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Leaving Poetry

Too long a sacrifice can make a stone out of the heart she muttered, reading from the book on the kitchen table. She picked it up, noting the lurid high-lighting, in pink and yellow, and the collage of explanations and remarks in at least two different hands that decorated the margins. She gathered the loose papers into a random pile.

“Mo-om!” he protested, without turning from the fridge, his limbs filling up the space in the small kitchen. She used to be Mum and before that Mammy. She had given up fighting the Anglicisation and Americanisation of their daily language. Once upon a time she’d had a name – Maeve, a warrior queen. She’d tried to get him to call her that when he was thirteen. He’d said he’d be ‘morto’. She’d learned to pick her battles.

“Those are Chloe’s notes. I have to give them back”.

Half a dozen phrases flitted unsaid through her mind – Who’s Chloe? How do you know her? How much study have you done? When do the ‘mocks’ start? Do you have any idea what that poem is about? Don’t keep the fridge door open. She settled for the neutral “So, it’s Yeats this year?“, and with an alarming shift of gears: “Fionn! Don’t drink the milk out of the carton!”, her pitch rising in spite of her resolution to keep things calm. He took it with unwonted cheerfulness, raising the milk carton in mock salute and pouring milk into a mug. He sat down at the table and took up her theme. She sat opposite him and relished the opportunity for an amicable conversation.

“Yeah, Chloe’s teacher said so. It was Eliot last year. Our fella is useless. He says he wants to teach us to think and appreciate poetry.”

His voice was freighted with the heaviness of youthful sarcasm. She held her breath. Chloe! He’s said her name twice. How does he know her? She’s not in the same class at school. Does he want me to ask about her? She felt like David Attenborough stalking that family of gorillas. One false move … She blinked away the image of her beloved Fionn as a silver-back, fists drumming on that narrow, wiry chest. She listened to his words, straining to hear what was unsaid in the spaces between them. He continued to talk about his English teacher.

“In fairness though”, he drew out and flattened the dominant vowel in what sounded like a parody of the local accent. “In fairness, he’s thorough. He wants to be sure we’ve covered everything. But who could do both Eliot and Yeats? He even wants us to do Elizabeth Bishop. We call him Justin.”

He responded to her interrogative look with studied patience. “Mr. Casey.”

A bubble of inappropriate laughter gathered in her throat and she turned it into a cough. Episcopal scandal, before his time. Justin Casey. Take precautions. She bit her lip. She looked away and noticed how the low winter sun showed up the streaks and flour dust on the black worktops. The tide of colour flared briefly in his face and neck, and then receded, leaving a flotsam of acne and stubble.

“For England may still keep faith/For all that is said and done”, she misquoted, retreating to the safer ground of the poem. Something not quite right.

“Done and said, no still” she corrected herself, glancing at the book again. Her thoughts churned. Is he serious about Chloe? Should I talk to him about precautions? I’ve left it scandalously late; maybe it’s already too late. How can I do this? Maybe this fish needs a bicycle after all. I can put up shelves (sort of) and change a wheel, but I can’t talk to my son about condoms, or can I? must I?

He was looking at her in astonishment. “How do you know that? How would anyone remember that?” he asked, in genuine puzzlement.

She wanted to remind him that he seemed to have no trouble remembering half a dozen passwords for his games and social media access but was afraid that this might be an unnecessarily inflammatory comparison. She was back in David Attenborough mode. How could anyone remember meaningless sequences of numbers, she silently wondered.

“I did this poem for the Leaving Cert.” she said. “It was a Yeats year then too.”

His phone played its jangling tune and she caught a momentary glimpse of a picture of a young woman’s face as he snatched it up and dashed from the room. He seemed to have more than the usual number of limbs as he negotiated the narrow doorway. My son the octopus. My son the gorilla. The diminishing sound of four thuds echoed through the house as he negotiated the sixteen steps of the stairs.

She knew that she hadn’t told him the whole truth. She had had another Yeats year. The year she’d abandoned her Masters’ thesis. Women in the Poetry of Yeats. The year that Fionn was made. She boiled the kettle, made some instant coffee and sat at the table, cupping her hands around the mug. Her memories played on her internal screen, while with another part of her consciousness, she strained to hear any sound from above. She remembered the earnest, feminist young teacher at her school, who scorned the romantic poetry of the early Yeats, the personification of Ireland as a beautiful woman. Then there was the trendy young lecturer, the Yeats specialist, who had taken a left-wing, revisionist approach. Was Yeats a Fascist? Discuss. She’d enjoyed that kind of task. Leave aside Romantic Ireland and the Celtic Twilight. Marshall your facts. Look for other sources. Compare and contrast. She had been considered “promising”, her writing sharp, spare and unsentimental. Her unfinished dissertation had included a searing, critical deconstruction of the two poems she most hated: No Second Troy and On a Political Prisoner. Constance Markievicz had been a heroine to her then. Feminism, republicanism and revolution composed a heady cocktail. If Fionn had been a girl, she might have called him Connie. She’d settled for a mythological hero.

The four thuds were repeated in reverse, growing louder, and Fionn put his head around the kitchen door. His hood was up, his beanie hat pulled low on his forehead.

“I’m gonna study”, he said, his accent veering back to semi-American. Cool dude mode. He picked up the book and notes.

“Do you need some money?” she asked and his astonished eyebrows disappeared out of sight. Their normal conversation was inverted.

“For what?” he asked.

“Just in case”, she said and they both flushed scarlet.

“Nah, you’re grand” he said and turned away quickly. She heard the front door slam. Plaster fell from the ceiling. Normal service had been resumed.

She sat down again and gripped her cooling mug of coffee and tried to recall the poem she had just read in Fionn’s book. allowing herself to feel once more the anger, the righteous indignation at the portrayal of Constance Markievicz:

That woman’s days were spent/In ignorant good-will;/Her nights in argument/Until her voice grew shrill.

She focused on the words “ignorant good-will” and half-conceded a point to Yeats there. She imagined Constance and her sister, Eva, distributing largesse to the poor tenants in Sligo and supervising the peeling of potatoes and the making of soup (by working class women) for families locked out in Dublin, 1913. Revolution or noblesse oblige? The reference to a “shrill” voice fired up her anger again. Women who demanded to be heard, who did not defer to the opinions of men could still be dismissed as “shrill”. She had contributed her own, unrepentant share of shrillness, in her time.

It was the physical force side of Constance’s life that pushed her towards ambivalence. When she thought of Constance on the roof of the College of Surgeons, expressing delight at finding her target in the person of a British soldier, it was Fionn’s head that came into her mind. The frail vulnerability of thin bones, the pulse of blood beneath the skin. Heartbeat at the fontanelle. She could hear the arguments from both sides, a cacophony of voices in her head, but seemed no longer to be able to bring her analytical powers to bear on them.

She longed to reclaim that fine political rage that had inspired her to acts of raucous protest and mild, unlawful, civil disobedience. Fly-postering in O’Connell Street in support of a Woman’s Right to Choose. Running down Abbey Street with a plastic bag of glue. Stubbornly blocking a footpath while picketing. Chanting and shouting. She seemed to have lost it somewhere in the muddle and struggle of domestic life. She stood up and washed her cup, setting it to drain beside the sink. She dripped some water into the pot of the flowering hyacinth on the window-sill. Its over-sweet, funereal scent assailed her, almost masking the faint smell of something going off, whose source she had been seeking for days, in a desultory way.

“The Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls”, she muttered. “Bloody poetry”.

She turned and scrubbed her anger into the smeared worktops. They laughed back at her in the low winter sun.

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