4 Poems by John D. Kelly

TEENAGE KICKS

You have to love your monsters as well as your angels.
That’s what my big sister Mary used to tell me, years
ago, before she saw red, and the light, and left the convent.

In 1979, the long hot summer was over and I was going
back – hell-bent – to the hellhole that was my school.

Geldof was still cool then, and I was walking up the Falls
Road, and it was a Monday; but it was the Undertones,
then this that was ringing in my ears: There are
Procedures to be followed.  There must be ‘accountability’. 

I was remembering the strap-line of Brother Punctilious.
It stopped me in my track:
… kicks right through the night …
I was already late,
But this was the procedure that morning:
Assume the position! Spread your legs wide! 

Arms were soon high, palms open, body leaning, facing
into the red brick wall; off balance, waiting … waiting.

I made Teenage Kicks keep ringing in my head
even though they had already smashed my new Walkman
under big, black, shiny boots.

Give only your name, even if they beat you with the butts
of rifles, or kick your feet wider apart, to stress you more.

My brother had primed me.  He was in the same position
in 1971, but he couldn’t hold his tongue and it lashed out.

He spent the next three years interned in a cell, living
with his monsters.  His girlfriend Angela, waited, waited …

and waited.  She ached for him, through the dark years.
Our broken mother’s tears dried up when she died, in 1973.

Alone now, our bereaved father still goes to mass,
even though Mary also left her cell, and her other ‘sisters’

in 1974; no longer willing to accept the habit, the order,
the procedure – the having to ‘keep mum’ to cover
the exposition of the barefaced ‘men’: those uncountable
monsters; monsters that, still to this day, live mirrored
in the innocent faces of grown-up children;
that other, sick, unaccountable army of black and white
uniformed pretenders – ‘fathers’ who whispered:
Spread your legs wide – for God’s sake – my ‘daughter’!

THE LOSS OF YELLOWHAMMERS
in memory of Hannah Kelly

Normally a mellow man, my grandfather
became angry in that moment
under his sallow, wrinkled skin.

His tired body had been gradually wearing out.
And, when it began to let him down,
it was inopportune

timing (as it always is) and he was
before me, splashing and upset; gesticulating
and mad about the unplanned, rust-tinged
saffron-coloured cloud slowly blooming
in the short-lived clarity of the lukewarm
bathwater.  He tried discretely to disperse it

as I gently soaped his back, averted eyes
and listened (with a silent ‘t’)
to the sound of him making bubbles;
an odorous flotsam, not quite as subtle
as the faint cloud in his joke of the silent ‘p’
in the ‘swimming pool’.

And my racing mind
like Vincent’s, painted flowers;
and the golden wheat field,
under the cobalt sky with black crows,
conjured up yolk sacs
in my crazy kaleidoscopic brain.
They shone like mini-suns attached to the delicate
bellies of a shoal of newborn, oviparous fish
swimming in a dark sea of ominous sharks.

On land, I imagined a luminous JCB
scooping bucketfuls of light, ochre-coloured
clay in the middle of a graveyard surrounded
by thorny bushes – coconut-scented whins.

And they all competed with one another.

He stood up and I rinsed him.
And water hammer, in lead pipes
leading to the old cast-iron tub
made him ponder

the loss of yellowhammers, to gift us
a change of subject, as he stepped out
to be dried off
under the cloak of a warm towel.

He smiled at me, They used to be
plentiful here, when I was a boy like you.

Like him now, I wonder where they’ve all gone.

ROWING BACKWARDS

Rowing backwards, rowing
out to watch the pair of Mute Swans,
the ones that nest on Clonmin Lough,

the ones that have built their raft
of reeds, this year,
in the same spot as the year before,

the year when you were much more
than only ballast in this boat
and we were adrift as if on a vast sea

of salt.  I dip in my wooden oars
alone now, drift again, then halt
as I snag one on a floating lily pad

and, ever so gently, take care
not to sever it,
break its link – its dancing stem –

or harm its pure white petals
in full flower, or uproot its anchor
in the soft silt below that primal soup

where ancient pike lurk
ready and waiting to lunge at perch
or roach or unsuspecting bream.

I dream of blue skies and limpid eyes.
I remember butterflies
with silver linings on the undersides
of delicate wings.  And I think of
the flip side of things
a coin that has both a head and a tail

that cruelly stings, presents a barrier –
a heavy toll on a heart that’s been cloaked
in lead for much too long.
I think of choices made:
the holding of a friend’s hand; a song;
and that time, that moment in this boat

when you chose to move back a little –
one thwart back – to gift me a better view
of where we were both coming from.

INITIATION

She has run long
            and herself ragged,
up wind, downwind;
            waded brush-deep
through slow sheughs,
through fast streams,
between tall bulrush
      and sedge
– rushes that ran red with
      the svelte ribbon of her
                       silky weave:
and the ignored white flag
    still flying at the tail end
of her zig-zagged fear
        of the rip and raw tear.

She hears the yelping
     of the baying pack
Still they come.  No slack
        in that posse.  No room
for mercy in the cavities
     of those hell-bent heads.
Wet noses so at home
      on the trail of her scent.

She tries every trick
      in the box
but even such substantial
          cunning can’t out-fox
the cruel yearning
    for the blooding of a face.

Tracy Gaughan’s review of John D. Kelly’s collection ‘The Loss of Yellowhammers’ can be read here

About the contributor

Poet, architect and psychotherapist, John D. Kelly is a graduate of Queen's University Belfast. His poetry has won and been shortlisted in competitions, including the Maria Edgeworth Competition, 2020. He was highly commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 2016 and won silver in the International Dermot Healy Poetry Competition, 2014 and 2015. His collection Mating on the Wing, won first prize in the Listowel Poetry Collection Competition 2020, judged by Thomas McCarthy. 'Making Hay' was awarded first prize in the 2020 Desmond O'Grady International Poetry Competition, judged by John Liddy. His debut collection The Loss of Yellowhammers is newly published by Summer Palace Press, 2020.

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