Paula Meehan was born in Dublin. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin and Eastern Washington University. She has written plays and collaborated extensively with visual artists, film-makers and community groups. She has received many awards for her work, including Arts Council Bursaries, the Butler Award for Poetry of the Irish American Cultural Institute, the Marten Toonder Award for Literature and the Denis Devlin Memorial Award from the Irish Arts Council.
My Father Perceived as a Vision of StFrancis
for Brendan Kennelly
It was the piebald horse in next door’s garden
frightened me out of a dream
with her dawn whinny. I was back
in the boxroom of the house,
my brother’s room now,
full of ties and sweaters and secrets.
Bottles chinked on the doorstep,
the first bus pulled up to the stop.
The rest of the house slept
except for my father. I heard
him rake the ash from the grate,
plug in the kettle, hum a snatch of a tune.
Then he unlocked the back door
and stepped out into the garden.
Autumn was nearly done, the first frost
whitened the slates of the estate.
He was older than I had reckoned,
his hair completely silver,
and for the first time I saw the stoop
of his shoulder, saw that
his leg was stiff. What’s he at?
So early and still stars in the west?
They came then: birds
of every size, shape, colour; they came
from the hedges and shrubs,
from eaves and garden sheds,
from the industrial estate, outlying fields,
from Dubber Cross they came
and the ditches of the North Road.
The garden was a pandemonium
when my father threw up his hands
and tossed the crumbs to the air. The sun
cleared O’Reilly’s chimney
and he was suddenly radiant,
a perfect vision of St Francis,
made whole, made young again,
in a Finglas garden.
A young man falls in love with Truth and searches the wide world for her. He finds her in a small house, in a clearing, in a forest. She is old and stopped. He swears himself to her service – to chop wood, to carry water, to collect the root, the stem, the leaf, the flowering top, the seed of each plant she needs for her work.
Years go by. One day the young man wakes up longing for a child. He goes to the old woman and asks to be released from his oath so that he may return to the world. Certainly, she says, but on one condition: you must tell them I am young and that I am beautiful.
Little has come down to me of hers,
a sewing machine, a wedding band,
a clutch of photos, the sting of her hand
across my face in one of our wars
when we had grown bitter and apart.
Some say that’s the fate of the eldest daughter.
I wish now she’d lasted till after
I’d grown up. We might have made a new start
as women without tags like “mother, wife,
sister, daughter,” taken our chance from there.
At forty-two she headed for god knows where.
I’ve never gone back to visit her grave.
First she’d scrub the floor with Sunlight soap,
an armreach at a time. When her knees grew sore
she’d break for a cup of tea, then start again
at the door with lavender polish. The smell
would percolate back through the flat to us,
her brood banished to the bedroom.
As she buffed the wax to a high shine
did she catch her own face coming clear?
Did her mirror tell what mine tells me?
I have her shrug and go in
knowing history has brought her to her knees.
She’d call us in and let us skate around
in our socks. We’d grow solemn as plants
in an intricate orbit about her.
She bending over crimson cloth,
the younger kids are long in bed.
Late summer, cold enough for a fire,
she works by fading light
to remake an old dress for me.
It’s first day back at school tomorrow.
“Pure lambswool – Plenty of wear in it yet.
You know I wore this when I went out with your Da.
I was supposed to be down in a friend’s house,
your Granda caught us at the corner.
He dragged me in by the hair – it was long as yours then –
in front of the whole street.
He called your Da every name under the sun,
cornerboy, lout; I needn’t tell you
what he called me. He shoved my whole head
under the kitchen tap, took a scrubbing brush
and carbolic soap and in ice-cold water he scrubbed
every spick of lipstick and mascara off my face.
Christ but he was a right tyrant, your Granda.
It’ll be over my dead body anyone harms a hair of your head.”
She must have stayed up half the night
to finish the dress. I found it airing at the fire,
three new copybooks on the table and a bright
bronze nib, St. Christopher strung on a silver wire,
as if I were embarking on a perilous journey
to uncharted realmss. I wore that dress
with little grace. To me it spelt poverty,
the stigma of the second hand. I grew enough to pass
it on by Christmas to the next in line. I was sizing
up the world beyond our flat patch by patch
daily after school, and fitting each surprising
city street to city square to diamond. I’d watch
the Liffey for hours pulsing to the sea
and the coming and going of ships,
certain that one day it would carry me
to Zanzibar, Bombay, the Land of the Ethiops.
There’s a photo of her taken in the Phoenix Park
alone on a bench surrounded by roses
as if she had been born to formal gardens.
She stares out as if unaware
that any human hand held the camera, wrapped
entirely in her own shadow, the world beyond her
already a dream, already lost. She’s
eight months pregnant. Her last child.
Her steel needles sparked and clacked,
the only other sound a settling coal
or her sporadic mutter
at a hard place in the pattern.
She favored sensible shades:
Moss Green, Mustard, Beige.
I dreamt a robe of a color
so pure it became a word.
Sometimes I’d have to kneel
an hour before her by the fire,
a skein around my outstretched hands,
while she rolled wool into balls.
If I swam like a kite too high
amongst the shadows on the ceiling
or flew like a fish in the pools
of pulsing light, she’d reel me firmly
home, she’d land me at her knees. Tongues of flame in her dark eye
she’d say, “One of these days I must
teach you to follow a pattern.”