Needles

Needles.
For Margaret Anderson.

Whatever you are,
wherever you are,
you are not your name.
Your name is just a sound
your parents tied to you,
no more you than your shadow,
your echo, your memories.

Heroic by any measure,
a casual heroism,
the only real kind,
she hauled up nine children
from a maelstrom, a mire,
her husband back
from someone else’s war,
branded by it,
forever toppling into the river drunk
the day that Kennedy was shot,
a bull of a man, champion swimmer,
swept under by the currents
of the fastest flowing river in Europe,
damned by the drink and a well-wisher
who threw a life-ring
that struck him on the head.
Thrown from this world
like a Buster Keaton stunt gone wrong.

No-one is around
who can fully explain her nickname,
Needles.
Acultomancy; the gypsy tradition
of telling the future through scattered needles?
A thistle-sharpness of character,
a keen eye for crocheting
or administering opiate?
It’s a tree falling in an empty forest.
What happens when
there’s no-one left
to tell your stories?
To say you ever existed
to begin with?

She beat cancer
in times when
it was vaguely miraculous,
when it could have you sent
for trial by ordeal
for witchcraft.
She raised nine children,
squatting in an abandoned
US naval base,
Springtown Camp,
rusting tin Nissen huts, no heating,
three hundred fenian families
trying to outwit the State
and the murderous return of winter.
My father claimed as a baby
he’d slept in a chest of drawers,
‘Best years of my life,’ he said.

Hair black as pitch,
black as the Egyptian night,
skin gypsy dark,
not of this island,
fingers like the reaches
of trees starved by december.

Sifting fact and fiction
from memory, from the memories of the dead,
like sifting elements from the air
or the composition of long-dead stars
from wavelengths of light.

In my marble of a child’s mind
I imagined her skin like wood
smoothing, the lines retreating until
she’s young again,
a dark beauty
flying the trapeze, juggling swords,
diving into teacups.
‘Take care of him. Don’t let him be
an only child like I was.
Life’s hard enough.’
she said to my mother and me,
the last to see her alive (?).
And her tales of card and confidence tricks,
tarot and the shell game, thimblerig
two thousand year old magic,
older than the Church,
and being hired out
from the age of ten
to dead-eyed farmers of the Roe
and the Lagan at travelling fairs
and we two dozen grandchildren
thinking everything would always
stay the same,
ran around her
dismantling the house
to its bones,
she sat in a room facing east,
a witch on the mount of roses,
on the stone plain above the city.

Ikons on her Osbourne St wall
not of the Pope or Padre Pio or JFK,
not of the Queen or King Billy
but of Derry’s own revolutionaries
young smiling boys with beards
and George Best haircuts
that in another world
would be in bands
or chasing girls
or would simply still be alive.
A hand-carved wooden harp
on the window-sill,
the Proclamation of the Republic
fading in the sun.

‘Seamus is dead’ the Brits told her,
raiding the house again,
splintering the doors and cupboards,
thieving the money in her mattress
she was convinced,
the thuds of their boots
on floorboards and stairs
as she tried to keep up
from room to room.
‘Seamus is dead.
He’s hung himself in the Maze.’
The accent changed, sometimes
Brummie, Geordie, Glaswegian,
young enough to be her sons,
boys like her own inside,
boys a million miles from her own
and she’d panic, nerves ravaged,
rosary beads in hand
“Jesus, Mary and Saint Joseph”
and they’d piss themselves laughing.

We were among the last to see her
but I do not remember it,
I paid no attention,
no sense of significance,
lost in the heady dream of childhood,
that nothing will change
that everything will remain
and there will always be time.
She’d visit the docks every week,
weep by the Foyle
like Lorelei, Anna Livia,
for her drowned man
and the ways of the world.

Death by misadventure the coroner typed,
out of rare kindness
or to get home early,
an accident then,
she was small and frail enough
for a sudden judas-wind to shift,
for a stumble, loss of footing
on the quay’s edge,
unseen and unheard.

I think of her still in my head,
her hair black as night.
How is that?
That she is there,
clear as day,
that she is there
and she is walking
that she is walking somehow,
somehow back from the river.

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