Sunday 15 December 2019

Rising Poems: 'Imperial Measure' by Vona Groarke

Imperial Measure

The kitchens of the Metropole and Imperial hotels yielded up to the Irish Republic
their armory of fillet, brisket, flank. Though destined for more palatable tongues,
it was pressed to service in an Irish stew and served on fine bone china
with bread that turned to powder in their mouths. Brioche, artichokes, tomatoes
tasted for the first time: staunch and sweet on Monday, but by Thursday,
they had overstretched to spill their livid plenitude on the fires of Sackville Street.

A cow and her two calves were commandeered. One calf was killed,
its harnessed blood clotting the morning like news that wasn’t welcome
when, eventually, it came. The women managed the blood into black puddings
washed down with milk from the cow in the yard who smelt smoke on the wind
and fire on the skin of her calf. Whose fear they took for loss and fretted with her
until daylight crept between crossfire and the sights of Marrowbone Lane.

Brownies, Simnel cake, biscuits slumped under royal icing. Éclairs with their cream
already turned. Crackers, tonnes of them: the floor of Jacobs’ studded with crumbs,
so every footfall was a recoil from a gunshot across town, and the flakes
a constant needling in mouths already seared by the one drink – a gross
or two of cooking chocolate, stewed and taken without sweetener or milk.
Its skin was riven every time the ladle dipped but, just as quickly, it seized up again.

Nellie Gifford magicked oatmeal and a half-crowned loaf to make porridge
in a grate in the College of Surgeons where drawings of field surgery
had spilled from Ypres to drench in wounds the whitewashed walls
of the lecture hall. When the porridge gave out, there was rice:
a biscuit-tin of it for fourteen men, a ladleful each that scarcely knocked
the corners off their undiminished appetites; their vast, undaunted thirst.

The sacks of flour ballasting the garrison gave up their downy protest under fire.
It might have been a fall of Easter snow sent to muffle the rifles or to deaden the aim.
Every blow was a flurry that thickened the air of Boland’s Mill, so breath
was ghosted by its own white consequence. The men’s clothes were talced with it,
as though they were newborns, palmed and swathed, their foreheads kissed,
their grip unclenched, their fists and arms first blessed and, then, made much of.

The cellars of the Four Courts were intact at the surrender, but the hock
had been agitated, the Reisling set astir. For years, the wines were sullied
with a leaden aftertaste, although the champagne had as full a throat as ever,
and the spirits kept their heady confidence, for all the stockpiled bottles
had chimed with every hit, and the calculating scales above it all
had had the measure of nothing, or nothing if not smoke, and then wildfire.

* From Flight (2002) by kind permission of the author and The Gallery Press.

An assessment of 'Imperial Measure' by Dr Lucy Collins

In this poem, published in 2001, Groarke creates a new narrative of the events of 1916 – one in which the domestic background to the Rising becomes its foreground.

In this poem of long lines and vivid images, the practical, yet sensory, power of food gives expression to complex social and political interactions.

The title of the poem plays on Ireland’s position within the British Empire, indicating the significant, yet unpredictable, consequences of rebellion against this power.

Idealism must soon yield to traumatic action, just as the choice cuts of meat and exotic vegetables commandeered at the start of the rebellion turn to waste.

The brutal killing of a calf suggests that the folk representation of Ireland as cow must now be sacrificed to more practical ends.

With the sweetness of daring comes bitterness: luxurious foods become unpalatable when taken to excess, as the highest aims are compromised by reality.

Contingency also shapes the survival strategies dramatised here: when one opportunity is exhausted, another is tried; yet the hunger that first motivated the rebels cannot be satisfied. Even after the surrender, the full measure of Rising’s effects can only be imagined.

Dr Lucy Collins is a lecturer in English at University College Dublin (UCD). She is the curator of 'Reading 1916', a forthcoming exhibition at UCD Special Collections.

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