Away In a Trough

I’ll never forget the first Christmas after I’d taken a French class. A manger, as far as I’d known, was a decorative place where hay gets stored, roughly the size of a baby carriage most of the time, about knee high.

NativityThen I recognized that word: manger, to eat. It dawned in me that a manger was a trough where an animal eats. They’re often longer and presumably not as snug and inviting as the fake ones I’d seen.

Around this time I was a waiter who was learning how foie gras gets made – and yes, I do think there is a place in hell for those who make it and eat it. I’d seen gras before, something about Fat Tuesday.

Another time I was shopping with an immigrant who needed to pay for something small and produced coins from his pocket. Instead paying with them, he handed them to me, who was quicker with these five- and twenty five-cent pieces, and the ten-cent coin that was mystifyingly the smallest of all.

I tried explaining that it wasn’t that hard. The quarter was a quarter of a dollar. The little dime was…could the d-i in dime be the same d-i -in diez, for ten cents?

Then there was the time I noticed that the White Mountains were in New Hampshire but the Green Mountains in a place called Ver-Mont.

Discovering new, esoteric words and congratulating oneself for being able to place them via their cognates is an elite kind of pleasure, like the day you hear about an old relative who has tachycardia and you know what it means because you know what a tachometer does.

The more humbling pleasure is realizing you have been using a word for a long time without appreciating its simplest meaning. There are cognates hidden in plain sight, words we have a deeper connection to than we realize. We use them every day, making witty cross-cultural puns without meaning to.

I was reminded of another this week when I watched an episode of an excellent online series called Woodlanders – more on which another time. A woman in Greece harvests acorns, grinds the nuts themselves into flour, and takes the acorn caps and sells them to a tannery in Germany. Can you guess what the active ingredient the tannery is after? Tannic acid.

My neighbors as a kid in New Jersey were a working class family who called their living room their “poller,” or parlor, a word I prefer to “living room,” which is so antiseptic. It implies a room where you’d play parlor games, or maybe just talk, parl.

I could go on, but I must get back to work. Been too busy to blog. I promise I’ll write more by the full moon, which comes, incidentally, once a month.

 

 

 

Fairytale of New York

This Christmas Day Shane MacGowan turns 59. I wonder if he realized thirty years ago while he was writing the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (co-written with Jeb Finer) that the saddest Christmas song ever would be his most widely-listened-to:

That woman singing with him is Kirsty MacColl, may she rest in peace. Her father Ewen MacColl was a Scottish Communist and folk-singer. The story goes, he wrote his most popular song for his young mistress Patty Seeger while he was still living with Kirsty’s mother. It’s had many versions, including a super one by Engelbert Humperdinck, but Roberta Flack “owns” it:

Not a bad song for the yule log either. Merry Christmas.

John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

img_1694

Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

The Christmas of Star Wars

Lucky for me, there’s a still a crumbling half o’ panettone on top of my fridge. Now that our birdbath is frozen, it finally feels like Christmas.

Winter finally hits...our birdbath. 1/11/16.

Winter finally hits…our birdbath. 1/11/15

Star Wars? Didn’t see it. I know, it’s basic film and pop culture literacy I’m ignoring – I had to have several of my nieces’ and nephews’ jokes explained to me at Christmas.

I saw the first Star Wars at the Directors Chair Cinema in Hamilton Square, New Jersey, one of the few times I ever went out to the movies with my father and brothers. We were dazzled, though I distinctly remember my mother, afterwards, asking how it was, and my father saying, “It was just like every cowboy movie I’ve ever seen.”

Maybe this is what made me skeptical, but I definitely regarded the kids who fell hard for the trivia and collectible action figures as dupes of commercialism, before I could tell you what commercialism is. After The Empire Strikes Back, I was done with it all. Ewoks, I only know about through the collective unconscious. The ’90s prequels, I never bothered with, even when friends pleaded with me that one or the other was “not that bad,” or that they were worthwhile on TV.

I woke up Christmas morning, looked up some showtimes for The Hateful Eight, and opted to watch The Sound of Music at home. It was my first time ever, though it’s undoubtedly something I would have seen back in my Star Wars days if I had one single sister. The Sound of Music (screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the stage musical book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, based on Die Trapp-Familie, written by George Hurdalek.) was for a while the highest-grossing film of all time. The puppet scene in that movie is about all the special effects I ever want to see:

Christmas Eve, 2015.

Christmas Eve, 2015.

 

Still, the milestone of another year passing does make natural born procrastinators like me want to hunker down. This past month I got through a first draft of a business plan for a venture I want to start in 2017. Aside from that, all the writing I got done was this couplet:

“Christmas Eve, Two Zip Fifteen.

You seem to me like Halloween.”