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The Ether Drinkers, and: Jemmy Button

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013
pp. 305-307 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Ether Drinkers, and: Jemmy Button

They have rinsed out their mouths with cold water,        rifted after swallowing a dram and rinsed again.    Come on, step down into the market squarethat reeks of their pleasure, of pipe tobacco        and cow dung, as traveling salesmen advertise their wares—    a cure for dropsy and a cure for warts,new ointments and oils for corns and boils,        a tonic that will restore a full head of hair.    Either the body is a synonym for pain,or it’s a honed thing coaxed to humming        like a wineglass stroked seven times around the rim.    Ask the woman, with the ample bosom,straight out of some Dutch painter’s fair scene,        where a man holds two dead rabbits up    for our inspection as, behind the bent barsof their cage, two songbirds try to sing.        Ask these three farm boys come to town    dressed in their Sunday best, one with a gazethat stretches two ways at once, as if his eyes        had been crossed by the wind, another    with his head tilted skywards as if he hearsa tune from the beyond. It could be a lyre,        though more likely it’s a fife, a Lambeg drum,    for this isn’t ancient Greece but mid-Ulsterin 1882 or 1881. It could be Omagh, it could be        Draperstown, where, more than elsewhere,    men seek out “a strange voluptuousness,”“a lascivious dream,” inhaling coal gas        bubbled through milk, cooking shoe polish    for its solvent, or swapping straw-flecked eggsand homemade bread for a substance        that strikes its match in each of them,    that has the spirit cartwheel past the village store,where a calico cat stretches out on a sack of flour        and yesterday’s news yellows in the sun,    where a man with his collar on back-to-frontpreaches to no one of the devil’s buttermilk,        hellfire and sin, from the book of Romans    or Corinthians. Every morning the soul [End Page 305] chooses a set of clothes to go with its clown shoes        before hobbling out into the ring. Every evening    it takes up a shovel to clean up after the elephants.In between times, if it wants to, it can swing        above silence and the shadow of its undoing    like a sequined girl hanging from a trapeze,a pin-striped boy cranking a hurdy-gurdy, or        these ladies and gentlemen rising in the basket    of their inebriate balloon. Take my hand, step down,my dear. Let us frolic together now on the ether.

Jemmy Button

Not gold, silver or brass, but mother of pearl—the object that glints still in his uncle’s magpie handas, sold for a button, and for a button named,the boy’s swept north towards an Englandof chimney smoke and snow, towards snuff,gruel, cobblestones, pipe tobacco. He’s oneof the lost tribe of the Welsh, the captain jokes,a wandering Jew without Sabbath or shofar.He’s a coin in the closed fist of an empirethat would see Darwin, that flycatcherand stone pounder, try to trap in a few syllablesthe gist of fly or stone, that would sendsome cutthroat out into the swamps to pilfer orchidsfor the garden of his queen. The boy, broughtinto habits not his own, tries his tongueround words the crew spit onto the salt-thick air.“Dog” he says, then “God,” its anagram.“Ox” for the loose beast, all horn and hoof,he sees run rampant through Montevideo’s docks.“Scourge” for the whip the first mate worksacross one errant sailor’s back. “Blood”for the rouge that spills out of the wound.Rousseau’s bon sauvage, a sideshow ruse,by these gifts, Fitzroy tells us, he’ll be improved—cleaved, severed, cut off from all he knows,the deed done in the name of benevolence.In Plymouth, he’ll watch the stiff wheelsof a cart crush a shoeless beggar’s toes. [End Page 306] In Walthamstow, a classmate will make a fontof his palms and try to scrub the blacknessfrom the boy’s skin. “This is the way we wash...