Poem of the Week: Ciaran Carson’s “Dresden”

Dresden

Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess. I stayed there once,
Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that’s another story.
At any rate they lived in this decrepit caravan, not two miles out of Carrick,
Encroached upon by baroque pyramids of empty baked bean tins, rusts
And ochres, hints of autumn merging into twilight. Horse believed
They were as good as a watchdog, and to tell you the truth
You couldn’t go near the place without something falling over:
A minor avalanche would ensue – more like a shop bell, really,

The old-fashioned ones on a string, connected to the latch, I think,
And as you entered in, the bell would tinkle in the empty shop, a musk
Of soap and turf and sweets would hit you from the gloom. Tobacco.
Baling wire. Twine. And, of course, shelves and pyramids of tins.
An old woman would appear from the back – there was a sizzling pan in there,
Somewhere, a whiff of eggs and bacon – and ask you what you wanted;
Or rather, she wouldn’t ask; she would talk about the weather. It had rained
That day, but it was looking better. They had just put in the spuds.
I had only come to pass the time of day, so I bought a token packet of Gold Leaf.

All this time the fry was frying away. Maybe she’d a daughter in there
Somewhere, thought I hadn’t heard the neighbours talk of it; if anybody knew,
It would be Horse. Horse kept his ears to the ground.
And he was a great man for current affairs; he owned the only TV in the place.
Come dusk he’d set off on his rounds, to tell the whole townland the latest
Situation in the Middle East, a mortar bomb attack in Mullaghbawn –
The damn things never worked, of course – and so he’d tell the story
How in his young day it was very different. Take young Flynn, for instance,
Who was ordered to take this bus and smuggle some sticks of gelignite

Across the border, into Derry, when the RUC – or was it the RIC? –
Got wind of it. The bus was stopped, the peeler stepped on. Young Flynn
Took it like a man, of course: he owned up right away. He opened the bag
And produced the bomb, his rank and serial number. For all the world
Like a pound of sausages. Of course, the thing was, the peeler’s bike
Had got a puncture, and he didn’t know young Flynn from Adam. All he wanted
Was to get home for his tea. Flynn was in for seven years and learned to speak
The best of Irish. He had thirteen words for a cow in heat;
A word for the third thwart in a boat, the wake of a boat on the ebb tide.

He knew the extinct names of insects, flowers, why this place was called
Whatever: Carrick, for example, was a rock. He was damn right there –
As the man said, When you buy meat you buy bones, when you buy land you buy stones.
You’d be hard put to find a square foot in the whole bloody parish
That wasn’t thick with flints and pebbles. To this day he could hear the grate
And scrape as the spade struck home, for it reminded him of broken bones:
Digging a graveyard, maybe – or, better still, trying to dig a reclaimed tip
Of broken delph and crockery ware – you know that sound that sets your teeth on edge
When the chalk squeaks on the blackboard, or you shovel ashes from the stove?

Master McGinty – he’d be on about McGinty then, and discipline, the capitals
Of South America, Moore’s Melodies, the Battle of Clontarf, and
Tell me this, an educated man like you: What goes on four legs when it’s young,
Two legs when it’s grown up, and three legs when it’s old? I’d pretend
I didn’t know. McGinty’s leather strap would come up then, stuffed
With threepenny bits to give it weight and sting. Of course, it never did him
Any harm: You could take a horse to water but you couldn’t make him drink.
He himself was nearly going on to be a priest.
And many’s the young cub left the school, as wise as when he came.

Carrowkeel was where McGinty came from – Narrow Quarter, Flynn explained –
Back before the Troubles, a place that was so mean and crabbed,
Horse would have it, men were known to eat their dinner from a drawer.
Which they’d slide shut the minute you’d walk in.
He’d demonstrate this at the kitchen table, hunched and furtive, squinting
Out the window – past the teetering minarets of rust, down the hedge-dark aisle –
To where a stranger might appear, a passer-by, or what was maybe worse,
Someone he knew. Someone who wanted something. Someone who was hungry.
Of course who should come tottering up the lane that instant but his brother

Mule. I forgot to mention they were twins. They were as like as two –
No, not peas in a pod, for this is not the time nor the place to go into
Comparisons, and this is really Horse’s story, Horse who – now I’m getting
Round to it – flew over Dresden in the war. He’d emigrated first, to
Manchester. Something to do with scrap – redundant mill machinery,
Giant flywheels, broken looms that would, eventually, be ships, or aeroplanes.
He said he wore his fingers to the bone.
And so, on impulse, he had joined the RAF. He became a rear gunner.
Of all the missions, Dresden broke his heart. It reminded him of china.

As he remembered it, long afterwards, he could hear, or almost hear
Between the rapid desultory thunderclaps, a thousand tinkling echoes –
All across the map of Dresden, store-rooms full of china shivered, teetered
And collapsed, an avalanche of porcelain, slushing and cascading: cherubs,
Shepherdesses, figurines of Hope and Peace and Victory, delicate bone fragments.
He recalled in particular a figure from his childhood, a milkmaid
Standing on the mantelpiece. Each night as they knelt down for the rosary,
His eyes wold wander up to where she seemed to beckon to him, smiling,
Offering him, eternally, her pitcher of milk, her mouth of rose and cream.

One day, reaching up to hold her yet again, his fingers stumbled, and she fell.
He lifted down a biscuit tin, and opened it.
It breathed an antique incense: things like pencils, snuff, tobacco.
His war medals. A broken rosary. And there, the milkmaid’s creamy hand, the outstretched
Pitcher of milk, all that survived. Outside, there was a scraping
And a tittering; I knew Mule’s step by now, his careful drunken weaving
Through the tin-stacks. I might have stayed the night, but there’s no time
To go back to that now; I could hardly, at any rate, pick up the thread.
I wandered out through the steeples of rust, the gate that was a broken bed.

“Dresden” is from Carson’s 1987 collection The Irish for No.

The first time I read it, I felt like I was racing through it while holding my breath. The little asides–the origins of nicknames, a woman’s imagined private life, the meanings of Irish words, and descriptions of rocky landscapes– at first they seem to lead nowhere, but they accumulate and bring the reader to Dresden, to Horse Boyle’s story.  At the end, the reader and the speaker are where they started: Horse’s “decrepit caravan.” As the speaker ends the poem by leaving Horse’s home–“I wandered out through the steeples of rust, the gate that was a broken bed”– I felt like I was waking up from a dream.

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