On a Monday in February 2014 I visited the Galway City Museum at the mouth of the River Corrib. I remember it as a grey day with gaps in the sky where light fell through. But it was strangely warm and I walked from Eyre Square, with its row of flag poles flying the standards of the fourteen tribes of Galway, past the statue of Oscar Wilde and his Estonian contemporary Eduard Wilde, yucking it up on a bench in a moment of re-imagined history, through the pedestrian only shopping district with my jacket in my hands.
I encountered the painting Communicating with Prisoners by Jack B. Yeats on the second floor of the museum. I don’t think I knew that William Butler Yeats had a brother or that his brother was a painter. But it wasn’t the name that attracted me. It was the thick materiality of the paint. In the left-hand foreground is a wooden wall plastered with bills including one for a Christmas bazaar. The paint in this part of the image looks knifed on; it’s so think in spots that the paint itself appears to cast shadows, to play with light.
As I describe in the poem, “Indigenous Cities,” the painting depicts female prisoners calling down from a grey tower to what appear to be their sisters and mothers. The prisoners are waving, reaching out toward the people on the ground. I later learned, courtesy of the Internet, that this painting had been the first entry in an RTÉ search for “Ireland’s Favourite Painting?” At the time though I had no idea that it was famous. According to RTÉ, Yeats based it on a tower in Dublin. Notably, Yeats did not include the lower rows of windows present in the historical model, giving the version in the painting a particularly austere air. I spent some time with the painting—fully half the total time I was in the museum. I made notes. Then I waited. For more than a year I tried in fits and starts to write about the painting.
The following spring I returned to Ireland with a friend who was not called Annie, who was not a lawyer, and who did not live in Toronto via Japan. We had an idea to drive around the country and read poems about Ireland in the places the poems were supposedly about. We’d read Heaney’s “Post Script” on the Flaggy Shore. We’d read “Belfast” by Louis MacNeice in Belfast “in the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin.” In Carrowdore churchyard yard we’d read Mahon’s “In Carrowdore Churchyard” gathered around MacNeice’s grave. To the Burren we’d take John Ennis’ Burren Days. And at the Cliffs of Moher we’d read Wallace Steven’s “The Irish Cliffs of Moher.” There were many other poems as well. We hired a car at Cork Airport and we drove.
In the fall of that year I began to write, transposing elements from my life and the life of my traveling companion onto the characters in the poem, disobeying chronology, and massaging geography. It’s a sprawling poem that begins and ends mid journey. As does this note.
Matt Rader is the author of three collections of poetry published in Canada and the book of stories, What I Want To Tell Goes Like This. He teaches in the Department of Creative Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. His most recent work is the poetry pamphlet, I Don’t Want To Die Like Frank O’Hara, published by Baseline Press in London, Ontario.
You can read ‘Indigenous Cities’ in Issue Two of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.