I Met Emily Dickinson
I met Emily Dickinson down on Grafton Street.
On a Saturday afternoon, there was hardly room
to sneeze. When I first saw her, I was fascinated
by her hair, tied back in a bun. I just stood
and stared. She was picking poems from
a Jacob’s biscuit tin, then reading them aloud.
Nobody even listened. Her voice was thin and
didn’t carry, so I got up close, felt like a groupie.
People were too busy, didn’t pass any notice.
Not much to see really in a down-and-out poet.
She couldn’t have cared less. But things changed
when she strapped on her guitar. She hit F sharp minor
and let rip. Bring me the sunset in a cup.
You could feel the energy picking up.
These are the days stopped them in their tracks.
It was good to have Emily Dickinson back.
When she finished, she walked straight over to me
and before I knew it, I was inviting her to Bewley’s
for a cup of tea. She looked at me as if to say,
but agreed to come along anyway. She gathered up
the biscuit tin and her guitar, then turned
and asked me: Do you have a car?
It was that wry smile that did it for me and
as we walked up Grafton Street, there was
no more talk of Bewley’s. I’d say she was about 35
at the time, game for anything, in her prime.
It’s an experience I know I’ll never forget,
the day me and Emily met.
Hard men we come from,
grafted from hard stock.
Men put out to fend for themselves
with not much to go on.
Driven by hard faith
they carved out, marked
Not much come and go in them;
not much give and take at all.
That’s what we came up against.
All the softening-up did us
more harm than good.
The far side of Glenshane
was another world. Since
there was no car for us
to just hop into.
The Derry bus dropped us in Magherafelt,
or near enough, where our cousins’ territory
opened up. Back lanes with hay-sheds,
a parlour room left untouched,
an old aunt we’d never heard of,
a lane gate to O’Kane’s pub-shop.
My uncle had the fingers of a mannequin.
When he played piano in our house,
his car tucked neatly against the kerb outside,
the scent of holy water
dripped from them.
He touched us
with the lightness of his grace,
his aura of exotic places.
The biscuits and the queen cakes on the plate,
the china cup in hand, he sipped his tea
and put his case. My father listened,
drawing on a filter cigarette.
If snow fell
my uncle would not venture on the Pass,
took off early at the very hint of it.
‘Sweet Heart of Jesus, we
commend our souls to You.’
The prayers rushed in panic
from my father’s lips
as our headlights catapulted
against the darkness.
‘Forgive us our sins.’
Mocking contrition the car
spun in circles,
shook old faiths to their limits.
No gods about me,
no prayer handy, I waited
for the crash, the onslaught
of a new dimension.
We reeled to a standstill, poised
miraculously above the drop.
No crash-barrier. Not an inch
for doubt. My fingers sweating
on the steering wheel.
Off in the distance
Belfast Airport crouched.
Below in the ravine
I heard death chuckle.
A few times my father and I
drove back over, for him to stand
under the shield of that lone tree,
mouthing some loss song
to the silence of his brother’s grave.
The wind in our ears not answering,
giving us nothing to go on.
John Walsh was born in Derry. After living in Germany for sixteen years, he now lives in Connemara. He has published three collections: Johnny Tell Them (Guildhall Press, 2006), Love’s Enterprise Zone (Doire Press, 2007) and Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He is organizer and MC of North Beach Poetry Nights, one of Ireland’s leading performance poetry events. “The Pass” appears in Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot, published by Salmon Poetry, 2010.
Fionán O’Connell. Born 1961. Trained as a Primary School teacher. Self-taught in photography. Married to Paula with two children Oisín & Laoise and living in Dublin, Fionán has been making a living from his work for twelve years. He has directed several television documentaries: Silverfish Productions’ The Goat in The Temple, MOS Productions’ Good Man Mary, Windmill Lane Pictures’ A Quiet Revolution and In Search of Europe.