Anosmia

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.

2 thoughts on “Anosmia

  1. Thank you for sharing your poem. So much of what you have felt and experienced comes through the text especially at the moments in the poem that are built up to on the way there. Your thoughts and commentary are equally stirring. I do have some questions as I’ve not understood some parts. I will need to read the poem again. But I know a small part of your experience and your father now for what I have understood. Thank you for sharing. Do feel free to call at any time! Please email me for the number. I would love to talk either about your experiences, my experiences, or football.

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    1. Thank you so much. I spent a long time writing the poem and I add to it from time to time. It is too long to get published anywhere. My only hope was Long Poem Magazine, but they just rejected it. I am running up against a blank wall with every effort at publication of any of my poems even though real poets like George Szirtes and Christopher Reid have praised them. That is why I have set up a new blog to publish my poems myself. I am afraid I won’t be taking up your kind offer to talk on the telephone. I have something of a phobia about phones unlike my wife who is rarely off the phone. I would be happy to answer any of your questions by email. My address is bartleby@post.com. Please check out my new blog and make comments.

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