Books: Forty years a-growing
Dermot Bolger on the experience of looking back over a lifetime of poems for his new book
I only need to close my eyes to be back in the plywood-partitioned bedsits of Rathmines and Ranelagh, brimming with mildew and cordiality, with cheap posters covering damp stains and, always in the ether, the anticipation (generally unrealised) of sexual possibilities.
That world was ruled by landlords - often garda sergeants who illegally rigged electricity meters. But their remit ended when they collected their weekly rent and hurried off before tenants could complain about leaking taps. With the landlord safely gone, friends, lovers, would-be lovers, fellow students or workmates and second-cousins-seeking-a-floor-to-sleep-on could crowd in to drink lukewarm Liebfraumilch and savour what adventures the evening ahead might bring.
I never lived in Rathmines - I just woke up there many times in my 20s: in beds, on floors and occasionally on landings where girls stepped over me to use the payphone located there. The poet Michael O'Loughlin once shaved off one half of my beard while I peacefully slept there and - as if to prove that a vengeful Deity watches over us - I only woke when a wardrobe inexplicably collapsed on top of him and broke his nose. I vaguely recall seeing his hands stick out from either side of the wardrobe as I drifted back asleep.
Two things instantly conjure up this period - and other periods in my life - music and poetry. The opening notes of a song possess the uncanny ability to transport us back to another place. Joyce claimed that there were certain things that each generation could not explain to their children. For my generation, it is explaining what "long playing records" were. In 1995, I found a box of vinyl albums in my attic. My sons (then aged six and four) had never seen such antiquated artefacts and thought they were Frisbees. I explained that long before CDs existed, this was how we listened to music, and one day their children would have no idea what CDs were.
They watched, fascinated, as I rigged up an old record player. Very delicately, I placed the needle on track six of Closing Time by Tom Waits. As Waits began to sing his song 'Martha', I closed my eyes and, for an instant, it felt like I was 24 again at the bedsit window where I first heard that song. Grabbing a note that my son had brought home from school, I scribbled a poem entitled Martha in a matter of moments, knowing that it exactly captured what I wanted to recall and, for once, I would not spend weeks redrafting the words.
That is the mystery of poetry. I write novels and plays on slow Tuesday afternoons when I lock myself into rooms and slowly grind out the words in another skirmish with the English language. Poems happen in an utterly different way. Yeats claimed that out from the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric, and from the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry. You can't sit down to deliberately write a poem: the poem must mug you. Being human, we constantly wage mental arguments with ourselves. But, occasionally, one of those thoughts sparks with sudden electricity. We somehow know that this is the opening of a poem and if we don't write it down, it will be lost forever. These thoughts hit us at unexpected moments, washing dishes, walking the dog or hearing an old song. We reach for paper, desperate to capture this thought before it's gone.
I once read my poem Martha when reading with Roddy Doyle in Vienna. Afterwards he teased me that he finally understood poets - we were just too mean to buy a camera to capture special moments. Maybe he's right. I've spent six months editing my 'selected poems'. Its title, That Which is Suddenly Precious, sums up how it feels to look back over 40 years of my life. Suddenly, I'm encountering forgotten versions of myself. I am aged 10 in the Richmond Hospital, bewildered by my mother's death. I am a factory worker at 19, walking home after a night shift. I am unlocking my bicycle after first meeting the woman I would wed. I run through icy streets to find a taxi on the night her waters broke. I am a young father, collecting chestnuts with my sons. Every experience - happy and tragic - that shaped me into who I am now is here in these assembled poems.
The evening I corrected the final proof, I clicked onto YouTube - a medium that didn't exist when I found albums in my attic. Once again, the opening notes of 'Martha' by Tom Waits began to play. I closed my eyes and now two memories came vividly back: me at 24 at a flat window and me, as a young father, hurriedly writing down this poem on whatever scrap of paper I could find.
I found the box of old albums,
Blew dust off a disused needle,
Tom Waits began to sing "Martha".
Once again I was twenty-four,
The pull of hash and tobacco,
Cheap white wine at my elbow
At the window of your bedsit
In the dust-filled August light.
A needle bobbing over warped vinyl
One final time before we stroll
Down to bars where friends gather.
Decks to be shuffled, numbers rolled,
Blankets bagged on some dawn-lit floor.
Our lives are just waiting to occur
As we linger in the infinity that it takes
For the voice of Tom Waits to fade.
Dermot Bolger - 1995
That Which is Suddenly Precious: New & Selected Poems by Dermot Bolger is published by New Island at €14.99