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Irish cavalier to the rescue

21/07/2009

Ulick O'Connor

Ulick O’Connor

Didn’t start too well, yesterday. An unhappy day anyway, as it saw the demise of le petit train – le bon, le vrai, l’equipe sympa‘, with – crudely put – the bad well and truly trouncing the good. Things got promptly worse that morning when one dear sweet little old bride of Christ in a battered Twingo tried to run me over. On a level crossing yet! I turned and gave the elderly nun the full hands-on-hips, feet firmly planted, curl tossing, nose aimed at the heavens banshee glare of defiance.
No dice: immune to such heathen threat, the old girl merely glared back equally fiercely before revving the engine in threatening manner. Even nuns aint wot they used ter be, by God! Although this one clearly retained the requisite capacity for spotting a female transgressor at a distance.
Anyway, deadlock. Finally deciding that discretion is indeed always the better part of valour (ie when danger looms, leg it!), I moved on. But slowly. Very slowly. Very slowly with gritted teeth and silently repeating to myself a favourite Thomas Traherne quote: ‘You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.’ As the sun shines almost constantly here, I should in theory be nearly 100 percent prone to splashing the milk of human kindness about in profligate fashion. Doesn’t work like that, though – especially since the heat, as a French acquaintance observed, “ça énerve les gens”. And it does, does it ever!
In any event I was thoroughly relieved to be able to take time out later and  read.  A notoriously unreliable contact of mine (some lessons can only be learnt the hard way) had returned to me a volume of poetry I’d lent her. Something I prize, a signed copy of The Kiss a 2008 collection of poetry by Ulick O’Connor. The ‘cavalier Irishman’ of the title (in fact the title of O’Connor’s published diaries, which I recommend).
O’Connor is a man of letters in the full, old-fashioned sense, a lawyer who wrote works of drama as well as poetry, engaged in journalism and politics and – in his younger days was a champion athlete and a rugby player. So you can see that the slightly flamboyant cultural gloss of ‘cavalier’ fits like a glove – of the finest kid, stylishly tailored for its wearer.
And yet O’Connor, a son of privilege born with a full set of Apostles spoons in his well-shaped and prospectively eloquent gob, never forgets the underdog. Ever. Never condemns, casting an ironic eye instead upon the smug, the shallow, the selfishly aspirational hanging onto the coat-tails of cloth cut for another. Irish, he doesn’t need to be reminded of suffering and oppression. However lightly he may tread, you know the weight of history is there. Virginia Woolf in The Waves muses on such matters, also: ‘We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth, and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.’ But O’Connor goes further and deeper, lending voice to the silent. He never blames the victim and is present to observe and applaud when the occasional worm turns.
My unrewarding acquaintance’s favourites among this collection were the title poem (a delicate but powerfully evocative treatment of overwhelming emotion) and O’Connor’s sensitive and musical translation of Baudelaire’s tragic The Albatross, the latter almost too painful to read. But, said said acquaintance, there was one poem in addition to these that she felt she’d retain in her mind as a daily prompt about the fascination of words and wordplay. An unusually simple, straightforward poem on the face of it, with layers of subtlety and whimsicality revealing depth as well as playfulness. It’s called Words Alone Are Certain Good, and in it O’Connor speaks of resurrecting a word that has been ‘unused, abused and just forgotten’ and inserting it in a poem and ‘having it glow as was intended’.
Now even more conscious of my shamefully impoverished vocabulary, I’m determined to seek words new and neglected – albeit resenting the lack of my Thesaurus, a gift decades ago from an ex-con turned telly scriptwriter back in the days when British television wasn’t half bad (or seemed that way). In the meantime though I’ll just have another read through The Kiss.
My favourites (apart from the title poem, which is sublime)? Difficult choices. Still, I’ll try. The top has to be Sisyphus Wins, where a seemingly ordinary anecdote of the doggedly self-reliant and defiant triumph of a crippled man against pavement, road and traffic is transformed by O’Connor’s elegantly succinct verbal alchemy into a metaphor for man’s epic struggle and how the heroic elements of this extend to everyman in everyday circumstances.
Second has to be The Stare, in which O’Connor speaks lyrically and atmospherically of an apparently amiable nocturnal standoff between himself (a guest at a country house) and his host’s proud cat. The poem carries undertones of ancient mysteries lurking beneath the encounter and conveys a sense of the extraordinarily unfathomable nature of the animal world.
Finally, there’s the brief poem on the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana, juxtaposing the outbreak of emotion at her funeral with the sad, lonely demise of a streetperson from a fatal overdose and somehow – even within the confines of its few lines – introducing a mother and child in timeless communion, the former gently but relentlessly ensuring the child is aware of the differences between hysteria and grief, between compassion and sentimentality by explaining: ‘the people who are crying there are crying for themselves’.
Too true, alas. And self-pity never does an iota of good. That time-honoured piece of maternal wisdom represents a counsel we all need from time to time. Nonetheless, all other reflections aside, the Irish cavalier had restored my spirits. So they not only made my day, their influence will continue to resonate long after her spoken words have faded away on the breeze and his written ones become temporarily lost amidst the confusion of time. Until perhaps someone else picks up that volume of poetry and says, “ah, I’ll just have a read of this” and – like me – finds themselves hooked and reeled in, caught in the net for good.
So a treat is in store for whoever that may be. And just to make ‘certain sure’ of this, they’d best be advised to steer clear of any women drivers in holy orders until well after making that enriching discovery.

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8 Comments
  1. angus permalink
    21/07/2009 08:53

    Must admit I am not really a "poem" person, apart from Spike milligan-"S0 Fair is She
    S0 fair is she!
    S0 fair her face
    S0 fair her pulsing figure
    Not so fair
    The maniacal stare
    Of a husband wh0's much bigger."

    Or-Summer Dawn
    My sleeping children are still flying dreams
    in their goose—down heads.
    The lush of the river singing morning songs
    Fish watch their ceilings turn sun-white.
    The grey-green pike lances upstream
    Kale, like mermaid's hair
    points the water's drift.
    All is morning hush
    and bird beautiful.
    If only,
    I didn't have flu.

    And you really have to watch those nuns, frustrated F1 drivers:)

  2. Phidelm permalink
    21/07/2009 10:15

    Angus: great stuff, love them! Thanks for posting these – I'd completely forgotten the other gifts of Spike Milligna (that 'well-known typographical error' aka Count Jim Moriarty).
    'Frustrated F1 drivers': of course – that explains everything 🙂

  3. Minnie permalink
    21/07/2009 14:33

    Dedene: bonjour et bienvenue! And thank you for your very kind comments; so glad you enjoy the blog (which makes it all worthwhile).
    I love literature; but don't know much about it. Maude, however, really does know her stuff. Oddly, neither of us did degrees 'es lettres' – maybe that's why the subject fascinates us so much!
    Ulick O'Connor's work is definitely worth reading. The diaries are a fascinating picture of literary/political life at the time. Wish he'd continue them …

  4. Dedene permalink
    21/07/2009 14:10

    Maud and you are way too literate for me! I've never heard of O'Connor, but I enjoyed your description of his work.
    Love the way you write, I'm forgetting my good English.

  5. CherryPie permalink
    21/07/2009 19:23

    I have been on the receiving end of a grumpy Nun too in the past. I thought they were supposed to be Christians!!!

    The poetry sounds lovely and the diaries sound fascinating. I had never heard of O'Connor's work either. I hope my friend isn't reading this, he called me a heathen last time when I didn't know something about Ireland LOL

  6. Minnie permalink
    22/07/2009 05:49

    Cherie: those nuns, eh? Speedfreaks, the lot of 'em!
    Ulick O'Connor's not nearly as well known in the UK as he should be. Yes, the diaries ARE fascinating. They're certainly a compelling read, and cover a fair bit of 20th c. Irish history. Do try them.

  7. Welshcakes Limoncello permalink
    22/07/2009 23:28

    Thank you for ther information on O'Connor. I like that about "making a word glow". He sounds my kind of poet. Maude sounds wonderful. Still giggling at "Nuns ain't what they used to be" – you could make a song of that!

  8. Minnie permalink
    23/07/2009 08:03

    Welshcakes: I'm so glad to have introduced you and Ulick O'Connor.
    Maude is indeed wonderful.
    As for that song, well bet somebody already has (I know a couple of people who might well have done, alas no longer with us).

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