It takes only the one match
For the paper and kindling to catch
And flicker into flame. Soon the peat,
Its underbelly glowing orange with heat,
Assaults my nose with wisps of smoke,
Evocative of atavistic bogs
Preserving dead life. Now the logs
Go on. They blister and crack,
Fragrant resin that takes me back
To pine clad hills of Poros. Trees cupped
To make retsina which cannot be supped
In these cold and sunless northern climes.
A round Pinotage is best for wintry times.
The Polish coal belches soot and smoke –
Recalling a hellish furnace, my father heaping coal
At the Bristol Road gas works.
I plunge the corkscrew my Grandfather brought
Back from Wipers, from the war that he thought
Would end them all. I pull the cork and smell
Blackcurrant and tannin and think that all is well.
Placing the wine to soften before the grate,
I move to the kitchen to create
A meal to bring the air of sunny shores
To my night-drenched foggy pores.
Odour of garlic sizzling in oil fills the place.
Chopped onions send tears down my face.
Fresh chilies hit the pan, their spiky fumes
Stab my nostrils. Adding to the mix, I fill the rooms
With aromas of balsamic, basil, cheese,
Mushrooms and olives. Serving these
On pasta doused in walnut oil,
I go to the fire
And switch on the TV. Soldiers wading through mire
Of wrenched limbs and blood. Setting the food aside I stare.
My kitten, smelling like attar of roses, climbs on the chair.
Another rerun of The World at War. As I watch, tears
Spring again. My father, dead these thirty years,
Shown to me in his frail humanity as never before
Among those grey ghosts on the Normandy shore.
My father left his sense of smell on the Norman strand,
On 10th July 1944. A shattered, bodiless hand
Was the last scent his nose remembered.
Did he leave part of himself with the dismembered?
He won no medal for being there. British forces fought
For five weeks to win that piece of sand. They bought
It at a price of thousands dead. My Irish father did not fight;
Showed no wounds but did he get off light?
The Pioneer Corps was the stuff of jokes.
A motley collection of ineffectual blokes
Dredged into the army by war’s hunger for bodies.
Clerks and light labourers, intellectuals and incapables.
Too short or too tall. Weak in the head, too modest,
Or bright to be an officer.
Unfit to fight. Fit to clean stables.
Cleaning up after the proper soldiers.
Tidying the war.
What litter now on that Normandy shore?
Do tourists relax on this beach manured with blood
And bone of boys and men?
The smells are good,
Calvados and Normandy cider.
The pork and tripes
A la Caen drip greasily from the tourists lips.
Before the war, my father mixed sand and cement,
Digging foundations. At 28 he was keening a lament,
Laying in pits rotting pieces of other young men.
This was what it was to be a Pioneer then.
At 28, I knew days of quiet desperation
In my lowly work in bullshit jobs
I dreaded the exasperation
Of elders who coped. I felt the shame
Of being inept at low aims but all the same
Had no talent to escape. In younger days
I fought with Da over his guarded ways.
Mocked him and workmates, old at heart,
For rejecting what then seemed so smart
And time proved so tawdry. Their jibes trite
And envious. The “University of Life” was right.
What did they care about Marcuse and Lacan?
A boy got a better schooling in the charnel of Caen.
At 28 my father walked with the dead, breathing the fetor
Of putrefaction. Mangled boys liquefied into the sand.
Did his brain tell his senses it would be better
To block this horror. Be blind, or cease to hear?
Might he have lost feeling in his hand?
Was he lucky then that he could not smell his beer?
After the war he got another spade
From the Southwestern Gas Board. I was afraid
When he showed me the works.
Men stripped to the waist.
The Irish as black as the Jamaicans,
A dying Empire’s godforsaken-
Straining with shovels, their bodies bast-
Ed like meat. A scene from a Dore or Fuseli
Illustration of hell,
Men dwarfed by the furnaces they stoked,
Coughing in the fumes of coal and coke.
Did the gas board employ a man who
Could not smell
As a perverse joke?
My father was a chauvinist for gas. The stove at home
And even the fridge was powered by Mr Therm.
Mantles, if he could have had his way,
Would have been better than light bulbs any day.
With unsmiling face, he once told me
That gas board boffins had perfected a gas TV.
Even in the vegetarian precinct of my home
I sometimes wake to the smell of roasting lamb.
Is it a vestigial memory like an amputee’s twinge
In his missing foot? Do the blind have a memory of orange?
Did my Dad nurse in his head old smells good or rank?
Or was there just an absence, an olfactory blank?
I could have asked him but that was the last thing
I thought of. We steered away from talk of last things.
I recall we talked of football as I shaved his shrunken neck
Gently brushed and blew the hairs from his withered back.
England and Germany.
England another feeble defeat then.
In July 1944 Germany lost sixty thousand men.
A smug and rubicund curate summoned to the ward,
God’s bully boy on earth, a gombeen man for the Lord,
Did not talk of last things. He proudly wore his Pioneer pin,
His badge of abstinence, an outward sign of one thing
At least he would say ‘no’ to. His soutane reeked of roast pork.
He exhaled stale cigar smoke and platitudes when he talked,
As if to a child failing at his catechism. My father, in better years,
Would resent and resist and command respect from this Pioneer.
The priest, rotund and pompous in the complacency of his ignorance,
His hands soft and pudgy, hands that had never known the chance
To grip the haft of a spade. The only digging this Pioneer had done
Would be in the drawers of an altar boy after compline.
A life of comfortable poverty, cosseted by mother
And presbytery housekeeper, one after another,
Masochistic matrons of the parish, widows bowled over
By his sermons on brimstone and his lust for their Pavlova.
His smells were Clonakilty pudding, colcannon, bacon fried
Crisp, exorcising incense and the stale dried
Dampness of the shiny Sunday suits of the massed
Peasantry, pious and deferential to the last.
This petty priest became the cynosure of my rage
Against God for taking my father at such a young age.
Did Caen teach my father the flimsiness of the flesh?
On that beach did he learn how fine the mesh
That binds muscle to bone, how temporary the breath?
I know he lived with the tinnitus of anxiety till death.
I know not to damn God for the evil of men
But the inexorable force of the evil visited then
On little men who had no voice or power to halt
It was more and less than human. No fault
Could make him complicit in the malignant force
That swept common people away with the cause
Instigated by ideologies and systems of terror.
If I blamed God for his death was that an error?
How else to assign blame for the malignant cells
That shrank his sturdy body, subverted his will,
Snuffed out his flame. He was ever a chronic worrier.
Did the rogue cells start their march amidst those warriors
Slain on the beach? Can God then claim this excuse?
The evil of men brought the horror that let the rogue cells loose.
Cowardly to give to the priest and God the blame.
Why not admit that some of the onus is mine to claim?
Thirty years on he still comes to me in dreams
So quick and vivid and intense that it seems
He will be there to talk to me tomorrow. If only then,
When I had the chance, had I shown
What I felt, it might have brought him ease
And halted the march of the evil disease.
Now I live in the land of his birth.
I walk the hills and till the earth.
No need of Pioneers to bury the dead
Sheep fallen in the boreen, its head
Gnawed. Stripped to the bones the carcass
Feeds families of flies and crows.
From the village to home, I can find my way blind.
The turning off the main road, the scent is watercress
From the Owenacurra gushing clean over rocks behind
The furze. Then the wind susurrating in the trees
Stops, and it is right turn at the cross-roads. The black-
Berries’ smell guides me along to Mrs Fitz’s house
Where odour of dog precedes the licks and barks
Of Susie. The haw has a fragrance of anise
Or fennel and further along I wander
Past a peppery perfume. I know I have reached home
When I am greeted by chives, lovage and coriander
And earthy exhalation of freshly turned loam.
My father’s sister remarks how much
Like him I have become. The mutation is such
That I grow into his looks
I walk his walk, retell his jokes,
Looking into the mirror I feel scared.
Soon I will be older than my father if I am spared.