Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 10 February 2016



I don't know what William saw in us.
It's true, he used to undress us with his eyes
but they were so gentle
you couldn't be angry with him.

He had his name for all the girls.
He used to call me Looker –
because I looked back, he said.

No one's ever seen me naked
the way he saw me clothed.
Not even in a mirror.

29 June 1988

It’s been six months since my last poem. Funny, if you’d asked me about the past I’d’ve sworn I was writing poems constantly, well, one a month anyway and maybe it averages out to that but clearly I wasn’t in any rush to get my ideas finalised. On Boxing Day the Drowning Man returned. Now it’s Sweet William’s turn. This is his second. appearance The first was in 1981, ‘Common Denominator’ (#534). A long break. And then this, ostensibly out of the blue.

Looker is a prostitute as was Stiletto in ‘Common Denominator’ and Hot Stuff in the next poem in the sequence. What exactly his relationship is I never found words for. He is drawn to them. He sits on his wall and watches them but he’s different to the men who pay them, there’s an innocence to him.

Sunday, 7 February 2016


The Return of the Drowning Man

I thought he'd gone
but I was wrong.

Weighed down by feelings
he'd sunken deeper inside me.

(Only the darkest passions
live this far down.)

And I could feel
the weight of the ocean over him.

26 December 1987

I have no idea what prompted this poem but the date might be significant, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas and always a bit of an anti-climax. An article in The Irish Times at the end of last year opened with the following statistics:

ONE-in-six people believe Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, according to a survey.

A quarter of people surveyed by the Samaritans said "everything feels worse" over the festive season.

The charity is expecting an upsurge in the number of calls it receives over the holiday period.

The survey also revealed that one in 15 often spent Christmas [alone] while one in 25 said they were with family and friends but actually were alone.

This is nothing new. For years we’ve been aware of the problem.

On the whole this poem feels like it’s missing something and I think this is because by now I was starting to think of The Drowning Man Poems as a set and even though I didn’t have a plan for the sequence I did realise this was just the next logical statement. Maybe when I get to the end I’ll repost the whole group and you can see what you think.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Julia Please

I told her that I loved her
to fill the gaps between us.
But the gaps were too big
and my words were too small.

So with nothing more to cling to
she held herself and shivered,
then with neither word not gesture
she turned and walked away.

17 December 1987

Between leaving school in 1975 and 1999 I wrote only two short stories. Lots of poems—I was a poet after all—but prose didn’t have much of a pull on me. I don’t have exact dates for the stories but they were both written in the late seventies. The first was a most odd one—a priest has a conversation with a terrorist who, if I remember correctly, had planted a bomb in his church—the second, after much revision, became ‘Waiting’ in which an unfaithful husband comes home to find his wife has discovered the scarf he’d bought for his lover. In the story the following line appears:

Able to stand it no longer he spoke first, small words that couldn’t possibly bridge the gap between them.

The poem is a reduction of the short story, a distillation. I’m not sure it works but it was an interesting thing to attempt. I have no idea why I chose the name Julia by the way. I’ve never known a Julia—a couple of Julies—but something clearly appealed at the time.

Sunday, 31 January 2016



The truth is hard
like yesterday's friend
and if we must live with the past
does it have to feel like incest?

17 December 1987

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to Rita. It was long after 1987 and a lot had to happen to both of us in between. This poem’s not about her but the more I found myself not wanting to talk about this poem the more I found myself thinking about Rita. I think the last time I talked to her—talked to her properly like friends can—was a few days before she gave birth to her first (and for all I know only) child. I have no idea how I found out where she was but somehow the information filtered down to me and I decided to visit but as I had to go to the hospital for a physiotherapy appointment I chose to chance my arm and to be honest I rather wanted to avoid regular visiting hours because you can’t talk then. I had nothing especially to talk to her about—we had no unresolved issues to put to bed—but I did want to be able to talk to her. To be honest I can’t remember much about what was said apart from one thing. She said, “Jimmy, I’ve done some terrible things, things I’ll never tell you about so don’t ask me.” Those may not have been her exact words. I don’t think she said “terrible” but “awful” doesn’t sound like her. It doesn’t matter. She’d done things she was deeply ashamed of and that much she did want me to know even if she couldn’t bear to relate the specifics.

I’ve loved Rita for over forty years even though I’ve not spoken to her in twenty and hardly saw her the ten prior to that. We were never anything more than friends. I would’ve liked to have been but she knew that would’ve ruined what we did have and so she gently disabused me of that notion. Then she got married and I got married or maybe I got married first and we drifted apart but were always pleased when we did run into each other. We got to pretend we were teenagers again for a few minutes and not adults who’d messed up.

I’ll never know what Rita has to live with. She probably imagined I wouldn’t be able to look at her if I knew. The thing is I really can’t imagine anything that would stop me feeling the way I do about her even though she hasn’t been that person for a long time. She’s probably a granny by now for Christ’s sake, Granny Rita. I don’t have a photo of her and I’ve tried to find her online but there’s nothing. I think I may have got her married name wrong and ‘Rita’s’ not even her legal name; I don’t know why her family called her that but it’s who she’ll always be to me. A while back I found a picture of a Russian girl that reminded me of her and this is what stands as a placeholder in my mind. I think it’s appropriate anyway. Most of our memories are mostly imaginings anyway.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Guilt Box

We kept it in a box –
our guilt –
and fed it daily
and watched it outgrow us
but we wouldn't let it go
and finally it consumed us.

16 December 1987

I’ve written two or three poems like this. I like taking something intangible and making it real. We say, “My love for you is real,” but, of course, it’s not, not in any palpable sense. The problem with guilt or love or any other emotion or cognitive experience is that it’s abstract. I used to ask my daughter how much she loved me and she’d say, “This much,” and throw her arms wide. I wonder how wide that was. Today I love her 63" as best I can tell using my wife’s metal tape measure, maybe a fraction more; let’s say a fraction more. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if, when asked back then, she could’ve said, “Today I love you 42" but I expect it may grow. Give it time.”

Love is a shared emotion. It doesn’t have to be but it’s best shared, better anyway; unrequited love is not without its pleasures though. And this is true for other emotions. People say that a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. I’m not sure I agree but I’ll let it stand. Grief can most certainly be shared or then again maybe not. I didn’t share my sense of loss over the death of David Bowie with the world. Others experienced their own personal losses at the same time and that made it feel like communal grief. When Churchill died Laurie Lee, the writer of Cider with Rosie, wrote, in The Daily Telegraph, “Not since the war has there been such a shared emotion.” I can see why he would feel that was true but I think it was an illusion.

And what about guilt? Oh, I can assure you that can be shared. Misery loves company.

Sunday, 24 January 2016



(For M.)

I circumcised my heart for her.
It lay bare and bled for days.
But after a while it turned hard.

I still said those familiar things
because I'd always said them and

one day I said them to you
but I don't know if they're true.

26 February 1987

Most people think of circumcision as a minor surgical operation, the removal—for health or religious reasons—of a man’s foreskin. In the Bible that’s mostly what it means but occasionally it’s used metaphorically, for example, when God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh Moses says, “I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?” and, later, the apostle Paul tells the congregation in Rome, “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart.”

I’ve always had a problem with the Abrahamic covenant. I could very easily not have a problem with it if God had only explained why circumcision. But he didn’t. He so often doesn’t. And for years people have been trying to guess why exactly circumcision? Why that? Was it not enough that they not shave? Or he could have commanded them, like the monks, to sport a tonsure? Where would be the harm in that?

Wednesday, 20 January 2016



I knew what he wanted:
he wanted me.

No; that's too crude.
He wanted a part of me.

Still less: just to use.
No; that's still vulgar.

He wanted to be held
and yet I denied him.

And he could not take it
even though he tried.

So why am I not flattered
that he chose me?

11 November 1986

I don’t have a type. Some men do. Or if I do have a type it’s ‘female’. I like women of all sorts and when I line up all the women I’ve ever had any kind of relationship with or attraction to about the only thing they have in common is that they’re women. Or girls. At the start they were just girls but that was okay because I was just a boy. Even then I was a loyal sort. Between the ages of eleven and fifteen I “fell in love”—let us not debate the expression (I was sincere at the time)—with only two girls and, to be honest, I never really got over either of them. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever got over any of the women in my life. I’ve moved on or they’ve moved on or life made things impossible. Life does that.

What is a surrogate? Nowadays we tend to associate the word with a woman who hires out her womb so another couple can have a child. That’s not what I’m on about here. Because of circumstances F. and I were not able to be together as much as we wanted. She had kids who kept her occupied and being busy is a decent enough distraction, a kind of company, but I was often alone and lonely and so I found myself looking to others to fill the gap where F. should’ve been. Stand-ins. Proxies. Stopgaps. Surrogates. Most never realised and that was just as well—no one likes to be second choice—but M. did. The poem’s not dedicated to her but it should’ve been; ‘Scars’ (#613) is.

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