My first experiences of making were domestic. My mother was a good dressmaker and knitter of Aran jumpers, beautifully made. I inherited none of her skill, though I learned the basics of course. I used to thread needles for my grandmother, who still darned and sewed small rips and dropped hems into her late seventies.
The truth is that apart from not being good with my hands, I wasn’t really interested enough in either knitting or sewing to over come my handicap. I loved the aran patterns, the raglan sleeves, the crossover necks but the actual pattern, a large leaflet written in what might as well have been Sanskrit, or shorthand, another thing I never mastered, or even attempted.
What did interest me was the work done outside the house.
I used to watch from the door of my uncle’s forge as ugly lumps of metal were heated, bent, hammered and shaped. They were fused into wrought iron gates, fire grates and horseshoes. I watched the horses being shod, and was shown the varioust types of shoes required for different purposes. All had been made there, in that forge, by my uncle. Out of the interaction between the anvil and the horse, magic comes. Add in fire, and you have somehow permission to turn an ordinary day inside out. None of the men that gathered from time to time to chat ever made me feel unwelcome. When I first came across Haphaestus, I recognised him immediately, placing him first in a solid world of a small forge in Errismore.
I was sometimes allowed to pull on the bellows and it might have been then I saw that air could be a things of force and strength, an essential part of making.
An essential part of poetry too, as Yeats knew when he wrote:
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,…
Many years later, when I first met painters and scultptors during visits to Anaghmakerrig, the Artists’ Residence, I felt shy about asking them questions because I had had no background in the visual arts and didn’t know what questions would sound stupid or crude, but they were unfailingly kind and helpful. I was drawn to their studios and to watching them work in the same way as the child had stood quietly outside the great rolling door of the forge in Aillebrack. I had visited a lot of galleries by then, but never seen an artist at work, nor visited a studio. I liked how they talked about art, in very practical, matter-of-fact terms. Mostly I asked them about colour, which they seemed to see very differently from me. I suppose I was learning how to look, and see more or differently or in more depth.
During one of those visits, I met the painter Mick Cullen who taught me how to look at Picasso. He was painting a version of Las Meninas on a huge carpet. I must have mentioned that I had never understood the attraction of that subject for Picasso. Mick was fascinated by the painting, and he gave me what I later understood was a masterclass in art history and perspective, telling me about Picasso’s fifty or so variations and interpretations of Velasquez’ masterpiece.
Years later when I saw the Velasquez painting in the Prado, and later again when I saw the Picasso series in the museum he had donated his paintings to in Barcelona, it was as if they slotted into a cleared space, though nothing prepared me for the energy and obsessive shifts of light and perspective in that the gallery on the Carrer Montcada. There was a ravenous energy at work in those sketches and paintings, as if Picasso was determined to dissect, dismantle and re-assemble not just the composition itself, but was playing God by re-creating and assembling it at will.
If someone want to copy Las Meninas, entirely in good faith, for example, upon reaching a certain point and if that one was me, I would say..what if you put them a little more to the right or left? I'll try to do it my way, forgetting about Velázquez. The test would surely bring me to modify or change the light because of having changed the position of a character. So, little by little, that would be a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter, but would be my Meninas.
So said Picasso, and I think the same applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to literary translations and versions of the classic texts in any language.
When I read yet another version of The Odyssey or The Iliad in English, I have to judge the work on its own merits, or against the two or three tranlations I like best. I have no Greek, so I have to rely onEnglish, on the small or large shifts of light and perspective each translator brings, on his or her interpretation, novelty, freshness or otherwise. And this is even more true of the Greek plays. Writer after writer uses them as templates, as inspiration, as launch pads for their own particular ends, whether consciously or not. So a lot of what a poet does is to shop around for a myth, or choose one from the many handed down, or occasionally if you are very lucky, the myth chooses the writer.
The poems I am finishing now are all, in one way or another, concerned with time, perhaps one of the most misunderstood myths of all. Not ageing, but the strange coils and twists of the thing itself, and with that comes the wonderful world of quantum reality, which sounds completely bonkers but seemingly isn’t. Nothing described in the miracles and sometimes terrifying world of miracles and eternity of my childhood faith is stranger or more unlikely than this version of reality. I loved the notion of visions and miracles as a child. The Church version of Hell and Heaven was nicely balanced against the more immediate stories of pookas and actual signals from beyond the grave I knew about from casual mentions of such normal occourances. I also knew it all had to be taken with a pinch of salt. “Do you believe in the fairies, Granny?’
‘Musha, I do and I don’t.’
Poets are practical realists compared with quantum physicists. Artists are realists. We cook, go to work, get the roof fixed, have new gutters and soffits ( whatever they are) and facia put in whenever we can afford such extravagances. We grow things, in my case herbs, salads and poppies because they all grow for me and pretty much everything else dies, except for blue love-in-the-mist.
We chop briars, and cut grass and have children. We feed and wash and live mostly on what we have and when we haven’t got much, we live on less. Many of us would make a better stab at managing the country’s finances, not to mention dealing with the housing shortage, than most of those who set themselves up as experts because we know how to make do and use what is to hand.
We manage time. We have to. We know that without dicipline, no work gets done. Some of us love nothing so much as a deadline, or a commission. Managing time is also managing chaos and imposing a shape on it. I have always had to do this, but it became clear me during the pandemic that it’s not something everyone is used to.
Any notions of linear time I still cling to were challenged during lockdown, when its elastic nature of became clear, and I often felt trapped and in its frozen coils, stuck in some in-between state like Schrödinger’s famous cat, both dead and alive until the Gods of the HSE, the WHO and the Government decided to open the box. Mostly I was alive, luckily, then they’d shut the box again, and we hung suspended.
In his book Helgoland, Carlo Rovelli writes that all facts are relative. Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive, as soon as he is observed.
‘Do you believe in the fairies?’
‘I do and I don’t.’ No artist will be surprised at this, nor at the idea that it is only in interaction we experience reality. I have taken the name of that Northern island where the scientist Werner Heisenberg developed the germ of what would become the theory of quantum mechanics. The landscape was barren and windswept, and sounds not unlike where I grew up.
‘Heligoland, with its one tree’ James Joyce called it in Ulysess, and I took Joyce’s version of the name for the title of a poem on the nature of time.
Throughout the various lockdowns, I read Joyce’s letters and tracts of Ulysess and Finnegan’s Wake, with its quantum jumps and curves and coiling reality. I found myself writing a poem about waking up to find I had Joyce’s eyes. This was after I woke one night with a lightning storm in my eye.
There were flashes and shadows and severe blurring in my left eye. I was left with a sorts of veil over my vision after the flashing subsided, and a small spot like an island that rose and fell slowly. It still does, at times. After strokes and other horrors were ruled out, and I found out a tiny bit of gel or nerve or something had come unstuck, that this is neither uncommon or harmful, I had yet another reason to admire Joyce. He suffered from troublesome eyes and endless operations all his life, and worote most of Ulysess and Finnegan’s Wake in what must have been serious ‘discomfort’, to use a medical term.
So the poem, while unexpected, was not altogether surprising.
I am writing this in the house where I’ve written most of my work – poems, scripts for radio, a draft of a memoir and assorted essays and prose and some other abandoned things stuck in files and boxes. Without regular time away to get a fresh perspective and some badly needed courage, I don’t think I’d have gone on writing.
Eavan Boland recognised that need over thirty years ago when she told me to spend time out of out of Ireland as often as possible. You need it, she said. She told me how to apply for a travel grant and explained the form to me because she knew I hadn’t the confidence to do it by myself. Forms, like knitting patterns, are another skill I’ve never mastered and now it’s tax time, and my annual descent into the purgatory called accounts. More mysterious to me by far than the world of Erwin Schrödinger and his mystical cat. Or cats, if you prefer.