What Stays With You?

This poem was in the last issue of the New Yorker. I’ve read it every morning for a week, and it haunts me. Her name and dates seem part of the poem.

DEEPEST REMAINS
What stays with you latest and deepest? Of curious panics
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

–Walt Whitman

1.
In my early years I spoke in many languages.
Then I grew quiet.

(This is not an obituary.)

Some of my dreams faded,
if they could count as dreams.

I was a good friend,
though I mostly called
when there was no one else

I was a poet,
though I only wrote
when there was nothing else
(That was often enough.)

2.
I was truly in love once, as least as I remember it.

A boy from another country said,
_I intend to go alone,_
which was not what I intended.

I learned to sleep in a hammock,
my body sagging to the floor.

I bathed in the river fully clothed:
the cotton clung, translucent.
(A man watched from the outer banks.)

I spent the night on an ancient pyramid,
monkeys shrieking through the trees,

I bribed a guard to leave me alone,
and there was no one left to tell.

3.
A young man skipped ahead on the trail.
I must have said, _Wait._
(Years passed.)
How could I say goodbye?

I sealed leftovers in ziplock bags;
I wore a flowered bathrobe.

I began to listen to books on tape,
especially biography.

(This is not an obituary.)

There was a jungle-book ending:
strands of dirty-blond light
shone through the spreading palms.

–Lexi Rudnitsky
(1972-2005)

Armistice Day

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

–Wilfred Owen

The Poetic Champions Compose

With a lively lover she wouldn’t have quit
Once she was lighted, you know she’d stay lit.
With the proper partner she’d never take flight
Entranced on her back with her eyes shut tight

With a lively lover she wouldn’t have quit
Once she was lighted, you know she’d stay lit.
With the proper partner she’d never take flight
Entranced on her back with her eyes shut tight
She wouldn’t jump with inappropriate fright
Attack like a cat or scratch or bite,
But lie with him in embrace combined
Side by side with legs entwined,
Exchanging sweet nothings, little white lies
Lips to lips, fingers stroking his thighs.

_The Midnight Court_, Brian Merriman, 1780
Translated by J. Noel Fahey

Limerick, Ireland is my home town, but I am most at home in the Limerick of distant literary history. In the 18th century it was the capital of a country whose national sport was competitive poetry. I’m not making it up; that’s what Van Morrison refers to the title of his album, _The Poetic Champions Compose_.

The _file_ or bard was a hero for hire who could spin verse on the spot. He recited yards of poetry, and was as famous for memory as for invention. Young bloods waited for slip to snatch their chance at greatness. (One translation of my name from the Gaelic is _dearbh fhile_, daughter of the poet. It’s the one I like best.) Poetry wasn’t the unread, starveling business it is today. I’m about to sound like a hapless English teacher in baggy, chalk-smudged tweeds, but those poets were the Eminem of their day.

Limerick was famous for champion poets, and gave its name to five-line doggerel. The greatest of all was Brian Merriman, who wrote _Cúirt an Mhean Oíche_, or _The Midnight Court_. No sunsets and daffodils for Brian. His poem describes a dream in which he is dragged to a trial where women of Ireland accuse the men of general foot-dragging and lame bedroom performance. Irish men aren’t worthy of their spirited womenfolk, they say. The population is falling. Tight-buttocked, cutie priests are unavailable, and maidens wither while single men dither. A young woman addresses the court, blasting men for waiting to marry until they are past being able to satisfy women in bed. She proposes, among other things, that priests should marry, and destroys the shrivelled old man who defends men by abusing her. Aoibheall, judge and fairy queen, delivers a verdict against the men just as Merriman, in terror, wakes up.

It is splendid stuff, rich and earthy and full of detail. Diarmuid Breathnach writes:

As well as its literary worth, _The Midnight Court_ is full of information about spells, folklore and 18th century rural life as well as matters revolving around marriage, sex, population, women’s rights, births outside marriage [and] clerical celibacy.

_The Midnight Court_ was written in 1780, but aside from the post-party texting negotiations, the complaints seem fresh to some Irish women today. Seamus Heaney translated part of the poem in _The Midnight Verdict_, which I’d love to own.

UPDATE: Noel Fahy has a terrific set of _Midnight Court_ related material here. It includes detailed translation notes, autobiographical details, and a side-by-side translation. Thanks, Noel!

O Lady of Craiglea, you must assess
The extent of Irish women’s distress,
How, if the men continue with their ways,
Alas, women will have to make the plays
By the time the men are disposed to wed
They’re no longer worth our while to bed
And it’ll be no fun to lie below
Those old men who are so weak and slow.

Smell

Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.

Neighborhood

When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.