An Irish truism: the poems you study for your Leaving Cert stay in your head forever. My Leaving Cert poetry book was Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin, which for 30 years was everybody's Leaving Cert poetry book. I quite like the idea that three decades' worth of Irish people all have the same poems in their heads.
We probably all made the same notes in the margins, too. “Universal theme,” I remember obediently scribbling beside Patrick Kavanagh’s Memory of My Father. Which theme? Death. The loss of your parents. Aged 16, what did I know about death? Nothing; lucky me.
Looking up Memory of My Father now, I see that, actually, I have been misremembering it. The last line of the first quatrain goes, “One time when sheaves were gathered,” and not, as I have long believed, “One time when leaves were gathered.” But does it matter? The poem is part of my inner stores, part of my equipment for living. For instance: every year, when the weather turns October-coloured, I think of Kavanagh’s line about “October-coloured weather.”
During the early days of lockdown restrictions, back in 2020, I found myself thinking often about another Kavanagh poem from Soundings, Canal Bank Walk. It was a strange world, then. Traffic lights changed noiselessly at depopulated junctions. Yellow warning signs – THIS IS TWO METRES – sprouted in every public park. If you drove to the shops, yellow-jacketed guards waved you over to ask where you were going.
We were stuck at home in Dublin 15, obeying first the 2km rule and then the 5km rule. Everybody remembers this, of course, everybody was there, but how strange it was, how inexplicable, how disturbing, how almost supernatural it is that these things happened to us all and have now faded utterly into the past.
Our daughter was then one and a half. There was no childcare. We worked half-days, and passed her back and forth. We became horribly familiar with every park in our vicinity. (I think I will henceforth suffer from a lifelong allergy to parks.) It was early summer. Pine trees were producing their lurid yellow friable cones. I pushed the buggy down to the park and pointed these out to Zoe. “Pine cones! I said. “Dat dohs!” she said. A magpie flapped on the path ahead of us. Zoe learned to say magpie: “Map-pieeeey!”
Having no choice, during those early months of restrictions, we wallowed in the habitual, the banal, as at no point in our lives since childhood
We live near the Royal Canal; we would bring oats and feed the ducks. During all of these forcibly circumscribed activities I kept thinking about Patrick Kavanagh’s Canal Bank Walk: “Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal/Pouring redemption for me, that I do/The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal…”
Having no choice, during those early months of restrictions, we wallowed in the habitual, the banal, as at no point in our lives since childhood. Conducting Zoe through her childhood, under these bizarre conditions, we re-entered childhood ourselves. Because of the coincidence of Covid and Zoe, I gave the ordinary its due for the first time in decades. I learned that if you flick one of those yellow pine cones with a finger, it sends a fine shower of particles out into the air. Because of the coincidence of Covid and Zoe, I found myself studying closely the little rainbow band of oily iridescence that a duck has around its neck.
I was reminded, on those microscopically attentive park strolls, of the teacher who led my Holy Family Community School class through Canal Bank Walk, all those years ago. Her name was Marie Pierce, and even at the time I knew we were lucky to have her as our English teacher – more particularly, I knew that I, the aspiring writer, was lucky to be in her Leaving Cert class.
Ms Pierce wanted us to feel the power of Kavanagh’s praise of the ordinary. Like all great teachers, she drew on her own life for her lessons. What did it mean to wallow in the habitual, the banal? She told us that, as a child, she had become obsessed with the ringing sound produced when you shook a spent lightbulb. This was what it meant to pay attention to the ordinary – to discover beauty in the near-at-hand. The class found her story funny, but they weren’t making fun. At the end of the year, they presented her with a gift-wrapped lightbulb.
Canal Bank Walk and that lightbulb are permanently linked in my mind: another part of my equipment for living. I hope Marie Pierce still makes the same connection. It was the ordinary that I was stuck with, during the early days of Covid; but because of her, I was able to understand that it was also the ordinary that I needed.