Today is World Poetry Day and one of my favourite Irish poets is Christy Brown. Obviously Christy Brown is mostly known for his autobiography My Left Foot, but in his short career he also published two novels (Down All the Days and Wild Grow The Lilies) and three volumes of poetry – Come Softly to my Wake, Of Snails and Skylarks and Background Music.
When I was 16 I borrowed Background Music from the local library. Every fortnight when it was due back I would get it renewed. No one else ever seemed to want to take it out so I had the library copy in my possession for about two years. Then, on a trip to Donegal with my parents, I found a first edition in a second hand book shop and my Daddy bought it for me. It suited my teenage mentality– romantic, lyrical and in love with the idea of love.
The poems were written after Christy had married Mary, his nurse and the poems encapsulate the joy and sense of impossibility in capturing this love. It reads as if he is amazed to be in this situation, to be married and in love. Hearts are stars, love is the bright lightness of morning, the presence and sound of the sea.
Between sky and sea and sand shall be written
In broad brilliant asterisks of truth
The journey that led us unerringly towards morning
Caught briefly and forever in a puzzled glance
For a man who was entirely trapped in his body by his double athetoid cerebral palsy.the poems are earthy and sensual, focusing on a physicality and strong sense of the literal self.
Given that it has now been suggested that the marriage between Christy and Mary may have had problems that Christy didn’t admit to, it is easy to see hints of unhappiness. Distance between hearts is a theme, a happy moment between the pair is shadowed by a hawk circling above. The female is often distant, aloof as far away as star from star,
In this tangled sphere below
Heart cries out to heart I know
And one is dust for many a year
Before another heart will here.
He wrote the poems after he and Mary had moved to England and the love of his beloved Dublin shines through.
Yet my Liffey dreams were just as sweet
As those in a Wicklow valley,
And my heart was first forged in Merrion Street
And blinded with love in Bull Alley.
He seems to be thinking long about things and people lost – his home city, his brothers, a friends son who has died young (the beautiful Boy on a Rainbow) and his beloved mother, who gave him so much support and love.
Your face held the broken landscape of my life
Fissured with the fierce craters of your love.
For a man with no formal education, he writes with a beautiful simplicity, a sharp humour and an almost teenage romanticism. My favourite poem of the collection Lines of Leaving, saw me through many a teenage break-up but stayed with me throughout my life in whispers and fragments. Given that he bought me the book, it felt fitting that I read the final stanza at my father’s funeral. Later, in my twenties I bought a copy of the Collected Poems, but there is something about this little plain book of poetry, a book I’ve owned now for 25 years, that I love and come back to again and again.
Lines of Leaving
I am losing you again
as if you were ever mine to lose.
The pain is as deep
beyond formal possession
beyond the fierce frivolity of tears.
Absurdly you came into my world
my time-wrecked world
a quiet laugh below the thunder.
Absurdly you leave it now
As I always foreknew you would.
I lived on an alien joy.
Your gentleness disarmed me
wine in my desert
peace across impassable seas
path of light in my jungle.
Now uncatchable as the wind you go
beyond the wind
and there is nothing in my world
save the straw of salvation in the amber dream.
The absurdity of that vast improbable joy.
The absurdity of you gone.