Thursday, May 4, 2000

Finnegan's Awake Poetry Festival


Finnegans Awake: A Festival of Irish Writers
May 4-7, 2000
presented by the Irish Consulate in San Francisco
in association with the Irish Arts Foundation

The Consulate of Ireland, in association with The Irish Arts Foundation, presented the first major Irish literary festival in America. We were fortunate to have Kevin Conmy as our Cosulate General. He was the driving force in gathering 23 major Irish poets and bringing them to the Bay Area.

The Consul General said, "This is a significant historical moment for Ireland." He elucidated that the purpose of this event was to hear the voices of—and have conversation with—some of the most important poets in Ireland, a country for which poetry is an integral part of culture, identity, and politics.

The readings and discussions provided an opportunity for us to consider the current state of affairs in Ireland and its impact on their work as poets. The festival opened, appropriately on the real Beltaine date (May 4), and for four liminal days and night days in May, dozens of readings were held at Stanford University and at San Francisco’s Golden Gate University.

The Irish writers who attended “Finnegan’s Awake” —all are poets and novelists, some are screenwriters, and a surprising number speak Irish (I've listed them geographically—many also teach in the US).

From Northern Ireland: County Antrim: (Public Enemies), Ronan Bennett, Belfast singer, Irish-speaker, (First Language: Poems, The Star Factory) Ciarán Carson, (The Weather in Japan) Michael LongleyGlenn PattersonAntonia LogueMedbh McGuckian, Co. Tyrone Paul Muldoon.

The Republic: Connemara  Mary O’Malley, Co. Claire Edna O'Brien, Westmeath/Cavan (I Could Read the SkyDermot Healy, Tipperary Dennis O’Driscoll, Limerick Desmond O’Grady, Lancaster/Kerry (Pharaoh's Daughter) Irish speaker Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Corconian-Dubliner, Irish speaker (Rosa Mundi) Theo Dorgan, Wexford's  Katie Donovan, (The Heather Blazing) Colm Tóibín; (Crazy About Women) Paul Durcan, (The Captains and the Kings) Jennifer JohnstonPaula MeehanMary MorrissyEamon GrennanColum McCann, and Stanford's resident Dubliner (Object Lessons), Eavan Boland.

Our emcee and host, and driving force behind the festival, bookstore owner, Connor Howard, said that the purpose of Finnegan's Awake was to draw attention to the fact that Irish writing did not end with Joyce and Beckett. There is a renaissance of creative work in all areas of the arts in Ireland today, and especially in the literary arts for which the country is so well known. This festival brings together over twenty of Ireland's top poets and novelists—an unprecedented gathering in the United States!



What follows are my poetry notes to friend and classmate, Clifford Schwartz, who gave me his tickets; he couldn't attend the event as he had a thesis due that weekend:

It's Beltaine, with words afire, I write:

Mo chara, Clifford,

This is just to say that by way of thanks (t’anks as my granny would say) for the tickets you so generously gave to me to attend the Finnegan’s Awake Poetry Festival and that with this rough payment of words, I will reimburse you at less than a penny a word via email (with thumbnail sketches of event and party highlights—which you may read AFTER you’ve put your Spencer thesis to bed).

Tell me later of Spencer’s time in Ireland, influences, and of the revisionist literary criticism its spawned. How he hated the Irish.

Yes, I am familiar with the concept of the golden mean. To Aristotelian thought, it was an attribute of beauty and truth.

Keats, in Ode on a Grecian Urn, wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Or did you mean the golden ratio?

St. Patrick used biblical and classical references and in his Confessio, he deliberately echoed both physical and philosophical aspects of the golden mean—as did most writers of the medieval era.

An Irish triad: three concomitants of beauty: symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

Both Spencer and Chaucer borrowed heavily from Celtic sources from Ireland and from abroad. The Frankliner’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale come to mind. And of course, Shakespeare too was a big borrower of tales: King Lear, MacBeth, and Hamlet. Forget about Denmark. That was merely the sexy locale at the time. Besides, Shakespeare's grandmother was Irish, and you know what that leads to.

Tell me: Is this the second or the third Celtic Twilight we're experiencing?

Finnegan’s Awake is the first major Celtic poetry festival ever in California—on the west coast, in the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter. We are witness to a historic event, the west, no longer asleep.

Shall I begin linear, or wax poetic?

The latter, I think, for after the event I met the poet Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, whose work I’d studied in my Irish class last summer at UC Berkeley—my Irish teacher, Breen Ó Conchubhair (pronounced O-CON-ah-coor), had translated her poems, and gave us a copy of a paper he'd written, "Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill - Mermaids, Myths and Misery," which I’d heard him deliver at the UCB Celtic Studies Conference last April.

Nuala's poems about The Mermaid and Some Pharaoh’s Daughter had me mesmerized. Besides, we had the longing for An tEach Uisce - The Water Horse, in common. Or was it uisce beatha? More on that later.

By way of clumsy introduction, I’d mentioned to Nuala my Irish teacher Breen, the class, and my dyslexia all in one run-on breath—Nuala threw back her glorious red mane and laughed, saying “I’m dyslexic too!” And we were off like a house (or a horse) afire.

Sharon Dubiago would have loved that reply. She claims all poets are dyslexic. I quipped to Nuala, “lack of dailysex—the letters are all there,” and Nuala and I patti-caked our hands together. She said a physicist had told her that poets refuse to acknowledge time linearly. So in circumspect, perhaps the ramble method is best.

The first poem Breen gave me to translate was:

Is Mise Raifteirí an file,
Lán dúchais is grádh,

It seems I've been against that wall playing my notes to empty pockets for too long, and I despair.

Soto-voiced Paul Durcan, who opened the evening’s reading at Golden Gate University, read a story in the voice of Bloom; we witness the Bloomsday Murders, and Gerry Adams through the eyes of a late 20th century transformation of the character of Leopold Bloom.

Imagine images of flame-haired Boudicca-styled transvestites with magnificent pointed breasts and smoldery spines. With a poet’s eye for detail, Durcan minutely describes wingless angels allergic to feathers, and of the loss of his remote control—only to be replaced by a dead man’s remote, as he won’t be needing it any more.

Durcan tells the audience: What any man needs is a good woman and buckets of telly! The audience roars with laughter.

Politics and technology, odd bedfellows, breed the most unlikely of witty and strong poems. And a line from a lyric poem: I kiss the darkness and all of life abandons me.

Mary O’Mally, a poet from from Connemara, read a poem based upon a variant of a Victorian adage: Lie on your back and think of England. Except in Ireland it was Catholocised: Offer it up to St. Patrick. 

I envisioned nearly two millennia's worth of women spreading their thighs for St. Patrick. What St. Patrick did with all that lost virginity is a mystery unto itself—he who ran over his own sister with a chariot when she offered it up out of wedlock to a handsome warrior in the style of Queen Medbh's fine Connachta tradition.

Maybe the Confessio is a purgatorial penance to right Patrick's wrongs. The consolation was that his sister went straight up to heaven—having been personally killed by the saint himself.)

Mary O’Mally said that we are islands in the territory of angels; the poem that began with the line: I come from a country of strong women, was a knock-out. Her voice is closest to mine, there is a resonance of imagery between us.

In Mary’s poem about the red lateen-sailed turf boats, the Galway hookers, we glimpse a way of life tottering on the brink of extinction for some 100 years, but somehow still refuses to die.

Mary said;: “I come from a country well written about, not by our own people, and not by our women.”

Connemara still has plenty of bog, and the Aran Islands have no turf, so they ship peat to the islands. My ride to the event, master plasterer an Gaelic scholar, Richard Spencer, who went to school with Nuala, said he lived for some time in the Aran Islands. He goes back home to Aran every summer.

The women chatter like magpies to make up for the vacuum of their men’s silence. In Connemara, men have their best relationships with their boats. Mermaid love. Soft belly of the sea love.

We, the audience have no ready answer when Mary rhetorically asks: why do we love men who are bad for us? Thank Gawdess she didn't ask for a show of hands. All of us are guilty of that crime.

Mary referred to Bob Hass’s Frida Kahlo poem, but puts another spin on it where Diego ruined Frida, or was it she, who ruined him?

“The Joiner’s Bench,” was a poem about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes incongruously sharing the same desk. Can you imagine that? They had a large, sort of push-me-pull-you desk. I can't even stand to have another person in the house when I write. It's as if their unconscious thoughts are an avalanche of white noise invading my writer's space that doors, walls, and curtains cannot block.

Mary talked about how many of the place names in Ireland have the word “sanctuary” embedded within, and of their treatment of refugees at a time when Ireland is prosperous after nearly a millennium of occupation and poverty.

She wrote of owning the coastline from neap tide to spring tide... we replace space with shimmering rock.... I was born outside the Pale and I don’t fit in...

The sounds the wounded make and the coffin ships of the black Irish destined for the New World. Yes, we do live in one another’s shadows.

I found that my understanding of the meta-language of their imagery had deepened significantly because I now had enough of the Irish teanga to “hear” the variations on the old Gaelic proverbs, the echoes of Maurice O’Sullivan—from his more than 20 Years a Growin', and of course, Peig Sawyer’s Blasket Island tradition.

Is mise an Ghaeilge
Is mise do theanga
Is mise do chultúr

Údar anaithnid - Author Unknown

Of course, James Joyce himself was present with us last night. Nuala was after saying to her UC Cork classmate, Richard Spencer: “I never could get a thing out of Finnegan’s Wake until I heard it read out loud. It has to be read out loud to make sense.” Of course. Like with Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare—the spoken words come alive off the page. No one ever read silently to themselves until the Industrial Revolution.

Nuala and Richard both graduated from UC Cork in 1972, and though they knew each other, they’d never hung out (different circles). But it was a different world then. They caught up with the years and life, each dropping and fumbling the names of professors in turn. Richard called Nuala a flaxy-haired girl, (like in the song), remembering her youth.

In the late ‘60s, Nuala was part of a rather radical poetry circle, called the Innte, a group of women who insisted on writing in Irish—at a time when everyone said the last death knell for the language had long since sounded.

As we crossed the street toward Foley's Pub which has become the official watering hole for the poetry festival, Nuala turned to me and asked: why is it blondes and limousines go together? Did you ever notice that? We were busy noticin' as a stretch limo pulled itself up in front of us blocking our path. Peroxide, I sniffed. A pierced and tattooed 20-something year-old was stepping out in a black leather mini. An incongruous wedding party in the upstairs pub.

My hair’s fading, Nuala said, the red doesn’t stay as you get older. I’m going blonde, she said. Ugh. I was born redheaded but it paled to brown verging on blonde, then it went dark during my 20s. Not quite auburn, you can see the hidden fire in sunlight.

I thought of my fiery-haired great-aunt Peig, all six feet of her, nicotine-stained horse teeth and a voice to match. Peroxide and hair color until she died, a redhead to the end.

A flashback to another post-feis ceile after a Dubliner’s concert: someone asking in a scandalized tone: and who was that impertinent slip of a girl sitting on sloe-eyed Ronnie Drew’s lap? Implying I’d soon offer it up to the man with the bedroom eyes right in front of everybody while he was playing a reel and singing and drinking at the same time.

That’s my niece you're talkin' about! my Aunt Peig snorted in a whiskey tenor, redolent with an envelope of cigarette smoke circling her nostrils. As if it was ever in doubt.

Actress Breda Courtney’s grey hair is tinted by Clairol; she said she is definitely having more fun as a blonde. Hmm. Think I'll stick to my own dark hair color—maybe heighten the red notes. But I'm really a chicken when it comes to changing my anything about my hair.

My knees still jerk at the word, blonde: John Oliver Simon’s male menopause was soothed by a predatory blonde related to a survivor of the Donner Party. It took me longer to get over him that the half-life of the relationship.

Breda said: all the energy you have after menopause is tremendous. Not quite there yet. I'm still a bleeder.

Both Nuala and I exclaim how we're nowhere near menopause, though we both be pushing fifty, the both of us born in 1952. Breda said, think of all that energy wasted making the lining of your womb each month. She thinks it's all a cruel trick nature has played on us to further the species. She's perpetually irritated with her offspring at present.

Richard tells us that a Chinese doctor has him on PMS pills. Breda says, Now that I’m over 50, I can see all that love stuff is but nature’s cruel trick just to widen the gene pool—and having children is way overated.

After the reading, Richard was our chauffeur, driving us to John Foley’s Pub where the craic was in seisín. They traded mouth music. I was jealous, wanting to join in but I didn't have the teanga.

At the booth I was wedged in between Mary O’Mally and Ciaran Carson, a beetle-browed Belfast man with a familiar face reminded me of Michael McAvoy—a teacher/principal I work with through California Poets in the Schools at Fort Ross School and Alexander Valley School. Mike who once interviewed me for the job at a pullout on Highway One above Stump Beach—with a six-pack of beer—and the sublimely beautiful Sonoma coast as witness. I got the job as poet in residence. A literary aside: Mike is married to Brenda ? (S?) Robert Duncan’s official biographer. Ciaran and I nurse our drinks and observe the party like hooded crows.

I sit between worlds, we share what little food we have. Most of us haven't eaten all day and as the rounds of drinks pile up, I'm in danger of French-kissing the floor. I've a stash of mozzarella string cheese and nuts in my backpack—it's the magic bolg someone says. We all inhale the trail mix within seconds. We divide the string cheese like  a skein of embroidery thread, or lace tatting.

Mary’s wine apple seed lodges between my teeth, and I'm remembering past and present as one thing. I marvel at their soft Irish phrases spoken in this Market Street pub nearly a century after my grandparents and the San Francisco diaspora fought so hard to keep the language alive. My grandfather founded the Knights of the Red Branch in San Francisco, and was a gunrunner during the Uprising. I have their Irish grammar books. Some say glamour and grammar arrive from the same source: magic.

We are practitioners of a dead second language, but for Nuala, born in Lancastershire, and raised in Dingle, Kerry, where some of my family is from. Irish is her first tongue. She answered my query with: "I don’t give poetry workshops because I don’t write in English. It would be something of a fraud."

Ah yes, the language problem.

Ceist na Teangan

Cuirim mo dhochas ar snamh
i mbaidin teangan
faoi mar a leagta naionan
i geliabhan
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiuman agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thoin.

ansan e a leagadh sios
i measc na ngioicach
is coigeal na mban si
le taobh na habhann,
feachaint n'fheadarais
a dtabharfaidh an sruth e,
feachaint, dala Mhaoise,
an bhfoirfidh inion Phorain?

I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant
in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and the bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh's daughter.

—tr. Paul Muldoon


Richard, an actor by night and an accountant/plasterer by day, suffers from bipolar depression as does Nuala, so he and Nuala traded war stories… Seratonin or dopamine? she asked, “When it lasts more than six-weeks, I go and get drugs, because, whatever the cause, by then, it’s chemical.” My mother was a graduate of that school—I can recite a litany of names: stelazine, thorazine, lithium. Only the lithium worked.

Nuala said: When I’m depressed I crawl into bed with a novel, and have a good lie in. I might read a novel a day, have a nice hot bath and have another good lie in. It’s never wasted time, it comes back, you know, in the poetry. I know that route. That's how I medicate, I read. It soothes the brain.

Nuala said the first 30 years of her life were sheer hell as she was made a ward of the court…Something about how her schizophrenic mother beat her… There but for fortune. My mother was fully capable of violence, but her fine0honed abuse was emotional. Thankgawd my grandmother raised me. But holidays were always rather purgatorial. Dane comes to mind.

Nuala's story is not unlike Sinéad O'Connor's life story. What is it about a the trappings of a miserable childhood that makes us want to create such truth in beauty? A terrible beauty is born, indeed.

I didn’t get the whole of Nuala's story as the street light was changing from green to yellow and a revving taxi was impatient to mow us down, though there was plenty of space to get by…as if we were a gaggle of geese strolling down Mission after hours, having nothing better to do than to discuss the weather.

Our conversation was something straight out of a Buntas Cainte translation: 'Tis unseasonable cold.

Ah sure, you know I dressed light tonight because Stanford was positively hot last night.

Aye, and it’s probably hot there tonight as well.

Meanwhile, the famous San Francisco fog rolls in  like a freight train and everyone's shivering to death, exclaiming how the weather is so Irish. The fuss we make over micro-climates. It’s something ridiculous. It could have been worse with the donkeys or a plague of eels in the hovercraft.


The topic reminds me of the joke where there’s been a nasty car accident and a nosy man shouts: Let me through! I’m his father! —only to find a dead donkey in the middle of the road.

I didn't get down to hear the "Poetry and the New Ireland', panel with Edna Longley, or hear Eavan Boland read, but everybody was buzzing over it, and complaining of the unseasonable cold May weather, and clutching their cardigans en masse.

In the presence of poets, have you noticed how easily proper nouns become verbed, like Jennifer Johnson’s line about the profound silence that followed, as if to make amends, after the hoovering stopped.

Jennifer says writing is the excursion into and out of one’s self. She confessed how her childhood angels all looked like Danny DeVito. Hairy and fat. She read a story about an old woman sliding down the slope of death who could see beyond reality—not many do—while someone relentlessly hoovered in another room. Bonefacio was the angel’s name. He tawked funny.

She was careful to instruct the audience that ce and ci was pronounced ch as in church, children, and chosen. I thought of Vergil calling Beatrice! Beatrice! Beatrice! I imagine Beatrice hoovering in Purgatorio.

Medbh McGuckian was brilliant, if distant. Paul Muldoon greeted me warmly, though it had been some 20 years since I last saw him. John Oliver Simon and I were outside Ned's Bookstore, across from UC Berkeley campus, and we ran into Paul at the tobacconist's shop. We had a lovely afternoon talking of poetry on the Avenue. We gave him a copy of our new chapbook, Falling to Sea Level. (Which you will find a reference to online in Paul's university archives.)

Paul signed his latest book to me after the reading but he put some other woman's name on it. Margaret, I think. I will have to chastise him on that. Memory finds us lacking in names. What was the color of the wind on the day of your birth? And on the day of your death? (Flan O'Brien)

I was giving Richard an update of my car accident which led to the leitmotif of medical confessions and whether or not to sue. I told them stories of my collapsed lung and detached biceps and shoulder—what are the odds of a hospital misdiagnosing both?

While hooked up some machine in hospital, Nuala’s Turkish husband suffered a stroke, but no one noticed for several days... the horror, the horror....

In 1973, Nuala married Turkish geologist Dogan Leflef and lived in Turkey and Holland for seven years. We reminisced about the common threads of the canals of Amsterdam and Poetry International.

We’d gotten to that leitmotif via a friend in common, Bob Tracy, a retired UC Celtic Studies professor who’d translated Osip Mendelstam into English. Bob had a stroke and was recovering… I hadn’t seen nor heard from him in a year and wondered what had happened. But he did go to the Stanford event.

(Remind me to tell you the Bob Tracy story as to why there are no dirty words in Fr. Dineen’s Gaelic League Irish Dictionary, and Myles na gCapailín—aka Gopleen—the little horse—aka Brian O’Flynn—aka Flann O’Brien—aka the Crooked Branch, a pun on an craobh ruadh, the Gaelic League’s Knights of the Red Branch…. And Flann/Brian penned all the durty words back in again).

(My granny went to many an event sponsored at San Francisco's KRB Hall—Knights of the Red Branch, which my grandfather founded. That's how they met, at KRB Hall).

Anyway: the fin de siècle author-columnist of At Swim Two Birds, and The Third Policeman repute… Myles so carefully penned in all the dirty words into the dictionary but his notebook that was lost. Flann/Brian's treasured notebook mysteriously resurfaced into Bob Tracy's hands only to be lost again when someone stole Bob's bookbag. One can only hope the thief got some use out of all those lists of durty words.

Joe Nugent and Breen say It’s exceedingly hard to curse in Irish because the Jesuits thoroughly expunged every word from the Irish—from breast to sex. But Richard said innocent words rose spontaneously to fill the void, like the preposition, innti.

I note how the verb feic has become a solid stand-in for that most favored swearword, the Anglo Saxon verbal-noun. Feck. The act of swearing fulfills a basic need. For American Bible-belters, dangsugar and shoot are expletives—but American prefer to swear about shit. In Catholic countries, the dirtiest words are often liturgical. Quebecois chalice, for example, is bad, very bad.

My personal favorite book of Myles’ is An Beal Bocht—The Poor Mouth. And it was with us tonight, but the stories of suffering were so tragically real and time-present. Why we write. But I digress….

I went to the reading after going to the UC Berkeley Celtic Studies Beltaine party (a quiet, staid little affair in the Brendan O’Hehir Room with with my bestest friend and study partner, folklorist, Mabel Agozzino. I dubbed her Queen Mabli, or Queen Mab for short, and she fittingly renamed me The Mórrhigan. it was great to see my UC Berkeley classmates, Jasmine Donahaye, Scott, and Stephanie—all avid Celtic Studies students—at the party but none of them went to the live and lively Irish readings. Hmmmph.

At that moment I realized that I was the only bridge between worlds, and technically speaking, I’m not even a student at UC Berkeley.

Prof. J.J. Wilson—do you remember her from Sonoma State? She said that I was one of the youngest people at the reading. What does that say about the upcoming audience a generation ahead of me? and what of the ones following?

I didn’t expect to see Prof. Dan Melia there, as he prefers his poetry well-aged, and of medieval vintage. His colleague, Eve Sweetzer, the Breton specialist, said the staff donates their time to teach Celtic Studies classes on top of their other contracted classes. For the love of Mike….

Ach, I was so tired, I arrived late, I sat next to the Irish Consul, and his poet-wife, Siobhan Campbell (Conmy), as it happens. She read a screamer piece on her opulent thunder thighs that had us nearly wetting ourselves.

And I ran into Diana O’Hehir in the lobby. At a loss for words, I inanely blurted out I’d just come from the O’Hehir room…. Foot in mouth. Oops! Decades later, there's still bad blood between a man some several years dead and his ex-wife. I've an O'Hehir cousin in Dublin somewhere… I don't tell her as she's too busy trying to distance herself from me. As if I might taint her. I noted that she kept Brendan's last name, however.

Diana's moved on from all that world and from Bolinas, she's given up rustic life on the Mesa, so I couldn’t ask after poor Herman Berlandt. All too quiet after the settlement. Chetana, a friend of Neil’s, said Herman and Verona split up after 15 years, inevitably because of the accident. He had a stroke afterwards. I don’t know what condition he’s in—as it was never too solid to begin with. But he was an important teacher in my life—even if he was a Don Quixote figure jousting at windmills, he let me dream impossible scenarios and manifest them into poetry.

I ran into Michael Longley after his reading and gave him a copy of Mother Earth Poetry Journal (Herman Berlandt and I had used a poem of his that I had gotten from a friend living in Amsterdam, Welsh poet and Dutch translator, Paul Evans). Michael was a bit surprised to find his poems in Dutch on this side of the Atlantic, but he knew of Paul's work so I was reinventing the wheel. Or delivering hard copy.

Here it is, nearly Cinco de Mayo and the bhoyos roll out a San Patricio banner and sing Irish rebel songs. We know all the words to The Wild Colonial Boy and sing along. Shouldn't this festival have been be held on Bloom Day?

Richard is marking 1865 as if he were personally responsible for the year. I completely miss the historical connection.

We’re foraging out of my backpack again—I'm feeding the Irish poets a diet of string cheese and almonds with beer. Does nobody ever feed them? They're staarting to drool Pavlovian every time I hoist my backpack up onto the table. I worry about drinking any alcohol as I’m in the middle of an allergic reaction, having woken up with my lower lip swollen to sausage-sized edema, as if I had a lip plug. But clearly, I'm running with the wrong crowd.

Richard’s complimenting a young woman in a skimpy red polka-dotted frock daintily lapping a pink cosmos like a cat at the cream. He's wooing her in Irish, so she doesn’t understand a word of it but it all sounds so soft and beautiful, you can’t help but be flattered. Down, boy, she's too young for you.

Dubliner Breda Courtney, also an accountant (for the Asian Museum) actor/director and hostess extrordinaire of memorable Yeats, Bloomsday and St. Paddy’s events and parties… She was so disappointed that we didn’t drain the Guinness keg, nor made it to breakfast, leaving the party too soon at 3 AM—Breda translated Richard’s gab. So much for a dead language.

Antihistamines are suppressing my edema, but my chin’s still numb from the AT&T commercial shoot yesterday—a reaction to the fake diesel smoke we breathed two days straight or from sunscreen, or from a spider bite, I can’t decide which. Maybe it was a spider bite. But my lower lip is dissolving. I look like a freak.

It was this story that led us to the topic of suing and the state of Nuala’s invalid husband. Here she is, a mother of four and an impaired husband to feed.

The San Francisco Consul General of Ireland, Kevin Conmy, brings us onion rings and chips. Real food! It's a pity he's leaving his post soon, we're all having such a grand time settling in with him. Maybe that's why he's letting his hair down. He's on his way, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Nuala said: of course I’ll write anything on commission. Not too sure what that was about. Perhaps on the question on whether or not poets could be bought.

Another sparkling round appears. Who is paying for all this alcohol? Nuala said, I did a piece for a theater company who wanted it yesterday. I stayed up ‘til it was finished. Imagine 2000 pounds! That’s something like £100 an hour!

An artist is hawking his St. Patrick posters for the price of a domestic beer, not Guinness. I’m dying for one (a Guinness, not a poster) but I don’t dare. There’s also the aspect of driving home to consider.

A woman named Jule, former director of the SF Poetry Center read a dreadful narrative poem (if you could call it that) about her queen-stepbrother, and Jack Hirshman was seeking shaky solidarity with the Irish community, by saying he was going to read in Yorkshire dialect. Awk! Jack is always trying to bridge the linguistic gap with thin credentials. Make that imaginary credentials.

We were unsure if Jack was unclear on geography, or what. I was embarrassed by it all. Once again, I was the only bridge between disparate worlds—the Irish poets and the North Beach poet-gang that Herman Berlandt showcases as the Beat Generation at National Poetry Week. I think of the drunk school master in Brian Freel’s Translations. But it was Carl Marx’ birthday, of that Jack was certain. And little else.

I suppose I should be more charitable to the “I’m gay, therefore I feel, therefore I write” woman poet. But I want to lob: poet! heal thy poem. We need imagery and metaphor to hold onto lest we slide down the treacherous slope of canned abstractions.

Or, maybe I should shout: poet! know thy audience! which might be more apropos, judging from the blank stares. Maybe she was trying to create solidarity with her Irish brothers. It ain't working, folks.

Colm Toibín’s prose stories uncover the unspeakable agony of 12-year old Helen making a real clothes effigy of her murdered father’s clothes, and lying down next to it on the bed.

Twenty years later, her brother Declan was accidentally caught on the Evening News cameras while having a gay tea party with Mary Robinson, In Ireland, the anti-gay laws are still on the books. Oscar Wilde comes to mind.

He shouts to his father: you can’t turn on the telly! He queries: but how do you tell your parents you’re gay when your married brothers and sisters haven’t even told your parents they’re heterosexual?

And of the acronym of the other taboo no one wants to name? Our love affair with words bearing witness sustains us.

Nuala says: poetry is the best profession; I’ll be doing it until I die.

This afternoon’s reading I didn’t make it to as I was so exhausted, having gotten in after 1:30 AM and reeking of cigarette smoke, was unable to have a good lie in, as Nuala would say, and though Finnigan be awake in plenty of time for Bloom Day, I fell asleep in the afternoon—only to awaken to a cold grey rain: it could have been Dublin instead of California after all.


© Maureen Hurley May 3-7, 2000

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