A Drink and a Poem (Red Eye & Girls Bathing, Galway, 1965)

First Published on my old blog on June 23rd, 2016

Note: First Published on my old blog on June 23rd, 2016

Girls Bathing, Galway, 1965

The swell foams where they float and crawl,
A catherine-wheel of arm and hand;
Each head bobs curtly as a football.
The yelps are faint here on the strand.

No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore.
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth. The breakers pour

Themselves into themselves, the years
Shuttle through space invisibly.
Where crests unfurl like creamy beer
The queen’s clothes melt into the sea

And generations sighing in
The salt suds where the wave has crashed
Labour in fear of flesh and sin
For the time has been accomplished

As through the shallows in swimsuits,
Bare-legged, smooth-shouldered and long-backed,
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.
So Venus comes, matter-of-fact.
–Seamus Heaney

I have never seen this poem reprinted or anthologized. After it appeared in one of Heaney’s collections, A Door in the Dark (1969), it sort of just disappeared. I don’t know if it is because the poem was deemed politically uncomfortable. One might — just because of the title — claim that the poem objectifies women even if that is exactly the impulse it is rejecting. Or it could be the totally unknowable reference to the Irish goddess. Or maybe people just didn’t know what to do with it.

Heaney came of age between the poetic eras of dense Modernism and authors’ embarrassing contemplations of their own genitals. The taste-makers of those days were infamously tasteless,  so it is hardly surprising that they missed good things when they saw them — this poem included.

Like all sensible people, I don’t enjoy going to the beach.  I do, however, enjoy the depictions of bathing in art. I suppose everyone does, because in life beach-going is always a disappointment, but one never gets sun-burned, coated with greasy sunblock, or abraded by sand when contemplating a painting in a museum. It is a pure ideal experience — well almost. The closeness to the ideal always depends on the artist’s skill and situation. It is a classical ideal after all, and Ireland doesn’t lend itself the ideal of the Greeks and Italians, at least not at first glance.

Back in ‘07, and far from the shores of Galway, I briefly worked for the local Italian American Club as a daytime bartender, and took a liking to a group of elderly men who would come in early and hang out with each other. Every now and again one would order a Red Eye — a beer and a tomato juice. I think that they just wanted something to sip on without having to really drink. There would be no sense in asking them why they did it because they had this strange, almost aristocratic, attitude and assumed that people in-the-know knew and that everybody else was an idiot. They were not believers in any sort of explication, and never deigned to do so. As a person who explains things for a living I have come to admire this attitude.

Where Red Eyes came from, I have no idea. It certainly isn’t Italian and I doubt it is Irish. But it is the perfect thing when stranded on a beach, sitting in the shade, and waiting for a goddess to arise from the water.

Or not waiting for her to arise, although she might anyways.

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Notes:
* After writing this post I took the time to google the poem and found that it is commemorated on a plaque at the beach where it was written. I suppose that I should change the opening paragraph, but I doubt that I will.
* A rhyme is two different words phonetically alike from the last stressed vowel to the end of the word. Anyone care to guess which one bothers me?
* I do understand children liking the beach: I care nothing for swimming as an adult but what child doesn’t love digging giant holes in the sand? After the discovery of the periwinkle and the starfish the strand holds no wonder — and all that is left is the battering of each of the four elements in their least agreeable states.
* The old timers will hopefully get their own post later.
* The Internet thinks a Red Eye is something different, but the Internet is generally wrong.
* Let me preemptively not care that any of you self-righteous nudzhes object to my beginning sentences with the word ‘or.’
* Canadians add clam juice and call it “Clam-and-Beer.” The Canadians and their clammy tomato juice will return next week.

 

Thanks for the Song

A few of my friends called me when Leonard Cohen died.  Even one or two who didn’t particularly like him.  I was an admirer, but I was surprised that I was the person that they thought of.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been.  While I had never gotten around to reading his first novel, I had read all of his other books and I know almost all of his songs by heart. I didn’t consider myself any kind of super-fan, just an appreciator.  But now I find myself critiquing his obituaries that seem to think that he only wrote one song and I am feeling like a bit of an evangelist.

I came to Cohen at a dark, unemployed place in my life ten summers ago.  Everyday I would walk down to the library to look for a job (I didn’t have a proper internet hook-up at home), but I was too dispirited to be very effective (I can’t imagine what I sounded like on the phone interviews I did).

That year the library was having a book-sale and, in a moment of extravagance, I decided to pick a few books up.  I only had 50¢ on me, but it met the suggested donation amount for two books.  One was a  novel by a famous writer of my youth — and it was a fine novel but not one that  really did anything for me.  The other was the The Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen.  I must have been the very last person on earth to be introduced to him through his poetry.  I think that I just picked the book up because I recognized the name and couldn’t place it.  In another age he perhaps could have been a great poet.  Sadly, his era was a bad one for poets.  They were constrained to writing nothing but safe, conservative free-verse with its bland (yet simultaneously embarrassing) bouts of self-expression. It was a minor art, practiced by dilettantes, for an audience of almost nobody.  When I read those poems I could feel him breaking out of those restraints.  It is hardly a surprise he became a song-writer.  Song was the great medium for anyone of his generation who had anything to say.

I took the book home and devoured it front and back several times.  It was by far the best two-bits I had ever spent. I soon realized who he was and that I knew some cheesy covers of a few of his great songs — Hallelujah, Bird on a Wire, Suzanne, and maybe a few others. Soon I was to discover songs that I loved much more than these — One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, Alexandra Leaving, Everybody Knows.

Discovering him made me incredible joyful.  I bought his greatest hits album. I got a job.  I may have even decided not to marry a girl when she called his voice ‘creepy.’ When I burned my old CDs recently  I made copies of many of them to listen to in the car (I didn’t want the originals to get scratched) I realized that I didn’t put his name — only the titles — on his albums.   He is the only musician for whom my enthusiasm hasn’t flagged.

I have been lucky enough to have never met my heroes (although I once walked passed Seamus Heaney on a subway platform).  But once, in a dream about something else entirely, I bought a drink for Cohen who was off at the bar with his girlfriend.  I asked the waitress to bring him a round and thank him for the song.  Not even in the dream did I look back to see how he reacted.  In his great songs, and in the Beautiful Losers, he constantly gave us a good example on walking way from good things when they ended.  To embrace the pain and exit as poised and graceful as possible.  There comes a time when we all have to pack up our regrets, straighten our ties, and walk off to wherever it is we have to go.

 

 

 

On The Turn-of the-Century

NOTE: This is an unrevised entry from my old Blog May 21st, 2016

The British press is in the habit of referring to the years 2000-2009 A.D. as “The Naughties,” but, I am ashamed to say,  my own behavior contributed very little to that particular title.

Don’t be Like Me If You Can Help It

 NOTE: this was first published on my old blog June 5th, 2016

Back in ’09 I submitted a story to a fancy-pants magazine. I remember how angry and frustrated I was when the story was rejected. I fumed about it for days.

The other day I was looking for another old email and found the rejection, which ended   “I appreciate your interest in {name of magazine} and hope that you will keep me in mind for future submissions.”

The email was actually not a form-letter but a nice little note mentioning some of the peculiarities of what I had written. It was clearly an encouragement to submit more, although I never did. I may never have read it in its entirety till now. Now the venerable old rag, like many a venerable old rag is out of business and I have wasted the opportunity. At another time, I could have been excused on the foolishness of my youth, but I was 31.

I missed out on 9¢ a word, a big audience, and being published in a legendary magazine, all because I couldn’t get passed the “I’m sorry” that began the message. I hear people advise each other to “not take rejection personally,” but I’m not sure that many people are better at it than I am.

So today I will give you no advice except to hope  that we all become a little more rational as we get older.