as from the dark sweet
rising from his fork
white and hard.
He dropped them in the bucket.
“Take these to your mo’r”.
A man of few words.
In the kitchen she was
waiting with a boiling pan.
A scrub of spuds
A sprig of mint
and soon their floury skins were peeling back.
Drained and piled steaming
into the good round dish,
my grandfather picked first
from the top of the mound
with his special two-pronged fork
and peeled the skin off each spud
with his special knife.
Two decades on, in the same
Dark, sweet soil
Cache after cache of
the dark brown glass
Meat, nylons, fags
Meat, pillows, strong string
Paint pelmet, stain floor and cabinet
Mend slacks, meat, stockings, face pack, fags
Mr Schilling, Probation Office, Barnes & Avis
Mr Schilling, Campbell’s, the Liakhoffs
Cement cracks, skylight, fix stair carpet.
Post heavy stuff: gum boots, flippers, big jumpers
Cut Ter’s hair.
Coke is better for use in blast furnace –
purer form of carbon.
Born in a Fiery Horse year
she left school at 14
kicked over the traces
in rural Co Down
managed a grocery
joined the Air Force
worked on spitfires,
married, divorced, married
navigated the next five decades of
child rearing, “The Troubles”, pottery classes,
mad in-laws, delinquent brother,
thankless union work, school jumble sales,
blossoming summer school,
pioneering Chinese cookery
In County Down there stands a hill, above the other
On top, a tower, a mid-Victorian folly supposed to show
A tribute from a grateful tenantry.
One 1960’s Saturday my father and I rode up there on a
To climb the tower to see the view to Ailsa Craig
But mainly to drink Fanta.
No silencer on the Vespa exhaust,
So heads had turned as we had sped
And broke the peace on Scrabo Hill.
Three decades on, my mother and I ad libbed,
Took turns in wool and silk to re-create Scrabo Hill.
A ploughed field here, a whin bush there.
Pale green of silage cut.
Laburnum and irises around
The Big House, grey paths to cottages, a letterbox.
Social strata, seasons, stone and thatch
All caught in impromptu cross-stitch.
In my writing, I have often found myself going back to my memories of the people and places associated with my Northern Irish mother. Writing has helped me to make sense of and make peace with my mother, and the contradictions of the caring, hardworking but fiercely sectarian woman she was.
I like the compressed, holographic way a poem enables you to evoke the arc of a whole life in a small space, or hint at the complexities of family dynamics in a few words.
In these three poems, the theme of “unearthing” comes through in different ways:
“Empties” describes my childhood self watching the literal digging up of potatoes by my grandfather, and later, in the same earth, the discovery of his large numbers of buried Guinness bottles, revealing both the practicalities of pre-recycling days, and hinting at his possible shame about his excessive drinking.
After my mother died, I discovered a number of her pocket diaries, and was very struck by the contrast between their small size and the rich amount of material they contained, almost entirely in the form of lists: of appointments, of shopping and of her hours of work as a jobbing shorthand typist, all meticulously recorded in her copper plate handwriting. “Betty’s centenary” uses these verbatim lists to bring her to life.
In “Scrabo Hill”, I have brought together memories of both my parents, and a piece of improvised “tapestry” my mother and I made, depicting a familiar landmark and imagined landscape. The poem describes both personal and public histories, and the tapestry reminds me of the boldness of “making things up”.