Bench-sprawled on the boardwalk between Joyce & Halfpenny, a rugger-nosed laborer with gull-stained granite in his eyes. His bloodymindedness, his boxty breath colonize two seats, riling up the clucking crowd that’s looking for a pew upon which to bead-finger Marmite & cheddar sarnies, these pretty pie-faced girls from Spiddle working the tourist fiddle, these gritty Ukrainian clerks in jean-cut slacks, praying for the Punt to return before Jesus does.
He leans back, making the mundane almost seductive. He’s cocksure as Wilde in the midst of Merrion Square’s numinous pigeons & ginbreath housewives who rebuke the poet again & again for his flagrant love of Ireland. Quietly, Wilde obliges. It’s the same smirk on both those men, for when you’ve lost every battle, your face breaks that way—in Reading Gaol against the sweating brick, in Phoenix Park against a hurling stick.
The laborer’s soccer shirt—the Bohemians (laugh)—is flashed with stout & snot. One foot shod in a ground-down steel-toe, the other dangles a dirty sock. His foot’s been swollen by walking from Wexford to look for work, by putting the boot in. How he wants to put the boot into those financial pricks from Talbot Street who shot his mother’s mortgage full of holes & pushed it blazing into Dublin Bay. Fuck those powder-faced barristers on Oak Street poncing down the towpath, those poxy Cornwallises cloaking their atrocities of gun & court in horsehair & Latin.
His hands are thick with fingers too small for them. He should be a blacksmith, a turf digger, a barley scyther, the man two towns over who’ll calm your horse by prattling or with the threat of a hammer fist. Such men must have power to match their pride, work to match their strength. Such men Jack Yeats thought the world of, painting them dissolute, dissolving, distilled into a mist on the Wicklow Hills. They’ll return some day, just like the bog people tombed in the busy museum, leathery & smart as a change purse, just raking it in.
History is a game to us. The Leprechaun Museum as good as Kilmainham Gaol. Our charming host, a Trinity student, speaks in half tones & punctuates alive-alive-o with a sexy joke about the “trollop with the scallops.” Her humiliation—we hope—is bronze-hardened, stone-stoic, fit to be laughed at by the Japanese. History to him is as inconvenient as a bowel movement, as claustrophobic as Temple Bar on Friday noon, as hard to navigate as a midnight lurch from pub to pub, with every Croatian bouncer telling him to piss off back to Wexford, you’re bad for business—well, at least they learned that much brogue.
Waves erase Skellig Michael psalm by psalm. The west wind whittles the Burren. Moher cliffs undress bridal wrecks to blushing ribs. From Cork to Dublin ghost estates decay in the dank—cracks open, plants grow through. Viking battlements rubble & scree. Trash blows through Ballsbridge, the remains of the monetary theories of serious men. At Dublin Castle, Connolly’s getting stronger—propped up, strapped down, shot again & again & again—the laborer slumps forward. A silk-line of black puke drop-glistens from his mouth, slow-ribbons through the boards & into the Liffey, joining the long exodus.
Ode to Paris
This sensual city, either about to make love
Or, having made love, walking the cobblestones
On the Left Bank toward La Notre Dame.
The way the tracery of her stocking tops
Out-Gothics the spire of St. Germain des Pres.
Or the deep symmetrical half-moons worn
In limestone walls by moor rings pushed one way
And the other by teenagers who smoke grass
On the quay stones & pull their pants down—
Even the girls!—at the tourist boats that erase
This strange light with their floodlight.
Semi-pornographic lithographs for sale here,
By Lautrec, Miró, & Delaunay. They too confuse
The bellowing underskirts of cabaret dancers
With the masonry of d'Orsay; the small breasts
Of a young lover with the moon stretching above
The plane trees of Le Jardin de Tuileries;
St-Severin with a womb; Paris with a woman.
How to Sharpen a Knife
Sit down at these facts as if a child who hears in the naming of parts tales of craft, reckless honor, & toil—fuller, quillon, swage, & choil—who imagines these knives, laid out on butcher paper, could kill Hrungnir the Giant, that it’s the beast not the blade held at its bolster & spine before the whetstone.
Now make the bevel’s angle the same as the Earth’s cocky tilt at the heavens. Apply the same moderate pressure your worklife puts on you. Draw the blade toward your belly—sweepingly, crazily—but this is no sacrifice, just the blessing of an hour spent in rhythmic attention. Cast off the burden of the trivial as the blade casts off its swarf.
Twelve strokes one side, twelve the other. You’re dragging a heavy bow across a heavier string plucked from Pennsylvanian hills. It’s an overture to an earthquake, all the screams for all the mothers in all the wars, the gnashing of teeth of those who not only deny God, but who deny the reason with which He acts.
Elements go strikingly against one other—skim of stars against the stuff of earth—& while it seems each remains excluded in its impenetrable form, there is fine negotiation through a thin film of Three-in-One, a transubstantiation even. That is, a kind of mud is formed of burred metal, ground rock, & oil that must be constantly cleaned with a cloth.
Many ways to test sharpness—cut a square of hairs from the back of your arm, slice a sheet of newsprint, drag a finger crosswise while checking for knicks, hold it to the wind until the edge plays like a harp, show it to an icicle & see if they fall in love, cut superfluous entities from any intractable argument …
Finally, you must hone the edge with a steel or strop. Edge geometry is the geometry of faith, the realignment of microscopic teeth you never see. Doing this, think how your wife straightens your son’s eyebrows, how the prairie wind combs the wheat stalks, how a wave on Brighton beach abrades the shingle. This holiness of the particular. How minute details cohere, as if in the mind of a detective.
Photo of Mr. Walls by Charles Wainwright