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Jerm Curtin



the poet

Originally from County Cork in Ireland but still living in Spain after many years, Jerm Curtin received the 2021 Patrick Kavanagh Award, as well as the 2020 Cúirt International Festival of Literature's New Writing Prize for Poetry. He's also won the Listowel Writers' Week Single Poem Competition on two occasions – first in 2015, then again in 2018.

the poems


00:00 / 02:44

            Remember how a traveller, who was unwelcome,

            would pass through our village in doctrinal black.

            We were untutored, barely literate.

            We'd say a low-flying swallow harboured rain,

            and he'd tut-tut at our weak embodiment

            of knowledge. We feared his presence;

            we'd seen strong men drown on dry land

            after his passing. Now it is no longer the past,

            nor yet the future, with its tracking devices

            and sanitary masks. It is the middle of the night.

            You cannot tell what is life and what is death.

            Like a newcomer in town, death enlivens

            even a dull Sunday, which is why, perhaps,

            we sheltered and adopted an outlaw blacksmith.

            He could forge the sharpest pike in Munster,

            a weapon which struck fear among our foes;

            but he preferred to hide with his descendants

            in our remote townland and fold them in our midst.

            Death can ordain like a patriarch, or come

            for the patriarch, now as human as anyone.

            It can flourish in the cold, night air like snow

            before it falls, when a man out of step with himself

            pulls up in an articulated truck at a service station

            far from his home and his destination,

            where he has trouble with the local tongue.

            A pump attendant, who'd represent

            Hope in a morality play, comes out

            to serve him and sees the damaged door mirror,

            blood smeared on the window, the dent.

            The attendant can deal with all of this

            across the barrier of language. There's been

            a death, no doubt – he catches as much,

            as the foreign driver proclaims

            both innocence and guilt

            and offers him a cardboard box

            with such beseeching and mumbled grief

            that the tawny owl inside, open-eyed, stretched on its back,

            could be either an injunction or a gift.

Lola Wakes

00:00 / 02:54

            Coffee grumbles on the stove, and Lola wakes.

            – I had my dream again, she says. At night,

            she reads in bed, books that lift the streets

            like bedclothes so that the corpses

            in the subsoil turn their faces to the light.

            – Look, she says, and points me to the shock

            of nakedness in war. My eyes are drawn

            to a beautiful bush of pubic hair, burning

            all the more fiercely

            because the woman's face has an open wound

            and she's sprawled dead on the street.

            – There were girls at school with those same names.

            She reads them out, smarting at the roll call.

            This is her town.

            I am a stranger here.

            I can ignore the grate

            of rough unwieldy boots on cobbled streets,

            can take the sandals from beneath the bed

            as if we lived already

            in the Arcady we wish to create,

            where our flowers and potted plants,

            geraniums on their stalks, might stand

            in place of severed heads on pikes

            and so redeem the past.

            – My sleep was soured, Lola concludes.

                         *   *   *   *   *   *

            All our dark childhoods, our backs to the border,

            only an outlaw's footfall away. I was the child who shrank

            from the nuns and kept my skirt clean and my mind a blank.

            I was chaste and silent, and desired above all else

            to be lifted up into the sanctity of Christ Our Lord.

            Instead, we were taken over the border for contraband coffee.

            The bus had wooden seats and smelled of bleach and black tobacco.

            We visited churches while the nuns went about their purchases.

            Then we stuffed the bags of coffee grains under our skirts,

            under our overcoats, under our blouses. On the way back, the nuns

            smiled their obsequious smiles and the border guards waved us on.

            We filed out at the convent gates, handing over the smuggled wares.

            Now the taste of bitter roast grains

            each morning brings me back to who I am.

Cacti / A Poetry Lesson

‘Tan toste que acabada / ouv’ o mong’ a oraçon.
oyu hûa passarinna / cantar log’ en tan bon son.
que sse escaecéu seendo / e catando sempr’ alá.’

~ Alfonso X, el sabio ~

00:00 / 07:16

            A time will come when every poem I write

            will be as ingrained as checking a watch,

            kneeling or making the sign of the cross.

            Faith will not matter, nor authenticity.

            I will come to my page like a blackbird

            to its branch, repeating the lessons I've learned:

            something to do with age, and with routine,

            and a grandmother opening her arms to a child.

            Years hence, standing above the sinkhole

            or the stairwell where a child’s look was lost,

            miles from the delicate arms at rest

            on a banister or a low windlass wall,

            I remember the silence on the sunny porch

            like a poetry lesson as she nurtured

            life from the dew in the shadow of the cacti.  

            It was a feeling as old as the soft blue hills;

            the lichened orchard, past its prime, ripened

            with marvels and moss, like a backdrop to Paradise.

            Now, as I cross a thoroughfare, hand in hand

            with a lover, or run my fingers down an arm

            in the dark as if it were the railing on a deck,

            and other fingers return the caress,

            or as I hear the nightingales among the reeds,

            it is that first heaven I'm reminded of.

            How she lingered out on the porch, tending

            to cacti and potted flowers. How I knew

            I mustn't disturb her. Later she'll bring out

            her currant bread and Lucozade, a caraway-seed loaf.

            Meanwhile, I try to keep occupied.

            I find the mood has penetrated everywhere.

            In a dusty outhouse loft, I come across

            damaged and dated toys, school jotters,

            rusty tools and gadgets, fabulous tarnished fishing flies,

            American letters stashed in a box,

            red, white and blue around the borders,

            solemn statesmen on the stamps.

            I follow my grandmother, tall and thin, her hair

            like ermine, back through O. Henry to New York.

            Her face flashes out above the crowd.

            The Depression brought her home, in ways

            I am too young to know. When I am older,

            I'll remember; another bauble

            to occupy my time, but nothing on which to rely;

            I catch a sense of intangible doom –

            as in a fairytale, where no disguise will free

            a victim from a lure, or return a wanderer

            to their course, as if old age had built a wall

            about its house and time itself had stalled

            and drawn to it a child who knows they must not enter.

            But once I turned the key on that outhouse door,

            a century might well have passed before

            my grandmother called me from the parlour,

            her tête-à-tête with the cacti over.

            And almost as long before I'd read

            a poem about a hapless monk in an orchard.

            A worthless monk, beaten round the ears,

            whose beard cannot hide his sores,

            one the others can't abide,

            so he is sent to dig and till the soil,

            and while he works and weeds,

            he asks the Blessed Virgin for a glimpse

            of what's in store for those who enter Paradise.

            He prays among the seedlings in his care,

            under trees whose nuts will be their staple

            through the winter, and fruit trees,

            whose flowers he loves and worries through frost.

            He works and hears a blackbird sing. Or is it a thrush?

            His ear is poor, but the song is beautiful;

            he spends the afternoon in its thrall

            until the time to gather tools and join

            the other monks for Vespers. Wistfully,

            he hoists the hems of his tunic up.

            In evening light that bathes the path,

            some shrubs are now as large as trees,

            there are others he can't recognise;

            but it meanders as it always does,

            and takes him as far as the chapel.

            Bells ring. He steps inside, and genuflects.

            He makes the sign of the cross before the Eucharist.

            And finds himself beside a brother

            who he does not know, and whispers:

            'Who are you? And which monks are these?'

            After the first outbreaks of plague had passed,

            the last monk of the old school came in from the garden,

            in aspect rough, speaking a dialect

            we barely comprehended. He asked for brethren

            we knew nothing of, so we first beat him

            with a stick and bade him talk sense.

            Then, contrite at our behaviour, we washed

            and fed him like a stray, showed him to a cell

            and allowed him rest.

            Next day we garnered from his nonsense, hobbled

            in that old tongue, that he referred

            to monks now long deceased, and a prayer

            to the Virgin Mother in which he'd asked to savour

            Paradise, whereupon a bird had sung.

            We calculate its trill went on three hundred years.

            Such is the miracle of prayer: a simple monk

            in a garden granted a glimpse of Paradise,

            while we hung on his words, and mourned its loss.  

Publishing credits

All poems: exclusive first publication by iamb


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