“I have to go to work,” I say, making a sympathetic face.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?!, it shouts in the evenings.
“Walk the dog/do the laundry/email A through M about N through Z.”
Oh, and watch the news.
It’s a wonder the creative panic -I think it was once called a Muse -sticks around at all.
I often feel like my journalistic self is pushing my creative self out of the way, the big-shouldered bully pushing down the black-caped wimp in the schoolyard. But every once in a while, that caped figure gets back up again and waves a magic wand.
Lasntight, Seamus Heaney was on PBS NewsHour, a program I watch with fervent devotion and intense admiration. It was excellent, if jarring, to see Jeffrey Brown interviewing one of my favorite poets after the newscast’s featuring reports on Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, and much more. NewsHour’s website features Heaney reading his poem, ‘Death Of A Naturalist’, which is ridiculously beautiful and worth a watch.
All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, But best of all was the warm thick slobber Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring I would fill jampots full of the jellied Specks to range on the window-sills at home, On shelves at school, and wait and watch until The fattening dots burst into nimble- Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how The daddy frog was called a bullfrog And how he croaked and how the mammy frog Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too For they were yellow in the sun and brown In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges To a coarse croaking that I had not heard Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
What a treat to see this celebrated writer speak so candidly about his innate fear over suffering a stroke in 2006, and what a strange blessing to hear him share his initial feelings of doubt when embarking on a new piece work:
…when you’re beginning, you’re not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing? But when it comes alive in a way to feel that’s your own utterance, then I think you’re in business.
More often than not, it’s been poetry that’s brought me back to that uniquely personal “utterance” of late. Daily news does make a glorious, chaotic clang that is its own sexy siren song, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more quiet meditations of poetry. That shrieking creative panic who troubles me morning, noon, and night seems like little more than an ignored muse who toes I keep inadvertently stepping on.
Perhaps I’ll let the chorus of Heaney’s marshy choir envelope the newsy noise that’s been covering up the gigantic, five-borough-shaped hole in my heart. Creation is messy business indeed, but one has to be clutched by the wordy spawn sooner or later, or, more accurately, take a ride on the back of the Leviathan that sloshes its tail through the swampy waters of my daily life. To quote another poet, the readiness is all. Hang on. Eyes wide open. Pen ready.
Top – “The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polymnia” by Eustache Le Sueur
I recall parties thrown by Irish friends, where the adults drank whiskey and us kids got milk with mint syrup. I remember more debauched celebrations in university that involved continual tar-and-malt-coloured libations through the day (and into night). In 2003, I met my mother at an Irish pub. She made the black remark that, “we’d better get good and drunk; there’s going to be a pile of dead people tomorrow.” The second Iraq war was on the cusp of starting; that sore festering pimple left the pallor of St. Pat’s particularly scarred, especially since pub patrons were taking sips between quick, nervous glances at the telly, as if CNN was the band-aid one could put on the bruised complexion of the world. Of course, my mother was right: three days later, we awakened to news of bombs, rockets, blood and screaming. And plenty of speeches and chest-thumping. Drinking didn’t make it that much better but the communal experience of being in a pub helped immeasurably.
St. Pat’s also has a personal dimension for me: today marks the day that, in 2007, I moved from a bittersweet, happy/sad life in Stratford, Ontario. I toasted my new circumstances that night, with dirty hands and sore arms, in a newly-painted room with a gleaming hardwood floor. The future was a huge question mark yawning forth with fangs and tongue flicking. Everything was new and old at the same time. “Woe to me,” I thought between bouts of self-pity, “if I wound up nothing but the undigested afterthought of a Beelzebub offering sin and redemption one foul swoop.” I still can’t figure out if I’m cud or steak, but one thing’s clear: that painful St. Pat’s made me stronger.
Before the fortifying challenges of adulthood however, I remember another St. Patrick’s Day. I was living in Dublin (yes, Ireland). I was in my early twenties, and my definitions of love, worth, security, friendship, play -hell, even art -had been turned upside down in the six months I’d been there. After weeks of gloom and wet, the dampness so keen it stained the walls of our ancient flat and made wearing three layers de rigeur, St. Pat’s was bright, sunny, and mild. Joyful crowds lined O’Connell Street: apple-cheeked grannies, sozzled students, North African immigrants, people from the numerous outlying suburbs, all enjoying a day off. Everyone was smiling, even the Gardai, in their uniforms, with buttons eye-searingly shiny casting rings of light along the cracked cement.
I’d stood on the thick concrete rail of the O’Connell Street Bridge weeks before, a friend holding a leg each, imploring me to “hurry up!” as I happily, manically snapped pictures of the buildings and houses cupping the Liffey like a cooing grey dove. Cold winds had whipped me to and fro, as hands gripped my ankles, then pant legs, and then the inevitable comment of “you’re insaaane!” floated through the rain-soaked air, chiming in harmony with the metallic ca-chunks of the camera lens. I’d gone to Dublin because, as a first-time move-out, I thought it would be easier to negotiate than the busy, buzzy shock of Gotham-like London; I was also in love with words, and had been intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually sustained by the likes of Yeats, Heaney, Joyce, Beckett, Behan and O’Casey for years. It’s no accident I wound up living mere blocks from the Dublin Writers Museum, the Gate Theatre -and the GPO.
As I stood that day in Dublin slowly inhaling the joy, the sunshine, and riotous celebration, there flashed a pang of sadness in my chest -that familiar, oh-so-Irish sense of doom, drama, and joy, melded together. I was already making plans to move to London. I didn’t know what the future held. I wasn’t even sure why I was leaving. And then I saw it: a float, featuring players from the popular television series Father Ted. I’d come to adore the show before I’d moved, thanks to PBS airings, and living in Dublin cemented my adoration. It was a ringing success in Ireland for simple reasons: the gentle mocking of the Church, the ironic winks to tradition, the celebration of community and friendship. Pauline McLynn, who played Mrs. Doyle, and Ardal O’Hanlon, who played Father Dougal, were on the float, and were greeted with manic waves and cheers. But their appearance was tinged with sadness: their co-star Dermot Morgan (who played the title role) had died very suddenly the previous year.
I came out of a darkened pub to blinding sunshine later that day, feeling overwhelmingly sad yet happily content, all at once.
“Moving?!” an Irish co-worker and friend had exclaimed, “you’re moving? Why??”
Bittersweet. Good and bad. Yin and yang. Stout and whiskey. That’s Ireland. That was my life there. And Dublin gave me the greatest St. Patrick’s day ever.
I’ve started reading a book called Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston. It’s about Weston’s experiences in the world of a hospital; the British author was an arts grad who decided to become a surgeon, so she took the requisite night classes, and years of medical training, to achieve her dream. Direct Red is her account of day-to-day life in her chosen field.
But reading the book, Weston has the beautiful, flowing wordplay of a poet:
At medical school, while studying pathology, I was charmed by the names of the colourful dyes used to stain tissues for clearer microscopic viewing. Crystalline as jewels, primary as food colourings used for cake icing and egg painting, the names of these elixirs seemed brighter in my mind than the substances themselves, the Platonic hues offset by their arcane prefixes. And through a process I cannot chart, every time I feel sick in theatre, I summon a rainbow collage of these names to mind. They stimulate my ebbing consciousness and usually call me back from that strange physiological precipice to normal function.
Somehow, this shimmering language describing hues, shapes, shadows, forms and memories reminds me so much of a favourite poet I’ve recently rediscovered: Seamus Heaney, who is currently being feted in fine style by the RTE (and beyond) on account of his 70th birthday. More about him, and his poetry, in a future post.
For now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy Weston’s beautiful, imagistic work; by bringing the poetical into the surgical, she marries the worlds of science and art in a way that hasn’t been properly explored since Da Vinci.