I've written two poetry collections, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry, 2016), and The lucky star of hidden things (2012), both of which have been translated into Italian and published by L’Arcolaio. A surrealist chapbook, titled Invisible, Insane, was published by SurVision, in 2019. A prose poetry collection, Tied to the Wind, is due out with Broken Sleep Books in 2021. I am a freelance mentor, editor and reviewer for the Dublin Review of Books and the Irish Examiner. I facilitate poetry workshops and am also a consultant with The Inkwell Group. More about my online courses here: www.africmcglinchey.com
I read and write a lot, frequently circling back to an obsession about migration / dislocation / identity and place, and also about the ‘place’ of nature being disrupted or brutalized by us, and how it resists. My work has been translated into five languages and widely anthologized. It has also won several prizes, including the Hennessy poetry award, two Arts bursaries, a Faber Fellowship and selection for an Italo-Irish Literature Exchange, as well as Pushcart and Forward nominations. Recently, I was commissioned to write a poem for the Breast Check Clinic in Cork and also for the Irish Composers' Collective. My work has been broadcast on Lyric FM’s Poetry File, on RTE’s Poetry Programme, Arena, Live FM, Radio Coventry, and on The Poetry Jukebox in Belfast. I have read at the Poetry Africa Festival, and the Harare International Festival of the Arts, as well as numerous other festivals and venues in Italy, France, the USA, England and Ireland.
I have an addiction to buying books and half of those in my possession are still unread. There must be a word for that!
My twitter handle is @itosha.
This is the beginning. Almost anything can happen. This is where you find the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land, the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page. Think of an egg, the letter A, a woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises. This is the very beginning. The first-person narrator introduces himself, tells us about his lineage. The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings. Here the climbers are studying a map or pulling on their long woolen socks. This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn. The profile of an animal is being smeared on the wall of a cave, and you have not yet learned to crawl. This is the opening, the gambit, a pawn moving forward an inch. This is your first night with her, your first night without her. This is the first part where the wheels begin to turn, where the elevator begins its ascent, before the doors lurch apart.
This is the middle. Things have had time to get complicated, messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore. Cities have sprouted up along the rivers teeming with people at cross-purposes— a million schemes, a million wild looks. Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack here and pitches his ragged tent. This is the sticky part where the plot congeals, where the action suddenly reverses or swerves off in an outrageous direction. Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child. Someone hides a letter under a pillow. Here the aria rises to a pitch, a song of betrayal, salted with revenge. And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge halfway up the mountain. This is the bridge, the painful modulation. This is the thick of things. So much is crowded into the middle— the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados, Russian uniforms, noisy parties, lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall— too much to name, too much to think about.
And this is the end, the car running out of road, the river losing its name in an ocean, the long nose of the photographed horse touching the white electronic line. This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade, the empty wheelchair, and pigeons floating down in the evening. Here the stage is littered with bodies, the narrator leads the characters to their cells, and the climbers are in their graves. It is me hitting the period and you closing the book. It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck. This is the final bit thinning away to nothing. This is the end, according to Aristotle, what we have all been waiting for, what everything comes down to, the destination we cannot help imagining, a streak of light in the sky, a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.
We learned that Ireland was a temperate island from our first geography books, the climate mild, the gulf stream a blessing that saved us from freezing though we live at the same latitude as Moscow. And the child I was found that word disappointing, no earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanoes, floods. Temperate! A dreary wet city Sunday sound. I took to astral travel out the school window, lift-off on the storied wings of myth and legend, and bitter tales of landlords and emigration, of plantation, rebellion, famine and ruin. They offered us a trope of the traumatised nation. They made us feel the land had failed us. They bludgeoned us with shame, left us lost, fearing our own shadows. I grew up. I roved out in blue britches of denim. I walked the roads. I slept in ditches. I fell in love with a mountain tarn. Its black eye mirrored the stars. The island took hold of me: ice-sculpted valleys, glacial erratics, moraine, esker, bog, karst, her meadows, her rivers; and beamed down from above Planet Earth – our grave mother as seen from the moon. The mitochondrial tug of eternity, that slow pulse of evolutionary regard from deep within the ancient reptilian brain, seat of instinct; from such a critical distance, my neo-aboriginal imagination must dream new endings, must fashion prophetic words fearing they’ll not be heard by our posterity. Can we trust the visions teeming in the hours of trance, knowing art is toxic (little arrows of guilt!) – cadmium, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, lead? To make paper is to make poison, no hand’s clean. All our craft work, all our magic, this we trade: for bee music, music of otter, hare, kite, stoat, the gold-nebbed blackbird’s blissful song of happenstance. Last week I walked to Feltrim in the pouring rain, considered the redundant nature of its name – Faoldroim, from the Irish, means Ridge of the Wolves. The wolves are long extinct and half gone is the ridge, (its requiem the thud and blast of explosive) limestone lorried away to serve that beast, the boom, the turbo cycle over and over again. High on Feltrim Hill Nathaniel Hone loved to sketch Lambay and Ireland’s Eye, the wild coastal fractals; and Samuel Beckett’s favourite view was downwards to Saint Ita’s psychiatric hospital You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that … our human span an eyeblink. To save the world is not so simple as to mine an ocean for each salt tear we’ve wept.
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question … Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair — (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin — (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all— Arms that are braceleted and white and bare (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!) Is it perfume from a dress That makes me so digress? Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl. And should I then presume? And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep … tired … or it malingers, Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter; I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all, After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it towards some overwhelming question, To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— If one, settling a pillow by her head Should say: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while, After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— And this, and so much more?— It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: Would it have been worth while If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, And turning toward the window, should say: “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.”
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I was lucky enough to be one of fourteen poets to get a place on the three-day Masterclass with Don Share at the magical Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat in Ardmore. I have dozens of pages of notes, but this is a glimpse into some of the insights he offered. Yes, we know many of these things already, but it’s good to be reminded. And this is Don Share – if we pay attention, we might just get into Poetry Magazine one day.
The first thing Don looks at is the shape of the poem on a page. If it has sections, do the sections help? He likes names rather than pronouns. Names are striking things, he says. They can do a lot in a poem. Look at the etymology of words. What does Inchigeela mean? A place name becomes imbued with the qualities of its history. Be curious. Don’t just…
I know that Black people were sold as slaves because they were seen as talking beasts of burden and Africans colonized for their own good; and it was unnatural for women to operate heavy machinery let alone operate on a brain.
I know that in the United States, Jim Crow used the rope to keep black from white, and apartheid in South Africa killed for as little as looking across the color line; and that intermarrying between the races was a crime against God, Queen, and Country.
I know that a God of many names, the laws of many lands, science and nature were used to justify slavery and colonialism, holocausts and genocides, rapes and lynching.
I know that African dictators called those who fought for democracy “puppets under the pay of foreign masters” and the foreign masters called those same people communists and insurgents.
And this I know very well: that had the Sojourner Truths, Dedan Kimathis, Martin Luther Kings, Malcom Xs, and Ruth Firsts failed, my wife and I would not have crossed the color line and my daughter would not have been possible.
I know that she, just like her mother and me, just like her grandparents, will have her struggles, but it will BE a struggle waged at the crossroad of many cultures and worlds.
So I must know that those before me did not die so that I could use my freedom to put others in jail; or use the same laws that betrayed them to enslave and torture.
I must know that if Steve Biko died so I could write what I like, then my pen cannot become the weapon that justifies the torture and murder of others.
How then can I not know that no one appointed me protector of African cultural purity? How can I not know that I am not the standard of all that is moral and natural?
What fortress is this I build that subjugates those within and keeps those outside under siege? Whose moral law is this I use to judge?
Whose legal system to jail? Whose weapon to murder? And whose tongue do I use to silence?
How can I, Black and African and blessed as I am by the struggles of my fathers and mothers deny my gay brothers and sisters their rights?
Browsing on a different topic entirely threw up this poem. Hope it stops you the way it stopped me.
after Kim Addonizio
It will get easier that baby kicking you on the inside will come out through your own strength on the backs of grandmothers and shoulders of giants into hands of midwives and it will fight sleep wean off your breast or off a bottle (it doesn’t matter) and give you sleepless nights to the point you forget days and weeks in blackness of memory and it will fight with that brother who is currently running between gates to Portland and gates to Los Angeles past the line to the coffee barista because he is too tired to sleep too hungry to eat going dizzy from the fluorescent lights and he is screaming and wailing and you sit on the floor of the airport lounge and hold your head in your hands and cry like him who is lying there and refusing to get up and banging his fists into the floor.
The gate steward calls Miss, final call, and you say you have no more calls within you because you are too tired to speak so a circle of women waiting for their respective planes who do not know each other or know you will form a circle around you.
One will offer an orange from her purse one will hum a nursery rhyme one will offer you a bottle of unopened water that she had saved for her own flight one will find a toy and another will just kneel quietly and in that circle the toddler will calm and you will board your flight. So will they too disband like the end of a farewell concert of a reunion tour. But there will be no encore your child will take flight as will you as will the one in your belly and you’ll go home saying, ‘listen I love you, joy is coming.’
This poem really struck me, because I have a close friend who’s just had a stroke, in his fifties. I believe Matthew Dickman was only in his early forties when this happened to him. I wanted to know what it felt like and Matthew is forensic about how his body and brain felt, so now I have a sense of what my friend is experiencing. This poem first appeared in Rattle.
The hotel sign blinking in the brain
of my body stops blinking but not
the whole sign, you know, just a couple
of the letters, the H and T.
Then the E and L so all that is left
when the whole left side of my body
comes to an end is the O.
I am sitting across from a beautiful
woman, drinking coffee, and she is asking
me what I did. What were you doing
when you were in your twenties,
she asks. And I am
saying something like I was doing
a lot of drugs but the words
come out all slurred, they come out
like pushing your tongue through a clay door,
the word drug becoming droog.
And then free-will floats up and out,
really it flies, it leaps off the ledge of me,
and I remember while falling
from my chair to the ground, trying
to apologize. The half of my brain
that was still alive, as alive as
a deer standing in a meadow
in the morning licking dew off
the blades of grass, telling what was left
of me that I was just tired.
You’re just tired the left side
of my brain said, you’re just tired,
this is normal. The normal not normal
blood clot in the right side
of my brain wiping everything
away like a teacher wiping chalk away
with an eraser, the blackboard
full of signs and cosines and then just long
strokes of white, a white field in winter,
a white sky before rain. A white
sheet of paper. Through the tunnel
of my body I could hear someone
ask me are you ok?
My whole life someone asking me,
and so often it was me, are you ok,
are you feeling well? I’m just tired,
I thought.And then this thought: I’m not.
A hand on the hand I could still feel.
They are coming, the voice said,
it’s ok, you will be ok.
The sound then of the ambulance
from far off. The sirens getting
closer, lights and sirens approaching
my body from a street far off.
That’s something I never thought of
before. That sirens are always
approaching a body, that’s the whole
reason for them, to let everyone know
there is a body. I thought of my son
at home, seventeen months old,
pointing to the window in the living room,
saying siren, siren,
siren,and up, up, up. I was lifted up
onto the gurney, my shirt cut off
in the ambulance, and arriving
at the hospital, the triage nurse
asking, are you Matthew Dickman.
Yes. Up, up, up,I thought. Death
is not a design, not an idea.
Death is the body, I know
this now, it’s your arms and legs,
your whole cardio vascular system.
It is the whole of us, only we walk around
enough to think it isn’t.
The blood clot is doing its job,
it’s doing exactly what it was made to do
and the only thing you need to do
when you are dying is to die.
Nothing else. You don’t need to
fold the laundry or clean
the kitchen floor, you don’t have to
pick your children up from school.
Unlike the rest of your life,
there is only this one thing.
You don’t even have to be good at it,
you just have to do it. A list of chores
with just one chore. In the operating
room I’m awake,made to stay awake,
while the surgeon threads a “line”
through the artery in my groin
and up through all the rooms, through
the room of my legs, and the room
of my chest, through the room
of my neck and into the room
of my brain. When I put my son
to bed I give him a bottle of milk,
and rock him and sing, it’s time to rest your body,
it’s time to rest your mind,it’s time,
oh it’s time to rest your brains.
The surgeon is able to grab the clot
and slip it through and out
of all the rooms, into the one
he’s working in. I can hear everyone
in the operating room clapping
because they are happy,
because it took that one try
to get it all, to remove
the clot, and then the left side of me
begins to move again, and there it is,
I have to pee, my body is done
with this death. And now there is nothing
to do but wait for the next death.
I have never been more inside than that
moment. I have never wanted anything
as much as I wanted to stand up
in that room and walk out through
the automatic doors to you,
to walk right into your arms
like walking into the sea.
Matthew Dickman: ‘When I suffered a stroke in April 2018, I wasn’t sure that I would write poems again. Of course I could physically write a poem. I was lucky that I was in a public place when the stroke occurred and got help right away. It’s just that mentally I felt lost and alone and angry. But with any of the trauma I have experienced in my life it was always poetry that called me back to myself, back to the world—even if that world had changed dramatically. This poem was a calling back.’
As it’s Easter, and Roisín is one of Cork’s own (well, we claim her!) here’s her lovely poem, which first appeared in The Guardian. Just had to share it on my blog:
You walk by holding a bunch of flowers never knowing that you’ve just performed a miracle. Are those flowers for your girl? I imagine her dressed up like an Easter egg in yellow and pink. I’d tap at you like an egg, cracking your thin chocolate shell. If I were made of chocolate too, I’d break off parts of myself to give to you and your girl. Once, I gave my words for garden and water and moonlit and love to a man who kissed me. After he rolled a stone over my heart and shut me off from the world, I had no words left to describe the dark dream that followed. Now you’ve walked by, godlike in jeans and an old t-shirt, the sun glinting on one silver earring. Now a rose is once again not only rose but also soft and red and thorn and bee and honey. Now a bird is singing song and tree and nest in a high place and blue speckled egg. You yourself are glowing with words, they move up and down you as if they’re alive. The words bring themselves to me and tell my tongue sweetness over and over. The words are everything. With them, I’ll turn water to wine at your wedding.
And here’s Carol Rumens’ analysis of the poem. Hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it:
From Mercy, the first full-length collection by the young Belfast-born poet, Róisín Kelly, Easter seems to have a special glow to it. And no, the glow isn’t only that of romantic love. The latter is a strong contributory factor, of course: its pains are rekindled for the speaker when her ex-boyfriend walks by “holding a bunch of flowers”. The question “Are those flowers for your girl?” contextualises it a little, while retaining the tonal mystery. Is the voice angry, sarcastic, sorrowful? We might guess it’s all three.
I like the mixed emotions playing throughout the earlier passages of the poem, and how they are finally resolved. Easter eggs initially supply the poetic calories. All three players in the love triangle are turned into chocolate, the man’s current girlfriend being a particularly sickly and triumphant example “dressed up … / in yellow and pink”. The man is seen as the more vulnerable.
Writing a kind of verse letter to the man in question, the speaker imagines tapping him and “cracking your thin chocolate shell”. Birth may be suggested, but death occurs first. She imagines her own comic-extreme self-sacrifice, breaking off parts of her chocolate self to give the man and his girl.
Later on, imagery from the Passion of Christ recalls the numbness and sense of being buried alive “after he rolled / a stone over my heart / and shut me off from the world”. Probably the same boyfriend was the culprit, though not necessarily. Kelly’s change of pronoun leaves it ambiguous. The “sepulchre” analogy is pitched high, yet it’s also faithful to the experience of severe depression, a suffocating stone that’s all too real.
Now the speaker returns the ex-lover to mortal form, a little self-mockingly at first – “godlike in jeans / and an old t-shirt, the sun glinting on one / silver earring”. The mood has changed, perhaps with the recovery of simultaneously erotic and sublimated feelings.
Words withheld and words given become the dominant theme. In line nine, the first of the special, italicised words and phrases, garden, helps the transition to biblical analogy. There is an implied betrayal. But the words are magically potent. They ignite the rose, although they include thorn. They produce birds who lay “blue speckled egg(s)” in nests high in trees. Kelly’s italics slow the reader, so we savour these archetypal symbols, these ordinary happy words, and, importantly, imagine them as the especially meaningful gifts originally offered in the poet’s native Irish language.
Six lines from the end, the poet turns on her full power with that marvellous image of the man clothed in, covered in, words that “move / up and down you, as if they’re alive”. Most significantly, “the words bring themselves to me / and tell my tongue sweetness over and over”. They enable the speaker to find her own words and “The words are everything…” Once more, I was reminded of a passage from the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the word was God.”
Out of the rediscovery of inspiration and language comes the generosity of forgiveness – and, of course, the miracle. A miracle was first attributed to the man in the poem’s second line: now, an old-new miracle is performed by the speaker. What could be more generous than turning water to wine at a rival’s wedding feast? And of course the wine is also the poet’s gift-to-self – part of her own word feast, now freely flowing.
Easter appears in the forthcoming collection, Mercy, to be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2020.