“The Other Side of Things” and other poems by Robyn Rowland

I. The Other Side of Things.

from the sequence Sky Gladiatorials

Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic, Newfoundland to Ireland, 1919.Previous to that, they both flew for Britain in World War I. Alcock ‘was the first man to bomb Istanbul’; then, with plane trouble, crashed-landed near Suvla, 1917. He was imprisoned in Kedos, Turkey.

Air is crisp in the cockpit and seeded with summer
when he flies toward that once powerful city.
Constantinople, desired, mysterious, Mimar Sinan’s
mosques of exquisite geometry defining its shape.
Libraries bulge with rare illuminated books.
A city lovely in both poetry and Churchill’s dreams
sits unaware of the bombs Alcock clutches under his plane

The boy Irfan Orga is nine, father taken to the war,
never to return, his small brother ill from hunger,
grandmother sharing their two rooms, hampered by
new poverty, their home burned out by fire,
everything of beauty gone. In Mahmut Paşa Street,
his mother struggles through the crowded market to forage,
unused to being in public, to being touched like that.

She barters her family wedding gifts and silk-woven rugs
for any food possible. She sells them slowly, daily.
That day Irfan is carrying haricot beans and dried peas,
when just behind the station on the cobbled street,
across the Golden Horn three planes appear.
He never saw such a thing, wings and whirring. He wishes
he could fly. His mother is rooted into the stone street.

Deranged by fear, she grabs him to cower under a tattered
shop-awning she believes will hide them from the eyes
of pilots, field mice under a hawk’s gaze.
A roar, a shattering explosion, shaken earth and dust pall,
the mutilation, cartloads of lolling heads, limbs akimbo,
disconnected flailing stumps and the surprised wounded,
the de-limbed, faceless, the horses speared with their own carts.

This was the first bomb. They meant to hit the war office
but the bombs went wide, a man said. No-one believed him.

 

On the Beach

Bozcaada Island, Turkey

There is a bride in glorious white froth, laughing,
her black Turkish hair a net of breeze,
new husband stumbling on the rocks grinning, because
after the photographer leaves, she holds a selfie-stick.

There are two women friends, Meral and İlknur,
ambling, chatting, looking for deep-sea fossils set in stone
to embellish İlknur and Şefik’s home he builds nearby,
its stone and tiled beauty emerging from his dream.

I trail behind, head down for the small shells,
Trivia levantina found only here on Bozcaada,
exquisite false cowries, tiny ridges ringing them,
their tail canals rose-pink or purple.

There is a giant ship beached, Egyptian, looming
into a white sun streaking the sky pink with ebru clouds
trawling across the tankers far out and strobing towards us.
The ship’s name is Mercy God, a kind of hopeful prayer.

Shipwrecked last winter, fierce winds drove it sideways
ashore onto this beach, a grimace of cold sand.
Its cargo of onions was rotting for months,
a stench to banish all but the desperate.

Such strong women, we joke as I film my two slight
friends leaning on the ship like tiny ants pretending
to push it out, its hulk now home to crabs, birds
Up near its prow you can just make out Arabic for Allah.

Tiny shoots are rising like small green wings
out of the golden dunes nearby. Watermelon, Meral tells me,
someone’s been having a picnic and yes, they will grow
and the fruit will come for summer. You will be here.

On the way back past the darkening hull there lies a faded lifeboat.
Seal-grey with orange fluoro trim, it is half-buried now.
I had almost missed it, so much sand on its torn belly.
I quiz my friends – From the ship, I imagine?

No. Syrians, Meral instructs me, suddenly grim, and the way
she accents it – Surians – takes me a minute to absorb the facts,
sea now swallowing a sun burning orange with its last breath.
They tried the sea. They did not make it to Lesvos.

I am told like a child barely able to grasp meaning.
Beside the wreckage sits just one shoe, a man’s walking shoe,
faded brown suede, its many laces salt-stiff. My eyes are
pegged to it, cannot leave it. I am glad there is nothing else.

Across the narrow Mytilini Strait on Lesvos, women
are beachcombing too. They collect children’s clothing washed up.
They itemise, they clean it for those who might still come,
who survive crossing the sea of death that gulps them by the boatload.

Included in debris from three thousand dead in the Mediterranean –
a tiny pink long-sleeved shirt with boat neck, for a girl, size three months;
small black stretch pants with nylon sequined bows, size two years;
a pair of sky-blue heavy fleece pants, for a boy, aged five.

 

I. Family Catalogue August 1880

from the sequence Touchstones

for Annie Harding Lambert and Joseph Lambert, married in Kilmallock in 1861,
cursed with scarlet fever 1880

That year the Observatory in Armagh for the first time recorded
bright sunshine data using a Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder.
Loving Katharine O’Shea met married Charles Parnell. History changed.
Susan Kate Lambert was 14, fate a flush in her bright-cherry lips,
when August 22 she died of scarlatina. The windows were already boarded.

That year the Irish Land League refused to harvest potatoes for
Captain Boycott and England paid ten million pounds
to get the crop in. Maria Jane Lambert was 10, still snuggling up
when crimson fuchsia dropped its silent bells, August 11.
and ill, her strawberry tongue peeled. No boycott for this.

Rebel bushranger in Australia, Ned Kelly had been captured. Joseph Lambert
named for his father, died at 4, August 21, fever burning brighter than turf
in the grate. Irish Renaissance began its flowering, women entered
medical schools. The red mist snuffed out Charles Edward Lambert aged 1,
August 5. Ned was 25. Such is life, he said, before they hanged him.

Contagion slunk deep into the corners of the house. Feral, it scuttled
across beds, breathing down sleeping throats, to bloom scarlet from inside
and all the love that exhausted itself in holding and mopping, wasted
by the upturned sods in the graveyard. Famine was still lurking,
a bad year in the West. Joseph, heart failing, was pensioned out.

Her own namesake at 7 months had coughed her way out of life in ’75.
But four children dead in a month. Too many for headstones. Fear carved
into Annie’s face, whittled her youth. How to keep the last three alive –
8, 13, 16 – boys she needed to become men? Big windows, clean air. Yes.
Big fields to run. Not a damp turf-smoked room, sun scratching at the glass.

 

II. Annie Harding Lambert Limerick, 1880

Four children dead to scarlatina, August 1880

Razored my long hair.
Hung it in shreds
at the windows.
Started on my arms.
Want them slit,
splintered glass.
Rough, spiky shards
that pierce right in.
Violent madness.
Strong.
Maybe I can terrify him too.
Frighten him off
with my banshee pain,
mighty howling grief.
Hold him back
in my sharpened arms,
all spikes.
Bleed him.
Old Red Breath.
Old greedy bastard.
I think – Red is it?
I can give you Red!
I tore myself, tore myself
till Joe stopped me.
Bound my talons back
with his tears.

 

Moon Dreaming

Bone white, the full moon
threads itself round curtain cracks,
through the lace cloth of my heart,
the same moon that lays itself
on your sheet of water
harboured below your window,
far away in space, in time,
both of us on islands, decades apart.
You placed a shell ring on my finger.
The sea gave it to you for me.
Solid twist knotted where a gem might be,
its interior is softly polished, the inside
of an oyster, from which the pearl fell.

 

that together, we went

(also published in Poetry Ireland)

that we went out, the neighbours,
one deaf since birth, alive to music and words,
chock-full of imagination,
the other intelligent and curious.

that we went out, friends,
along the Connemara shoreline with its jagged hurt,
its timeless stories of lost roofs off houses,
stone-walled gables standing alone now.

that we went out
to the local hotel, new and about to struggle
that held its opening, and we went,
past the ragged houses and the early evening.

that coming home, together with a glass too many,
road along the shoreline bending and swaying
like old Dylan songs they had played,
and against the still-high sun at late evening

one cow stock-still on the ridge of hill near home
a glaze of tangerine sky on its rump
and behind all blue, like that’s what heaven is.
and knowing that this is the feeling that’s best,

fluid old-fashioned thanks, almost in tears
for the friendship and the slow ways home
and the twilight, dripping orange and blue
under a three-quarter moon before summer.

All poems are published in Mosaics from the Map (Doire, 2018).


Robyn Rowland is an Irish-Australian citizen living in both countries. She regularly works in Turkey. She has written 13 books, 10 of poetry. Her latest books are Mosaics from the Map (Doire, 2018) and her bi-lingual This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 (Five Islands, 2015; repub. Spinifex Press, Australia, 2018), Turkish translations, Mehmet Ali Çelikel. Robyn’s poetry appears in national and international journals and in over 40 anthologies, including 8 editions of Best Australian Poems. She has read and taught in Ireland for 35 years and has been invited to read in India, Portugal, Ireland, the UK, the USA, Greece, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey and Italy, where, along with Canada, Spain and Japan, she has also been published, sometimes in translation. An extended interview with her appeared in Agenda Poetry, UK, December 2018. She has two CDs of poetry, Off the Tongue and Silver Leaving – Poems & Harp with Lynn Saoirse.

She has been filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Reading Archive, James Joyce Library, University College Dublin.

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