restricted access 7. The Parish and Lost America: The Witness of Michael Coady’s All Souls
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s e v e n The Parish and Lost America The Witness of Michael Coady’s All Souls First Worlds In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, one locale that most impressed its oddly indigenous vitality into my sense of place and self was Bay Ridge Post 157 of the American Legion. My father bartended weekends at the post, where he was elected commander in 1955, the year before my older brother was born and ten years after he had been discharged from the navy. He had enlisted at the age of seventeen in 1942 and fought in North Africa as well as in the Pacific theaters, most dangerously in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. I would come to learn how tough the fighting was in the Philippines in documentary footage and in college history courses, but as preteens my brother and I were fas­ cinated sufficiently by the medals commemorating the battles he had been in, medals that he’d framed and placed on the hallway wall outside our bedroom. We were fascinated, too, by the box of photographs in the family hope chest—men at a distance moving deliberately under palms, Bob Hope spoofing at the USO recognizable even in the closely cropped black and white of the snapshot, and most starkly the Japanese soldier staring up at me from the sprawl of his death some fifteen years before I was born. Every weekend, while my father bartended and chatted with his fellow veterans, my brother and I would play around the post, exploring 196 The Parish and Lost America  197 the upstairs function hall or running around the block’s tightly parked cars playing tag or army with the other “Sons of the Legion,” sometimes in our own snappy gray caps and uniforms if it were Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day. I can still rattle off the names of many of my father ’s cronies—Eddie Beale, George Lewis, Charlie Kerr, Frank Dillon, Sylvester Devlin, Eddie Caravone—and their faces lift to attention in my memory. Sylvester Devlin, bald, heavyset, with a pencil-thin black moustache, was an amateur illustrator. Every holiday he’d adorn the mirror behind the bar with elaborate scenes drawn and painted in washable ink—sleighs and snowscapes at Christmas, Irish hills and cottages on St. Patrick’s Day—a range of low to high-grade kitsch brought off brilliantly that would disappear from the broad glass like Tibetan sand paintings once the day had passed. Each one of these men, with their wives and children—everyone talking for hours at the bar or bellying up to the piano for the Saturday night sing-alongs—embodied a unique and unrepeatable intersection with history, whether directly or, like my brother and me, generationally. Here, with all of its ingrown welter and indigenous verve, was the parish life—not at first self-evidently worthy of a poet’s fledgling effort at commemoration: some would-be Patrick Kavanagh of the American parochial capturing a speck of the universal in the particular, its familiar faces washed from the bar mirror along with the holiday dazzle. Of course, the crucial importance of Patrick Kavanagh for the generation of Irish poets succeeding those who practiced their art in Ireland in the immediacy of Yeats’s shadow is by now a commonplace. Kavanagh’s temperamental and aesthetic decision to privilege the parochial over the provincial opened an imaginative laneway for poets like Kinsella, Montague, and Heaney, whose reputations would come to range beyond parish, province, and nation to enter the region of global recognition. It was always Kavanagh’s assumption that the local housed the universal and that what Heaney (echoing Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”) would later call the “first world” was actually the whole world in mi­ crocosm. Though more the classically oriented poet, Michael Longley ’s evocations of Carrigskeewaun follow Kavanagh’s precept, as does Eavan Boland’s labor to make the suburbs a viable locus for her poetry, itself a combination of the parish and an Irish adaptation of American feminist poetics. Derek Mahon’s “Glengormley,” by contrast, evokes 198  r e ad i n g s the poet’s refusal of the local as a repository of the universal, so fraught is home with conflict and deadly sectarian conflict. Mahon’s “The Hudson Letter,” in turn, reveals that poet’s assent to the condition of homelessness in the multicultural diaspora of contemporary America. In a different vein, Paul Muldoon’s eclectic and at times...


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Subject Headings

  • National characteristics, Irish, in literature.
  • Irish Americans in literature.
  • American poetry -- Irish American authors -- History and criticism.
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