I am now, maybe thinner … I grew to my full height when I was thirteen and went around for years thinking I was a giant. The magician had a big fluffy white rope and said he would hang me upside down from the ceiling where everyone could see my figure. These images come back to me, especially that awful feeling when you are young and vulnerable and everyone is about to look at you and how terrible it is going to be. The book is about how adults can confuse and terrify children. I was terrified for months after this experience. I wasn’t sure if this man wouldn’t come after me with his rope and force me to hang upside down. After all, he was supposed to be a magician.’
‘What about your parents?’ ‘They went to Australia with five children, came back with seven and left two behind. They paid full price to go there, while everyone else went there for a tenner. They didn’t know about the Australians offering Irish immigrants almost free passage. It was an expensive cruise. My mother told me that all the while they were on the ship they entertained people. All the children would get up and sing for them. They were in Australia for ten years. My father got sick there. They never talked much about what they did there but it was difficult for my mother, possibly difficult for my father too although he made it sound romantic when he came back. There were all these lovely aboriginal names and of course he spoke about the birds and the wildlife. He was always imitating the laugh of the kookaburra.
My father’s lips pursed with pleasure when he uttered the name of a place called Geelong, as if he was getting ready to blow into an invisible didgeridoo.
(from ‘The Australian Rug’)
‘They lost money hand over fist and barely got back to Ireland with enough to make a fresh start. They went to County Cork. They were originally from County Limerick where they had a big farm. The farmhouse was supposed to be haunted. My poem “Stones” is about how the stories about it haunted me:
‘Dreamy. I had a world of my own but then I’d talk my head off if I got a chance. I had a lot of friendships with older men, which I suppose is bound to happen when you grow up in a pub – lovely old men like Tom Twomey who would play cards with me, and there was Gerald Regan, a solicitor who would bring me beautiful children’s books. Rilke says the source of all poetry is childhood and dreams. We drink from the well until we drink it dry. I think that is really true. There’s an interesting Graham Greene essay about how the books we read in childhood are books of divination. I believe some of the things that make us sad when we are young do so precisely because we know they are going to happen to us. And then Declan Kiberd has written about how Joyce fell in love with the story of Ulysses when he was twelve – it was the children’s version by Charles Lamb that originally captured his imagination.’
In her poem ‘Facing the Public’ the daughter captures the mother whole, or could it be, rather, that with so much of the poem hijacked by her voice, the mother captures the daughter whole?
My mother never asked like a normal person, it was I’m asking you for the last time, I’m imploring you not to go up that road again late for Mass.
She never had slight trouble sleeping, it was Never, never, never for one moment did I get a wink, as long as my head lay upon that pillow.
She never grumbled, because No one likes a grumbler, I never grumble but the pain I have in my two knees this there isn’t a person alive who would stand for it.
She didn’t do the Stations of the Cross she sorrowed the length and breadth of the church. And yet, she could chalk up a picture in a handful of words the horse that went mad from a brain haemorrhage circling and circling around the hawthorn-ringed field, the riding accidents, bodies on the railway tracks, Johnny the dead dog the children buried up to its neck.
‘They sold it to a man and six months later he was thrown from a horse and killed. My brother spoke of footsteps on the stairs. Maybe it was difficult for them on that lonely farm but they had it hard in Australia too. My father was struck down by rheumatic fever for most of a year and then he was knocked over by a drunken driver. He was 58 and my mother about 40 when they returned to Cork, which was when I came along, the mistake. They didn’t know anything about running a business but they opened up the bar, shop and petrol pump. It was the focus of everything. People would come down from church, funerals, weddings, the hunt, the creamery, and it was run very haphazardly. Can you imagine, starting all over again at that age? And then a tenth child arriving just when they must have thought they had enough?’
‘What about your childhood?’
conjure a person in a mouthful of speech …
There is very little in Martina’s poetry that does not come from either her or her mother’s memories. The poem becomes a study in embarrassment. It is about the mother acting out scenarios in private and then being embarrassed when she is overheard. Anyone who comes from a small place will know how there the echoes go on forever.
Never, never, never would she be able, as long as she lived,
even if she got Ireland free in the morning, no, no, no she would never be able to face the public again.
‘That poem came when one day my daughter Liadáin was going on about something or other and I said to her, “Don’t be so dramatic”. She said, “Oh, I’m dramatic, am I!” She made me laugh and then I thought of my mother. And the poem just came out. The strong ones tend to, but really I’d been writing it for years. She was a larger than life character, a woman who ran everything. When I told her my first book
PN Review 202 was accepted she said, “Oh, a book!” When I added that it was poetry, she replied, “Oh, poems … I thought it was a book.” And then she’d say things like, “As Peggy Looney said to me, ‘What a book you’d write, Mrs Cotter, the interesting life you’ve led, if you only had the time.’” Now I feel she is writing mine. Her voice is present in so many of the poems, especially the recent ones. She will always be renewing herself through them, I suppose. A strong light casts a strong shadow. She was fantastic in a way but terrible as well. You could ring her up and put the phone down, go off, water the garden, go to Sainsbury’s, come back, sweep the house, and she would still be talking. She wouldn’t have drawn breath and if you did try to interrupt her, you’d get from her, “Will you let me speak!” My mother always felt she had to jump into a conversation with something. She had to fill in the spaces, juggle with words, and entertain people. Eileen Murphy doesn’t feel that pressure, does she? She doesn’t need to say the “right” thing. She just stares at you.’
The burnings of historical memory, ‘the fort of the burnings’, might be said to have been later ghosted in the domestic activities of Martina’s father, who loved to set fires.
He was a quiet man, a secret man, who liked to be alone, and he had ten children.
He couldn’t bear to cut down his trees
Every Christmas he defiantly brought in the worst pine, with the scantiest branches, and his family spent the whole Christmas trying to cover it up.
minutes to write or it took nine years. He was quite a bit older than my mother, a background man, not a big talker, although until he was seventy he worked really hard at some job or other as well as tearing round, looking after the garden and all the animals. A really lovely, cherubic-looking man with beautiful skin, all smiles, he’d walk our dog Fifi to the church. People would say of him, “Mr Cotter is always the gentleman, no airs or graces about him, every day going with his little dog to the church.” Fifi loved the church, especially at Christmas time with the crib and the straw. The Three Wise Men arriving on January 6th always made him bark. He seemed to think they were a sinister addition. Most of all he loved to roll on the strip of orange carpet before the altar. I went up with them once. Fifi lifted his leg and Daddy just stood there, beaming with pride as Fifi pissed on the carpet. He told me it was “only a small bit”, shook his head as if to say, why would anyone mind. Anything Fifi enjoyed was fantastic and sacred and probably a tribute to the orange carpet. The way my father was, well, he was a bit tangential or whatever, not exactly your normal or conventional character. All this stuff with the cats and the dogs, they were more real to him than people. My mother used to say, “There’s more thought of cats and dogs than Christians in this house.” Probably the same could be said for this house. In some ways my father never grew up. He did not want to go to school, resisted it violently. I heard the story that he rolled in the mud of the schoolyard in his new suit and eventually his mother just kept him at home. He lived in a world of his own, which made it difficult for my mother who was always branded as the bad one, but although she was tough and hard at times somebody had to rule, I suppose. She was super-sensitive as well … we all were. It made for lots of dramatics and my father would have his hand on the handle of the back door, always looking to escape our racket.’
Passionate about fires, inside or out, he spent summer evenings tending crowds of them in a field full of sunset.
(from ‘A Quiet Man’)
‘There’s something very pagan in those lines,’ I said. ‘He was a real pagan! He loved fires. There is another short poem, “Burning Rubbish”, in which I describe him as standing still among the blazes like a Roman general. Before he died it seemed some mad dream to be a writer but his death was the catalyst. Daddy died when I was 27 and I was devastated. I didn’t expect it … he was an old man with cancer … his time had come. I dreamt that I was stitching his dead body up, trying to make it come back to life like with Pangloss in Candide, which I was studying at the time, but he just smiled and shook his head as if he was very tired. I was so upset and in all my madness and ranting, the selfconsciousness melted away. Life was too short for that and so I started writing poems. The original impulse was to write a poem about him. I couldn’t do it. I had made many attempts but they all fell flat. It wasn’t until I was close to completing my fourth book that I was in Waitrose one day and wrote “A Quiet Man” in two minutes on the back of my shopping list. It came out just like that. It must have been growing inside me. You could say that poem took two
‘The three-card trick men used to come to the horse fairs. My father must have remembered them from when he was little. There was a famous horse fair in Cahirmee and the three-card trick men would go there, rangy-looking fellows in flat caps who’d go to all the fairs and carnivals. You would have to find the lady, guess which card was where. They would first come to the pub in Burnfort and ask my father for a cardboard box, which they’d set up for their cards and my father would go weak with excitement. A man in his seventies, he’d cry, “They’re here, the three-card men! They’re here!”’
‘Were they tinkers?’ ‘They were what my mother would describe as “next door to tinkers”. I don’t know if they were tinkers. She told
Marius Kociejowski: Once Upon a Time in County Cork