The universal and the particular

Name the odd one out: James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Patrick MacGill. All have literary summer schools held in their honour except Seamus Heaney. Only a matter of time. One will likely have been set up by the time I hit publish on this post.

My knowledge of Patrick MacGill is limited to occasional pauses before his memorial statue, and accidental glances at rarely leafed-through books lining a shelf in my parents’ house. “The Navvy Poet”. Journalist. Poet. Novelist. Looks like my cousin Declan. Glenties man.

My Dad. History addict. Through the kitchen window day-dreamer. ‘Pullover’ wearer. Retiree. Looks like his sister. Glenties man.

One as enigmatic as the other. Any child who annually agonises before the array of imported emotional porn lining the greeting card sections of Ireland will understand. So too will those who cling to repetitious small-talk as subtitles for love and affection. That’s just our way.

Glenties. Keeper of both their secrets. And every summer the scene of burning debates on the great national questions of the day. Over the coming week, Very Important People will stride through the doors of the hotel where Meryl Streep stayed during the Irish premier of Dancing at Lunaghsa. Taoisigh and presidents can come and go, she’ll always be their Queen.

Based on the play by Brian Friel, the film captures a summer of upheaval in the lives of the five Mundy sisters in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It is loosely based on Friel’s Mother and Aunts who lived in Glenties. Aunts my Father remembered along with the occasional visit from the young playwright in his boyhood. Like Friel, his was a house of five women. My Mother tells me my Dad tells her I ‘took’ after one. It’s the hair, apparently, and the spirit. She legged it as soon as she could, too. But none of them made it near middle age. TB wiped out their vitality along with the ability of their brother to talk about them much. Buried trauma. That was just the way.

On the corner rounding into town stands his old school. My Mother tells me that my Father told her that the reason he was so keen to attend the funeral of a former teacher recently was because this teacher defended him when he was threatened with demotion from altar boy after his sister had an “illegitimate child”. She kept the child. That just wasn’t the way.

The same school features in the work of poet, Paul Durcan. Inspired during his visit to the MacGill Summer School with a fellow poet, it doubled up as the stage for a duel on meditations on parenting and writing. What scholars would probably call the universal and the particular, while I try to understand what they mean. I can’t claim to know too much about poetry, but I just have to read this one poem to get exactly what they mean.

My Dad.  Former pupil. Table tennis enthusiast. One-time proud altar boy. Brother. Uncle. Survivor. Glenties man.

A Spin in the Rain with Seamus Heaney

You had to drive across to Donegal town
To drop off a friend at the Dublin bus
So I said I’d come along for the spin –

A spin in the rain.
Bales of rain
But you did not alter your method of driving,

Which is to sit right down under the steering wheel
And to maintain an upwards-peering posture
Treating the road as part of the sky,

A method which motoring correspondents call
Horizontal-to-the-vertical.
The hills of Donegal put down their heads

As you circled upwards past their solitary farmhouses,
All those aged couples drenched over firesides,
Who once were courting couples in parked cars.

You parked the car in Donegal town and we walked the shops –
Magee’s Emporium and The Four Masters Bookshop.
You bought ice-cream cones. I bought women’s magazines.

We drove on up through the hills past Mountcharles
And Bruckless and Ardara.
There was a traffic jam in Ardara,

Out of which you extricated yourself
With a jack-knife U-turn on a hairpin bend
With all the bashful panache of a cattle farmer –

A cattle farmer who is not an egotist
But who is a snail of magnanimity,
A verbal source of calm.

Back in the Glenties you parked outside the National School
Through whose silent classrooms we strayed,
Silent with population maps of the world.

Standing with our backs to a deserted table-tennis table
We picked up a pair of table-tennis bats
And, without being particularly conscious of what we were at,

We began to bat the ball one to the other
Until a knock-up was in progress,
Holding our bats in pen grips.

So here we are playing a game of ping-pong
Which is a backdrop to our conversation
While our conversation is a backdrop to our game.

We are talking about our children and you speak
Of the consolation of children when they grow up
To become our most trusted of all companions.

I could listen to you speak along these lines
For the rest of the day and I dare say
You could listen to me also speak along my lines:

I have always thought that ping-pong balls –
Static spheres fleet as thoughts –
Have flight textures similar to souls’.

I note that we are both of us
No mean strikers of the ball and that, although
We have different ways of addressing the table –

Myself standing back and leaping about,
Yourself standing close and scarcely moving –
What chiefly preoccupies us both is spin.

As darkness drops, the rain clears.
I take my leave of you to prepare my soul
For tonight’s public recital. Wishing each other well.

Poetry. To be able to look a bullet in the eye,
With a whiff of the bat to return it spinning to drop
Down scarcely over the lapped net; to stand still; to stop.

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3 thoughts on “The universal and the particular

  1. oops – forgot that I like wee Japanese poems. I like the pictures which come with a good poem – or poeyum as we say round these parts.

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