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.

 

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