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| Athlones |
A town racked on a river, too far in,
too cosseted by land to be tossed
and turned by anything so flighty as a sea.
Always under the governess eye of Lough Ree,
bearing down in mourning silks
with a sudden tetchiness on boats
that splutter their poorly learned past tenses
much too late. The same boats on the river
are like firstborns in a county family
propped up on surnames and wide berths
on a current lately civilized, its face
scrubbed clean and all its trawl
of Latin verbs and parlour songs
boxed clean away for tomorrow morning's
class. This is a river taken in hand
and made to march along the fastness
of the Castle and the Barracks wall: it keeps
the swell of Connaught well at bay.
A two-faced river, holding the line between
the Pale and Irishtown, the to-and-fro of siege
or confiscation, dual strategies of granite and edict.
A river kept in check, though dampness
slakes the rights and wrongs, the black
and white of its unequal board
where all the lines cast themselves off
to be submerged in what cannot keep quiet,
or in tow. All its words have been vouchsafed
in the low-slung building opposite the church
that put its toe in the water once and froze,
eye to eye with upper decks and punters
waving in at readers picking past the watermark
for a change of plot or a first edition
of the way things ought to be.
Its marbled covers might anticipate a sunlight
that could open out a river's darknesses
as onyx slips or deckled, gold-leaf pages.
The apartment windows jostle for its preference
like dancers primmed in shoes too small,
their candied thank yous quite sucked dry
and their bouquet of responses clasped too close.
Such light as ventures in their recess
advances in shifts of obligation and poor grace,
stammers a thin compliment and is lured away
by a river just then letting fall a beaded string
of laughter on a wildly polished floor.
The same light tinkles down through Northgate Street
like someone running late, all streaming hair
and necklaces that chink like moorings
in a breeze, only to trip on the butcher's awnings
or be splayed in Burgess' window like a pomegranate
on an oilcloth, spilling out some exotic largesse.
It roots then in the florist's bins for cellophane
to dabble in, for colour to be sweet-talked
into giving its metallic sheath the slip.
The child with the stick of rock knows how it goes:
he is holding up the wrapper so it crinkles into rainbows
on his palm. In the Genoa Café, the girl manoeuvring
her Coke like a hand-mirror to snare the arc of brilliance
on the cloth knows too. So does the man angling a suitcase
to entice a thread of it from the swags of a plastic raincoat
coming through. A car goes past him once,
its fender spilling a hoard of light on the asphalt
and his shoe. Or the wrist that is opening a window
on the second floor clips the sun with the face of a watch,
and sprays shavings of it down on the highlights of a head
just then emerging from Estelle's Salon. Or the woman
with her bag of books turning her head to check for cars
so her glasses flick a shimmer from the river
over the bulkhead shadow of St Peter's and St Paul's.
Or the sparkler on another woman's hand
slewing announcements all over town, with
a rumour of charm in every unmatched word.
Like the saffron accent of awnings
on Indian stalls in Market Square
leaning into a clatter of hangers
that fills the seams of dresses that were
too much even when the Ritz stood still,
décolleté and shoulder-hunched,
with a hemline skirting the river
like a cotton thread spun out
between Calcutta and Hollywood;
between a full-frontal prairie sunset
and a midland dawn; between two
provinces and two elective ends.
The Galway train declaims
the middle ground, cleaves the river
to an agitated squall, and takes
hardly more than a minute to cross
the bridge, shake out its wingtip
carriages and take off again
to another place that is a fraction closer
to something about to happen
or to conclude a sweet arrangement with
a reason to go on or to go under
at the point where more than accent
slips between at one and alone,
washing up against the urge to be,
at last, at home, pacing over paths
that cast off as I do, in a bed of words,
loose as years ago, and coursing still.
That could, at any second, come
asunder in a darkening hour, or gather
as pleats of rain into a pleated river.
What matter? Its end will still engage
with gold and promises, and nothing
about the gunmetal sheen of the pavement
or the flurry of people with one purpose
in their minds can alter that. So let blinds
be drawn, cars spill muck and piecemeal darkness
on his shoes. Let the woman step out of Estelle's,
uncurl her umbrella, then head off; let the flowers
contract, the pomegranate wither,
the conversation in the Genoa pick up
in the half-light of confidences almost spilled,
a gleam of observations over tea. Let readers
borrow their new order of words: stood in the door
of Fr Mathew Hall, they are sentries waiting
for the castle to brighten, for the church to lift
its veil of winter, for their cars to be no longer
lost to them in the swell of Market Square.
Let jackdaws overawe the bastion,
gulls pierce the Shannon's tireless drone,
traffic pick up from the lights and carry on.
Let computers wind down, office doors
conduct their two-step to the tune of what falls
between See you tomorrow and Oh, by the way . . .
Step out a while. Those footfalls could be stitches
in an overcoated dusk. The river soars alongside;
evening attends. The wind chimes in the Gallery
set aside their rufflings for the night. The final note
of their cadenza could be the first in the waltz
that plays over and over in the Royal Hotel
as the calendar clicks into place and all the clocks
keep time. The sound of them is like smithereens
of coloured glass; a smattering of rain on the ash trees
of Accommodation Road; like the tinkle of light
on a river learned by rote, if not by heart. The sky
concedes. Any minute now will come release.
- - - Vona Groarke