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  • The Island of Poetry
  • Catherine Phil MacCarthy

After my first poetry collection, This Hour of the Tide, was published in 1994, I was asked one of those questions that aspiring authors are often asked: Who has been the greatest influence on my work? When I thought about the question, I answered that it was the experience of life itself—maybe one could call it fate—that proved the greatest influence.

I think of the place I grew up as an island. It was a farm in County Limerick, the house almost a mile from the road so we—two families, my own and that of my maternal uncle, living side by side—were islanded by fields. The townland was known as Badgersfort, Lios Brioc in Irish, and the place I went to school was Crecora that translated as Craobh Cumhra, the fragrant branch (though we were in the parish of Fedamore and lived on the boundary between the two). These possible meanings for our own place were in our heads from early on. There were four children in each house, a grandfather in ours, a grandmother next door, a community of children and adults, and it was the center of the world.

As Gaston Bachelard writes, “The great function of poetry is to give us back the situation of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it’s also an embodiment of dreams.” My home was an old two-storey dwelling built in the nineteenth century, with walls that were a meter thick, and a stone floor in the kitchen that my mother washed regularly so the color of the pebbles, here and there dark reds, green, or sand, came up vivid and smooth after a wash.

The house inscribed in us, the one we lived in as a child and daydreamed in—the place we carry around inside us—is a source of identity. It holds the first sounds we heard, the first melodies, songs, and stories, the first books we read that nourished our inner lives and imagination. The lifting of wind in the Scots pine, or the lowing of a cow after her calf, or a dog barking on a distant farm were familiar sounds to me, as well as my father singing, “I’ll take you home again Kathleen” to my mother, or “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,” or, Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly” on the radio.

Not only that: the home that inhabits us holds the memory of where we sat and heard them, the armchair, bedroom, or tree house, as well as those who read [End Page 9] to us or who brought stories or news or gifts. And to the house I would add the barns, trees, and fields that embed us in nature, afford places to play, solitude, connection to the earth. A lightning storm, a harvest moon sitting on the horizon like a giant tangerine that connects us to the cosmos, or stars on a frosty night. An early poem, “New Year’s Eve” captures that wintry atmosphere:

My sisters were gone to a dance.I could hear church bells tollingthree miles away. It carried meto my knees in the dark,

unhinging the window latch,to open out the casementon frost glistening in moonlightsatin along a slate roof,

the rustle of a cow asleep,my body naked in the rush of coldunder night things, my headturned by nothing except stars.

That is the first sense in which I speak of home as an island. The place where my feet were on the ground for the first time and the immensity of the sky was there too. Each room had a particular atmosphere. My bedroom was directly over the kitchen, shared with one of my older sisters. The wooden headboard of our bed was flat against the wall of the chimneybreast. It was the warmest room in the house—the only source of heat in the house, the heat from the Aga, was directly underneath and permeated through the landing. Warm in winter and sweltering in summer. The fire...


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