Desuetude, eavesdropping publicans, sea glass, disrespected fairies, flowering grykes, single-cell morphemes, mammillated karst, ancient woodwinds, mortal combat, the clement whip of wind & Dysert.
Dysert: Molly Keane’s House
Big House.” Horse and carriage. What else goes together? This Vermeer print and Molly Keane’s kitchen. Herself was an Anglo-Irish novelist. I can’t take my eyes off the Vermeer, because we’re in it. The Big House is not that old, but so many features of the kitchen, the colors, seem replicated in the Vermeer, and, more than that, in the spirit of the place. In the Vermeer a loaf is broken along fault lines created in its rising. The same light hits, or emanates from, the bread and the rawhide-stitched broadcloth bodice of the scullery maid, then from the milk as she pours. Beauty. The sense of everything rising comes right out of the print into the kitchen, almost forcing you to breathe deeply, to rise with it.
The place is pure Bloomsbury. Fuchsia-hedged, fulsome, multi-colored, with ox-eye daisies and sundry dense unnameables. As Keane’s Anglo-Irish daughter Virginia puts it, “a bit of Miss Havisham in the greenery.” Half-tamed, like the Irish, which I am. In the kitchen I’m grating cheddar with a nineteenth-century instrument. Less comes out than goes in, and I notice that a thicket of cobwebs is hanging the Irish cheese shreds like miniature socks on a clothesline. Because this is Anglo-Ireland, things fall apart politely. Desuetude is a proper noun. Still, I love the solid blue of the door against the white bubble-brick masonry of the Keane house, walking though that rare blue color of the Irish sky.
Centered on the blue door is a heavy iron knocker framing the bust of a man or—I’m thinking:
“Maybe it’s a god, Aeolus or something.”
“That’s the god of wind.”
“Why would he be on a door?”
“I don’t know.”
Distracted, disinterested, my son offers, “The god of knocking?”
The eavesdropping publican draws a Guinness with a scowl that says, I don’t give a sweet crap.
Publican—I love the sound. Absent the “re” prefix, it has a noble ring. Aristocracy of the lumpen. Himself.
I’m writing where Keane wrote, oblique light over the bay over my shoulder, the wind as ever finding something to rattle. To my right, a decorative plate of shells, poorly enough assembled to suggest predation, what empty shells are. And on the beach below and to the north of us a great caravan of mobile homes. Among the shells the occasional shard of sea glass. And here’s the “Root Beer Barrel” you lost on the floor of the Lowe’s Poli in New Haven in 1964.
What’s to be made of this curio—two very gay ceramic sailors arm in arm? It’s a hundred years old. Reminds me of Whitman’s time, when men so often shared a bed. Yet gay we can assume was not the intent of the ceramicist. Innocence? We’ll never know.
We’re listening to a CD of Irish tales. It seems there is always a singular admonition: whatever you do, don’t… It’s one thing that sinks you. The apple you musn’t eat. If only life were that easy, I’m thinking.
Stretch of solitude, limestone and shale, if places spoke, the Burren would stutter, or would sound—look, even—like a pocked magic slate.
There once was a man with tits on his back… This is the kind of thing that can happen when you don’t pay proper respect to fairies. Still, he was very popular in Bohemian circles…
This is my Irish Fairy Tale. It’s not finished, for I haven’t figured out the one thing he ought not to have done.
“Dad, one thing—we’re not going to Ballyquin, or I’ll sue you.”
All right, then. We take a short trip to Goat Island, which isn’t an island, and I don’t see any goats. On the way, Himself spies a tower. We take a closer look. It’s an extensive ruin, abbey perhaps, with no name, no mention in any tourist literature. But it’s marvelous, overlooking solid green fields of differing hues and beyond them the placid bay and a small, protected beach. I have an almost atavistic tingling. I love the place. On both sides of the large entrance are ivy trunks, more than a foot in knotted diameter, several centuries of growth spreading over the whole immense façade. It’s right out of a fairy tale.
N ext, we travel north, to the Burren. As Cromwell’s surveyor described it, “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury.” Stretch of solitude, limestone and shale, if places spoke, the Burren would stutter, or would sound—look, even—like a pocked magic slate. It’s as if the English, when they left, left their teeth—pocked, pitted, randomly eroded, molar surface ground into troughs. Every gryke is a flowerpot, a weed haven. And so the vast grey clint is trellised with bootstrap flora, adapting, learning the language of the barrenness.
On our first trip to Ireland, boyo was at the point in language development equivalent to where one-cell organisms divide and become distinct.
Substantives had been, virtually, his whole vocabulary, but on the Burren, it suddenly evolved—the dreamscape of language mirroring the landscape, the barrenness where nouns recede and relationships take over. Da-da, ma-ma—those single-cell substantive morphemes—seemed to dissolve in the porous rock of the Burren, a hundred square miles of emery board, millennial growth on the face of this pre-Celtic language god, where pure form ruptures the surface of air and sea and hasps off prepositions that boyo spat as he stumbled up-down, in-out.
Curse—just a prayer with the leavening of urgency.
He loves it. The hard earth becomes his boot, his feet sinking into one after another pit and pock. Ring around the rosie—my leg—and the first blood of course is Irish, shin barked on the mammillated karst, and when he cries, I notice that this is the stillest, most silent place in Clare. Not even the visible sea can be heard. And maybe that’s it, the absolute silence—the Burren uttering its name. Or maybe, because this is Ireland, Himself’s the dummy, kneeling on the Burren’s raw lap.
It’s a steep climb down the scarp. In the fog, senses are pared down,
as are what feed them—rock, air, water, seaweed. The fog is so thick here that a gull is invisible till nearly in my face, which I cover like the constable during the Famine—ducking boiling water, the peasants’ only defense against the telegraph pole cradled in a tripod, demolishing their cottages to where “eviction” lost its meaning, when the dogs of the karst were so weak that they leaned against a tree to bark, could not lift a leg to pee, and then there were no dogs, no trees.
W e return to Dysert, in the small town of Ardmore. Virginia Woolf decries “the rain-grey faces” of the buildings, while Molly Keane cautions, “The austere outlines repel easy understanding.” On the street, a peasant and a priest. The beautiful are nowhere to be seen. Buildings look back at you, with a story that reveals what went into them. The spirit of Irish architecture is master and serf. Invitation isn’t. Not just because of the omnipresent hedges and walls. One frinstance: the two windows on each floor of the majority of city houses revive the discomfort of talking to someone with eyes set too wide apart, so that you can’t focus on both at the same time. The Irish of Ardmore must sense something of this. The city puts a window box of roses, pansies or poppies on every ground-level window ledge. They’re building a five-star hotel just two hundred meters from Dysert, down the road that curves with the bay, praise God, and the hedges in a year will obscure the roof. The crane, though, now, is ever in your eye.
The run along the cliffs of Ardmore is spectacular. Waves crash in white below. Sea aster, hyacinth, honeysuckle, and bramble break colorfully across your retinas. If you run where it’s muddy, stopping is as problematic as when skiing in the powder on Iran’s Mount Damavand. And when lightning strikes, aside from the Dysert Tower, you’re the highest thing there is, mate.
The path is narrow enough that you need to pay attention, while attention is courted by the cliffs and the sea, glances like gulps of breath held while eyes fix on the terrain, the bramble, the bloody cranesbill. Below, the waves have carved a tooth, molar, from the cliff. Where the path turns landward ten meters from the cliff and the hedges grow high on both sides, the sound simply goes off on your movie. You see the surf crashing on the rocks and hear nothing. Eerie. You’re left in the scent of honeysuckle with the vista of the cliff walk, but hearing-wise you’re underwater. Stopping, you faintly hear the clement whip of wind. Momentarily, you’re part of a strange natural orchestra: the fractal rhythm of the wind, the whining strings of bumblebees in the brambles, and the most ancient woodwind—breath.
Your ears void their stored clutter, like a closet blown open from the cosàn’s high pressure, and admit only the waves’ pawing at the shore, the swallows’ squeal, the eel-grass brushes’ percussion. The sea falls back for its next assault with the hiss of a steam kettle. My son is reading Dragonology, bringing to mind the common icon of serpent/dragon, the many-faceted, light-scaly wave expanding into a serpent’s flanks, then the exhalation, the hiss of drawing it all back in.
Virginia inveighs, “Oh, goddamn this weather!” The curse I have never heard her use is chilling in its understatement. Curse—just a prayer with the leavening of urgency.
Does Himself fancy a tub tonight?”
“Dad, I’m fancy free.”
I should be grateful. None of the “duh” affect in his voice. He’s even mildly amused.
Our first night here, still jet-lagged, we kiss goodnight.
“Kisses are my legacy…Dad, what’s a legacy?”
“Think of Mr. Fantastic. His leg stretches through time, for years. In other words, it’s what you leave behind.”
In a way, a strange, fantastic way, the boy is right about kisses.
Himself is in love with castles, and I can recall that feeling. I still have it. Call it, if you have to, inner child. Then there’s an overlay, an adult attraction to ruin, without the indefinite article, which is another overlay. These castles, generally, are someone else’s ruin. When I hear the particulars—Edmond Power’s head severed at Dungarvan and packed off for reasons unknown to London, and his body dumped into castle landfill—I understand my Irish grandmother’s hatred of the English. She wouldn’t stoop to spit on them. The Black and Tans—all of it can get one’s dander up a century later. It’s hard to fathom the relative absence of anger presently in Ireland, at the bastards who taxed sunlight, forbade Catholics owning property and even going to school.
But in the case of castles, my dudgeon is rare. Mostly I love the anonymous ruins where blood is as imaginary as Mr. Fantastic, and the legacy is an almost maternal feeling of protection and the allure of crumble that is not yours. There is a comfort in letting everything go to hell, never straightening your room, keeping the windows wide when it’s raining.
One frinstance: the two windows on each floor of the majority of city houses revive the discomfort of talking to someone with eyes set too wide apart, so that you can’t focus on both at the same time.
There’s a Round Tower here, built in the twelfth century as refuge from Vikings and other plunderers. Much of this land has been fought over and over. Mostly by brigands. But haven’t there always been warriors who used mortal combat as a way to find themselves, brought a philosophy to their way of life? Knights of the Round Table, samurai, Vikings, et al., dealing out death, the warrior’s privy? They believed that if they survived to fight another day, they would learn something about life that can’t be learned any other way, things only the warrior knows. And after all that killing, what they learn is simply that life is more evanescent than they had thought, and that they are very hard to kill. That’s it.
From the Round Tower we travel to a museum dedicated to the Aran Islands, to which we can’t travel because the weather has not cooperated. A loudmouthed environmentalist woman is peddling outrage at the Barrier Reef. She babbles as if in love with the consonants and vowels of “Barrier Reef,” which pile up like coral and multiply in my mind, creating a barrier between the loudmouth and myself. Shortly, we’re met by Sean Sweeney, friend and an executor of the James Joyce estate. He tells us that when he was here in the fifties the young of Àrainn would journey to the mainland to have their teeth pulled. Nothing necessarily wrong with them, but everyone’s teeth in Àrainn eventually rotted. To avoid the pain, they had them prophylactically extracted.
Forgive the digression, but Sean makes me recall summers at Harvard. I had one or two, as I recall, at Cronin’s, dropping quarters into the jukebox before the waitstaff went out on strike and they closed the place down—the first Seal opened. The second, and last, was Elsie’s closing in the eighties. No more hand-cut brisket or morning-glory muffins. Were those the days—before my time? Ashes, O’Hara, Bly, Hall, Koch and Rich all quaffing at Cronin’s at the same time? Even two decades later, draughts were still a nickel in Kelly Square in Worcester, where O’Hara and Bishop grew up, no I.D. required. I remember tippling with Sean, who read from unpublished letters of Joyce, then whispering in Arabic at one end of the arc over Sever Hall’s entrance—how loud and clear it sounded on the other end. Arabic, or was it Icelandic? No matter, it all came out the same, those days—My love bigger than a Cadillac. Not fade away…
A good friend of mine traveled to these islands a decade ago. She loved them so much she convinced her friends David and Nancy to honeymoon there. I’m reminded of my father in the sixties advising Father Monahan that all couples before marriage should be locked in a motel room. If they could stand each other after seven days, they should get married. Àrainn performed a similar function: the natural beauty, the starkness, the privation, precursing.
It’s one thing that sinks you. The apple you musn’t eat. If only life were that easy, I’m thinking.
We’re eating scones, and Sean tells us about Àrainn’s most famous denizen, Saint Gregory, about whose teeth we know only that he used them sparingly, preferring to fast.
Was it the charm of destruction—slabs of jagged rock dropping like grand pianos into the sea—that drew Saint Gregory of the Golden Mouth to a scarp like Ardmore’s cliff walk? I can see him watching this same cloud with the silver lining, illuminated by the full moon on the boreen, thinking—saintly—that no piece of God’s heaven ever blows itself inside out and reveals itself, never lays down that cloak of sparkle and glitter, to a sinner-cum-schmuck like him. The story goes that Gregory chewed off a portion of his lower lip out of agony for his past sins, and God, being God, replaced it with a hunk of gold—his mouth, it seems to me, a constant reminder of God’s spite. After years of his lisped prayers, the natives of Àrainn gave in to his wishes at his death and launched his corpse in a water-tight cask into the Irish sea, only to watch him ride in on a freak wave and maroon on a tussock of mallow grass, thatch and purple loosestrife. Then they buried him in the flower-spangled sward.
The Irish Times reports that the face of God is popping up everywhere—in clouds, in a Korean hybrid carp…not to mention the apparitions of His emissaries: the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese fetched $28,000. Mother Teresa is on display now in a glass case in a Nashville coffee shop after appearing on a cinnamon bun. What a killing to be made from the video alone on YouTube—the eating of Mother Teresa, maybe Anthony Hopkins doing it.
Back in Molly Keane’s kitchen is a wonderful old stove with a crank that directs the visible gas flames to the stovetop or to the oven, as you desire. I’ve popped in a tray of cinnamon buns. With a few deft Vermeeresque tweaks, one is a dead ringer for Saint Gregory. You will see my Gregory soon on eBay, golden cocoa-puff exudate there in the burnt cinnamon lips clasped in a Mona Lisa smile, the ironic rictus that obtains after being launched into the Irish sea in a coffin and washing back, the men of Àrainn with a similar, strange smile, unsure if he was truly a saint or just another golden-lipped putz.
Sheep Farmers Advised to Dip Earlier
—Headline in the Dungarven Observer
Truth be told, it’s a prophylactic measure, in the Achilles tradition. Lyme disease is getting out of hand in Ireland, too.
After years of his lisped prayers, the natives of Àrainn gave in to his wishes at his death and launched his corpse in a water-tight cask into the Irish sea, only to watch him ride in on a freak wave and maroon on a tussock of mallow grass, thatch and purple loosestrife.
Giraldus Cambrensis, twelfth century, on the Irish:
They are frequently born.
They think the greatest pleasure is not to work.
“Dad, what’s ‘yield?’”
“What the other man does.”
You might gather that I’m reading Irish history, though I could as well be describing the mental landscape of a Persian intersection.
More History You Don’t Know
In Dingle I met a young girl from a family of what they call “travelers.” Her father used her dress to wipe the dipstick of his old truck. Her gums were rotten. She sucked her oil-coated thumbs all the time. The man cursed the truck. His wife had died. He had three daughters, and the youngest, Teresa, was not all there in her head. She had a nipple pierced with a safety pin on which she kept a house key and a ring.
The next older sister always stood behind Teresa when I spoke to her, so you couldn’t see that she was pregnant. About sixteen, she was wispy-haired, always cold and looked about thirty-five. The eldest sister looked at me with turquoise eyes. Her hair was woven into a bun so tight you couldn’t even imagine shinnying a strand. She would smile betimes with hot chocolate at the corners of her mouth, and her skirt was a dirty rag. You could easily read her mind in that smile: I’m a stranger to big houses and shampoo, but not to love. I remember her passing on her bicycle, cheeks sprawled over the seat and turning to smile at being able to smile after pedaling so hard up the hill from the bay.
Four middle-aged men having breakfast in Ardmore at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, all with the look of one-two-many Guinnesses over a multitude of years. The conversation is a four-way engagement, frequent talking over one another—at one point it’s four at once, none of the gaps that a similar US male conversation would exhibit. The word output per minute doubles ours. It’s constant. There’s none of the American conversational overlay, the constant metacognitive awareness of one’s relation to, which is distance (often humorous) from, the group conversation itself. A cultural divide: the cracker barrel vs. the butter keeler. At bottom it’s you-and-your-maker vs. you-and-your-neighbor.
I leave the restaurant with four kids, one mine, headed down to the Ardmore playground. I notice on a steep hill a crosscut of fuchsia and discover a nearly hidden overgrown stairway that cuts across two switchbacks.
“Dad, that’s so good.”
“’Tis not for nothin’ I’ve gotten this old.”
AAs I age, I notice more often the truly old, how they seem to inhabit their vulnerability. Their spatial awareness is imbued with it. And maybe this is where the rubber meets the existential Road—the authenticity of their vulnerability runs squarely into the fundamental notion of freedom. Is there an inherent contradiction in the philosophy?
Perhaps it is only logical that Kerouac’s Road would take me abroad, to Ireland and the lanes beyond, that those shared existential horizons of the sixties would lead to something between Being and Nothingness. Right now my son is carrying shoes that reach nearly to his armpits. They are heavy, so he stops, squats Arab-style and rests the anvils. Eventually he will try to fit both of his feet in one and to stand, as if Sartre were right about the primordiality of a hole; can I sum it up? Being goes into nothingness like a heel into a shoe.
She babbles as if in love with the consonants and vowels of “Barrier Reef,” which pile up like coral and multiply in my mind, creating a barrier between the loudmouth and myself.
Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul—my boy Lollipop—wherever you are, my son has something to say to you as you swap stories of the occupation—you of France, he of the shoe. L’Être et le Néant, birth and death, from one hole to another the only difference, or consequence—the dazzle, the noise and the freedom to put your feet where they want.
What I have reported here, in the end, with my two good eyes, though less cogent than what Sartre did with one good and one fish-like, stands, while much of his work he later renounced. If in the end you have little to say, you have nothing to recant. And what, after all, is God if not a supreme editor?
Kevin King is the author of the novel All the Stars Came Out That Night, Dutton. His first poetry book, Ursprache, will be published in the spring of 2022. He is the recipient of a poetry fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and has published in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Stand, Threepenny Review and more. His CNF pieces, Back from Abroad and Alquezar, were published in the Potomac Review and Word Riot, respectively. He has poems in recent issues of The Minnesota Review, Cider Press Review, Spillway, Arc and Chiron Review. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Sean Kuriyan