A CATHOLIC CHILD’S VIEW OF PARLIAMENT BUILDING, STORMONT, FROM PROTESTANT EAST BELFAST, 1966
Just a two-up, two-down and scullery
were it not that, outside the bedrooms,
a second, proper staircase (newel post,
bannisters, landing, two short flights of stairs)
leapt to a brooding, significant door:
a room inserted right below the slates;
no means of heating, therefore never used,
and therefore mine. Here the bones of the house
showed through: an inverted Y of flues
shouldering the chimney, and a single
skylight at the back of the house’s head.
I’d clamber to its bashed lead-pipe propper
to prong it open on a long sill-nail,
heaving against its weighty glass and frame
(a membrane to be forced) till up I’d pop,
breaking the surface, gasping, into a tilting,
slanting, choppy, pewter sea. At my nape
the sharp roof-slope insisted I look out
and right and left, never behind. Getting
my bearings, then, away to my north-east
I’d spy a building, white on a green hill,
bizarrely dazzling, as though Greek sun shone
full on it. An Ulster Acropolis.
A mermaid, drawn to a strange shimmer
in the offing, would rise, fichu’d in foam.
Periscoping on her muscular tail,
she’d wonder: an alien carapace
or a hollow, calcified accretion;
a husk, shucked? Un-intrigued, she might decide
to inspect it one dull day and she’d drop,
tugging the wave-hatch shut above her head
but down I’d go, and down and down and down
to my doorstep, my anchor-stone. From there
my beanstalk sea-weed plume wound all the way
up through those stairwells to my vantage-point.
I sat with the lowest of the low but
I had that at my back, and I had seen −
unseen − more, further, than they meant me to.
WATCHING THE BRIDEGROOM
He fiddles with his cuff and chafes at the fancy neck-tie.
You and me both, mate. You and me.
He leans in to whisper but a fuss behind us
turns him fully and he’s so stunned he grips me.
His future is walking up the aisle. She’s gorgeous
but he looks terrified so I nudge him to bring him round.
He’s sagging now. Not worthy. Right enough.
I square my shoulders so he’ll square his own,
I clear my throat in a Let’s-get-this-done-guys way
and see he’s steadied. The bastard’s wiping away
a tear. Fair play. He’s got a lot to lose!
I give him a cheery wink but he’s already
walking towards her. He looks up at the priest.
Some veil he was wearing has been pushed aside.
His face is flushed, abandoned. He has opened up
and he’d do anything.
The ring, I realise, as I set it on his palm,
is a kind of cunt. He slides it on her finger-prick
in front of everyone, telling her,
‘I am your woman; you’re my man.’
Whoah! What the fuck! Come on!
And yet … and yet, I get it:
he has to let her in. He has to be taken.
Do you take this man …?
One, he wants to be with her.
The rest’s a blur. I fall in behind the bridesmaids
and I’d do anything for him, even as I watch him
heading out and onward, launched and leaving me
smaller and smaller in his wake. As it should be.
As it should …
That girl I wouldn’t dance with at the pub last night −
she wasn’t good enough, I said, but it was me.
What would it have taken – what would it take –
Letting someone in?
OUT OF THE FOG
The same old trick of moisture and of light,
The same sleight of the wind’s hand
And who would credit there’s a sheep-stack close,
An island farther off?
This cliff-top lawn is ultimate Thule,
Is utter north, facing the blank end of all.
I was anointed. I was summoned out
Aged eight in my fever-bed
My eyes were a belvedere like this.
I saw from their balcony
A whiteness − like a fog −
Was all, was everything.
I gave a statement, adding a dispatch
On the armies clashing down the blanket-slopes.
My first fuck! in the fever hospital that night
From the doctor when he broke a needle in my spine.
In my fever-room next day
I understood I was a relic of some kind,
Transitional, a here/elsewhere Girl-in-a-Glass-Box;
My parents − faces penned in the viewing-plate
Of a distant door.
To stay? To go?
In the white-tiled window-bay
I could move only my eyes.
My glance to the left: a nothing wall
But to the right a sombre conifer
Flagged its slow messages
Against a clout of sky.
Enough to tether me.
And I am still recanting
The fog’s persuasive heresy
− that kingdom of the isolate self,
boundary-less, perspective-free −
Though a waving branch can breach it
Or a tide’s turn dispel,
Revealing my every headland
To be the sacrum of an archipelago.
It makes me take the measure of myself,
this door: a tight fit, to be shouldered through
awkwardly, as low as a mantle-shelf
and equally banal; hardly what’s due,
I would have thought, in the circumstances:
ungiving, narrow, poorly maintained. Few
would look twice or choose to take their chances
at a door that looks as though it’s leading
nowhere and discouraging advances.
But, if needs must, then, bent, even bleeding
already from scraped skin (looking a fool,
no doubt) I wrestle its stuck base. Ceding
an inch, it shows me a passage, dark, foul
and – a sharp splintering! – I fall headlong,
am fed onto the tongue-blade of a cruel
plane that bears down hard, sweepingly, along
my every flaw, stripping me as I crawl.
That camel through a needle’s eye is wrong
in that it doesn’t represent at all
the pain of being shorn – but right how often
we cling to petty things and then we stall,
blaming the narrow gate and not our burden,
doubting a lightless porch could lead to heaven.
Angela Graham’s poetry has appeared in The North, The Honest Ulsterman, The Interpreter’s House, The Ogham Stone and elsewhere, and imminently in The Lonely Crowd and The Stony Thursday Book. She won second prize in Grey Hen Press Poetry Competition. Seren Books will publish her story collection, A City Burning in October 2020. Angela Graham gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.