The radio hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters
out of the dark, each morning of my childhood.
A kind of plaintive, reedy, oboe note –
Deadlock … it mutters, firearms … Sunningdale;
Just before two this morning … talks between …
and through its aperture, the outside world
comes streaming, like a magic lantern show,
into our bewildered solitude.
Unrest … it hoots now both sides … sources say …
My mother stands, like a sentinel, by the sink.
I should probably tell you more about my mother:
Sixth child of twelve surviving – ‘escapee’
from the half-ignited powder keg of Belfast;
from its escalation, its tensions ratcheting
its fear of reprisals, and its tit-for-tat.
She is small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant;
she’s high-pitched and steely – like, in human form,
The RKO transmitter tower,
glimpsed just before films on Sunday afternoons,
where we loaf on poufs – or wet bank holidays.
Or perhaps a strangely tiny lightning rod
snatching the high and wild and worrying words
out of the air, then running them to ground.
My mother sighs and glances briefly round
at her five small children. How does she have five kids?
Since my mother fell on the Wheel Of Motherhood
– that drags her, gasping, out of bed each dawn
bound to its form – she’s had to rally back.
She wrangles her youngsters into one bright room
and tries to resist their centrifugal force
as she tries to resist the harrowing radio,
with its Diplock … and burned out ... and Disappeared.
So high, obscure and far from neighbouring farms
is the marvellous bungalow my father built,
birdsong and dog-barks ricochet for miles;
and wasn’t my mother wise to stay put here
soothed by the rhythms of a culchie Life
– birdsong in chimneys, the Shhhh of coal-truck brakes
– when women at home are queuing round the block
for their ‘Valium, thank you doctor, and Librium’?
So daily the radio drops its explosive news
and daily my mother turns to field the blow.
The words fall down, a little neutral now,
onto the stone-cold, cold, stone kitchen floor.
Our boiler slowly digests its anthracite
and somewhere outside, in the navy dark,
my father tends to his herd of unlikely cows.
A Charolais, the colour of cement,
thought to be lost for days has just turned up
simply standing – ta da!– in front of a concrete wall.
My mother, I think, is like that Charolais cow
in the Ulster of 1970 … 80 …what?
with its tensions … and its local sympathies.
She gets her head down, hidden in plain view,
and keeps us close. ‘Look: Nothing to see here – right?’
But when the night has rolled round again,
my mother will lie unsleeping in her bed;
she’ll lie unsleeping in that bungalow bed
and if a car slows on the bend behind the house,
she’s up, alert – fearing the worst, which is:
that a child of hers might die – or lose an eye;
or a child anywhere die or lose an eye …
That the car which slows on the bend behind the house
– Midnight … she thinks now … random … father of five
– is the agent of vile sectarian attack.
By the top field’s wall, our unfenced slurry pit,
(villain of Public Information Films)
widens and gulps beneath the brittle stars.
My mother too thinks the worst, then gulps it back,
and in this way discovers equilibrium.
Death in the slurry pit, death beside the curb.
Death on the doorstep, bright-eyed, breathing hard.
My mother folds the tender, wobbling limbs
and outsized heads of her infants into herself;
she curls up, foetal, over our foetal forms.
Since my mother sailed down the Mekong river at nightfall
to the Heart of Darkness that is motherhood,
her mind’s been an assemblage of wounds.
She thinks about Gerard McKinney, Jean McConville
– later the eyes of Madeleine McCann
will level their gaze from every pleading poster
and pierce her heart like a rapier – needle-thin
as the high, wild, hardly audible cries of children.
Men of Violence … says the radio.
My mother nods, then finally falls asleep.
And what if after my mother falls asleep
the hoots, half-words, and notes of high alarm
get loose from her head on little soot-soft wings?
Say they flap like bats. They fuck with the carriage clock.
They settle on her Hummel figurines.
Till the whole contraption of that home-made house
creaks, roars and bulges with the soundless strain
of my mother trying not to be afraid …
Forgive me, this is all hypothesis.
It’s conjecture, Doctor, of the crudest sort …
Its gist being: beneath our bonhomie
and tight commercial smiles, this tone or timbre
flows on, like a circuit thrown into reverse –
and at the centre of concentric circles
that this is what plays behind an unmarked door.
Sometimes, rather, lying in my bed
I seem to hear the sound of the radio
issuing from a room, deep in the house;
it tells, in mournful tones, how two young men
were taken from their car beside the road …
and afterwards … nothing. All the stars come out
like sparkling glitter in a magic globe
that ends beyond the dunes fringing the fields –
and because I’m still a child and understand
nothing at all, I simply fall asleep.
Poetry Ireland Review Issue 115:
The latest issue of Poetry Ireland Review includes poems by VP Loggins, Ciarán Parkes, Monica Corish, Jessica Traynor, Mícheál Ó hAodha, Andrew Deloss Eaton, Tadhg Russell, Geraldine Mitchell and Séamus Barra Ó Súilleabháin, with Irish-language content chosen by Liam Carson, an interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and reviews of Tom Paulin, Ciaran Carson, Louis de Paor, Thomas Kinsella and The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry Volume III.