I Went To See McCarthy

August Kleinzahler

I went to see McCarthy

with cardinals rattling in the boxwood
and pecans suffering
their convoluted slumber in the heat,
taproots humming deep underground;

from a parched, bare plain of yellow ochre
to a green place, hilly and moist.

And a great sleep overtook me
upon crossing Nacogdoches.

Until next I knew we were dropping,
dropping down through the clouds,
into the rain and old quarrels,

low in sight of Ballymadog
and the cliffs of Knockadoon Point,
the sea, the grey mothering sea,
boiling away among the rocks

and the shrikes circling below us,
and the barnacle geese, piloting us in.

He buttered some bread, McCarthy did
by way of an hello
and bade me sit down by his tall windows
to take in the view of the river below,
the river and tall steeples.
For McCarthy commanded a lofty view,
a view atop a very fine hill,
and the clouds raced in from the west.

Have a pat, Jimmy, McCarthy said.
(Jimmy, he made up his mind to call me.)
Skibbereen’s finest, he said.

And the river widened away below,
outside of the tall windows,
it widened to the east and south,
and further still past the old castle,
carrying with it the fishing smacks and freighters,
out to the harbour and open sea,
the harbour and grey, mothering sea.

I went from a dry place, echoless and vast,
a parched bare plain of yellow ochre,
remorseless land, remorseless sky,

remorseless, vast and cirrus-streaked
to McCarthy’s kingdom by the sea,
swaddled in cloud, all grey and green,
pasture, bog, hillock and town
swaddled in cloud, all grey and green.

McCarthy was all for tall windows and butter.

A pat with tall windows is your only man,
McCarthy said, and said it not free of pride,
not free of pride in the manner he said it.

Soon enough the dark rolled in,
the dark rolled in and still more rain,
and the city clock read 7,
of several minds the fish-shaped weathervane,
of several minds on a blowing night.

And the rain was full of tales, full of tales,
having drawn them up like water,
like water from the green earth below,
then raining them back down, down and down,
a softly spoken incantation without end.

Outside and in the streets below
the ghosts of Mike O’Donovan and Sean
still covered the leafy Mardyke mile,
young Mick flapping his arms and noisy,
a tall crazed crested grebe in silhouette,
all crackpot opinings and complaint

about the lost art of churning butter
and how it might be regained.
Sean, the quiet one, meanwhile nodding,
the kingdom’s future chroniclers,
noisy Mick and the older Sean,
of how it was and when and where,
covering that mile of gravel path,
streetlamps lost in the leaves overhead,
putting it in the air and testing it,
getting what wanted saying said.

Have yourself another pat. Go on,
take another pat for yourself, Jim,
fresh as if served wrapped in cool grass cuttings.
St Brigit’s golden harvest,
fresh as if served on a firm cabbage leaf.

And outside the tall windows
the kingdom’s stories did unfold,
like a long and crowded scroll,
a long and crowded scroll,
the many tales of an old small place,
a place long lived in, much travelled through,
a kingdom within a kingdom
on an island in the sea.

Outside there, in the rain,
all history, it seemed, unfolded before us,
through the rain-streaked windows,
in the blackness and the rain.
The 18th century made its stately passage,
it was a procession down Mallow Lane,
down Mallow Lane to the river’s quays,
the barques and packet ships filled with good butter,
butter knuckled into seasoned oak firkins,
firkins expertly coopered and headed,
seasoned oak firkins coopered and headed,
and sent off to Zanzibar, Kingston, Cadiz.

And then there was the ‘Big Fella’,
another chapter to be told, another still,
a much beloved tale it was,
the kingdom’s hammer, hammer and champion,
and a lovely broth of a boy he was,
pounding that freckled ham of a fist,
that great resounding freckled ham,
down on the plank, the plank before him:

Come along lads, with me, he roared.
Come along lads with me.
This butter belongs to no one but ourselves
and it’s that knowledge and the pike,
the pike and butter shall set us free.

Are you having fun? McCarthy asked.
Are you having a good time? he asked.

McCarthy, I said, so many tales:
How is there so much to tell of so small a place,
a place so small as this?
Where does it all come from, and does it never end?

Have a pat, Jimmy, McCarthy said.
It’s only the same as your DVD,
the same as your DVD at home.
It all just rewinds and starts over again,
it rewinds and starts over again.
But never the same way twice. And he winked.
Never exactly the same.

Fine butter, is it not, Mike?
(And now he decided to call me Mike.)
If butter can’t cure what ails you,
no cure is there to be found, ha, ha,
no cure is there to be found.

And outside, outside the tall windows
the rain continued to fall,
and so too the kingdom’s many stories,
one after another they did unfold,
the many stories of an old small place,
long lived in, much travelled through,
a kingdom within a kingdom
on an island in the sea.

The Great Betrayal, the Earls’ Retreat,
the Battle of Creamery Knoll:
Many fell there, many a brave one,
and with them a terrible spoilage of butter.

The fever that beset the milk cows,
the dreadful fever that turned the milk.
The drought that withered the silage.
The invasion that cost the land its churns.
So much sorrow, for so small a kingdom.
Many poems were written, many songs sung,
poems written, unhappy songs sung,
and tales too, written by Mick and Sean.

For as the churning of milk brings forth butter,
McCarthy said dolefully, in a doleful voice,
and the twisting of a nose brings forth blood,
so the forcing of wrath brings forth strife,
brings forth strife, McCarthy said.

I left from a parched bare plain,
a plain burnt zinc-orange, burnt yellow ochre.
I left under a cirrus-streaked sky,
a relentless and cirrus-streaked sky,
where the tales that arise from the land
are blown away like spindrift,
spindrift of yellow sand when the wind arrives.
And those scarce few tales that remain
are grudgingly told, as few words as it takes,
as few words as the telling takes,
rendered sparsely as the rain.

We have an anthem, McCarthy said,
a song from long ago and in the old tongue.

McCarthy saw fit to translate it,
bless him, my host, he translated it for me
and this is how I heard it sung:

Ohhhhh, a vision once appeared to me
an apparition to amaze.
We came on a ship made all of lard,
and we steered that boat to the open sea,
we steered it to the open sea.

Until we came upon a fort,
its battlements of custard made,
and beyond a lake, a lake we found,
fresh butter was the bridge in front,
and bacon the palisade.

Hedges of butter fenced it round,
Its pillars were of cheese,
behind it was a well of wine,
and whiskey filled its streams.

A very fine place to sup on, it was,
a very fine place to sup,
and a better place still to dream, begob,
the best of all places to dream.

Having fun, Bill?
McCarthy said (and now he called me Bill),

his voice, as it did, going up and down,
in speech, as it did in song,
in speech, as in song,
just like his little kingdom’s hills,
just like his kingdom’s hills.
And it was a kind of singing, it was,
the way he spoke, his way of telling tales,
that the tales seemed almost like songs,
and every song told a tale.

It was a singing place, McCarthy lived.
Oh, not in the usual way,
not at all like ‘Eensy Weensy Spider’
and surely not ‘Up, Up and Away’.
Speech was sung and the songs,
the songs were full of talk,
both suited to the telling of tales,
suited to telling tales.
And many tales there were to tell,
for one small kingdom a great hoard of tales,
tales of intrigue and glory and butter,
intrigue and travail.

The tales themselves so sweetly told,
so pleasingly told and well,
because how the tune of them fell on the air,
because of how it fell,
it made no matter if the tales were true,
or whether the reckonings fair,
no matter be they true or fair.
The butter was sweet, that’s all I knew,
the tunes and butter sweet.

I went to see McCarthy.

I left from a hot, dry place,
a parched wide plain the colour of burnt orange,
where the songs all begin ‘Giddy-yup’
and end ‘The skies are not cloudy all day.’

I went to see McCarthy
in his kingdom by the sea,
all swaddled in grey and green,
an old, old place with many a tale,
some tales told, others better sung,
a kingdom within a kingdom
on an island in the sea.

Now back from whence I came
it seems all like a dream,
an excellent dream, to be sure,
but far more dream than real.
And much of it now steals from my mind,
much of it steals away.
But two things I’ll not forget;
two things planted in my mind will stay:

One is that if something’s worth saying,
and sounds good once it’s said,
you may just as well just say it twice,
it costs no more or less;
good once, better twice, go ahead.

And the other was something McCarthy said,

he said it by way of a goodbye.

Hurry back, boy, McCarthy said.
Hurry back soon for a pat and good craic.

But the very last thing McCarthy said,
the final words he said:

Now, Jimmy, this you must remember,
remember and never forget:

Don’t stand out in the sun, ever, ever,
(listen up, boy, now you listen)
when you’ve got butter on top of your head,
butter on top of your head.