restricted access 12. Soundings and Erasures: An Irish American Poet Digs Up His Past
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t w e l v e Soundings and Erasures An Irish American Poet Digs Up His Past Bridge Atop the bookshelf across from the desk in my study I’ve propped an old postcard of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge a friend sent me several years ago, a thoughtful gesture to modestly commemorate my Brooklyn origins. The photograph, taken at night, is a time exposure, so the bridge appears vaguely hieratic with its hazy coronas of streetlamps outlining the tousled shadows of trees along the Belt and its oddly deserted parkway , its bike path curving along the wall and breakwaters where New York Harbor churns into Gravesend Bay. In the near distance Staten Island is an unbroken swatch of hills, rough-edged charcoal that highlights the Narrows shimmering below those vaulting towers with their cables hung like strings of pearls across the sky. The sky itself appears something out of Magritte—bright against a world incongruously dark. The whole effect recalls the scene at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the aliens, our lost cosmic brethren, descend in the lightshow crescendo of their mother ship to inaugurate a new dawn of global oneness and universal knowledge, all portended by their sounding , solving, harmonious passage here. Though not exactly in the spirit of Steven Spielberg, I picture the advent of the Verrazano in my booklength sequence of poems, The Narrows, with what I hope is a similar if less atmospheric sense of wonder, recollected in “Bridge View” through the lens of adolescence: 367 368  th e w a k e o f e v e r y th i n g go n e The grandeur of the tower was nothing at first but our surmise at what it would become, gleaned from rumors; though before long we watched the stanchions’ gradual ascent above Shore Road’s distant stand of trees where Third narrowed to its vanishing point.1 Other memorabilia crowd the shelf: among the knickknacks, Mass cards, shells, and idiosyncratically meaningful schlock are a birthday card from my brother, a Tibetan Buddhist, depicting a mandala of Vaj­ rabhairava, the destroyer of death, and a card in which a man pushes his car down a seemingly endless road past a sign that reads “Next Gas 250 miles.” Beside it is the crest of three oak leaves and its caption describing the Tobin family name and history, bought in a Dublin tourist shop for my parents during their first and only visit to Ireland before they died, with the family motto “Do Not Touch Me” (“Noli Me Tangere,” the words of Jesus spoken to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection) inscribed below the name. Nearby is the antique marriage photograph of my mother’s parents, Nora and Martin, who met in the New World townlands of urban Brooklyn. An anthropologist coming on this peculiar mélange of personal affiliations , commemoratives, and bric-a-brac might construct a convincing exegesis from this panoply of non sequiturs, assuming she thought it worth the trouble, though what she could not do is orchestrate the narrative that binds together my unlikely archive through the complex personal, familial, cultural, and historical interrelationships and choices that brought them together on a dusty bookshelf in Dorchester, Massa­ chusetts. Everyone, I suspect, accumulates such uniquely eccentric materials in their lives—markers, traces of the elusive plot line that formed them and of which they are a part. On a grander scale, cultures may be understood in kind, engendering through selection, shaping and keeping eidolons of self-definition, in order to know what and who they are and to puzzle over that knowledge. What if we all were like the student “cyborg” interviewed recently on Scientific American Frontiers, who strap­ ped a digital camera to his back to record everywhere he had been, or would be, each day downloading his unfolding retrospective to a mainframe for eternal preservation? But the real substance of memory is se- Soundings amd Erasures  369 lection, as it is with culture and history. “We all drink from a leaking cup,” William Matthews reflected in his poem “Memory,” and in “The Wolf of Gubbio,” “art remembers a few things by forgetting many.”2 Matthews’s latter observation goes to the heart of the matter, particularly for the poet who would venture to plumb the historical and not only the personal. So much of history that might spark a poet’s compositional fire needs to find its imaginative and dramatic focus, its native intensity...


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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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