The Tank Gallery
A few years ago when I was researching my play Dolly West’s Kitchen I was suddenly struck by one fact that shocked the living daylights out of me. This was that I was born eight years after World War Two ended. As a boy, that terrible conflict seemed as far away as the Roman Empire. Now I know it was my immediate inheritance. Everything about my life was shaped by it. And I remember one of the impulses that provoked me into writing about a family in Buncrana and how it coped and changed through the years 1942 to 1945. I was in Washington visiting the Holocaust Museum there. At the data base you could type in any word and the search would begin to see how that subject had been affected by the worst crime against humanity ever committed. I entered ‘Ireland’. The answer came back. The screen said ‘nothing’. I hope my play was my attempt to say something. Sam Burnside in these strange, haunted poems, and in the accompanying images, tries to do the same. The poems evoke a place, to love and leave. And running through them I hear the wisdom singing of Emily Dickinson. What did she know?
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
I face the water,
stiff with fear.
The heavy ship rides
from wave to decaying wave,
hurdling chasms of foam:
amid their vast dark emptiness
I evoke your face. My body
is an aching void.
I looked into the mirror this morning:
another face overlay mine, deep-trenched.
I remembered the day I sailed from home:
that flat, patch-worked water, knife-cut, laid out.
She would send me to the yard
to shake out the tablecloth;
the hens were like mad things,
claws, beaks, wings.
I shut my eyes; till they hurt.
I did not move, at all.
He had a trick he liked to do with poteen.
He’d have me hold the teaspoon – ‘steady, steady, steady’.
A little lake of purity, he would say,
touching a match to it, blue flames in his eyes.
The doorstep was a flat stone:
standing on it, barefooted, in first light,
I can smell rain on the wind, he would say.
I could smell frost on the grass.
Last night, the ocean boiled and boiled ¬
and we, snug under the thatch.
Today, the grass is white: I cannot say
how many apple blossoms have fallen.
I set foot on American soil in the month of August.
I remember the sunlight; I remember the shadow.
I remember seaweed, there on the strand ¬
ink, creeping on blotting paper.
Every way he turned,
the dog would be there, waiting.
For years, he was before and behind me:
he took up all the space in the world.
The rocks, the whins on hill-sides, all
left behind: granite-grey bedded
yellow flecking: I close my eyes.
I smell the smell of freshly chopped coconut.
i The lakes are steaming: vapour; sodden-wood smoke.
My grandfather’s friend had a forge.
I was five. Man and brute beast.
Hammer and nail. Fire and water.
After summer rain, oak trees and chestnut trees are panting.
Above me, hippopotamus and elephant slouch along, heavy with water;
they travel in slow motion. Their texture is that of wind-scattered ashes.
I am six. The sun burns my bare knees.
As a baby, I was a lovely thing,
one of two: my other died.
A man came over the fields.
My skin’s memory holds the touch of his fingers.
I build skyscrapers
from stone, steel and glass.
I eye clouds, as equals
I look down on birds.
I have sharpened a scythe,
with whetstone and spit:
I have cut dew-wet corn:
its taste is in my mouth.
There was a girl:
her hair carried the colours
of last year’s honey.
Her breath, the scent
of sun-warmed honey.
On my arm she was light
as thistle down;
within my arms her waist
was present, and not present.
Eternally tired, I never learned
each night the damp, cold bed
made my jaws clench,
knees and chin meeting.
My neighbour dresses a fine scarecrow.
He does not care to share his seeds.
It is March, now:
I foster a passion of greed for such a long black coat.
Life is dawn till dusk, Monday till Saturday,
Sundays wedged between.
On Saturdays the bread-man comes
My stream is all rush and noise.
A full moon is rising.
The turf-cutter has gone home.
The turf bank glints, cold and yellow.
I can count magpies, unthinkingly,
and reckon the days measured by my dandelion clock.
I can tell tomorrow’s weather from looking at the evening sky.
I can read stories by looking into your face.
I have achieved another decade measured in heart-beats.
I inhabit rooms in a house: its name is Passion;
its wooden bricks are justice, right, truth;
my gift has arrived: it is sandpaper.
The bed seemed almost empty
yet I well knew you were there:
the room was all in white
light sprang from the white walls
and from the floor, strikingly,
except where the window bars
lay, slanting, like prison-cell shadows
seen in some old motion picture.
The back of your hand encountered mine
and all the cold and silence
buried in all the world’s glaciers
and in all the world’s icebergs
and in all the ice and snow
in the universe
resided in that touch.
I found these things, lying there, passively, in the dark corners of my memory: a length of rope and an old board that acted as a seat; a black boot lace and the tongue of an old boot; two strips of rubber marked out and cut out from an inner tube; another boot tongue; a plank and an old oil barrel; two long poles and a square of wood, (that I had cut diagonally) and four nails; the chassis of a pram, a sheet of wood, wire and nails and a big bolt as a steering pin; two planks and a piece of wood and two strips of rusted metal (as runners and butter to make them good at their job) and a piece of rope to pull and steer. The pump from a bicycle; a bucket of water. A piece of wire and a wooden stump. Brown paper, string, bits of cloth; a turnip, a knife and a candle; a willow wand and a potato; a rush. A red haw and a thorn. Words.
I have been as maker of these things:
a see saw,
a water gun,
a Halloween mask,
red eyes, aglow,
a fairy pipe,