In his pamplet The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs pieces together the life of an elusive grandfather, using limited documentation and ample imagination. In the telling of this tale, the poet blends the historical with the contemporary.
The grandfather originates from Ireland, but his nationality becomes hidden by a misspelt name and inaccurate records. Nonetheless the poet’s researches into this Irish immigrant brings him to the ‘Irish Question’.
Canary Wharf, 9 February 1996
The ripple skipped across the capital,
vandalising like a naughty child
but, tiring in a mile or two, did little
more than agitate our patio windchimes.
Actually that carillon came first
before the thud that kicked the floor and raised
for one of us a question in dynamics:
what sort of shock-wave shook the Chinese bells?
I’m at the outside edge of this explosion.
Nothing’s primed me, packed down powdered grudge;
and I don’t know the deep slow burn of peat
or the winding length of memory’s fuse.
Grandad Thomas took a shorter view
and made his exit. Did he come here
half-intending to confront the landlord
or simply crossing to the other side?
What I appreciate here is the way the narrative voice calmly describes being on the edge of a sudden violent historic event without initially being aware of what was happening to the ordinariness of life as the patio windchimes shook and the floor thudded. The matter-of-fact language and playing down of any drama is reinforced by the opening of the second stanza with the word ‘Actually’, then there’s a nice turn with the slightly detached ‘question in dynamics’ before the third stanza grasps deeper matters.
‘I’m at the outside edge of this explosion.’ seems to me to insert a clever and double frame. Literally outside edge, as described in the first stanza, yes; but also in terms of the poet’s roots and the Irish part of his inheritance. And then we have the loaded language of the stanza’s second line with ‘primed’ and ‘packed-down powdered grudge’, and the carefully chosen images of ‘the deep slow burn of peat’ and ‘memory’s fuse’.
The final stanza steps back to consider the much wider question of the ambiguities and conflicts within the treacherous history of the relationship between the British and Irish. The enigmatic figure of ‘Grandad Thomas’ is a sort of cipher for this. The fact is even if it can never be known what potential allegiance and intent lies within the psyche of the emigrant, the fact of his origin begs the question. And that word ‘half-intending’ suggests that maybe he might have been unsure himself.
This is a poem which, in four four line stanzas manages to cover a lot of ground with economy and carefully chosen words and images, each stanza making its own discrete contribution to the way the Canary Wharf bomb sends shock-waves out and back…
…and forwards, since three pages later another poem, Blood Lines, answers the poet’s question with more questions, demonstrating the difficulty of seeking a connection with the past through the culture of the present.
It’s that quart of blood again:
its need to feel important brought me here
and hopes my genes will twitch like iron filings
near a magnet when they sense a pull
from north to south across the border.
The statue of the patriot MacDiarmada
looks south along the road towards his cottage –
which is closed today. A scribbled note says
The key is at the farm house down the lane.
Which way is down? More ambiguity:
what turns a partisan into a terrorist
or makes an automatic hero of a martyr?
Who says an emigrant’s a runaway or traitor?
I’d like to claim that – like my blood-inheritance –
some freedom-struggle rhetoric still flows
in Irish lilting syllables, unstrangled
by capillaries of English self-control.
As yet, my words can’t manage to take sides.