Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce

Earlier this year I attended the presentation of the 24th Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in the Irish Embassy in London. The prize itself was won by Charles Townshend for his The Republic: the fight for Irish independence 1918-1923, but the judges also gave a special award for this collection to Colette Bryce, born in Derry but now based in Scotland, to honour the memory of fellow Derry poet Seamus Heaney.

It's a tremendously good collection. Bryce summons up and conveys what it was like to grow up in Derry in the 1970s and 1980s, focussing on the family home but looking also at what was happening outside, exploring the contradictions between warmth and claustrophobia, her relations with her mother, violence both domestic and political, and finding new ways to be oneself in a stranded society.

The central poem, from which the collection takes its name, is simply called "Derry", and I make no apology for reproducing it here. Some will notice that it leans on Louis MacNeice's "Carrickfergus", but it goes its own way and delivers a hefty punch at the end for those of us who like her have chosen the path of exile. (NB that there are some difference between this and the version first published in the Irish Times in 2009.) It is surely going to be a classic in children's textbooks to come.

by Colette Bryce

I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside
      to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass,
by the river Foyle with its suicides and riptides.
      I thought that city was nothing less

than the whole and rain-domed universe.
      A teachers daughter, I was one of nine
faces afloat in the looking-glass
      fixed in the hall, but which was mine?

I wasn't ever sure.
      We walked to school, linked hand in hand
in twos and threes like paper dolls.
      I slowly grew to understand

the way the tall Cathedral cast
      its shadow on our learning, cool
as sunlight swerved from east to west.
      The adult world had tumbled into hell

from where it wouldn't find its way
      for thirty years. The local priest
played Elvis tunes and made us pray
      for starving children, and for peace,

and, lastly, for 'The King'. At mass we'd chant
      hypnotically, Hail Holy Queen,
mother of mercy
; sing to Saint
      Columba of his Small oak grove, O Derry mine.

We’d cross the border in our red Cortina,
      stopped at the checkpoint just too long
for fractious children, searched by a teenager
      drowned in a uniform, cumbered with a gun,

who seemed to think we were trouble-on-the-run
      and not the Von Trapp family singers
harmonizing every song
      in rounds to pass the journey quicker.

Smoke coiled up from terraces
      and fog meandered softly down the valley
to the Brandywell and the greyhound races,
      the ancient walls with their huge graffiti,

arms that encircled the old city
      solidly. Beyond their pale,
the Rossville flats – mad vision of modernity;
      snarling crossbreeds leashed to rails.

A robot under remote control,
      like us, commenced its slow acceleration
towards a device at number six,
      home of the moderate politician

only a hoax, for once, some boys
      had made from parcel tape and batteries
gathered on forays to the BSR,
      the disused electronics factory.

The year was nineteen eighty-one,
      the reign of Thatcher. ‘Under Pressure’
was the song that played from pub to pub
      where talk was all of hunger strikers

in the Maze, our jail within a jail.
    A billboard near Free Derry Corner
clocked the days to the funerals
      as riots wrecked the city centre.

Each day, we left for the grammar school,
      behaved ourselves, pulled up our socks
for benevolent Sister Emmanuel
      and the Order of Mercy. Then we'd flock

to the fleet of buses that ferried us
      back to our lives, the Guildhall Square
where Shena Burns our scapegoat drunk
      swayed in her chains like a dancing bear.

On the couch, we cheered as an Irish man
      bid for the Worldwide Featherweight title
and I saw blue bruises on my mothers arms
      when her sleeve fell back while filling the kettle

for tea. My bed against the door,
      I pushed the music up as loud
as it would go and curled up on the floor
      to shut the angry voices out.


My candle flame faltered in a cup;
      we were stood outside the barracks in a line
chanting in rhythm, calling for a stop
      to strip searches for the Armagh women.

The proof that Jesus was a Derry man?
      Thirty-three, unemployed, and living with his mother,
the old joke ran. While half the town
      were queuing at the broo, the fortunate others

bent to the task of typing out the cheques.
      Boom! We'd jump at another explosion,
windows buckling in their frames, and next
      you could view the smouldering omission

in a row of shops, the missing tooth
      in a street. Gerry Adams' mouth
was out of sync in the goldfish bowl
      of the TV screen, our dubious link

with the world. Each summer, one by one,
      my sisters upped and crossed the water,
armed with a grant from the government
      - the Butler system's final flowers -

until my own turn came about:
      I watched that place grow small before
the plane ascended through the cloud
      and I could not see it clearly any more.
Tags: bookblog 2015, poetry, world: northern ireland

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