Gathering thoughts in the great silence of cyberspace


I love the way Americans make private things public, and the way Barack Obama cries, and the emails I get from Laura in Montana.

“I’m looking forward to the Gathering,” she wrote. She’s hoping her Irish father-in-law will melt before he dies and put his arms around his grandchildren before they are completely grown up.

“They miss the power that comes in a hug from a blood relation,” she says, “and how it can be a compass in this country’s turmoil.” She doesn’t mean this in any bad sense. She means that in the US some people have learned to take all the emotional stuff, the toxic waste from inside, and make it public.

I love to see her name in my inbox, and to hear the magnificent uncertainty with which she faces each day. I gaze at the words she typed a few seconds ago in Montana, and I want to put my hand through the screen and touch her face as she renders up a confessional account of her life in the snow.

Though it’s not me she’s really talking to as she sends her privacy into the great silence of the outbox. She’s doing what poets do, what John Berryman and Sylvia Plath did and Maya Angelou does: putting stuff out there, hoping to find the shape of something beautiful in her anxiety.

Her husband, Shay, is Irish. He and I grew up together and I can still remember our final meeting, before he emigrated. My beloved and I had just moved a new sofa into the front room and were still at that stage in our relationship when even rearranging the furniture could trigger impromptu ecstasy, and when Shay arrived he found us halfway down a bottle of wine and practically naked.

Shay said he would never come back to Ireland. He was in love with Laura, he said, but his parents didn’t approve of him marrying a Protestant Yank. That took a lot of coldness on their part, because Americans are, generally speaking, easy to embrace.

Shay kept to his word. He returned once to bury his mother five years ago and on the evening he returned to Montana it was minus six degrees. Laura was trying to light the stove. Their daughter had a tummy ache and her brother, the mechanic, was staring out the window at the beginning of another snow flurry.

They were all cramped into a little wooden house on the outskirts of town because none of them had jobs. Bush was in the White House and Shay was depressed, and that evening he spent hours on the computer describing his mother’s funeral while Laura stuffed a turkey for Thanksgiving. I know because when he finished and went to bed she wrote her blog, dipping all her wounds into the great silence of cyberspace. Making something poetic from the debris in the kitchen sink.

Email hadn’t been invented in 1982 when I was in Florida, holding the hand of an 80-year-old woman whose trailer was stuffed with old brown photos of her childhood in Donegal, a time when little girls were speechless.

She was like a bewildered snow goose in the hospital where her husband was dying without much fuss. When nurses scolded her for spilling coffee on the corridor she bowed her head with the stoicism of someone who has survived an impoverished childhood, and when her husband, a bundle of long bones beneath the sheets, sang The Homes of Donegal to her in a wispy voice that wouldn’t be heard behind a paper bag, she crossed her legs and tapped her foot, but even then she remained mute.

But Laura is never silent. She can talk about anything. Robert Lowell is another poet she loves. “He died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab on his way to meet his ex-wife,” Laura says. “That’s how vulnerable each moment is.” Plath’s gigantic vulnerability was also etched in poetry and her poems are like vessels that still bring Laura safely through the storms of her ordinary days.

And email is Laura’s big ship, sailing into cyberspace with all her stuff. And I can see her smiling on Facebook because Romney has gone away, and Laura always held a candle for Obama. Her father-in-law has not softened yet, but Laura lives in hope, and she’s coming to Clare in July for the Willie Clancy Summer School and Shay might just persuade the old man to embrace them all in a little family gathering; which is the Gathering to which Laura is looking forward.

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