Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing October 2022.
Contemplating Change, guest editorial by Sinéad McClure.
The lights were red, refused to change,
Ash-ends grew longer, no one spoke,
The papers faded in their hands
The bubbles in the football pools
Went flat, the hot news froze…
— Hold-Up by Louis MacNeice
I thought I might be the type of person who refused to change. These last few years I have been cocooned in a time warp, lost from the pace, and proclivity of everyday life. I have grown to love this displacement. Yet, I am, as Louis MacNeice puts it, held-up, at a standstill, sitting waiting for the lights to change from red, they are always stuck on red. Is this the way the world feels now? Are we all negotiating some sort of trauma? Or have some of us left the crises behind, and decided to confront all life has to offer, even its inevitable disappointments?
Change is coming for me, whether invited or not. I am a woman at the change of her life a ghastly phrase borrowed from another era, one that is better whispered so as not to offend anyone who may be passing by when I am discussing the litany of symptoms that go from the bizarre to the downright shocking. The only upside being that during one of the worst energy crisis in living memory I can warm-up a medium sized room by body heat alone!
Levity aside, this is a serious time in a woman’s life. It’s a time when coping sometimes doesn’t happen. And when I’m stuck at the lights, I can be there for days. I can easily say I am reluctant to embrace this. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle age that when it comes to contemplating any sort of change I don’t know how to proceed.
When the end of summer comes, it is
A season by itself; when your tongue
Curls back like a sparrow’s buried head,
I would fill your mouth with rice and mussels.
—To my Grandmother by Medbh McGuckian
Then there’s loss, that permanent alteration to our lives when someone leaves us. The attempts we make to fill the space. It took me a long time to realise the only shape that fits it, is that of the one you have lost, and they must be a memory, they must be thought of as if they are still vital. My writing can become the enabler of my reluctance to change. The reimaging of lives, the stories I write and write again to reveal missing people to myself. Just as writing can enable reluctance, we know it can also be transformative.
In her poem To my Grandmother Medbh McGuckian embraces her loss with a language that offers comfort, and yet also serves to rip at your insides, to unsettle the reader, to bring them to that place they don’t want to travel to. To stare change right in the eyes, as they flicker and close forever. Her Grandmother is the summer season, and how we hate to see it leave, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.
When the light begins to leave us here in the northwest of Ireland, we try to be ready for it. This change of light, stirring cold, sharp and at times startlingly bright is noticed by its brevity come winter. It slips away gently the equinox breaks the day into two neat halves in September. Meaning this month of October becomes our passage to winter. This path can be gloriously decorated with autumn sunshine and it can also be a narrow corridor some of us don’t wish to navigate. Winter offers her chilly hand. The season moves on inevitably, and no matter how reluctant we are to greet it, we must.
I feel there is also a loss of self when we get to middle age. The realisation that letting the young person that resides with in us, leave, might be an easier prospect than holding on to her. My mother was a very youthful person. In her seventies she could have passed for someone ten years younger, she had exuberance for life, and always walked with a spring in her step. But she still faced everything women must face, and more. She didn’t live beyond that decade, but she walked through it as if she could live forever.
As I look towards those years now, I admire how she did that. I often wonder if I could do the same. I check the wrinkles, and allow them to become more than just markers of my age. I check my gait and wonder why it isn’t as swift as my mothers. I get stuck at the lights again.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves…
—Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth
This year the crows took our apples. We had wassailed the orchard after Christmas, in a tradition that has nothing to do with local myth or history and more to do with our own personal need to see a crop almost twenty years after planting the trees. On a frosty night in January we doused the newly pruned trees with cider, and wished them a happy growing season. In June we had Bramley, John O Gold, and Discovery, in different shapes, sizes and colours. It had worked. But the crows were watching the apples grow too, and on an early morning in late July a marauding murder of hoodies, rooks, jackdaws and magpies descended. It took them hours to pillage what took months to grow. I learned later that the apples would offer the birds a drink, a respite from our unusually hot summer.
Most years the apples succumb to the June Drop, this year they held on long enough to be of value to someone. One of these years we will all benefit. I can sit under the big sycamore, and watch as the fruits ripen, in the knowledge there may be enough for us, too.
What about the type of change we invite? Now in my mid-fifties I have made the decision to return to formal education. This is my time has become my mantra. I wonder why I have this need driving me to begin something so late in life. Why I want to shift my focus towards academia? The thought alone fills me with dread. Yet, it is a thought that niggles at me every year, at this time, almost as if the air of autumn is scented with collegiate promise. A promise I made to myself, a dream I always wanted to fulfill.
When I left school in the mid-eighties, I gathered together an artist portfolio, purchased one of those sleek, black A1 sized cases, housed within in it charcoal drawings, pencil sketches, chalk pastels, the life’s work of a sixteen year old school leaver. I can remember that smell, faintly liquorice, mixed with turpentine. Off I trundled to one of the most prestigious institutes in the country and to interview for a place in Fine Art.
I was three questions in, somewhere after what would be your favoured medium? When I was asked, and how will you pay for this?
I mumbled something about bar work. This was met with an unsympathetic sigh. My artwork wasn’t looked at again. In fact, the rest of the interview has disappeared in my memory. I was just left with the feeling that this is unattainable. Back then I was in good company most of my classmates left secondary school for a job, work was hard to procure in eighties Ireland and many of them went on to leave the country altogether. I stayed and got a job in a local shop, as a cashier. The college dream faded. One busy evening in the shop, as I was passing loose change back to a customer whom I recognised as a former teacher, I was offered the real motive for change when this man said sneeringly;
“Oh it’s you; Of course, a shop assistant, this is about as far as I thought you’d go.”
Whether I furthered my education or not, didn’t really matter from then on in. These are privileges afforded to the few and often taken for granted by the many. That day I vowed never to be made feel insignificant or below anyone, ever again. This small minded, highly educated person, had delivered the only lesson I needed, don’t let people define who they think you should be.
Over the years I have improved my skills through hard work, learning, and determination. Most of my education has been picked up from books, from experience, from poetry, from nature, from people, from life. The things I have discovered, what I have loved and hated find their way into my writing, just as the change of seasons work their way through my very being, unbidden, sometimes in a quiet, meditative way, sometimes loudly pronounced.
This autumn I am stalled at the lights, but I can see a flicker of amber. I will move, at my own pace, in my own time.
Extracts from Hold-up by Louis MacNeice and To my Grandmother by Medbh McGuckian taken from The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry edited by Paul Muldoon (1986 edition)
Extract from Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth (Web – interestingliterature.com).
© Sinéad McClure
Sinead’s poetry and prose have appeared online, in print and on radio. Most recently her work can be found in The Stinging Fly, Ink Sweat & Tears, Live Encounters, StepAway Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, The Poetry Bus and RTEjr radio. Sinéad won the 2022 Cathal Bui Poetry Competition. She has work forthcoming in Howl Magazine, & Southword. She is the 2022 recipient of the Roscommon Chapbook Award and her chapbook The Word According to Crow will be published in October 2022. Her chapbook The songs I sing are sisters co-authored with Cáit O Neill McCullagh is available from Dreich Press.