Friday, August 21, 2020

Painting Rain

Speaking of bookmarks, as I was yesterday, the one in Painting Rain, by Paula Meehan (Carcanet, 2009) is a fuchsia-colored Hodges Figgus Loyalty Card, from a Dublin bookshop, with its first number stamped (out of ten). My mother brought it back to me from a trip to Ireland. She had asked the proprietor for a good book by a contemporary Irish poet for her daughter and accepted the Loyalty Card, though this would be her only likely visit. I've been reading this one for years, in my usual, much slower poetry-reading method, except for the Sealey Challenge, which asks of us a poetry book a day in August, so I resumed at the bookmark and backed up to re-read, er, backwardsly.

While I was reading, in the shade, in the lovely breeze, a little neighbor girl came into her back yard, singing wild syllables (perhaps through a toy microphone?) while swinging in her hammock. In the poem "Cora, Auntie," one of several tender elegies, the speaker is remembering her aunt, at twenty, having red sequins sewn into the hem of her white dress as she stood on the kitchen table: "I orbit the table I can barely see over. / I am under it singing." This is the first coincidence, singing, happening in the moment of reading. The second is red sequins, saved in a little tin box. I have to tell you I found red sequins in a margarine tub going through the kids' toys and craft supplies a few days ago. To quote Meehan, "which I open now in memory--/ the coinage, the sudden glamour...."

In the elegy, "In Memory, Joanne Breen" a memory comes from the colors of yarn:

     I am fingering a length of yarn
     from the mill at Stornoway.
     It is green as a summer meadow
     though when I untwine it widdershins
     I see, spun into the yarn, fibres of blue
     & yellow & purple, occasionally orange.

     I am undoing the magic of the spindle,
     Unravelling.

The poem "Shoes," also a death poem, connects to yesterday's "Widow in Red Shoes," by Tess Gallagher, but here it is the earth that is red. It's winter, but

     I put on your summer shoes.
     They smelt of the red red earth

     Where lemons grow, where olives grow.

All kinds of life enters these poems, even the elegies--family life, community life. Some are commissions for public events. "Quitting the Bars" suggests some trouble with addiction, as does the strangely delightful "Note from the Puzzle Factory," about maxing out a credit card to buy cell phones for all her friends "so they could keep in touch / day or night. With me." 

     Nobody rang. Nobody rang.
     Imagine. Not a soul. Not a sinner.
     I sat in my room thinking on this.
     Then I up and signed myself in.

And the students in her Coleridge class at the Recovery through Art, Drama, and Education Project are deeply interested not so much in his Kubla Khan poem, as in Coleridge's own health complaint, constipation, as they recognize it from their own opiate addiction.

Many beauties, delights, and surprises in this book. I remember "conkers" from my year in England, a toy made from two chestnuts, for whirling and conking together, but in "Common Sense," all the young chestnut trees are dying, as kids have stripped away their bark while collecting their conkers. "We don't deserve this earth I sometimes think / and yet the children acted from ignorance." They had not yet acquired common sense. This poem begins with

    A murmuration of starlings in a rowan tree
    mid-August berry feast
    and berries raining down upon my head.

Here in America, the rowan tree is called the Mountain Ash. Mid-August now, school begun in its halting way, but the poem reminded me of grade school, a girl who died over the summer, and how we planted a Mountain Ash on the school lawn for her. And as I worry about family and friends in the midst of the California wildfires, I encounter "the scouring power of fire / in this the fire season..."

So I'll turn back to brave "Cora, Auntie,"

     always a girl in her glance
     teasing Death--humour a lance

     she tilted at Death.

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