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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:

They have rinsed out their mouths with cold water,
        rifted after swallowing a dram and rinsed again.
    Come on, step down into the market square
that 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 bars
of their cage, two songbirds try to sing.
        Ask these three farm boys come to town
    dressed in their Sunday best, one with a gaze
that stretches two ways at once, as if his eyes
        had been crossed by the wind, another
    with his head tilted skywards as if he hears
a 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-Ulster
in 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 eggs
and 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-front
preaches to no one of the devil’s buttermilk,
        hellfire and sin, from the book of Romans
    or Corinthians. Every morning the soul
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 hand
as, sold for a button, and for a button named,
the boy’s swept north towards an England
of chimney smoke and snow, towards snuff,
gruel, cobblestones, pipe tobacco. He’s one
of 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 empire
that would see Darwin, that flycatcher
and stone pounder, try to trap in a few syllables
the gist of fly or stone, that would send
some cutthroat out into the swamps to pilfer orchids
for the garden of his queen. The boy, brought
into habits not his own, tries his tongue
round 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 works
across 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 wheels
of a cart crush a shoeless beggar’s toes.
In Walthamstow, a classmate will make a font
of his palms and try to scrub the blackness
from the boy’s skin. “This is the way we wash
our face,” he’ll sing. “This is the way we
wash our hands.” Cleanliness and...

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