I am now, maybe thinner … I grew to my full height when I was thirteen and went around for years thinking I was a giant. The magician had a big fluffy white rope and said he would hang me upside down from the ceiling where everyone could see my figure. These images come back to me, especially that awful feeling when you are young and vulnerable and everyone is about to look at you and how terrible it is going to be. The book is about how adults can confuse and terrify children. I was terrified for months after this experience. I wasn’t sure if this man wouldn’t come after me with his rope and force me to hang upside down. After all, he was supposed to be a magician.’
‘What about your parents?’ ‘They went to Australia with five children, came back with seven and left two behind. They paid full price to go there, while everyone else went there for a tenner. They didn’t know about the Australians offering Irish immigrants almost free passage. It was an expensive cruise. My mother told me that all the while they were on the ship they entertained people. All the children would get up and sing for them. They were in Australia for ten years. My father got sick there. They never talked much about what they did there but it was difficult for my mother, possibly difficult for my father too although he made it sound romantic when he came back. There were all these lovely aboriginal names and of course he spoke about the birds and the wildlife. He was always imitating the laugh of the kookaburra.
My father’s lips pursed with pleasure when he uttered the name of a place called Geelong, as if he was getting ready to blow into an invisible didgeridoo.
(from ‘The Australian Rug’)
‘They lost money hand over fist and barely got back to Ireland with enough to make a fresh start. They went to County Cork. They were originally from County Limerick where they had a big farm. The farmhouse was supposed to be haunted. My poem “Stones” is about how the stories about it haunted me:
‘Dreamy. I had a world of my own but then I’d talk my head off if I got a chance. I had a lot of friendships with older men, which I suppose is bound to happen when you grow up in a pub – lovely old men like Tom Twomey who would play cards with me, and there was Gerald Regan, a solicitor who would bring me beautiful children’s books. Rilke says the source of all poetry is childhood and dreams. We drink from the well until we drink it dry. I think that is really true. There’s an interesting Graham Greene essay about how the books we read in childhood are books of divination. I believe some of the things that make us sad when we are young do so precisely because we know they are going to happen to us. And then Declan Kiberd has written about how Joyce fell in love with the story of Ulysses when he was twelve – it was the children’s version by Charles Lamb that originally captured his imagination.’
In her poem ‘Facing the Public’ the daughter captures the mother whole, or could it be, rather, that with so much of the poem hijacked by her voice, the mother captures the daughter whole?
My mother never asked like a normal person, it was I’m asking you for the last time, I’m imploring you not to go up that road again late for Mass.
She never had slight trouble sleeping, it was Never, never, never for one moment did I get a wink, as long as my head lay upon that pillow.
She never grumbled, because No one likes a grumbler, I never grumble but the pain I have in my two knees this there isn’t a person alive who would stand for it.
She didn’t do the Stations of the Cross she sorrowed the length and breadth of the church. And yet, she could chalk up a picture in a handful of words the horse that went mad from a brain haemorrhage circling and circling around the hawthorn-ringed field, the riding accidents, bodies on the railway tracks, Johnny the dead dog the children buried up to its neck.
‘They sold it to a man and six months later he was thrown from a horse and killed. My brother spoke of footsteps on the stairs. Maybe it was difficult for them on that lonely farm but they had it hard in Australia too. My father was struck down by rheumatic fever for most of a year and then he was knocked over by a drunken driver. He was 58 and my mother about 40 when they returned to Cork, which was when I came along, the mistake. They didn’t know anything about running a business but they opened up the bar, shop and petrol pump. It was the focus of everything. People would come down from church, funerals, weddings, the hunt, the creamery, and it was run very haphazardly. Can you imagine, starting all over again at that age? And then a tenth child arriving just when they must have thought they had enough?’
‘What about your childhood?’
conjure a person in a mouthful of speech …
There is very little in Martina’s poetry that does not come from either her or her mother’s memories. The poem becomes a study in embarrassment. It is about the mother acting out scenarios in private and then being embarrassed when she is overheard. Anyone who comes from a small place will know how there the echoes go on forever.
Never, never, never would she be able, as long as she lived,
even if she got Ireland free in the morning, no, no, no she would never be able to face the public again.
‘That poem came when one day my daughter Liadáin was going on about something or other and I said to her, “Don’t be so dramatic”. She said, “Oh, I’m dramatic, am I!” She made me laugh and then I thought of my mother. And the poem just came out. The strong ones tend to, but really I’d been writing it for years. She was a larger than life character, a woman who ran everything. When I told her my first book
PN Review 202