Matthew Ryan Shelton
Fadhb na Fírinne
(Knot of Truth)
“Medium of multiple representation, of the circle and its metamorphosis in the circle, or of the circle and its metamorphosis after the circle, the center – knot of truth – always elsewhere.” – Edmond Jabès, The Book of Margins
The Second Kind of Memory
once on my way back from Boston on a Sunday morning I watched the passing landscape
over a bridge the vision of apartment blocks in regimented clusters gathered at the river-bend where skinny spires of white church steeples loiter wedged among geometric glass and steel fronts scrag and straggling trees tucked in a stand of yellow smoke-stacks leaning in the light
on the margins what can only be described as a refrain of industry concrete and steel staves buckled into shapes of disrepair re-angled and resettled like awkward adolescent hips and limbs
and later a shack of corrugated tin written over until now it is no longer anything but words heaped up upon themselves
two towers strung together with transmission lines casting shadows over the Connecticut hills the same as when you face the sun and close your eyes and pass your fingers back and forth across what otherwise would be your line of vision
I remember Belfast where in the Holyland stand tall wooden poles each one a tangled locus of wires fanning from each center like Jay DeFeo’s rose amassed metallic multi-layered cut away a silver-heavy star-sheared square of skin brought out by crane through half-demolished walls like a fallen star or a synapse caught in freeze-frame firing out across the gap between
my memory and it whatever it is after all a salvaged chassis maybe left to weather in the yard where each day as I pass on my way back I stop to look twice.
Landscapes II Bun Beag, Co. Donegal, 2016 Forgetting comes as easy as rain, off the coast, lifting en masse and over the scattered shade of islands. Fuchsia crowds along the footpath margins, coming down from walls and the lanes lined with shop-stalls. Deora Dé, they call it. God’s tears. Fásann deora Dé sa cheantar seo go raidhsiúil. Or, just fiúise. Fuchsia grows like gang-busters in this place, a bush transplanted in the nineteenth century from elsewhere. Was it Chile, did he say? The man across the table from me, there out front, at Hiudaí Beag’s. We were discussing politics that have since taken a more sinister turn. Our talk took a similar turn, of course, as such talk does. God’s tears! he cried. Should be God’s teats! The way they hang down like that. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
A Woman from the Ukraine Her name was Natasha. I knew her however many years ago it was I was twenty-five in Belfast working behind the bar in her husband's restaurant Saturdays and Sunday nights. I say her husband’s, but he just owned the place. She ran the day to day. She kept the lot of us together. Every night at closing (after having made me do the glassware twice again, with feeling, she would say, instructing me in the fine art of polishing them off) she’d turn up the house PA, blasting Ukrainian Pop through speakers cloistered where the waitstaff kept their coats in an alcove off the narrow dining room. She grinned and pumped her fists and stomped her feet to the bass. She paid us on the twelfth of every month, under the table in cash. The tips were divided equally at her discretion from a common pot none of us were privy to. One evening she came in full of what was being called an altercation in the Parliament. Her Parliament. A continent away. ––A fist-fight, she declared, and spread her arms, her eyes wide. Words failed her. It was July, I think, and her daughter was eager to tell me about the bonfires. Pallets stacked, starting in Spring and into Summer, water-logged and tottering, toppling sometimes, building up and up and up in the middle of a vast and empty lot on the Shankill where I had seen kids playing footie once and mothers walking carriages in circles in the twilight. She held a spoon for a moment over the flame of a candle on the bar and pressed it against my skin. She giggled when I flinched. ––Jesus! What was that for? She smiled in my face, and I turned back to the two Café Royales the old couple sitting at the bar-side booth had ordered. That night on my break in the back alley Natasha sneaked me a minute steak she’d saved on a plate with potatoes in garlic butter and scallions hidden in the chest behind the oven. I balanced it on the hood of a car pulled up close against the door of the building opposite as I ate, and we talked about something I don’t remember.
Earthworks There are other kinds of memory your body heals over, scars within remembering anatomies of hue and shade remaining hieroglyphics circumscribed by blue-green bruises, tracks in time left behind in the body of the earth.
Talus “Thug na clocha cuireadh domh suí ina gcuideachta is nuair a chiúnaigh siad thart orm go cainteach thuig mé cad is tost ann.” - Cathal Ó Searcaigh, “Lá de na Laethanta” A rest in the ascent part of the way up. Three men overtook me: middle-aged, in baggy red windbreakers and proper boots and walking sticks. They sat down across from me on the other side of the pathway up. § One of them, one of three, one of whom was on his third ascent to celebrate his seventy-fourth, uncapped a thermos-flask of tea and having poured himself a cup and swigged it down in turn he poured another and he offered it to me. You remember tastes like that. The tinny taste of builder’s tea, the flask-lid, a sudden gust of sea-breeze, mountain air and another memory. An itch at the back of your neck. You haven’t eaten and you’re halfway up a mountain in trainers and a jumper that’s seen better days and your belongings on your back. § From here to there you feel a finity a part as human being in a landscape closed to you as a book is closed if only for that moment. § It was early morning making along the narrow road at the foot of the mountain. I came up the narrow road North through bogland part of the way up the mountain, picking my way over rain-sotted earth my feet sinking each step over rain-sotted earth cowlicked tufts of swamp-grass mud and streamlets ambling down the other way into the world each step quick and cautious. It is morning only so long. And the clouds begin to lean discerning scattered shapes in twos and threes threaten to break but don’t yet. § You begin to lean discerning scattered shapes in twos and threes throughout the lower bogland following diagonals and switch-backs pausing looking up. § Mucais Cnoc na Láragacha Eachla Beag Ard Loch na mBreac Beadaí Eachla Mór Mac Uchta Earagail § The garrulous mute mountain of quartzite hesitant we followed single-file on the height to our left a dim descent to our right a cluttered slant of scree. The third man explained to me the term was talus: a giant field of stones and boulders pitched from the peak by stuttering automata against would-be invaders from the sea: an island known once now forgotten: a word and a field of stones. § I caught my footing and continued on each breath a shuttered whisper in the chest. § We took our leave of one another one by one and I lingered there on the height my attention held by glacial valleys to the North lumbering big things trodden like lakes in the earth of me their memory rifting years the pitch of blood and nerve listening the pink pitch of stone. § But by and by it faded, worried smooth and settled like a stone. There was sky and there was silence.
Matthew Ryan Shelton is a poet and translator. He holds degrees from Carleton College, Queen’s University Belfast, and the University of Connecticut where he is currently a PhD Candidate in English Literature. His dissertation work centers around translation, translingual practices, and the ways in which these work as poiesis. His poetry and translations have appeared variously, in both English and Irish Gaelic, in the U.S. and internationally. New poems, translated into Greek by the Athens-based poet Nikos Violaris, are forthcoming in Poiitiki and Poeticanet. He lives in New Haven, Conneticut, with his wife and daughter.
To learn more about this collection of poems, read Shelton’s brief essay here discussing his inspiration and thought process.
I suppose it is fair to say that I “cut my teeth” in Belfast, at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, in the company of some of the most talented of a new generation of Northern Irish poets coming out of the Creative Writing program. My time at the Centre, as well as my many returns to the island, continues to shape my work and my poetic sensibility, such as it is. The five poems chosen for this inaugural issue of Parhelion represent an unusually cohesive unit, inasmuch as they describe and draw inspiration from the landscapes – and memories of landscapes – of the North of Ireland, both Belfast and farther afield, and my time there.
During the course of my academic work at the University of Connecticut, I have gravitated toward an exploration of translation and translingual practices and the work they do as poiesis, or “poetic making.” The links between language and landscape, as well as the movements of populations across linguistic, national, and societal boundaries, within border lands and contact zones, has become a significant part of my creative work as well. Both “The Second Kind of Memory” and “A Woman from the Ukraine” are drawn from my days in Belfast, the latter poem an exploration of the status of “outsider” in societies marked by violence and the will to escape such cycles of conflict and the codes they engender. “Landscapes II” and “Talus” come from the rocky gray and purple terrain of Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland, where I have spent time studying Irish Gaelic in Bun Beag in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where Irish is spoken as the primary language of the community.
“Talus” in particular has an interesting compositional history in this respect. Although the events described—the summiting of Mount Errigal in the company of three strangers the speaker has met on the way up—are genuine enough, it was only a number of years later that I sat down to work out the poem in its full form. And although I began in English, I found myself drawn into the Irish language during my initial drafts. This began with the names of the “Seven Sisters,” the peaks along the mountain chain of which Errigal is the final and highest. Mucais, “the Pig’s Back”; Cnoc na Láragacha, “Hill of the Slope”; Eachla Beag, “Small Lookout”; Ard Loch na mBreac Beadaí, “High Lake of the Fastidious Trout”; Eachla Mór, “Big Lookout”; Mac Uchta, also known as “Little Errigal”; and last among them, 751 meters above sea level, Earagail, possibly meaning “Oratory,” though this remains uncertain.
The land becomes landscape in the tradition of place-names. The landscape tells stories. The attendant literary tradition is well-known among Medieval Irish scholars as Dindsenchas, or Dinnseanchas in Modern Irish: “topography.” From these names, I began – quite rashly, I admit – to write in Irish, snatches here and there, fragmented from memory, in tandem. My own limited knowledge of the language began, in turn, to shape my decisions in English, and so on as the composition progressed. The poet Michael Hartnett tells a similar story about his poem “Cúlú Íde” (in English, “The Retreat of Ita Cagney”), although I would only learn this later.
The poet, to my mind, is properly a liminal figure—and just as Irish is not my “mother tongue,” these landscapes are not my own, although they have marked me in their own way. And a preoccupation with unbelonging is never far from these poems—indeed, as I understand it, it is the only moral stance the poet can take, toward land or language. Just as the young man in “A Woman from the Ukraine” is not bound by the same violence to which both Natasha and her daughter remain subject, even at a distance—he, after all, can leave – the poet of “Talus” is always at one remove from the land and its language. It was not until I had the opportunity to sit down with the Irish language poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh at his Donegal residence that the poem began to take full form. Working line by line, Ó Searcaigh helped me in reshaping the blas, the “taste” or “flavor,” of the language, and thereby in a sense my own connection with the climb itself so many years ago. It was these revisions, in turn, that guided my rewriting of the poem “Talus” as it appears here in Parhelion for the first time in English.
Language and Landscape, Marginality and Movement. These are the imminent concerns and guiding forces in these five poems—mobilizing, I hope, the ways in which we understand the landscapes in which we live, the languages with which we speak, and those people we meet and get to know along the way.