Kevin Barry short story: Roethke In The Bughouse

A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 5: a famous poet suffers a breakdown on Inisbofin

The limbs of a dead whitethorn appear in the dark to say that the night dissolves. The large dishevelled man fills the hospital window with a spidery grin as the last of the dark gives out to grey morning. The morning comes up after a night such as this and you feel like you’ve fought a fucking war. Now come the slate roofs and the chimney pots and all the weary rest of it – Ballinasloe is greyly waking. He turns to the slight man sat neatly in a bedside chair with palms rested on cheerful knees.

– What did you say your name was, Doctor?

– I didn’t. I’m O’Reilly.

– Oh, I’d believe it.


The doctor has spatters of mud or cowshit on the hems of his trousers. Equine snout, tiny head. He half rises from the chair and turns it to face the thin new light in the window and sits again.

– And how should I address you, Mr . . .

– It’s Ret-kuh. But you can call me Ted.

This all seems entirely reasonable. Yes I am Ted and I am made of flesh, bones and gasses and this spidery grin. Anxiety folds away its arbitrary music. Unquestionably I could use a drink also. Now the large man can feel the grin detach itself from the tight lines of his mouth. August here is dense as a jungle in the rain and it plays sour notes in his glands and pulses.

– Are you experiencing agitation, Ted?

– Well!

All this and heaven, too. He arranges a sigh and to emphasise it rests a buttock on the edge of the mattress. Bony as an army bed. The doctor crosses his legs now. The doctor sits a kind, interested chin on his knitted fingers.

– In truth, Dr O’Reilly, I’d say there’s been nothing that’s absotively a surprise to me.

All this coming and going from himself. He would like very much now to spread his fat limbs in the water. Because I could float like a lilypad and I am beautiful in the water, I have such grace when I am floating there. There is a burning sensation in his chest. He would like a tall stiff drink and he would like to fumble with some skirt in a taxi. I think I could make you shriek, actually.

– What it is, it’s a fucking joke, you take absolutely and positively and stick ’em together, I’m aware of my fucking words, O’Reilly.

What is it, the line from Hopkins? I am gall, I am heartburn. You need to try some Pepto Bismol, friend, and you need to try it today. This doctor’s head is quite simply too small for a grown man’s, it gives him a beany look. Very punchable.

– I understand that you write?

– Oh, angelically.

On Inishbofin he looked to the sky and saw fires on the moon. He lay wrapped in his overcoat on the pier all night long and for a while a safe harbour it seemed. Yes there was a bottle and Mars also was visible.

– About this recent unpleasantness, Doctor. It’s nothing I can’t handle.

Cold white wine. A bellyful of shell fish. A hotsy-totsy in a yellow cab. The city’s rank night odours. Her pearl buttons straining. And seeing as you ask, girl? Well yes, the thought is always crossing my mind. And I do mean always. I think that we could do filthy things together. Just you and me.

– I believe that it’s poetry, Ted?

– Fuck off.

– Ah now.

– I’m sorry.

– That’s alright. I believe it’s poetry that you write?

So do I – no, that’s pat, the line swings out too easily.

– It intends to be.

Oh you pompous ass with your handsome jowls, your lurching heart! This doctor is a religious, I can tell, the placid godhaunts of his pale green eyes.

– Did you come loose of yourself on Bofin, Ted?

– That’s a very attractive way of putting it, Doctor.

Here we are in our sombre grey palace. Here we are in our stone grey town. Bal-in-a-sloe, apparently. Sloe gin. Slow love. Shall we make an afternoon of it, lady? I watched you walk the beach on the island, Beatrice, and the breeze moved the sand in circling drifts, and it settled and sang again in the breezeless gaps, and you found in the white sand your ritual things, your pebbles and shells, and the way you dipped like a bird to peck them free.

– At the very least we can try some other medicines, Ted. You’ll sleep anyhow, I’m sure of that.

This is all very fucking civilised. The day comes up hot and airlessly to fill the sour green ward and we connive most sensibly, this smiling doctor, this somewhat penitent loon. Though in truth I would quite like to fuzz up your smile, O’Reilly. See if you might misplace your faith. Shall I lead you through the caverns of this fat old skull then? Dank, oh dank places! Caverns full of black hissing water through which sometimes still I rise up to myself.

– You’re crying a lot, Mr Roethke.

– It’s because I’m so tired now. The worst of this is done, believe me.

He had walked the corridors to pace off the night. He closed his eyes and drifted the island again as he paced. On Bofin there were bits of sheep everywhere. Hanks of dark bloodied wool along the roads and snagged in tidy clumps on the roadside wires. The road circled the island and brought him back to himself again. The road was so comically narrow he could lie across the entire breadth of it and did. He listened to the aches beneath the skin of the road. He conversed with the inanimate. Bloodied wool, rotted skulls, maggotty – there were horns and bones everywhere in neat piles cleaned smooth by the salt wind. Mutton necropolis. Lichen beautiful on the stones a yellowish green flecked with tiny black parts. I wonder if I exhaust you sometimes, dear Beatrice? It cannot be an easy ride. But of course I promise to write your name across the stars and years. That old promise. It is what sustains my kind. It is what keeps us coming in a grinning line. Ted Roethke walked the corridors almost the whole night through. Beyond the high windows the moon waxed heavily on County Galway.

– Did you know that madmen are much the same everywhere, Dr O’Reilly?

– Much of a muchness, Ted, do you believe so?

– I do, actually.

Some whang-doodle off a hill farm – you can tell the hill people everywhere, too, the wind-startled look – some whang-doodle wept into his chest as he mooched the corridor and made two syllables again and again, a name, and wept to his chest, and I bet those were the syllables of his mama’s name, her name forever on his dry cracked lips and his shit-crusted shirt-tail hanging all undone. What is with these Micks and their mothers? On Bofin grown men drank pints of milk with their spuds and stew. Creamy moustache, peat smoke, poem? Too easy, Ted. Fucking teat complex. Now ambition in the heavy morning jangles a single manic chord. He considers suavely the needle-thin doctor.

– Is this a reasonable kind of establishment, Doctor? Is this a reasonable kind of town?

– Tell me what you mean.

– Might a man go for his walk in the evenings, take the evening air?

– There’s one pub I’ll allow you to go to, Ted. Our nurses drink there and they’ll look after you.

We understand each other, clearly. Yes, much of a muchness. I am the large trembling electrified type hot-eyed with unnameable passions. He has seen my cut so many times. Ted is smiling now, Ted is benevolent – he shifts the second buttock onto the mattress. The doctor murmurs encouragingly – a wood pigeon sound from his hollows, gently. Ted is moving in for a while. He will rest his bones here for a good long while. Certain concessions have been made. Hoarsely now a crow calls – the crows patrol the grounds in knee-high boots like swaggering swing-keys of the place.

– How have the nights been for you, Ted?

– The nights have been complicated.

– As though they might go on forever?

And full of occult music. The nights on Bofin were lit by the moon that lived above the harbour and yes, truly, there were fires on the moon. He sat on the pier and wrapped himself tightly in his overcoat. The wind moved in cold sharp points and ambition was again his currency. Shall I never be satisfied, he asked himself, quite harshly, on the pier at Inishbofin, his legs crossed at the ankles.

– Is this a happy town or a saddish kind of town, O’Reilly?

– Do you believe that towns have their own emotions?

– It’s clear to me. Also they are sexed.

– I’m interested in this.

– All you have to do is look out the fucking window, Doctor. This Ballinasloe is very obviously a female place.

He is priapic. He is humid. He is ambitious. If there was no ambition, he would not write at all. When it is so insistent – so flagrant, so grabby – it poisons every word that he writes. He can see the words queering on the page. And he sweats in the night and even as he drinks and even as he makes love, what he thinks is this: maybe I can make my own mythology still. Maybe it is ambition that can trace my name across the skies and years. And you will commemorate me then with greenéd brass plaques, in bars, and on piers – Theodore Roethke had a crack-up here.

– Would it apply to the countryside also, Ted? In terms of places being sexed. What about the island, for example?

– The island I would say ambiguous.

On Bofin the baby rabbits tumbled white-assed from the ditches and scurried like our plans. The sheep were terribly fretful; the birds were so beautiful and played on the air. On the hospital corridor, in the night, an old man sat in a puddle of yellow piss and sang over and again a sentimental dirge:

– I’ve been to a great many places, and wonderful sights I’ve seen, from Agernavoe to Ballinasloe . . .

– And back to Ballyporeen. You have the air of it lovely, Ted. It’s a Percy French song, though arguably not from his finest hour.

– I think everything is going to work out just fine between you and me, Dr O’Reilly.

– We’ll see how it goes. The most important thing is that there should be sleep.

– Oh, I agree, absolutely.

– The medicine will take hold of you and there will be sleep.

Take hold like a mother’s arms. Well, that would depend on the mother. The doctor rises and pleasantly retreats, this beany-headed soldier of reason. The large man puffs out his cheeks. The fields that he can see rising in the distance are lit now in a breakthrough sun, lit green like reason. This large, dishevelled but somehow still dapper man unties his laces and takes off his shoes. He somewhat casually loosens his tie, as if the workplace today was slightly difficult, darling, but no more than that. When you say you’re going into work, as a writer, what you mean is you’re about to crawl into your fucking nerves. He takes off his jacket and folds it away, careful as a boy. Soon there will be sleep and it will be a while then before I wake to my high, irreputable smile again. When I walked the cliffs on Bofin, yes, I was in an agitated climate. There were sudden recitals, black-outs, vitriol. I could see Theodore in the third person. The cliffs so pocked with rabbit holes, a rabbit metropolis, populous as Delhi. He uncapped the bottle as he walked the cliffs and the wind made eerie music in it – he swallowed the notes. They play inside him still in the caverns where the water is dark and hisses. He lies down on his narrow hospital bed. He faces the high, cracked ceiling that makes the vault for all these sweet-natured sobs and all these dark seethings. His mind runs now along a clean narrative strait and ambition once more is the motor – if such happens, then such will happen, and so on, all the way home on the heavenward line, and do you see now the way I can swing my jivey notes from all that happens?

Unkillable Roethke lies breathing and smiling in the sour hospital morning. Off Bofin the sea changed colour eight thousand times a day. Voices were held in tiny pockets inside the wind and travelled. His own words moved and came back to him and he could hear so clearly his lies and wheedling, he could hear his true and fervent love. He made notes incessantly even as he walked the hills and drank. The pages of the notebook filled up with his spidery scrawl. He grinned out the lines of it. And now from his bed in the morning in the hospital ward he calls out crossly:

– Oh! Can a man get some fucking sleep around here, please? Shut the fuck up you fucking loons or get the fuck out!

He has been to a great many places. He slaughtered a dragon once on Second Avenue in Seattle. He battered some fiends in White Harlem. He has made some beautiful work, he believes – who the fuck is better than me? He has given himself a fucking shot at it, he believes. Because brokenheartedness is the note that sustains always and this he can play at will.

– Gentlemen! Quiet, please! I won’t fucking ask you again!

By the time they get you in the bughouse, usually, the worst of it is over. His left hand rests on his fat belly to feel out each breath as it moves through his ribs and eases him. His right hand lies limply by his side but the index finger is busy and scratches quick patterns on the grey starched sheet – it makes words.

Kevin Barry is the author of City of Bohane and short story collections There Are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island. Beatlebone, his new novel about John Lennon in Ireland, won the Goldsmiths Prize.