blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Get Up, You Abyss

The curtain billows inward, hangs on the air, and slaps back into place against the screen. It does it again. Outside, the wind changes direction. Air is sucked out of the darkened room; air rushes back in. The curtain billows, slaps. Every few times this happens, you catch a glimpse of an emerald yard, a few lawn tools, a bucket—things left behind by someone who was out there, once, maybe yourself. It is a sunny day and if the wind wasn’t so constant and strong, the happy calls of songbirds would come in through the open window, announcing early autumn or late spring. Billows, slaps. You can’t look away and you notice that your skin tightens every time the curtain moves. It seems alive, or possessed, or timed to a complex rhythm that you cannot quite catch. Your stomach tightens in progressively tighter knots—like that part of a dream when you realize that you are being watched and cannot escape the person doing the watching and the dream is no longer a dream but a nightmare. Staring at this window, sitting in this darkened room, you are certain that the next time the curtain lifts, someone will be standing there, looking at you. His eyes will be wide but the muscles in his face will be slack; all of his features will seem drawn into horrible, empty, horizontal lines. You cannot move. All your life you’ve known that once, someday, you would look out the window and see this kind of face—empty and terrible and meaning certain death. The curtain falls. Slap. Rises again. The sound of wind, of air on forest and endless space. You are still alive.


“Those are gypsies,” I say.

“How can you tell?” he says.

“How can’t you?”


The day we leave for County Clare, the country’s media is gripped by the discovery of an arm in a field in Dublin’s western suburbs. The following day other body parts are discovered in a stream. By nightfall the fingerprints reveal the limbs to belong to a known heroin dealer. The Gardaí declare a search to find the killers. One year earlier, an arm belonging to a convicted rapist was found on Shankill Beach in South Dublin. A year before that, an arm and a leg washed up on a northern Dublin beach. Elsewhere today, two brothers are found deceased of gunshot wounds in other northern suburbs. The news doesn’t match the rolling, shimmering countryside. We spend a lot of time listening to the radio on long, winding drives through the western parts of the country. A call-in show recommends that a neighbor not phone the Gardaí when she overhears the woman next door being beaten on a daily basis. The walls in her building are thin, the radio host says, because of shoddy construction during Ireland’s boom years. The best thing the neighbor can do is pray, hope for the best, offer up condolences and looks of understanding. This is what the radio host tells the caller, the woman wondering what she might do to stop the screams. The Gardaí cannot get involved even if she calls. In other words, the point is moot, all parties involved are on their own. In other words, hush hush, mind your own, keep a brave face. In other words, unless the body parts wash up on shore, there is nothing to be done.


Instances of death by automobile are high for a nation this size. The highways are what Americans call two-lane roads—country roads, really—and yet the actual Irish country roads are no more than rugged lanes cut haphazard into overgrowth. They twist over the hills and lack shoulders and where those shoulders should be, instead, there are stone walls. These walls are often hidden underneath sprays of wild grass and shrub. Castles that seem to manifest from nothing, imploded ruins of abbeys, windswept heaths and foaming tidal bays call out for a driver’s attention, distracting him from the road ahead. In twenty-four hours, we have blown a tire after colliding with a large, sharp boulder at the asphalt’s edge and have found a wide dent in the driver’s side door of our rental car after leaving it parked in a lot. No note, just a smear of the absent automobile’s white paint in the middle of the door. I find myself saying things like, “The fucking Irish” and “These fucking assholes don’t deserve cars the way they use them.” I sound old. In every parking lot we have seen, the lines painted to indicate where cars should be placed are not so much a guideline as a suggestion, or decoration. In a few days we will return the car to the rental agency. Upon their tally of the damage to the brand new Passat, we will be informed that Ireland is assessed the same automobile risk category as Iraq or Afghanistan. The man behind the counter will chuckle to himself because that is just the way that things are and there’s nothing to be done but pay.


These days I do not drink. After six in the evening there is nothing open in Ireland except pubs and bars and restaurants. I feel very much like the whole room hears when I ask for a club soda, and the conversation between the bartender and me devolves into a semantic debate about club soda, seltzer, and sparkling water. It is settled upon that what I want is sparkling water. The whole time, though, I’ve been staring at the equally small bottles behind the muscled bartender that read, in large blue letters: Club Soda. A bubbly, young Irish woman is talking to us. She wants to know why Americans hate gay people so much. We tell her we are from New York. We don’t know, and wasn’t it illegal to be gay here until recently? I pretend the burn of carbonation in my stomach is the same burn of a Guinness or a glass of wine or a slug of vodka. I am not supposed to think like this. It means red flags. The feeling in the belly subsides and the conversations with the drunk, friendly locals progress with the sharp edge of total clarity and consciousness. I notice how close she insists on standing, a fleck of spittle that lands on my arm from her mouth and the glossy, pink hue of her eyes. In several respects, at these moments I am too aware.


The country is deprived of color; not of the emerald and sapphire and silver of the landscape, but of black people. In the span of ten days we see maybe a dozen, a few Asians, and perhaps some North Africans. It’s a fair island and I’m aware that, like much of Europe, it has its grudges. One day, David and I take the Luas, a tram system that glides through the city’s north side. This is his first time in Europe. I am excited for him, happy to be accompanied by him after so many long, lonely journeys elsewhere. A commotion brews at the front of the train, two stops into the ride. A blonde scanger-type in a tracksuit mutters something under his breath at the ticket inspector, who in turn loudly demands to know what the boy called him. Everyone already knows.

“I didn’t call you a black bastard!”

“What did you call me?”

Almost every head turns to the front of the car.

“I didn’t call you a black bastard! I didn’t call you a black bastard!” the thin kid insists, at first to the ticket collector, then to all of us.

“I said what did you call me?”

“I didn’t call you a black bastard!”

He keeps not answering, keeps reiterating what it is that he has not said. In other words, he is saying exactly what he means. His family, his mates maybe—in similar tracksuits, or slightly stained worker’s clothes, or worn-too-thin shirts that have lost their elasticity—begin to rise. This cannot end well. David and I sit closer. He wonders why the kid keeps saying it, over and over, “black bastard, black bastard.” I wonder if they do not have stronger words for this sort of thing. I wonder when the first punch will get thrown, when the beat down will begin, as it would back home. I pull my backpack to my chest, ready to run.

But the blows are never traded. The gunshots never pop off. I have American expectations and American ways of thinking—the word nigger and the right to bear arms. The gang of onlookers, or friends, or ma-and-her-lads tumble out of the train, cursing, lighting cigarettes in the flicks of rain that always seem to be dropping from Dublin’s sky. They are angry and they seem elated. It makes no sense. One of them spits at the tram, misses, and our journey continues to the next stop, where we are among several tourists who disembark to pay fifteen euros for entry to the Guinness Storehouse and Museum.


At Ross Castle it is just past nine in the morning and the facilities are closed for the winter, though the grounds themselves remain open. Around back, a few swans drop themselves into the shallows of Lough Leane. They are joined by two gray geese. Their necks curl above the water in the crisp air as a gang of seagulls yammer at nothing, or each other, from a boat ramp. In the distance the Purple Mountain cuts through low, white fog. The sky moves fast. David and I have said that to each other several times this trip—the sky moves fast, the sky moves fast. The morning accelerates and bright blue burns through a heavy fog. The world reflects, still and perfect, in the lake. Another fog bank encroaches. Departs. This is what one sees when one wakes early. This is real life, as it happens—what all those Thomas Kinkade lovers love, buy late at night on television, have shipped to their tract housing in the flat, brown Midwest. For a second, I think I’d also love to have this sort of thing on my wall. I make quiet promises to myself, like if I lived here I would come to this place each morning. But what I really want is to possess what I am seeing inside of myself. What I really want is the perfectly damp air, the birds, the water and sky to swallow me whole.


The way a minor chord in an otherwise happy song can immediately bend the heart in the opposite direction—that’s how quickly things change. A sunny morning is steamrolled by a low carpet of clouds. I’ve never stood on beaches this gloomy before, watching surf pound rocks into submission as the shore across the bay recedes into ghost layers, one behind the other. One is jarred into a frozen state; one feels how bad it can get, how overrun by mood. But then one retires inside a small cottage, one orders a steaming cup of coffee, smells the sharp burn of peat in the stove, and that gloom takes on a special aspect—this warmth and intimacy are the counterpoint to the fury outside. The two extremes sit side-by-side and they stand out in sharper relief because of their proximity. The feeling lingers in either direction when crossing the threshold. One simply cannot let go.

That minor chord has all of the power in the world. In college, we called it the sad note—the thing on which a whole song pivots, on which a whole lifetime of feeling hinges. It would normally go unnoticed, lost amidst a flurry of other notes. But the prone feel a particular tightening inside their bodies; the gut clenches, the skin prickles. Suddenly nothing is what it was before, and one cannot go forward without the realization that the order and contentment felt for life up until this moment have been loosened, if not completely undone.

It’s been a happy trip, really. David and I have laughed a lot, slept close under blankets in drafty hotel rooms, shared delicious food, flown hawks in a pine forest between a lake and a castle, watched a double rainbow form over an ocean-side ruin, gone to tea, seen old friends, sat by fireplaces, hiked amazing canyons, gone to bed early, risen near dawn, drunk latte after latte after latte in the bright, damp afternoon. All of those things matter. All of them are good. But they are not the stray, sad note that means everything is different.


Passersby, customers at adjacent tables in restaurants, two women behind a cash register—without fail, the first syllables that I overhear do not register as words but more like a percolating cauldron of human sound. German sound. Eastern Bloc sound. The confusion lasts a few seconds and then, suddenly, my comprehension snaps back into place: it’s English, the same language as mine. But, I can’t help feeling like a piece has gone missing in that brief flash. I feel unsteady at this fact—that a mere change in cadence is liable to disrupt my mind’s ability to process the words I inherently know. In that quick flash, my bearings are spun. I feel like I am someplace further away on the globe than Ireland—Australia, India—places where I have had this problem before. It takes a few seconds to catch up to the conversation being exchanged. He’s asking for your ticket. It requires explaining, repeating one’s self, accepting that certain parts of the former empire have let go or forgotten more than others. They mind the gap, they take high tea, they offer up vacant storefronts and flats To Let. I struggle to identify the common threads and anchor lines. Our train approaches the station at Athlone. The coach is filled with small ladies, their heads crowned by tight white curls, and with rowdy French backpackers and various bodies of the same pallor. It is late. We are somewhere in the middle of the island. We slow to a stop. We do not shudder to a halt. I am trying to keep my eyes open without the help of coffee. It is likely damp outside; there are likely small rivers crossing the pebbled, uneven landscape—but it is dark and the train is lit bright inside so the only view to be had is one’s milky, thin reflection in the window. Last train: Galway to Dublin. Ten minutes late.


There was this night, once. Years ago. I’d come back to New York from somewhere with old cathedrals and shaggy men; a place where my blood ran hard and smooth from morning to morning again. I spent the evening with friends—laughing, swigging beer, stalking rowdy April streets—the first really warm day of the year. As I walked home and the tall poplars lining Houston Street became quivering silhouettes against the streetlights and the breeze came up from the harbor instead of down from Canada and my whole body prickled. I thought, I’m finished here. I’m already gone. And I knew immediately that I would never leave, that the true object of my heart was a constant state of motion—as though coming and going, accumulating and losing, is the only way to know that I am alive.

I told this story to someone and she said that’s why and I said what and she said that’s why you can’t drink because you like sadness and it gets its hooks in you and doesn’t ever let go. But at night, after another successful day in a burgeoning career, after the gym and the local-produce dinner, after the hour of television, the chapter or two before bed, the dog’s final walk of the day—after that, I’m thinking how much easier, faster, brighter, sharper, louder, and lighter life might be somewhere else, anywhere else. Those magic places, the ones where I haven’t yet lingered too long. The wet streets. The old everything. Those dynamics in the environment matter. They have hooks, too.

In the Gap of Dunloe, in the southern part of the island, David and I were the only people for miles and miles, walking inside of a deep glacial valley. I was overwhelmed by the shimmering world, by the way giant boulders seemed stacked against the laws of gravity, the way bright green and orange plants sprouted from cracks in the granite and sandstone, by the way the horizon, when you look back from the top, just rolled and rolled. I was there. I was a little dizzy from all of the beauty and, yet, I can already feel it slipping away. Memory has started smashing specifics together, creating softer composites.

But I was there, you see? I was there and now I am no longer and I can’t help but think of that line—you know? That line where that poet is busy saying so many things about an archaic bust and then stops dead in his tracks: You must change your life.


Beyond the curtain, you are in the green field. You are in the wind that never stops. A large-winged bird dips and rises overhead—too high to see its markings, to see whether its beak is curved or straight.

You are in the field and a brown mountain rises to one side and a gray cliff to the other and a rippling lake passes off to the horizon.

You are in the field and the air is sucked out of the room.

It makes an awful sound.  end  

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