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Poem of the week: Legacies by Peter Sirr


This week's poem shows us a multi-faceted Ireland through the prism of the pub, and a half-interior imaginary ramble

It's a month since Bloomsday was celebrated, but perhaps this week's poem, "Legacies" by Peter Sirr, will help sustain us until the next one. Sirr, like many Irish writers after Joyce, is something of an internationalist. A fine translator as well as original poet, he was born in Waterford in 1960, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and has lived for spells in Italy and Holland. "Legacies" appears in his Selected Poems (Gallery Press, 2004) and was first published in Bring Everything (Gallery Press, 2000).

The wide cultural territory of Sirr's poems includes a multi-faceted Ireland, and "Legacies" shows us two contrasting Dublins (perhaps three, if we count the speaker's). It celebrates tradition, but not in any simplistic sense of celebration. If the legacy is dying in the 21st century (as the "nth bar" might imply) or fading into self-conscious cultural heritage, the poem subverts nostalgia by taking the form of a personal address. From a gently psychological perspective, it portrays an extrovert at ease in his ideal social setting: the pub. It's where the sophisticated city of competing identities is banished by a village-like subculture, in which difference dissolves into noisy conviviality.

Sirr's language is generally simple and direct. It's not hard to imagine the addressee nodding his head at times in cheery agreement. But of course "Legacies" is the imaginary, interior half of an imaginary conversation. This corner of the snug is also a corner of the speaker's head, and the addressee is button-holed there, but also observed and subjected to the pressures of imagination.

So, after that appealingly direct opening – "You so loved company" – the language takes a more figurative turn, and the reader/addressee is presented with an image that's partly humorous, but also frightening and rather surreal: "an engine has attached itself to your body …" This partial metamorphosis of the happy drinker into an industrial process involving the ingestion and transformation of a quantity of disparate material allows Sirr to evoke the ruthless, pounding torrent of sounds. We get not only the songs and arguments, but that more recent decibel-raising ingredient of pub entertainment, "heavy rock". Against the pandemonium, the poem singles out a surprising "dialect of intimacy" which also comes with the territory. The grammar is heavily garbled, and half the addressee's words are lost – "But you don't mind …"

The mechanical imagery is recalled in that powerful line, "it has poured down the generations" – "it" here referring to the "background roar". The pronoun is unstable, subject to anaphoric shifts. In line 6, "it" is the engine. It's also the place, the night, and the city itself, "refusing to sleep, talking to itself, drinking too much". Meanwhile, the character addressed, and all the denizens hovering in the shadows, are seemingly on autopilot. This is an effect not only of alcohol, but, the poem reveals, something more powerful yet – heredity. The inexorable machine is also made of strands of DNA.

So the poem gives truth and solidity to what the outsider might misread as "romantic Ireland". The communal, festive ritual at the end of the working day is a male tradition stretching back years. The addressee is more than rooted in this tradition. "We're listening in the nth bar / to your great great grandfather / blurt his song, to his son urge him on, / then his son comes shambling in …" The latest son turns into the addressee, and finally there's a delirious meltdown of identity between generations and individuals, one which also gathers the poem's speaker into the centrifuge.

But first we're shown another kind of life, another Ireland. The citizens are industrious and sober. The speaker seems close to them ("our friends"). In their orderly world, noise is limited: they are able to distinguish sounds, living sensibly and responsibly a life which (in Larkin's phrase) might be "reprehensibly perfect", but which is presented without that scathing judgment – unless we the readers wish to make it. The poem doesn't stay long in their company. It goes back to the pub after this little interlude. Only perhaps in the almost throwaway phrase, "where the soul / grins", is there a glimpse of something demonic or deathly in the euphoria.

The poem's rhythm is the rhythm of talk, and the punctuation is similarly light and informal. Sirr employs the comma-splice to link separate statements, as in "But you don't mind, / it comes with the grammar". This device helps to keep the poem moving and underlines its character as interior monologue. Almost mimetic, it goes with the flow of the pints, the conversation, the hubbub of its setting. And its warmth is palpable: this is a poem of affection and reciprocal generosity. The speaker does not only sympathise with the addressee. He comes on in the end to share his identity and his legacy.

Peter Sirr received the prestigious Michael Hartnett award last year for his 2009 collection The Thing Is. You can read more of his poems here and his blog, The Cat Flap, here.


You so love company
an engine has attached itself to your body,
taking up the night and feeding it back
as a spill of laughter
and confusion.
It takes half of what you say
and chews it up, the rest it overlays
with heavy rock, with old films,
the roar of other voices, glasses
clinking and a till slamming,
someone arguing and someone
starting to sing.
But you don't mind,
it comes with the grammar
in this dialect of intimacy,
it's how you like to live at night.
It's where your father lived
and his father before him;
it has poured down the generations,
loud and smoke-filled,
a background roar where the soul
grins; it is the city
refusing to sleep, talking to itself,
drinking too much.
What happens here would die in quiet,
melts at dawn, is absent from
the sensible rooms our friends
have retired to. They've gone
to sleep or talk, to use the language rationally,
to distinguish one sound from another:
the purr of far-off traffic, the hum
of heating and the gravity of early news.
We're listening in the nth bar
to your great great grandfather
blurt his song, to his son urge him on,
then his son comes shambling in
to wave your hands and shout for more
in your voice: more talk,
more drink, more noise
till neither they nor you nor I can tell
whose head is starting to spin,
whose voice is telling the story,
whose life it happens in.

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