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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing February 2023
Objects of Possibility, guest editorial by Eileen Sheehan.
People with no discernible sense of humour always make me uneasy: and so it was with that austere woman my mother paid occasional visits to when I was a child. It was a time in Ireland when neighbours dropped in to neighbours to catch up on the local news over cups of tea, home-made bread and Marietta biscuits. Usually, I didn’t mind being brought along on these excursions, except for that one house which repelled and fascinated me in equal measure.
The woman lived on her own in a tall, narrow house. We entered by a side door into a small, square hallway which she called the vestibule. To the right was a stairs with wooden handrails along each wall. At the top of the stairs was a small landing with three steps going off to the right, and three steps going to the left.
The landing had a window in front of which stood the strangest plant I had ever seen. It was large and ungainly and always cloaked in dust. The leaves were dull green with pale-silver spots. They were shaped like elongated hearts and when the sun shone through the window a red glow emanated from the underside of the leaves. The sun also made visible an elaborate tracery of cobwebs which seemed to be holding the plant in place, preventing it from tumbling down the stairs under its own considerable weight.
She led us left, into a room of glass walls. The only time she acknowledged my presence was to point to a chair on the far side of the room, indicating where I should sit. She and my mother sat on the other side, speaking in low tones. I imagined that everything she had to say must have been a secret. I contented myself by sitting quietly and studying the objects in the room; sepia photographs in ornate silver frames; a tall lamp with a blue glass globe; walking sticks with silver handles; black lacquered side tables populated with clocks and brass ornaments.
Every visit, the same ritual; the stairs with its steps to right and left, the window, the plant precariously balanced on its bamboo stand, the room with three glass walls, the muffled chat. Until one day I broke the dusty spell by walking up to her and asking her what the plant was called. For a second she looked startled, as if she had never realised I could speak.
“It is, of course, an Aspidistra”, she said. Then she looked away from me and everything slipped back to how it had been before.
I carried the word home with me, repeating it under my breath so I wouldn’t lose it on the way.
“Then you’ll remember your life
as a book of candles,
each page read by the light of its own burning”
Li-Young Lee, from “Become Becoming” / Behind my Eyes
I have always felt that the worlds of memory, dream and imagination are no less real, no less important, than the present waking world we inhabit. Even now, I can’t honestly say if anything I have told you so far is true. Did that woman really exist as I described? Is my memory of her coloured by later additions; things my mother told me; things my sisters may have said? Is she a composite character, made up of all the different older women I encountered as a child? Did I invent her in order to articulate a child’s feelings of unease in strange surroundings?
Does it matter?
She is real to me. She is part of my story. A small part of the memory story that makes me the me that I am.
Did I invent myself? Do we all invent ourselves through the memories we carry?
Memory on its own is probably insufficient for such a huge task. Memory is fugitive, sometimes illusory, often subjective and fractured by emotion: always in danger of being lost. Maybe we create ourselves through the stories we hang our memories on.
While my brother was transcribing
the Latin names of medicines
into cloth-bound ledgers
in the office where he worked
and the Woodbine on my father’s lip
to a long, grey ash
she freed me
into my new element:
not a bit amazed
at being born.
My sisters were fetched back
from the neighbour’s
down the road
the eldest who was nine
how she’d plait my hair
and paint my toenails pink
the other, who was four,
locked her great dark eyes on me
and swore revenge
on this boneless, mottled thing
who dared usurp her place
as youngest child.
I smiled and father said
Ssshh, an Angel ‘s passing
I remember none of this.
Eileen Sheehan, first published in The Stinging Fly/ Issue 5/ 1999
I can tell you, that bifurcated stairs was real, and that window and the plant …all real. I carry the image, like a snapshot imprinted on my brain. Child me instinctively chose it as a grounding object on entering that strange house. Child me kept it safe in her memory bank, for future use. I can also tell you that the plant was not, of course, an Aspidistra. Young children believe that adults know everything, so I had not doubted her answer. It was years later I learnt that the plant was a type of Angel Wing Begonia. Through her inadvertent lie she gifted me a new word: a word which I have cared for all these years, a word which is often central to my writing practice.
It was mid-January when I first sat down to write this. I opened a new document, gave it a title, and saved it. Opened it up again and stared at the blank page for the longest time. Truth is, I had no idea what to write about. To compound matters, snow had fallen overnight and it was calling to me to come outside. Snow that stays on the ground, even a few inches of it, is still a rare occurrence in Killarney. Off I went. In my defence: this area is classed as a place of outstanding natural beauty, so how could I resist seeing it resplendent under snow? Besides, my deadline was ages away.
My good friend, Ms Procrastination, happily accompanied me on my ramble through the National Park. All the time I was walking I was also thinking. Opening my mind to the possibility of a subject. As if an idea would suddenly pop up through the snow, waving its little arms, saying, Here I am. Write me!
Well, that didn’t happen.
It was a full three days before I opened up that document again. It was still blank. But this time I meant business. To mitigate against any distractions, I closed my eyes and visualised that stairs, that window, the Aspidistra: grounding myself in my space. As I opened my eyes I noted a small vase that has been on my desk for years.
The vase has a dark blue glaze and is elliptic in shape. It has two faces embossed into its surface. When I noted it that morning it was turned so that I could see half of each face in profile. Janus, the god of two faces: one looking towards the past, the other looking towards the future. Like that stairs, with three steps leading right and three steps leading left. Janus, protector of gateways and boundaries.
I felt as if I had been granted the ability to pass freely through these liminal spaces where memory and imagination, past and future, dream and waking, are all interconnected: real and present.
I touched my fingers to the keyboard, and I wrote:
“People with no discernible sense of humour always make me uneasy: and so it was …
© Eileen Sheehan
Eileen Sheehan is from County Kerry, Ireland. Her most recent collection is, The Narrow Way of Souls (Salmon Poetry). A bi-lingual selection from this collection, Duet of Lakes: Eastern-Western Poets in Sympathy, is published by Junpa Books, with Japanese translations by Maki Starfield. She is widely published in journals and anthologies, including; “Days Of Clear Light – A Festschrift in Honour Of Jessie Lendennie And In Celebration Of 40 Years Of Salmon Poetry”( Arlen House/ edited by Alan Hayes & Nessa O’Mahony); TEXT: A Transition Year English Reader (editor Niall MacMonagle / The Celtic Press);The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem (editors Eugene O’Connell & Pat Boran/ Dedalus Press); and Blackjack, with translations by Oana Lungu (editors Dorina Șișu and Viorel Ploeșteanu / Singur Publishing).
A selection of her work appears on Poetry International web with an introductory essay by Paul Casey. She has read at festivals in Ireland and abroad including The Shanghai Literary Festival; the ACIS Conference in Davenport, Iowa; The Cork International Poetry Festival and Listowel Writers’Week.