad: how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth and how to cup my hands to make owl calls. I nearly drove my uncle and aunt mad with that. The same year, I bought two Beatles albums from Paul who wasn’t too impressed with their music. I still have the vinyl records.

My cousin also possessed an old steel-string guitar which I would pick up from time to time and strum away, pretending I could accompany any song on the radio. In reality I hadn’t a clue and it was probably totally out of tune and a further instrument of torture for my long-suffering uncle and aunt. Nevertheless, all good grist to me: and when I returned to London at the end of the holiday I acquired a guitar of my own and so began my own erratic journey as a musician.

For my brother Miguel

in memoriam

      Brother, I’m now on the bench at home
where you are so endlessly missed!
I remember we’d play at this time, and that mamá
would gently chide us: “Now, boys . . . ”

     Now I hide,
as before, during all these evening
prayers, and I hope you won’t find me.
In the living room, the hall, the corridors.
Then you hide, and I can’t find you.
I remember we laughed ourselves to death
in that game, brother.

      Miguel, you hid yourself
one night in August, as dawn broke;
but instead of laughing as you hid, you were sad.
And your twin heart from those dead and gone
afternoons tired of not finding you. And now
a shadow falls across the soul.

      Hey, brother, hurry up
and come out. Okay? Mamá will be worried.


The Black Heralds

      There are blows in life so hard. . . I don’t know!
Blows like the hatred of God; as though in the face of them
the undertow of all that has been suffered
simply welled up in the soul. . . I don’t know!

      There aren’t many, but some. . . They open dark furrows
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
They could be the colts of barbarous Attilas perhaps;
or the Black heralds of Death’s dispatch.

      They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some adorable faith that destiny blasphemes.
These bloody blows are the sizzling
of some bread we’ve burnt in the oven mouth.

      And man. . . poor. . . poor man! He turns his eyes back as
when someone greets us with a slap on the shoulder
turns his mad eyes, and all that he’s been through
wells up, like a pool of blame in his gaze.

      There are blows in life, so hard. I don’t know!


And if after so many words

      And if after so many words,
the word does not survive!
If after the wings of birds,
the bird at rest does not survive!
It would be better, indeed,
for it to be gobbled up and be done.

      To be born to live out our death!
Rising up from the heavens to earth
through one’s own disasters
and to spy the moment one’s shadow shrouds one’s darkness!
It would be better, frankly,
for it to be gobbled up, and be damned!

      And if after so much history, we succumb,
no longer to eternity,
but from these simple things, such as being
at home or weighing things on our mind!
And if we then find,
suddenly, that we are living,
to judge from the height of the stars,
for the comb and the stains on a hanky!
It would be better, indeed,
for it to be gobbled up, of course!

      It might be said that we have
in one eye much suffering
and in the other, much suffering
and in both, when they focus, much suffering. . .
Well then. . . Of course! . . . Well then. . . not a word!