The Dingle Peninsula

View of Dingle Bay from an Bóthar Fada (the long road)
View of Dingle Bay from an Bóthar Fada (the long road)

It’s just over two weeks past Saint Patrick’s Day—traditionally, the beginning of the tourist season in Ireland—and on the Dingle Peninsula, the beautiful west coast West Kerry hinterland where I lived from 2006 to the beginning of 2009, that doesn’t mean that they see huge influxes of tourists right away. It means (in this area that has one traffic light in 50 linear miles – though, in a place where roads are so intuitive, answering to local needs that were laid down several hundred years ago, linear is not really the right word), it means that the shutters open on the businesses that close for the winter. People come down for the Paddy’s Day weekend, and that’s the first concentrated business they see since New Year’s Eve. With daylight saving, the peninsula has come out of the darkness and into the spring (even though, in the Irish tradition, Saint Brigid’s Day on the 1st February is the start of it). It means that they start to see a trickle. It builds slowly through April and May, until the childrens’ school holidays opens the floodgates. The high water mark is the August Bank Holiday weekend, the last weekend before they go back to school.

View from Mount Brandon
View from Mount Brandon

I remember my first summer on the peninsula. I was driving through Ventry village at 1 in the afternoon on Monday 4th September, and it was as if it had lurched from fifth gear to first in a day. It was a rhythm that was difficult to get used to, but it has its benefits. A friend of mine, Justin, told me about walking down Dykegate Lane, off Green Street, near the library, on a beautiful early September day. He didn’t need to say anymore: I knew the kind of day—the sun is out, the sky blue, maybe a few clouds that don’t interfere; the temperature probably around 15 celsius, not balmy, but not brisk, a breeze, the sun, the smell of the sea, that gold early autumn light that makes Ireland seem both ancient and fresh. An old man passed him, “how are you? Lovely day.” “Lovely day indeed. And it’s all ours.” It was a day like that another year, another September, as I drove past Ventry beach, and listened to the radio’s urgency about traffic jams elsewhere, and I chuckled to myself. I seemed so far from that, and I was. It wasn’t that I was hiding, I was recouping, in the roads that pass through reed beds, green cliffs and green mountains beside the sea.

Ventry Beach
Ventry Beach
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Gardening the Page

Close up of fields on one of the Three Sisters, Ballyferriter, West Kerry, IrelandThe further one is digested into a place, the less one can articulate it. Or, articulate it as a newcomer. Everything becomes more “complex”, as an American would say. Let’s avoid that stress on the last syllable for now, and just say “compli-fucking-cated, like, lad.” That, at least, is my way of explaining my silence on the blogo-plane. I suppose if blogs are froth, then at least the substance of the pint of Brooklyn Lager was being gulleted in the drafting of poems – which is, after all, what I’m here to do, and am doing.

I feel like a gardener whose garden of courgettes, rocket, spring onions, cabbage – no tomatoes, this being an Irish, north-facing garden, whose garden of poems is growly so rapidly, it’s all I can do to clip, weed, pluck the ripest ones, leave them on windowsills facing Blasket Sound – that’s where I am, imaginatively, in the Irish summer, where I was where I first grew vegetables in Antje, my landlady’s, garden, who had great wheel barrows of horse and cow shit, donated by a neighbour, and she gave me two or three rows, where I grew the above-mentioned, with a view of, not Blasket Sound, but the Three Sisters – geographic beauties – Smerwick Harbour, and Béal Bán beach, our garden being on the side of a very congenial and maternal mountainside.

Now, the garden is my notebooks, and very fecund and crazy they are. They get great spraying of weeds that multiply across state lines of pages, intermingling with potential poem seedlings, and the seedlings themselves are weedlike. Hard to tell them apart, until you sit down, meditatively, with your spade, looking down towards Smerwick, on a calm late April day, looking down in sunlight, with the sweat chilling on your back and the sun warming it, and distant waves breaking on Baile Dhaith and where Tara lived, where you had good meals and good wine and good laughs with her, and where Iarfhlaith’s self-sufficiency project is still growing strong, you stand in a break and your body feels good, good and worked upon, good calluses, the spring onions you’ve pulled are going to go great with that rocket, and the only things not from your garden are the eggs, and they’re free range from Riasc, down the road from Bhric’s pub.

Anyway, on my best days I do my equivalent of this, and listen to sirens coming off Eastern Parkway, and think deep, think earthworm and soil, and the reworking of soil, and feel, rather than think, about what’s to grow. And slowly, a poem comes out of the seedling. What’s weed will pursue its own course. What’s a seedling you’re going to cherish and work on, work with, well, that’ll take its own course, too. Sounds ruthless, and maybe it is. When there’s so many projects and so little time, you must remember we’re just talking about poetry, and a small bedroom that is not on the side of a mountain in West Kerry. And that’s a pity too, sometimes. But, the poem’s the sunlight, and the inheritance of the sunlight, and that’s the important thing.

“The US Marines’ Officers’ Program”

(University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, September 2009)

The US Marines’ Officers’ Program is trawling for candidates in the campus lobby. Two of them have perfectly-shaved heads, wear the same black t-shirts, combats and boots. One is half the size of the other, almost like a comedy duo. A third wears full desert camouflage and desert boots, has a buzz-cut top and shaved back-and-sides, almost Mohican-like. They have installed a bar for pull-ups. So far, it’s only been women who’ve taken up the challenge. While tattooed slackers sneer into their laptops, a young, tanned blonde woman in shorts and flip flops hangs from the bar, doing pull ups. The Marines stand by with their arms at a muscle-bound distance from their sides, saying, in the porno-speak of exercise: “Nice! Yeah! Work it!”

Just as the American girl does indeed work it, works it good, a young Somali woman passes, wearing a black hijab and a kind of shirt overcoat. The all-encompassing / covering shirt has desert tones, ochres with shades of black in it, like arbitrary borders, or the black stitching of jagged, bad wounds.

Ten minutes after the blonde girl has gone, as a way of keeping busy and to avoid having to stand around like the member of some recruiting sect, the big, six foot six marine begins doing gung ho-esque pull ups, his size 14 boots lunging madly into space. His shirt says, Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body, and his eyes have the look of non-secular certainty.

Every time I pass through Kansas City airport, I see young, white soldiers who are neither officers, nor elite, nor Marines. Once their bags are checked, they sit in desert uniform, looking into space. Among the business men on their laptops, the women talking on their smart phones, the civilians compulsively checking their Blackberries for the last time before boarding, neither ignored nor fully acknowledged, the soldiers occupy a different space. Once, I saw the youngest US soldier I have ever seen: white, small, thin, acned, saying goodbye to a young woman with a baby, who was either girlfriend or young bride. They couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He seemed both proud and embarrassed of his uniform – and of himself, his family – why he has to wear it.

PEN’s Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists

Last night, I covered the PEN organisation‘s “Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists” for Electric Literature’s Blog. The evening was held at The Great Hall at Cooper Union, and writers like Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Laura Esquivel were present. It was a sombre occasion, a great deal of urgency underlying every aspect of the event. There was a large Latin American and Spanish presence in the big crowd, as you would expect, and I bumped into a gang from NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish. As one of them said, “we’re primos hermanos (first cousins), but there isn’t much linking up between the two groups, we need to get together more.” Before the event, I knew almost nothing more than rumour about what Mexican journalists, and the population at large, are facing. Click on the Electric Literature link at the top of this post, read up on it, and if you have a bit of time, look into what the Committee to Protect Journalists, and PEN, have to say about what is happening in places like Juarez, to journalists and the general population. It’s awful, but awareness, at the very least, needs to be spread.

An Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists

The Continent the Shape of an Ailing Heart *

There are red leaves on the grass in Washington Square Park now. Squirrels run across the path, and climb the trees. Asian women – from the Philippines, I suspect – walk children that aren’t their own, in buggies; some kids are wheeled by their own parents. I don’t know if it was last night that I first smelled something like wood smoke in the air, and maybe it was only a wood-fired pizza oven, but it brought me back to Segovia, in 2001, when I went up to that retreat with Abel and Carmen (just some of the many people I’ve lost touch with) in a Carmelite Monastery in the mountains in the outskirts of town, sunlight flickering through the yellow sycamores along the river in the Castilian autumn, and I had the irrational urge to disappear into that sunlight, or that autumn, and stay there forever. (If to disappear means to live a “provincial” life).

Sometimes you have to leave the city, if only in your mind. I haven’t left the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in six weeks (“will I ever?” It’s already sucked me in). But I find my mind turning south across the latitudes, as I receive blog posts from Carsten, the New Zealander biker – ex air-force, who did a tour of duty in “the ‘ghan” as a liaison officer, and left it to travel, and potentially go into further studies in psychology – who I met in a hostel in Salta in the north-western Argentinian autumn (spring, in the northern hemisphere) as red leaves were falling, with a faint smell of wood smoke from all the Sunday afternoon barbecues…

I’ve been following his progress through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, up as far as Colombia, through Venezuela, the Guianas – described by one of their tourist boards as “Conradian”. Sounds amazing, and tropically dodgy. That was the time I’d come to the end of that particular road, dead-ending up against the Bolivian border at 15,000 feet, where cocoa leaves are chewed with bicarbonate of soda, bulging in men’s cheeks, and there are singing clubs where they sing ultra-romantic and macho lyrics like: “amor, I spread my poncho on your bed while you’re sleeping so that you’ll remember me.” Salta is a proud region where people have smooth, strong raven-black hair, and beautiful Andean features, twinned with Argentinian confidence. (Salta and Jujuy contribute disproportionately to the national police force, too, for whatever reason. Brings back “the king’s shilling”…)

Oh, I could have continued, but would have needed another kind of provisioning – to have rested, or been outwardly stronger, ready for more privations and altitude. Bolivia, with its salt flats, ochre and pink mountain colours was hard to resist, but I had to go home a month early to prepare for New York: there was a visa to get, an interview in the embassy fortress; there were family and friends to spend time with. It was the right decision. So, I stayed put in the hostel near the park by the bus station, and didn’t do much: slept a lot, walked a lot and read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, ate well with my new friend, the wonderful Lola from Paris, who works between Buenos Aires and France producing films and fashion shoots. We went out for local beef and too much local red every night, then she left for BA again. I followed a week later, on one of those twenty-hour bus journeys that grant you the space and the time to think, and to settle again. The space of Argentina can itself feel like an inner territory. 

After another week in Buenos Aires with Lola and other friends, I was on my own way home, too. Our mutual Uruguayan friend, Martín, from Montevideo, in scarf, corduroy blazer, runners, shaved head and huge sunglasses, smoking an inevitable Marlboro red, saw me to my taxi while a waiter in a white jacket crossed traffic carrying a tray of café con leche to a favoured customer in a Hairdressers across the street. Martín kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me: “adios, Nene.” (“See you, kid.”) We’d known each other a week, and were already friends.

By the end, after three months, after conversations in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay with taxi drivers, artists, poets, journalists, house wives, back packers, bar men, prostitutes, beggars, old lefties who’d been exiled to Spain, Brazil, France, during the bad ’70s and ’80s, conversations with indigenous people on rickety buses, friends of friends who then became my friends, I felt I had a home at the end of the world. And, now, South America looms large: real, but still romantic in its gutsy reality. And, two seasons later, Carsten is still circling the continent on his motor bike: through Lima, Bogotá and, more dangerously, now, the lunacy of Caracas. I think of him when I’m in the crush of days that don’t always give much time for lateral thought, and of Lola, now on her way back to Buenos Aires. New York, they say, doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia. I don’t think that’s always true.

God speed, man. The mattress in the spare room (spare room in New York? Amazing, but true) is ready for you, when you’re passing through on your way to the next leg of your journey.

(* Title: quotation from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.)