Recently, I took our 11-year old boy to see the Turners in the National Gallery of Ireland. These 31 watercolours comprise The Vaughan Bequest, which stipulated that they only be exhibited during the darkest month of year, in January, when natural light is at its weakest and least damaging. Though such precautions are now unnecessary (and no daylight can penetrate to Room 10, in the bowels of the gallery, where they are on show), the annual unveiling has become a century-old tradition. One of the paintings I brought to my son’s attention was The Falls of Reichenbach, an early ‘travel sketch’ in ‘flat greens, ash greys, thin-scattered whites’. On a visit in the 1980s, a friend of mine had seen in this painting the figure of a woman ‘in flowing robes, / Her momentary, see-through arm / Upflung like spindrift above the landscape / As though to wave again in greeting or farewell…’ He was vouchsafed a kind of vision, the inspiration for one of the longer poems in his first and only collection, The Wrong Side of the Alps. I was pleased that our son also saw this figure; though ghostly, she is plainly apparent once you know what to look for. And of course, once she has been seen, you can’t unsee her.
That friend, the poet and piano teacher Anthony Glavin, is now another kind of ghost. He died in November 2006, after suffering for many years with emphysema. He was 61.
He was born in Dublin on August 7th 1945, a date that was later to become significant to him. He began publishing poetry and reviews while at University College Dublin. His poetry appeared in numerous newspapers and journals and was first anthologised in the Pan paperback, Irish Poets 1924-74, edited by David Marcus. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1987, and his aforementioned collection, The Wrong Side of the Alps, was published by Gallery Press in 1989.
His parallel career was in music, and he received his Licentiate from The Royal Irish Academy of Music and joined the staff there in 1969. Apparently he was an outstanding teacher. On the day of his funeral the RIAM held a half-day of mourning and one-minute silence in memory of Anthony’s unique contribution. Later that year they invited me and others to read and speak, along with musicians and former friends and teachers, at an evening of celebration in his honour.
Anthony (or ‘the Glav’, as some of his contemporaries called him) was first introduced to me by a mutual friend in the mid 1970s. From the moment I met him I knew I was in the presence of someone special, a mind extraordinarily alert and self-possessed. In the late 1980s we began to meet more regularly and became close friends. When he learned that I wrote poetry he took an interest and encouraged me, introducing me to poets such as Philip Larkin, (High Windows had just come out), R.S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, Miroslav Holub, Czeslaw Milosz and Anna Swir. He also played me an LP of Derek Mahon reading his poems, including the fantastic ‘A Disused Shed In County Wexford’, an experience that has stayed with me.
Anthony had the quickest mind of anyone I’ve ever known and an impatience to match. I can think of no one who would suffer fools less. But, even at his most argumentative, he was invigorating, and there was always the possibility of some minor revelation, the chance that this time we might have what he called (paraphrasing Beckett’s Estragon) ‘a nice little canter’. I miss these. I also miss his warmth, humour and fierce loyalty. Anthony was an hour-of-the-wolf friend, someone you could call at three or four in the morning, whether you were in serious trouble or merely feeling troubled.
He was 42 when The Wrong Side of the Alps was published. To quote from Fred Johnston’s Books Ireland review in1990, the book contains many ‘fine, meticulous’ poems, ‘a distinct and sometimes ominous music’, ‘a profoundly Hibernian appetite for dark laughter.’ It closes with the first three sections of an ambitious sequence of quatrains, titled ‘Living In Hiroshima’, first published in New Irish Writing in The Irish Press. Anthony was haunted by the fact that his birth-date, the 7th of August 1945 (a Bank Holiday in Ireland), was just one day after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, that his coming into the world had coincided with an event that abruptly altered the world’s ‘historical velocity.’ As the title of the first poem in the sequence (taken from a Time article in 1985) puts it: ‘Everybody lives in Hiroshima.’
Though the sequence includes much about the actual explosion and its after-effects (all diligently researched), it also encompasses many other fragments and notations from 20th Century history: Nazi and Japanese war crimes, statements by politicians, scientists, writers and artists; also incidents from Anthony’s personal history, such as his ‘push for freedom’ on that particular Bank Holiday weekend, or his love life, travels and self-critical wrestling with words, meanings and the nature of conscience. There are moments of bleak self-scrutiny, delighted epiphany, wrenching horror and Cimmerian humour, all of them referencing and calling to each other as much as to what lies at the radiant hub of the sequence. This is part of the rhythm of ‘Living In Hiroshima’; each quatrain, however self-contained, affects and is affected by that blinding spot at the centre.
The completed sequence, had he ever finished it, might have contained 250 of these ‘hironyms’, making 1000 lines in all. That was one plan anyway, inspired by the Japanese paper crane ceremony, in which the act of folding 1000 origami paper cranes may touch (or save) one human soul. I am not sure that this plan was ever abandoned. But Anthony was a relentless perfectionist; with his worsening illness, it demanded all his energy to redraft small sections, then, eventually, single poems, attempting to salvage as much as he could from the project. He used to draft these poems on a now-long-redundant Psion palmtop pocket computer, which was light and portable enough to use while sitting in a pub or, later, when he was house-bound, in bed. He said he found the small screen perfect for framing a single quatrain. However, these old computers were fairly fragile and he broke at least two (he would have been delighted with the iPhone or tablet).
Had Anthony managed to finish ‘Living In Hiroshima’ I have no doubt that it would have been a major 21st Century work. Incomplete as it is though, it is still a fascinating and unique sequence. Luckily, many of the single poems function, not only as part of that sequence but in their own rights, as compact and coherent worldlets. In the best of these, Anthony reached for and achieved the kind of brilliant lucidity and density you find in Geoffrey Hill, poems such as ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ or ‘September Song.’
Anthony’s work has influenced me, especially in demonstrating what short forms can be capable of: a concise, imagistic, musical and highly charged use of meaning and ambiguity. One of his greatest gifts to me was an encouragement to edit and revise mercilessly, to let a poem find its shape over months or years or quickly whittle it down to the bones. Consequently, although my poems had appeared in newspapers and journals for over 20 years, my first collection, Airborne, was the slimmest book I have ever published. Not that the more recent ones are all that much thicker; whenever I revise or begin to put a collection together, Anthony’s ghost, with his fine nose for the phony or redundant phrase, the over-elaborate scrollwork, is at my shoulder.
Anthony was known and highly respected by his peers, some of whom have approached me to ask if and when a posthumous collection will appear. Although he only had one book published, the poems he was working on (for the aforementioned unfinished sequence) amount to a real body of work, enough, I believe, for another book. Though it is now almost ten years since he died, I am still hopeful that this book may be put together.
The following is a selection from that unfinished sequence, ‘Living In Hiroshima’. The first four quatrains are from his 1989 collection, the Wrong Side of the Alps, which, I should stress, contains many other superb poems. It is still available to order on the Gallery Press website (if you don’t have it, get it!). The rest are unpublished in book form, though Peter Sirr, during his period as editor of Poetry Ireland Review, took a number of them for a couple of articles on Anthony and his work:
A fleeing Nazi skis across an Alpine glacier.
Pope Pius XII bows low to intone the Agnus Dei.
Heartbeats. Lifetimes. Seconds ticking away.
The sky blurts open like a Morning Glory.
‘I can taste the brilliance.’ ‘What a relief it worked!’
‘It’s like the ring around some distant planet
Detached itself and coming straight back up at us…’
‘Pretty terrific!’ Look at that son-of-a-bitch go!’
Thunder like Mt. Fuji swallowing itself alive.
A bicycle sagged and melted in its own shadow.
Stones bled. Birds fell roasted out of the sky.
We just stood there, helpless. You can’t hate magic.
A MONTH EARLY
Even then I must have raged at being confined.
But to push for freedom that Bank Holiday weekend!
My father homing from Youghal in his chrome V8
To hold my mother, then me, then celebrate…
IT’S A SILENT RHAPSODY
Holds open the guestroom door we couldn’t close
The whole high summer we lip-read through at body-heat
Counting on one another’s heartbeat
And not making love because the noise, the noise…
AND RIMBAUD WAS ANOTHER
‘I am God!’ ‘I am Goya!’ ‘I am an earthquake!’
Alexander Scriabin. Yuri Yevtushenko. Vaslav Nijinski.
What is it about these people, these artistes,
That they cannot be themselves?
IN THE MOUNTAINS
On the Terrace with the Fuhrer. Wonderfully relaxed
And liberated. I am so thankful and happy
To hear him enthuse about the great, great future.
The sun has broken through again. Hitler-weather.
NEAR WEIMAR, 1944
Sometimes we wonder about the factories ––
Evenings the wind is wrong and the lindens toss
A drizzle of soot and ash all over the magnolias,
We cannot meet each other’s eyes.
THERE’S A NAME FOR EVERYTHING
It was my first insult from an unreconstructed Nazi
Lathering to absolve some awful wickedness of the night before,
He mouthed it to my face, craven in the bathroom mirror ––
‘A nasty little word-mad definition of complicity.’
AT THE WARSAW GHETTO MEMORIAL
Willy Brandt fell
To his knees, head bowed ––
‘I simply did
What people do when words fail.’
Leaps past Triton at 17 miles a second –
Wolf-howl, birth-cry, greetings from a one-time Nazi
Packed in a space the size of the human psyche,
Headlong to the limits, a feeler, beyond the beyond.
the same river never the same
river ever the same river
never the same river ever
the same river never the same
So distant the Antarctic slippage
And that soft sighing you hear as an
Albatross, winging it, somewhere, at the very edge ––
It was said a thousand cranes made of
Hand-folded paper would be enough
To save a life.
Some days you wouldn’t know what to believe.
My thanks and acknowledgements to Peter Fallon and The Gallery Press for permission to include here four poems from the ‘Living In Hiroshima’ sequence (from The Wrong Side of the Alps, The Gallery Press, 1989) and one from a pamphlet, The Whole Story, The Gallery Press, 2000.
i.m. Anthony Glavin
A new telephoto, somewhere in the gorse hills
above The Silver Tassie lounge-bar
and that bridge – beautiful
high, arched stonework (bullet-holed
from one of our wars). Clouds
blued into nightfall, rolled
over our desultory poking. Later, I told
my old friend (gone now
nine years) and I can still
see him, smiling, droll:
‘Imagine, in a thousand years someone
will find it and be able to infer
a whole culture.’
Mark Granier was born in London in 1957. His poetry has appeared in many outlets over the years, including the The New Statesman, The TLS, The Irish Times and Poetry Ireland Review. Prizes include the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. His fourth collection, Haunt, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2015. He lives in Dublin.