Death and the sun are not to be looked at in the face.
Maxims, La Rochefoucauld
Don Paterson and I were crossing the Wolfe Tone Bridge in Galway contemplating Thomas Crapper. This was at early o’clock in the morning on our way back from an awful curry at the only Indian restaurant open in Galway in the wee hours. The night was mild, and our thoughts drifted towards talk of Crapper as the air behind us burned with the elemental fire of flatulence. It was an awful curry.
Why else would two internationally unknown poets, in Galway to recite our internationally unheard of poems, the guests of the Cuirt Festival of Literature, be talking about the implications of the invention of the flush toilet and about its inventor, that dismal man whose name shall for ever be associated with shit? Why else?
Here, after all, was an opportunity, to tender vengeance towards the man who’d damned, by faint praise, my most recent book of poems – in the TLS for chrissakes! Indeed, given Don’s fairly damaged condition – a night of drink, the aforementioned curry – I could have pitched him headlong into the Corrib and watched him bob up and down out to Galway Bay humming like Bing Crosby, an odd and gaseous swan gone belly-up from bad food and good riddance. But really the review wasn’t as bad as it was, well, ‘fair’ and any ink is better than no ink, after all. And I like Don. He’s an amiable Scot, a Dundonian, and a crackerjack poet if, like myself, not exactly a household name. It could be worse I tell myself. We could be Crappers. And he still drinks well, in a way I never did, allowing excess to be its own reward – a little change from the teetotal life I live back in Michigan where I haven’t had a drink in years suffering, as I do, from all of the F-words: I’m fortyish, a father of four, a funeral director and full of fear for what might happen if I go back on the Black Bush. So I don’t.
The first time I was ever in Ireland was just over twenty-five years ago. Driven by curiosity about my family and my affection for the poetry of William Butler Yeats – an internationally known poet – I saved up a hundred dollars beyond the cost of a one-way ticket and lit out, 20 and cocksure, for Ireland. Several of my generation were going off to Vietnam at the time but I’d drawn high numbers in the Nixon lotto so I was free to go. What made me so cocksure was the knowledge that my parents would bail me out if I got too deep into trouble. So it wasn’t exactly like Kerouac or Woody Guthrie but I was, nonetheless, on the road. Or more precisely, flying the friendly skies.
When I located my cousins Tommy and Nora Lynch – brother and sister, bachelor and spinster – they lived in a thatched house on the west coast of Clare, in the townland of Moveen, with flagstone floors, two light sockets, a hot plate and open hearth and no plumbing. Water existed five fields down the land, bubbling up in a miracle of spring water, clear and cold and clean. I soon learned to grab the bucket and a bit of the Clare Champion and on my way down for the precious water, I’d squat to my duties and wipe my ass with the obits or want ads or the local news. It was my first taste of liberty – to crap out in the open air on the acreage of my ancestors, whilst listening to the sounds of morning: an aubade of bird-whistle and wind-song.
Tommy and Nora kept cows, saved hay, went to the creamery, and, as any farmer knows, dung is a large part of that bargain. It greens the grass that feeds the cow that makes the milk and shits again: a paradigm for the internal combustion engine, a closed system, efficient as an old Ford. And so the addition of my little bits of excrement to the vast dung-covered acreage was hardly noticeable; like personal grief among paid wailers, it gets lost in the shuffle and becomes anonymous and safe. This is the model for the food chain: the elements of feed, cowshit and what-have-you, get lost in the shuffle by the time we sit down to the Delmonico or T-bone; likewise we are blind to the copulation of chickens and the habits of pigs when we sit down to the bacon and the eggs. The process blurs – dead fish make onions grow, manure turns into hamburger and tossed salad.
It was a good life. After nights of song and stories and poetry, common in the country in those years before the television replaced the fire as the thing stared at and into, I would step out the back door of the cottage, take my stance amid the whitethorn trees my great-great-grandfather had planted years ago as saplings brought home from a horse fair in Kilrush and piss the porter out – I was young, I drank too much. And in the midst of this deliverance I’d look up into the vast firmament, as bright in its heaven as the dark was black, and think thoughts of liberty and be thankful to be alive.
Years after, I would try to replicate these reveries when I found myself living in a large old house on Liberty Boulevard in a small town in Michigan. I lived next door to my funeral home and, returning in the early mornings from embalming one of my townspeople, I’d stop near the mock-orange tree by the back door of my home and look up into the heavens and relieve myself. Some nights I would see Orion or the Pleiades and think of mythologies blurred in my remembrance of them and be thankful for the life of the body and the mind.