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.
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.
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.
All poems: exclusive first publication by iamb
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 ~
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.