Irish cavalier to the rescue
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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