Leland Bardwell had the softest wildness I’ve ever seen in human eyes

Michael Harding: Bardwell’s life was a poem and her poetry was simply the truth spoken with passion

Leland Bardwell. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Leland Bardwell. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

When I was young they told me that a myth was something false; it was the opposite of truth. That human beings were rational, that knowledge was wisdom and that poetry was a matter of irony and perception.

But then I met a mythic woman called Leland Bardwell whose life was a poem, whose pleasures were irrational and whose poetry was simply the truth spoken with passion.

When she died her family and friends gathered in Sligo to remember her, and I could almost hear the door closing as she left the room, and the echo of her laughter as she floated away, free as a bird, on her journey out towards heaven. Because that’s where mythic creatures go, to live forever and sometimes guide us on our own stumbling path.

On a headland in Sligo, where she had lived, her children saw seals in the water after she died. The seals surfaced and looked. It was a place where Leland often swam. The seals bobbed about for a while and then their sleek black heads were swallowed by the waves. They slipped down, out of sight with ease into the ocean and it seemed to be an assurance to the humans on the beach that Leland had indeed gone to heaven.

Leland was so sure of heaven that she didn’t even bother with a funeral. It was like she was leaving a party without fuss, because she had somewhere else to go. She even predicted it in a poem in which she promised to leave her body to science, and hoped that when they examined her skull they might find not a brain but a rose therein.

When I was young I was afraid of famous writers. I squatted on the floor at poetry readings, and haunted the bars where literary men hung out. But poets were intimidating back then. They smoked pipes, spoke abrasively at the unlettered, and were intolerant of intellectual mediocrity.

Big-hearted woman

She enjoyed men and found them funny. She tolerated the famous ones. Allowed them to strut their stuff, and preen their feathers, although she could pluck them if she wanted with a softly spoken phrase.

She was never derisory or judgmental about the famous ones but she could act the clown like Lear’s fool when someone else was holding court.

I was terrified the first time I met her. I knew her name. I had read one of her books. I was in the back of a car. We were heading out for the night and the driver said “we must pick up Leland on the way to the pub”.

That clarified my position in the hierarchy. Bardwell was a distinguished writer so she would get the front seat and I, being unpublished, would do well in the back.

We drove a few hundred yards off the main road and down a winding Monaghan lane where we stopped at a small cottage. The driver tooted the horn and Leland Bardwell flew out the front door. She was trying to light a cigarette, and put on a pair of glasses, and get a key into the door all at the same time.

“What’s she doing?” the driver asked.

“I think she’s trying to lock the door,” I said.

“But that’s a Yale lock,” he said. “She just needs to slam the damn thing shut.”

After a while she gave up, uttered an expletive and came crashing through the dainty garden gate towards the car.

Softest wildness

“No,” she replied dismissively, opening the door, “I’ll be fine in the back.”

And she threw herself in beside me.

Her black hair was as unruly as a haycock in a windy field and she beheld me with calm attention like an owl, and beneath the ragged hair was the softest sort of wildness I’d ever seen in two human eyes.

Eyes that Luke Kelly and Patrick Kavanagh and many other great artists had one time gazed upon.

“Hello,” she said to me, reaching her hand politely towards mine in the back of the car. “I’m Leland Bardwell.”

And off we went, floating down the rickety roads of Monaghan, free as birds, and into the mythic night.

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