The Galway Nine
Dropping a two-in-one post – a set of new poems from a new book coming out later this year, KNUCKLE, and some artwork from Galway City, where at the irresistible invitation of Kevin Higgins I read at Galway City Library on Thursday 24 January – Burns night, as it happens. It was a great evening and a great day after too, walking the town and the bay, doing drawings. Here they are. My thanks to the staff and drinks at Dock One, Wards Hotel, McDonagh’s Fish and Chips, Quay Street Kitchen and Sonny Molloy’s whisky bar, among others.
Well Loved Tales
Here’s the link to the new poems and prose at Live Encounters, edited by Mark Ulysses in Bali – and as a teaser here is the text of Well-Loved Tales, about the power of fairytale, the first story I could properly read, as a remedial pupil, at around the age of eight. Rapunzel. The title refers to the classic 1960s Ladybird editions of the tales. The story of the girl child given away will never, ever lose its power.
Some events in life remix your colours in ways you can’t imagine. Mind and matter mix like pigments and it’s the strong colours that bleed through. Your gravity shifts, you hear a new bass line, and your moves change. Being adopted, exchanging one name for another, is like being mugged of your identity. There’s a violent wrench a long way beneath the surface and all this wreckage to deal with after the storm, except you can’t classify it as wreckage because you’re dealing with the basic material that makes up your life. And the most basic of all is that identity switch, the first dislocation, the unexplainable disappearance of the mother who bore you. It’s the plot of a fairy tale. Sublimate it and bury it as deep as you like in anger or acquiescence but it’s not going anywhere. It surrounds you, it’s your wagon train. It’s your story. How are you going to tell it?
The first story I ever read was Rapunzel, a Ladybird edition with watercolours on one side, 14-point text on the other. Whoever did the Ladybird watercolours were professionals of their craft. The tale is full of nasty forks and twists and I felt them all. The couple who can’t have children, the wife who conceives a child and pines for the old woman’s greens, the sustenance she lacks. The timorous husband who climbs the walled garden, way beyond his years, and picks the vivid salad greens from their beds of saturated colour, a colour so strong it has a life and movement of its own. His capture, their agreement. The birth of the child and its adoption by the old woman – with fairy tales, it’s amazing how many foundlings and orphans and adoptees blaze in their furnace.
The old couple disappear after that. Whatever they did was irrevocable, and it was done. They cross the line then fall into a vacuum of not here, never was. The woman will pine for the witch’s green rapunzel till the universe spins itself out to a series of dots and dashes. Rapunzel, Rapunzel… Let down your hair… The young beauty in the tower, the young wandering prince who climbs her tresses and makes her fat with sex and progeny. The old witch puts a measure to the girl’s waist. She is the hated Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Something from nothing? You dirty little bitch!”
The pictures in my mind of the witch’s garden, and the tower through the trees of the forest that the young prince sees, I’d feel them twang and vibrate and shimmer. They’d begin to move, and I’d see the old man creep through the darkness, enormous dark green leaves hanging in still air. Not a sound, not a breath of wind – and then the witch’s finger.
I twitched, looked up from the first story I could read, climbing the fine hair pinned by a nail and ending in dead fingers, speaking in tongues. What was the girl virgin to the old witch? And when she was swollen with child and cast out into the thorny wilderness, I saw the skulls of Golgotha in dad’s painting above his bed, done some time between art school and the war. Christ on his knees at the mouth of a cave at night, black and grey but for his crimson djellaba. Dad’s voice from an underworld studio.
“Rose madder.” Madder from Friesland, a plant for the colour of panic and life and blood, the prince’s eyes bloodied by thorns, the thorns and petals of a red briar rose. I can remember learning to read the thorny black marks into words, the prince stepping through the parting wood and looking straight at me.
And then the witch vanishes, and so does the tower, and the rapunzel. Never here, never was. Just years in the wilderness, until he hears her sing and her tears heal his sight. Remote vision: I remember the ache and terror built in to that little paragraph: “And he wandered alone for many years.” So light on the tongue and the fingers, and so unendurable. I stared into the mouth of the story and never blinked. It was like staring into the mouth of a dark cave, one that had once been inhabited, and you could very faintly scent the habitation. The thorns, the prince and the old witch and the girl in the tower and the fearful husband and the greedy wife – they moved and flickered like figures on a cave wall under the light of a fat lamp. Fairy tales are the cave art of the ears and tongue. I think they are just as old, stirring in the minds of the young.
Every terror in life, and the terror of death, has been felt out first for us in fairy tales. A great scientist once acquainted them with stories for people afraid of the dark. One of his anti-religion raps. He didn’t know his subject. They are instructional, not escapist. They’re there to make us fear the dark, not protect us from it. Riddles wrapped inside an enigma dropped in to a well, and you hear a faint echo.
Like you’re on the way to Thebes, and there’s this floppy bitch with claws resting under her dugs, waiting to tear your head off and feed it to a ravenous, disc-shaped sawmill of a mouth. The name’s Oedipus, and you’re the original tragedy. The foundling marked by the claws of an eagle. All adoption stories pull in their thread from the labyrinth and they all end at the foot of Oedipus, the baby tossed in to the wilderness because of a promise and a curse.
“Motherfucker killed his father, sired his own brother.” Kept on punching holes in his social network. He married his mother and killed his father and solved the riddle. How would my fate slot in to that mythic template?
Because they are questions loaded with weapons, riddles feature large in myths and tales and songs, like holes in a Swiss cheese. The current academic fashion is to date nothing in folklore further back than its first documentation. It’s an odd twister of a position to take on an oral lineage of descent from the collective tales Carl Jung wrote about, the prince and the witch and the girl in the tower, forbidden fruits and blinding thorns. They live in a steady state, way older than written matter. It’s worth noting that one of the Grimm’s sources for the tales they collected was a neighbour woman who came to clean their house. Once, after telling them a tale, she returned, concerned that she had placed a word incorrectly, and in the tales she told and had heard and learnt, every word had a place as firmly fixed as the stars.
Songs, we know, are more protean; they’re carried to be spilled, and one song often pours through another. The devil riddles a young boy on the road; a gentleman lover puts life-changing riddles to the beautiful young sister who will take him to her bed; The Bells of Paradise is all riddle, drenched in the musk of grail imagery. “One half runs water, the other runs blood.” John Barleycorn, dealt with as if he was one of the bog people garrotted over the peat workings of ancestral neolithics. Barleycorn finds an antecedent in the Exeter Book of Riddles, pages of which were used, some time in the 10th century, as beer mats.
So, riddle me this: did I have to kill my father and marry my mother?
“If I saw her again, I’d kill her.”
I once made good friends with Nabila, a young British Pakistani woman. She was the accountant, I was the copy writer. We were often alone in the overspill office together. There was a spark, and the same with anyone I liked, she soon learnt about my children’s home origins. “If that happened to me,” she said one day, apropos nothing in particular – she was settling some petty cash accounts for the book reps – “I would find them and kill them both.” Then she gave me a dazzling smile. Not long after that, a young accountant working on the end-of-year books nodded towards me and Nabila and murmured to his younger male colleague: “He is her comrade.” Their eyes were still and pointed. I was being watched, like the witch watched Rapunzel. A few months after that, her marriage was arranged to a dull fellow with a scratchy beard, and here comes the groom-to-be’s brother to work in the warehouse, to keep eyes on the valuable bride.