Homage to J M Synge

I wander around the last place I had –
the private gardens I could look out on,

awaiting proofs or a letter.
My poor mother who misunderstood it all.

Paris was fun. I knocked about a bit
but deep in my heart of hearts

I knew all along that I had to get back
to the valleys of an imagined people:

the twists and turns of their language,
the girl whose shoulder brushed mine

and whose undisclosed body drove me
to distraction when I sat on the rocks,

the black edge of the north island
in front, the bay almost too blue.


In the early hours I walk by the quays
and yards of the Steamship Company.

A dog ferrets through the hotel’s rubbish
the local lad, pale as a ghost, dumped

last night out of sight, betwixt and between
my leaving and my return

to the south county districts
where it’s neither night nor yet quite day.

Kids talk to themselves
in doorways full of cartons and cans,

Pages of newspapers wrap about their feet
but they don’t notice. A fawn-like girl

hunched and jiggy, empties a white vial
and tosses it aside.


The shopping centre is floodlit like a stadium
and the chimneys of the generating station flash red.

The streetlights are bright tonight
as night falls on the piers, on the coal harbour,

on the urban villas and on the dimmed descent
of the last flight home

to the terraces, parks and avenues
in the shadows of all these years.

Listen hard enough and you will just about
make out in the gathering breeze

a wrought-iron gate clunk by the stone steps
which lead up towards my old flat

where a black cat halts and stares
at whatever it imagines is there.

Omaggio a J M Synge

Mi aggiro nell’ultimo posto in cui ho vissuto
- i giardini privati visibili dai vetri,

in attesa di bozze o di una lettera -.
Povera madre mia che non capiva.

Parigi: divertente. Ho fatto in parte
il vagabondo, ma in fondo al cuore

ho sempre saputo di dover tornare
tra le valli di un popolo immaginato:

giri di parole, allusioni della lingua,
la ragazza che mi sfiorava le spalle

il corpo non rivelato che mi ha portato
turbamento mentre sedevo sugli scogli,

il bordo nero dell’isola nordica
era lì di fronte, quasi fin troppo blu la baia.


Mattina presto, cammino lungo le banchine
e i cantieri della Steamship Company.

Il cane che rovista tra i rifiuti dell’albergo
buttati fuori della portata degli occhi

da un tipo di qui, pallido come un fantasma,
a metà tra la partenza e il mio ritorno

nei quartieri della città sud
dove né è notte né è ancora giorno.

Ragazzi che parlano da soli
su soglie colme di lattine e cartoni,

nemmeno notano pagine di giornali
ravvoltolate sui piedi. Una ragazza,

simile a una cerbiatta, tremante, curva,
svuota una fiala bianca, la getta via.


Il centro acquisti inondato di luce come uno stadio;
ciminiere della centrale elettrica: lampeggiano di rosso.

Vividi i lampioni, stasera,
mentre la notte cala sulle banchine, sul porto del carbone,

sulle ville urbane e sull’ultimo aereo in discesa
a luci smorzate verso casa

fino a terrazze, parchi, viali
dentro le ombre di tutti questi anni.

Ascolta con l’attenzione dovuta, riuscirai
a distinguere appena, nella brezza che si raccoglie,

suoni sordi del cancello di ferro battuto
contro i gradini di pietra che salgono

al mio vecchio appartamento, dove si arresta
un gatto nero e fissa quanto immagina che ci sia.

(Traduzione di Roberto Bertoni)


I wrote ‘Distraction’ for a book on John Millington Synge, which was the brain-child of Nicholas Grene, the distinguished professor of literature at Trinity College. The book, INTERPRETING SYNGE (2000), was a collection of essays and poems by various hands brought together to mark ten years of the Synge Summer School of which Nicky had been a founding director.

Synge has always been a fascination to me, and by a pure fluke when I moved from Galway to teach in Trinity in the late 1980s I spent a year staying in rooms literally a step or two away from the house in Crosswaithe Park in which Synge had lived before succumbing to Hodgkin’s disease a few weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday.

I had been a fan of his THE ARAN ISLANDS since I read it as an undergraduate in a windy sea-sprayed rented house on the coast of Portstewart where I dreamed myself into a kind of Syngean beguilement with the west of Ireland - which is where I ended up in the early seventies. It was Galway before the developers and town planners had taken over and recast the town and its hinterlands; a Galway that I felt in many ways resembled the place Synge had known.

So the chance to bring both parts of Synge’s story together – the west of Ireland with his Glenageary self - found a root in the pre- Celtic Tiger dawn of south county Dublin. I imagined him recording his ghostly return to the old apartment and walking around Dun Laoghaire while thinking back on his trips to Aran, standing on the Galway quayside. And I quote one or two lines from THE ARAN ISLANDS and put, in his recounting voice, a couple of titles of my own, just for the hell of it.

The poem is dedicated to Nicky Grene because without his request it wouldn’t have been written.

October 2010