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Derek Coyle: Six Carlow Poems

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Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, The High Window and The Stony Thursday Book. He published his first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow in a dual-language edition in Tranas Sweden and Carlow Ireland in April 2019, and it was shortlisted for the Shine Strong 2020 poetry award. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s, Ireland. His second collection, Sipping Martinis under Mount Leinster is due in 2023.

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Introduction

‘After being raised on a sensibly robust and nourishing diet of grounded and tangible poetry for much of my adolescence and young manhood – Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Derek Mahon in Ireland, and Akhmatova and Cavafy further afield – I took a strange turn towards the surreal and the fantastical in my maturity. Something in the poems of John Ashbery and James Tate, and Medbh McGuckian here in Ireland, opened up new and intriguing spaces in my head. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know how it works. The poems by these poets I have read can sometimes be difficult and challenging. I hope my poems aren’t.

So, given this turn, many of the poems gathered here have a touch of the fantastical and magical about them. The idea of ‘The Infinity Hotel’ is a concept in maths. You needn’t worry too much about the detail. I mainly liked the name. And my own take on the concept: imagine a hotel in Carlow that housed all deceased personages ever, and maybe even a few who are still alive (but just visiting), and with the memory of all that has passed, and all that has been known and is known. Imagine if a few well known guests were to wander out in wonder to have a look at the town of Carlow and its environs and give us their take on the contemporary world.

One of the poems in this set is a satire, I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one. I’ve been intrigued by satires for some time, having recently enough read a copy of Catullus that sat on my shelf for over twenty-five years. Of course, I know that the eighteenth century was the great age of satire in English, and whilst I laud the turn towards the authentic and the personal that the Romantics initiated and which makes much of eighteenth century poetry hard to read (at least for me anyway), I do think we miss out on the opportunities that a solid satire might afford us. God knows, we have plenty to laugh at in ourselves in the way we are going on. Satire has been a popular mode amongst Gaelic bards for centuries.’ [DC]

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CARLOW POEM #49

Reading you Merwin
I’m put in mind of the attic
I dreamed up top of my house
an attic window for the light
walls lined with bookshelves
for Confucius – to help me
understand the Chinese –
and volumes of ancient poems
found in Egyptian tombs –
a reading lamp and chair
something colourful and fun
from IKEA – a rug
of Moroccan wool
its lively colours inspired
by berries leaves henna
flowers the thing is
a man sent me up there
to see if I could stand up –
and I could – just barely
there’ll be no reading room
up there in the loft
only a storage space
for old books
worn knick-knacks
the drafts of poems
still through the light of poetry
I sit up there today

CARLOW POEM #51

(i.m. Derek Mahon)

It was like disappearing,
only not into the earth, or sea, but the sky,
in clouds, sunlight, somewhat airy.
How I sat in a Chinese restaurant
in Portrush,
not having left the paddocks of Kildare.
No, I wasn’t at the movies.
I was reading Derek Mahon.
Where you learned you didn’t need John Wayne
when you could have Du Fu.
This landscape where a good time
involved existential doubt,
a mood of despair, the quiet suffering
of mushrooms in a disused shed
in Wexford, patience and silence.
I’d never seen that shed exactly,
despite our summer holidays in Curracloe,
but I could see it in your book
as I read away, sunk in the black
living room chair, like a dog burying his bone.
Each poem a room
with a door leading into
Belfast shipyards, Inis Oírr,
a Courtyard in Delft, Carrowdore Churchyard.
And this the only way to get there.
No time machine needed.
No diesel, no coal. No iced Coke.
Only the steam of my own breath
blowing into these rooms.
Stepping out your definite rhythm in my head,
I relished your recondite diction
like a salad of iceberg lettuce, croutons
and honey glazed ham. The tang of feta cheese,
how real you made your Scythian wind,
the dust of Thrace.

CARLOW POEM #71

‘In this country all the trees are crying,’
Keats declares as he slices
into his braised lamb shank.
‘The porcini mushrooms are very fine,’
Wordsworth whispers, raising an eyebrow.
These English men have no time
for haute cuisine. ‘The living beech, oak,
willow and alder, send out signals
to all the dead doors, floorboards,
windows, whatever about the dead ashes
of their ancestors,’ Keats ploughs on.
‘Trees nourish a dead stump,
what we call a dead stump.’
‘Would you mind passing me the parmesan,
John?’, asks Wordsworth politely. ‘No,
they have no Yorkshire pudding, alas.’
‘And large mother trees mind
the forest, and their little ones,
sending down nutrients, distributed
out through their roots to all
the young, old and infirm.’
‘A very model of human society,’
Charles Lamb mumbles, a toothpick
raised to dislodge a truculent
sliver of lamb. ‘Edmund Burke
would be pleased.’ The men
have wandered across the road
to The Seven Oaks Hotel,
fed up with the burgers and chips
continuously served up in The Infinity Hotel.
No Spanish tapas for them,
no Asian chicanery, no,
just good old earthy veg and hearty meat.
‘I’m thinking of getting a tattoo,’
states Robert Haydon. ‘I know,
a little naughty, but I fancy
a nightingale, or a Grecian urn.
Perhaps some bright star
on my left butt cheek. ‘Marvellous,’
thinks Keats, the young upstart,
‘how original.’ Wordsworth
thinks it would be more in Haydon’s line
to grow himself a hipster beard,
if he wishes to keep up with fashion.
At the very least, it might disguise
that long unsightly scar under his chin.
‘A most unbecoming memento,
for a Christian,’ Wordsworth thinks.

CARLOW POEM #133

James Joyce is rather pleased
with the dinner served up
in The Weeping Thaiger.
He often dreams of Asia,
prompted by the fire
in a red chilli, and here it is:
duck in red curry, complete
with kaffir lime leaves, pineapple
and coconut milk. ‘Rather
more exotic, don’t you think,
than that cold old night
in The Majestic? I couldn’t bear
the asparagus, red mullet
in white butter sauce,
and all that Russian caviar.’
‘Mmm, quite,’ is all Proust can muster.
There is a scent of almond
in the air,
but that might be Diaghilev’s hair cream.

‘Picasso and I took a walk
down by Clogrennane Woods today.
Anything to escape that Stravinsky bore
slobbering into his vodka. When will he
ever learn Coco Chanel is only a shop-girl
with a penchant for dukes over artistes?’
Stravinsky was positively saturated
at the bar of The Infinity Hotel,
happily joined by Monsieurs Behan
and Fitzgerald,
the most amiable of men
and they with the drink in them.
‘There was I feeling sad for the beech,
all dressed up in his summer finery,
with ‘ere a glove or a scarf
and the autumn coming in. Well,
a cloud burst overhead
sent down an unmerciful downpour,
and it were as if the beech took off its hat
and opened up its coat
to receive every drop,
the rain pouring on and over
every hundredth, every thousandth leaf.
All onto its twigs,
rivering down along its trunk,
before foaming up
to enter the ground.’
On hearing this
Proust remembers the first time
he kissed Lucien Daudet.
It was late evening, a humid June.
They’d stopped under a tall beech
in a shady woods. He’d stepped closer
to swish away a spider
from Lucien’s hair. Their hands touched.

He must remember to tip the waiter.
He searches his wallet
for change, would 500 francs
do the trick? Meanwhile,
Picasso and Joyce move on;
‘are there really forty shades
of green in Ireland
or is Johnny Cash bluffing?’
Picasso has only ever used
at least twenty-three shades of green
in all the pictures he’s painted.
It must be a lie.

CARLOW POEM #75

Ezra Pound is disappointed,
there is no partridge dinner to be had,
only heaps of Spanish chorizo
swimming in red peppers, garlic cloves,
and tomatoes. He’d exited
The Infinity Hotel on Dublin Street
with Wilfrid Blunt and Willie Yeats,
having left Victor Plarr and Frank Flint
fighting in the bar over whether penguins
were once called ‘arse feet’
in the eighteenth century. ‘The time’s coming
when we will struggle to pull a potato,
but I cannot see through this purple haze.
Today, folk ride escalators like they are currachs,
while JCBs have ripped up beech,
willow, and oak, like carrots.’

And Yeats hums:
‘There will be a fever
to make the children dance.’

‘All the trees have in defence are toxic tannins,
slowly released through leaf and bark –
but what good can they do
against the human aphid in his industrial clobber?
Distress signals are sent out
through miles of hyphae, deep underground,
the old reliable fungi. Distress calls,
in organic cable, but the mixers
are pumping out diesel fumes
and the concrete is being poured.’

And Yeats hums:
‘There will be a fever
to make the children dance.’

CARLOW POEM #95

One of these days Hollywood
will realize that Fenagh
is one of the fascinating places
of the earth,
how everyone there loves John Joe Maher
who does this amazing tap-dance
in his black shoes with the metal tips.
He has even grown a toothbrush moustache
in a direct tribute to Charlie Chaplin.
His specialty is a hand-stand tap-dance
to Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’.
You can see him on every second Tuesday
at lunchtime just outside the Nine Scones café
and he giving it laldie, as they say in Glasgow.
xxxxxxxAnd then there is the ‘Bear’ Brophy,
one of the Brophy’s of Corries Cross,
and the rumour about him is
he’s related to the Duke of Kent.
And this despite the fact the jeans he wears
are threadbare, and him with his one red sock
peeking out of a hole in his shoe.
He often speaks of lunch at Lismore Castle,
and he has very particular insights
into the relationship of Charles and Diana
that could only be known
by one who was there, on the inside,
as it were.
xxxxxxxAnd then there’s the retired brain surgeon
who, it turns out, proved to be a dab hand
at fixing up the cranky engines of vintage tractors.
Something to do with his eye for precision.
The problem is, he’s rather too fond
of Tullamore Dew, his preferred method
of payment in retirement. Apparently,
he carried out brain surgery,
very successful brain surgery, on at least
three American presidents and one pope.
Nobody knows, in Fenagh anyway,
which presidents and which pope,
but there’s been many an educated guess.
If you wander into The Hunter’s Rest
of a Friday afternoon, this is how
her many patrons pass their time
before a raging fire of the finest turf.
xxxxxxxAnd then there is ‘Choo Choo’ Nolan,
the local philosopher, who spends his June
evenings sitting out on a tree stump,
there at the edge of the village contemplating
the many shades of light you’ll see hover
over the green fields of Mt Leinster.
He is disparaging of Immanuel Kant,
and he thinks Plato a fraud,
but he can recite the theories of Newton
and what Goethe knew of optics
in several European languages,
as well as Latvian and, as we speak,
he’s mastering the rudiments of Turkish grammar.
He’ll only divulge his thoughts
if you carry up to him from Kearney’s pub
the choicest madeira wine on a silver tray,
one of the many they import direct from Lisbon.
He has a particular fondness for the wine
derived from the Malvasia grape,
although there’s many in Fenagh question his taste.
‘He might know everything about light,
there’s nobody denying that, but he knows
all you needn’t know about madeira wine.’
xxxxxxxBut of all the incredible characters
you’ll find in Fenagh, many locals’ favourite
is Lucian, the eminent botanist
and graveyard historian,
with his own theory that Charles Darwin
was really a frustrated hermaphrodite,
one with a secret penchant for necrophilia.
Lucian’s favourite occupation, on Sundays,
after mass, is to play the jaw’s harp,
but the thing is, he is dead set
on finding every note of Béla Bartók’s
‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ on his jaw’s harp,
the notes you can’t hear, but he knows are there.
He gratefully, and very gracefully, accepts
every euro cast his way, brass or silver no matter,
even the odd tattered note. His dynamic efforts
on the jaw’s harp would surely be enough
to power a small electricity station in Lapland.
He is glad of his audience
ever since he was refused a place
in the RTE Symphony Orchestra.
The whole of Fenagh feels his pain
and are confident Hollywood will be wiser.
xxxxxxxThe people of Fenagh are so content
that they reckon the dogs in Fenagh
might just be the happiest dogs in Ireland.
That’s why, when you visit Fenagh,
don’t be surprised to see locals
down on all fours listening carefully
to the whelps and barks of their mutts,
trying to discern the precise level of their happiness.
You can’t be a happy man or woman
unless your dog is happy too.
xxxxxxxAnd so it is, when you drive
into the village of Fenagh,
don’t be deceived that it is just a row
of old cottages, sturdily built
by our peasant ancestors of yore,
with just a bunch of insignificant blow-ins
in her new estates. No,
Fenagh’s citizens are the happiest
and most interesting people in Ireland.
This is the type of fact not taught
in the National Schools of Ireland,
and something that, in all their wisdom,
the locals feel a tad put out by.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxStill,
they are confident that one day
in the not-too-distant future,
Hollywood will forego its interest in Cairo,
Istanbul, even Paris, New York, and Milan,
and that at least one episode
of the latest James Bond movie
will be filmed under their glorious Mt Leinster.
And then all of Fenagh’s characters
will have more than bit parts to play.
I mean, who wants to be in a poem?

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