Penetrated by the wounds of a woman’s heart at Cúirt

Behind the scenes and in the audience at Cúirt


I was at Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway recently and as I stood beside a crime writer from Finland in a hotel lift I noticed that his shoes were identical to mine.

He was tall and his hair was long and black and the remains of a boyish femininity haunted his face.

“We’re wearing the same shoes,” I declared. He smiled, but we were already on ground floor, so the comment led nowhere.

I went outside and crossed Eyre Square in the late evening sunshine and headed for the Town Hall to hear a Pulitzer Prize winner, Sharon Olds, reading her poems.

She had long, white hair and she was isolated in a pool of light on the dark stage, but I kept imagining her in glory, like a female Buddha with millions of sister Buddhas all around her. And I thought I saw her father’s head spinning in the sky above her, like a cold moon of stone as she spoke her matter-of-fact music, one word at a time, interrogating her own body as if it were a collection of extraordinary syllables.

Her song sculpted its existence into the air before me, and her presence was so powerful that I could remember only a handful of times in my life when I had heard a poet sing so clearly or when I had been so cut by the blade of another mind.

Afterwards I went to the festival club in a nearby hotel where in 1988 I had locked myself out of a bedroom and had to sneak down to reception holding a potted plant between my legs, in order to get another key. The porter was at his dinner in the kitchen so I crept behind the desk and phoned my room and waited for my companion to answer.

“Can you open the door for me?” I whispered in desperation, when she lifted the receiver, but there was a very long pause and l knew she was dreaming when she said, “I don’t know who you are.”

In the festival club I met a woman as tall as the detective writer in the lift. She said she could tell what kind of a person I was by examining my fingers. I surrendered my hand and she kneaded each digit for a while and eventually made her assessment.

“You suffer from feelings of worthlessness,” she said, “and you have some anger, especially here.” She gave my middle finger a sudden pinch and then kneaded my hand very gently before returning it to me.

When she left I drifted towards a group of women who were discussing the word “penetration”. They said it wasn’t a word they liked. It was a violent word that conjured up soldiers knocking on the impoverished doors of villagers in Iraq. It didn’t open any doors to the heart, they said.

I said, “For me penetration is a gentle word; a word I associate with wise old men who used to put poems before me when I was young and would say – sit with that until your mind penetrates it!”

The word reminds me of boys long ago along the riverbanks of Westmeath, reaching their hands gently into the water to find the gills of trout that might be sleeping in the shade behind a rock.

The word reminds me of swimmers entering a pool, or the space probe Voyager heading out beyond Jupiter’s moons, or my companion’s eyes the night she finally opened the door 25 years ago, and I stood naked on the hotel corridor and was caught for a lifetime in her penetrating gaze.

Once upon a time a monk sat on a bench for 17 years, his mind penetrating the nature of a tree beside him. “It’s a tree,” he said as he began. But after 17 years meditating on its nature he decided that it was not a tree. And after another 17 years, he reached enlightenment. “It is a tree,” he whispered.

I remember a time when I used to tell such stories and presumed that the monk on the bench was an image every human could identify with; the monastic man was generic enough to signify us all.

Wounds of a woman’s heart
But at Cúirt International Festival of Literature it was a woman, wise and graceful, that held me as she sang out the milestones of her private life, and the wounds of a woman’s heart, and chiselled them into metaphors; her soul as pure as a song bird’s empty ribcage and her eyes from the stage, gently penetrating the darkness where her audience sat in awe.