First Night ‘Lights Out’

I had always been an adventurous child. Being the youngest of three, I was frequently the first for any new experience: smoking, kissing girls, solo travels and boarding school. That boarding school experience was both the making and unmaking of me. I have an unutterable fondness for all that Newtown School gave me…

Illustrations: KatyaZhu.com

trunk

My petite mother and I heaved

the heavy trunk, patterned with studs,

thick leather handles almost cleaved

soft-skinned palms – but drew no blood.

 

To Goods carriage, down platform tiled,

we lifted the labelled, elephantine case –

farewell faces through train window smiled,

no tears on this boy boarder’s face.

 

carriage

Rowdy rail carriage, specially booked,

male-female friendships quickly made;

this loner quite content, if overlooked:

an individualist, not in the least afraid.

 

Outside the train window, passed

dark outlined fields, and lamp-lit towns

two hours later, Waterford at last,

and one old friend accidentally found.

 

 

dorm

Our bus entered granite gates,

engine stopped, shoving started,

in Autumn darkness I couldn’t locate

my dorm, slightly down-hearted.

 

At first night ‘Lights-Out’ some quietly wept

but not this boy! Boarder by choice;

school scenes still revered, treasure-kept:

fond memories recalled in quavery voice.

 

train

At first night ‘lights-out’ some quietly wept –

(but not this boy!) boarder by choice;

school scenes still revered, treasure-kept:

fond memories recalled in quavery voice.

 

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Gospel Hall Brethren

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We were the faithful, we were true:

we never knelt or sat in pews,

all seated in a circle broken,

long prayers in Ulster accents spoken;

repeated cliches too well-known:

the Quaker silence we disowned.

 

‘Sacred Songs’  sung as best able,

bap bun  on ‘worldly’ card table:

the beaded-doily covered sherry glass

rang bell-like, echoed frowned-on Mass.

 

Oh! The lisp of India-paper pages,

we were the Brethren, scriptural sages’

  • all the ladies’ heads were covered,

all the children’s giggles smothered.

We sang unaccompanied, scripture shared

but rarely was a vulnerable heart bared.

 

Sometimes scripture was properly set alight,

our ‘Upper Room” filled with holy might,

sometimes, even I, plain prayer would utter;

sheer nervous intensity caused my stutter.

 

In the summer zealous “youth teams” came –

Northern adolescents making strident claims;

uncompromising accents in small-town squares,

shouting “dear sinner-friend”, ignoring any stares.

 

‘Authorised’ black Bibles, undiplomatic tracts

presented the truth – the foursquare facts;

most ill-at-ease under these “grey skies”,

they never quite exploded “Romish lies”.

What did their “prayer letters” report?

What did local “unsaved” sinners retort?

 

Protestant plain, we were seen as a sect,

From small-minded locals, what did I expect?

Nick-named “white mice” by local people

dominated by Romanesque-style steeple.

 

Our non-conformist views gave offence;

we even made the “C of I” parish tense.

The hymns we droned failed to inspire:

no roaring trade winds, no tongues of fire.

Even the holy bun finished up with hens!

But I still believe – more than back then.

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NOTE: “Grey skies” is part of Paisley’s dictum: “We shall not exchange the blue skies of Ulster for the grey skies of the Republic.”

Familia

She vice grips her hero-husband’s hand,

heaving hormones issue high demands,

pity cannot calm deep contraction pain,

birth-waters gush, sheet shows graffiti stain:

primitive her pant, newborn stirs within,

propelled the push – let baby’s birth begin!

Lar birth

Thighs hinge, tendons rack-stretched,

ejection-effort on her red face etched;

the father’s futile fears, hopeless his tears,

abruptly a damp, dark-haired head appears:

shocked arrival – open one sceptical eye,

instinctive suckle soon silenced primal cries.

Tabula Rasa

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Did unwanted visitor carry viral curse?

Unborn baby wrestled, now in need of nurse.

 

Scan-monitor stated heart-beat missing:

unrequited, fond tummy hugs and kissing.

 

Soon her faecal-tinted tide dam-broke,

no newborn wail, deathly silence spoke.

 

Tabula Rasa* – mouth mute, empty her gaze,

baby body floppy – little for poet to praise…

 

Little girl gone, gone – listless limbs held,

pointless heart-plead, dumb tears welled.

 

Unsure guarantee: harsh natured womb,

daffodil scent, death’s unhappy perfume.

 

Petal-peeled her flesh, just womb souvenir;

tentative my embrace, many paternal tears.

 

My lips didn’t linger, porcelain-cold her cheeks;

what empty words can this poet now speak?

 

We stoic parents sobbed, pained our prayer;

no nappy changes,  her funeral to prepare.

 

Cruel joker smirked again, that April first –

Easter-empty tomb defiant, death reversed.

 

God not mocked, feeble faith rebounded,

young sibling spoke hope, parents astounded…

__________________________________________________

*Tabula rasa (Latin: “scraped tablet”, though often translated “blank slate”) is the notion that individual human beings are born “blank” (with no built-in mental content), and that their identity is defined entirely by events after birth.

My stillborn girl, Holly, was born April 1st. She was buried on Easter Monday, five days later.

illustration by Neringa Normantaite https://www.facebook.com/artistneringa/

An Online / Offline Encounter with Russia and Russians, 1975 – 2017

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Going to Russia in 2008 was a dream come true for me, I being a confirmed closet Slavophile. I first got interested in that very misunderstood continent through the suffering Christians, the dissident authors and the underground artists, in the mid-1970’s.

Then, I had become a part-time, one-man protest band, on behalf of Soviet human rights. Letters to newspaper and magazine editors were written. Window displays were created for the book ‘Three Generations of Suffering’. Banners were painted for protest marches to the Soviet Embassy. Poems about persecution were written, one or two published in religious rights magazines. Prayers were painfully uttered.

My life gained purpose and was filled with this zealous energy. I became a spiritual subversive, immersed in those Slavic prison and persecution dramas. I avidly read many translated samizdat documents detailing show-trials, unjust imprisonments, poems and sermons. I identified with those suffering citizens and those censored creatives, who went against the grain of Soviet society.

A Russian Romantic, 1975 

Dr Zhivago’s revolutionary tale of hope and loss beckoned me to this immense Slavic landscape. I longed to tramp Russia’s snow-forest landscape with the wandering Orthodox holy fools. Or, sit on a sledge, covered in furs, pulled by a troika of horses. Hear their hundred harness bells in major and minor tones, joyously ringing. Percussive horse hooves tamp frozen snow, as a sledge speeds, sliding homeward.

Overhead the star-field’s celebratory twinkling canopy smiles down a blessing. An ancient wooden church with bulbous onion dome is passed. The silence is showered with the poly-rhythmical sequence of tolling church bells. A steaming samovar of tea awaits this pilgrim at journey’s end.

I listened to Orthodox liturgies with their rumbling, resurrection echoes of religious ecstasy. I joyfully listened to the lively bright Russian campanology: such contrast to our boring tin-pot parish mono-tone bells. My feet walked Irish pavements but my soul was rooted in a Russia that probably never existed.

A Russian Pilgrimage, 2008

It had taken me thirty years to visit my adopted spiritual homeland. I travelled there with an Irish Christian NGO work-team. Our task was to help turn a big old barn into a religious retreat centre in Murmansky Verotta, near the town of Volhov, a few hours east of St Petersburg.

When we arrived in St. Petersburg, I discovered that I had to travel to separately from the rest of the Irish team. Apparently this was to avoid possible police inspection of my insufficient paperwork. The others went to the country retreat by train. I travelled with Vera, the Russian team leader, in her car.

This alteration of travel plans was to have interesting and creative long- term consequences for me. Little did I know, that when Vera brought me back to her 1930s-era apartment my later literary life was to quite dramatically change. I met her daughter, Katya, for the first time. She was 17 years old, a slightly melancholic only child.

For two hot Russian summer weeks in 2008, I helped measure wood, learned how to use a chop-saw, and helped fill attic space with fibre glass wool. Quite unconfidently, I also climbed a home-made ladder to creosote high exterior barn timbers.

From this high vantage point I looked out over the surrounding rural landscape. Abandoned farms dominated the countryside, their tidal seas of uncut grass swayed in the breeze. Nearby neighbours ate al fresco under fruit trees. Local kids cycled on the car-free roads. To top it all, many train horns randomly sounded all day, beckoning to me from behind a small forest.

As we were confined to the compound by Vera, anxious to not draw undue attention to “rich Westerners”, we met few local people. As a life-long cyclist, I convinced our Russian host to let me try out her Soviet- era cast-iron bicycle. What a bone shaker that was! I had one or two races against local children, zig-zagging around the pothole pools, letting them win, most of the time.

Another day, I escaped the claustrophobic confines of our compound, for a cycle tour of the village town-lands. I cycled that gear-less bike fast, past many barking guard dogs, chained and unchained, behind rickety fences. I cycled in figure-of-eights, around potholes on sand-topped lanes. I idled by the gigantic railway depot, taking in that vast industrial terminal view. I reluctantly turned back to the host’s house and high compound walls.

A Young Female Russian Artist Befriended Online, 2010  and onwards

Two years later I discovered Katya on Facebook and “friended” her. A lot of our early email exchanges concerned her thesis presentation. The year that she graduated I gave her my first few commissions, even though I hadn’t seen any of her art. I hadn’t a clue what she was capable of. A small financial initial risk was worth the adventurous gamble.

Katya, now in early twenties, was a post-Christian goth and wanted to be a computer-graphics artist. Over time we established a working artistic and personal friendship. She was to aptly capture many emotionally evocative images for my poems. Together we gained an expansive internet readership. In turn, my payments for her art helped her be financially independent.

My commission propositions accelerated after Katya illustrated my Russian rural poem, Summer Pastoral Scene in Rural Russia

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https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/summer-pastoral-scene-in-rural-russia/

Such was my awe for that iconic image, I had it printed on a T-shirt, on a canvas and on a watch face. On her behalf, I also submitted this image to the annual Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition.

First Collaborative Problems and Their Resolution

Just after that successful start we had a falling out. Unthinkingly, I had asked her to illustrate one of my marriage poems. Talk about a trouble maker! The role of the creative writer is to challenge society, but not to cause others to stumble in the process. There became a fraught tension between us. Because of all that internal psychological and spiritual strife, I got shingles.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and our righteousness acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away” – Isaiah 64: 6

One autumn day, during this season of psychic pain, I cycled out to the country to pick blackberries. I reflected on our complicated situation and poignantly prayed. I hated the idea of our fracturing. I knew that I needed her art and hoped that she still needed my email friendship.

An email alert sounded on my mobile phone, shortly after my supplication. We were back on track again. I was relieved. I seem to almost fall off many dangerous “precipices” in my personal life… but circumstances usually grab me, just before any perilous tumbling descent.

Katya and I then collaborated on many more poetry projects, too many to mention. One project was her cover design of my father’s texile memoir that I published. The inside covers showed an advert featuring two models snuggling under a mohair blanket. When she saw that photo, she described to me how she and her friends used to snuggle under a blanket, listening to music, giggling and drinking cups of tea. I sensed a poignancy in her telling. Based on her written images, I wrote an evocative poem for her: Stop the Clocks! https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/stop-the-clocks/

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She informed me that she cried on reading it. No one had ever admitted such an open emotional reaction to my poetry in that way before. I didn’t realise the powerful emotion that some of my writing was capable of stirring. Her reaction gave me new confidence in my poetry.

Holly: A Video Short Project, about My Stillborn Daughter

In 2014, I asked Katya to help me commemorate the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s stillbirth. Regardless of having little empathy for children, she drew many stunning illustrations for the Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan stillbirth project https://vimeo.com/77928404

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teddy

A section of our video ended up being used as dvd extra on Return to Zero, the first ever stillbirth movie. It was broadcast on religious TV in Germany in 2015. Little did I know that my “little grenade of hope” would “explode” a measure of blessing in many hearts and minds around the world.

“…there’s a consistent pattern of finding an elevated rate of mood disorders in artists and writers….mood disorders may also confer a kind of creative advantage….(these) People tend to be more intense, more mercurial; they see the world differently…”

Touched by Fire: Manic – Depressive Illness & the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison.

In December 2013 I said that I wanted to “press pause” for a while. We were trying to work on a project together which became very stop-start. I wished that I could wave a magic wand over all her self doubt and depression.

I had no intention of changing Katya, as she sometimes supposed. As the father-figure that she never had, I wished to encourage her art career. It was a bonus that Katya trusted me. She stated that I “kept my word and had shown examples of how a parent could act, apart from what she knew about her family”.

I wanted to introduce her to artist friends. I suggested a visit to Ireland. Getting out of Russia for a short while, and meeting lots of creatives might do something wonderful, sending her back to Russia rejuvenated. That idea almost worked.

Later Katya emerged from a period of silence and made me a lovely video-short tribute, using images that we had collaborated on. I was very touched by this unexpected gestures.

It was gratifying to read that her growth and faith in herself had increased, on account of our collaboration. She had wished that I was more critical about her art, as she was herself. I had proven to her that her pictures can talk to people’s hearts, even if she sometimes considered them as nothing special.

We Decide to Press Pause with Our Online Exchanges

Then she suddenly asked for a communications break, stating that she was tired of my constant attention. My attempts at benevolent care and her independent streak were possibly at odds with each other. We held different perspectives, opposite genders, very divergent ages and cultures.

I was trying to be a proxy parent but it turned out that my suggestions were not now welcome. It’s hard to get the balance between a biblical hope and naivety. I tried to capture aspects of my enthusiasm for her art in I am Your Impossible Friend

https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/i-am-your-impossible-friend/

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I wondered would our collaborations continue. I had just sent her some money, as down payment for another graphics commission. I decided not demand that back. I told her to keep it, use it for counselling and a few relaxing massages. She replied: ”that’s a true act of care and I will spend that money the way you ask, because it’s what I really need…”

Our friendship had been very interesting and eventful, even if a bit tumultuous on both our parts, for very different reasons. I had thought and prayed about her life dilemmas and crises. She, in turn, gave me lots of challenges to consider.

Her younger, atheistic outlook challenged my long-standing conservative Christian certainties. She introduced me to modern Goth-rock bands that she listened to. Her brash and mythic Deviantart art preferences starkly contrasted with my default of narrative art.

“….the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. …..The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own….” – Roman Krznaric

An Online Art Patron Reflects on Age, Gender and Culture

What had I tried to be to Katya? An art patron? Yes, because Katya needed support and thrived on artistic opportunities. Was I trying to be a parent figure? Definitely. I believed that she once badly needed such. Should I have cared less? Should I have pulled back, as some suggested? Was I really helping her? Was I possibly hindering her from personal growth?

Our last big project was a booklet collection of my poems, using her illustrations. I had promised her this publishing opportunity a few years ago. Now I had finally organised it. Twelve poems, accompanied by twelve illustrations.

Of course, I had wanted Katya to come to Dublin for the launch. I was very keen to make this happen but circumstances outside her control interrupted that grand plan. Katya kindly recorded me a video response to the booklet. To see and hear her again, after nine years, was a rewarding delight https://vimeo.com/182629151

We have had so many adventures together. We have significantly helped each other in different ways. Over many years we have tramped an adventurous and tenacious terrain together.

Her images added extra depth to what my poems were attempting to convey. Will I ever able to replace someone like her? I doubt it. Our last of many collaborations concluded recently. She spent many hours illustratiing my piano poem How to Make Stubborn Pianos Sing True. 

Piano

https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/how-to-make-stubborn-pianos-sing-true/

She poured so much of her heart and soul into her illustrations for me, over the past nine years. She was the one who perceptively “baptised” me with the appellation of “emotional nudist”. If my poems continue to rhyme with some empathy in peoples lives, I will possibly have fulfilled my life’s mission…

After seven years of successful collaborating, Katya Zhu happily moves on with her life and her art. She deeply enriched my encounter with Russia…

Gallery of Katya’s images: https://louishemmings.com/gallery/katya/

Life-long aquatic dread

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Neither parents present at first swim,

pale-pathetic, goose-bumped skin,

life-long aquatic dread quickly set in.

Arm motions awkward, geek-clumsy,

turbulent thrashed pool,  sudsy,

lungfuls of water, Louis unlucky.

 

Showers, menacing macho laughs:

swear-shouting, working class lads;

brutal cold bulk, hated Blackrock baths.

Un-muscular, myopic, merely six,

misplaced middleclass, un-virile, thick:

nude nervous, fearful sausage-pricks.

2.

Final failure at boarding school,

dog-paddle pupil sank like metal tool,

panic-paralysed at bottom of pool.

Flailing futile – is drowning my end?

Fully-clothed first-aider: poolside friend

prepared to jump… slowly I ascend.

3.

Fifty years on, feet still stupidly flap,

short-sighted blur, tight swimming cap,

infrequently visited, deep-end death-trap.

Pool-roof echoes, potent chlorine smell:

nauseated this ninny, active echo hell,

carillon relief, end-of-session bell.

Ferry journey to Father

My ninety one year old father, sending me sixty year birthday greetings and prior to yet another stair fall…

wave

Just after my 60th birthday I went on a pilgrimage to my 91 year old father. To call it just a typical family visit would be an understatement. One never knows what kind of greeting might be given going from past contentiousness, and sometime over-touchy, father.

My train journey to Rosslare and the ferry across the Irish Sea to Wales adds to the sense of mission. My journey’s end arrival was greeted by a much-weakened father.

In his time-confusion, or more likely, anticipatory excitement, he decided to get up at 4 am to try and have a shave. I wasn’t due at his house for another nine hours. The shave never happened. Other events took over.

It wasn’t his rushing about that caused him to tumble down the last few steps of his corkscrew style stairs. Unsteady in socked feet, possibly in the dark, and carrying his clothes bundle all played into this drama.

Jane, his 59 year old wife (almost my sibling, at this stage) knows better than to intervene with such a stubborn, argumentative man. Anyway, she didn’t have her hearing aids in, so didn’t hear his final fall. Intuition then stirred her to follow her quixotic husband, only to find him groaning in pain on the kitchen floor…

Torn ligaments, or possibly a fractured bone, made it very painful for him to use his age-weary legs. The shortest of journeys from chair to front door were slow, even with usual aid of walking stick.

This visit was far more pacific than many other past occasions. There were none of the expected arguments, that usually brewed in his brain. Those thunderstorms were created from innocent, well-meaning questions or comments.

But on this particular visit, other minor and unusual issues occurred. For instance, I would be talking to him, only to discover he had fallen asleep mid-paragraph, head bent low. I just waited good humoured, until he woke and we continued the conversational thread, or initiated a new one.

His repartee wordplay and wit were still very much in evidence. But so were his very boring, broken-record, pedagogical ponderings. Who cares about half-baked generalisms about 1960s American society in Louisiana? And so what about the yeast ingredient of rock buns, made by his auntie in the 1930s? I came to visit with meaningful exchanges in mind.

A curious medical development has recently started, as his eyes finally start to fail. He has occasional Charles Bonnet Syndrome episodes. Due to lack of retina stimulation, he “sees” things that are not actually there. It is not dementia.

During one conversation, he complimented a “visiting woman” on her attractive drain-pipe style dress and thanked her for coming to the party. I just played along with this. He soon got back on conversational track.

I see him once or twice a year, so that his long-suffering, ever-giving third wife can have a creative break. I asked her to consider switching off her phone, while having much-needed personal space.

To relieve a bit of the somnolent, long, face-to-face conversations, I scrubbed down the cooker and counter top. Then I relieved the pantry of some stale and mouldy food. Occasionally I would retire to rest my brain, and lie on my bed, in a rented terrace cottage, next door.

I wonder when I will see him again? Maybe that opportunity will never come, if he has a third heart attack, or possibly a stroke. Life holds many unknown adventures for us.

I hope that his end is far happier than much of his life has been. Much of his pain is part due to emotionally violent teen circumstances. There is also  his misplaced patriarchal pride and also many self-inflicted wounds.

Kindly counselling was offered to him but declined. It would have gone a long way to reaching unfulfilled opportunities, both with he and I, and also with him and his now-grown grand-children…Much more than the Irish Sea has separated us for the past 35 years…

 

Louis & Jack

I have long dreamt about celebrating our rescue dog, Jack-the-Lad. I hit on the idea of trying to capture his character, via “a day in the life” type of approach. When I met photographer Dora Kazmierak, I knew that I had the answer. She has well-curated many aspects of this adorable canine companion…

photos by https://www.instagram.com/dorakazmierak/

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Memories of Mount Ievers

A homage to a heritage house built in 1740, situated in Co. Clare. I have had some access to it for the past thirty years. Mount Ievers stands on one hundred acres of forest and field. It has survived many angry epochs of Irish history, and still remains in the hands of the family that it is named after.

Mount Ievers frontMount Ievers cattle : driveMount Ievers redbrickMount Ievers illuminationMount Ievers antlersMount Ievers lawnMount Ievers bedMount Ievers glass negs

Gallery of Mount Ievers photos: https://louishemmings.com/gallery/mount-levers/

Photographer: Dora Kazmierak https://tinyurl.com/instagram-com-dora

Which visit will be our final meeting?

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Sitting in your sunken sitting-room,

we smoked small cigars, at ease,

loud fond music, aural heirloom:

classical or jazz, both please;

 

air burnt-scented by Cuban cloak,

you cough, clear throat of croak.

 

Many years of lost connections,

kitchen-sink dramas once provoked,

paralysis cured, absent corrections:

time-short talk, not so choked;

 

we both ask questions more kindly,

soft words now bless benignly.

 

Shall we read some scripture

from shelved bible rarely read?

Happy snaps, poignant pictures,

and church shared wine and bread;

 

long silences now, daytime sleeping

– which visit will be our final meeting?