Clattered

A year or two ago at the annual Dodge Poetry Common Gathering celebration in Princeton, a teaching colleague of mine asked me if Six Counties Seven Sins, being my first novel, was autobiographical. Six Counties  Seven Sins is not autobiographical. Over the years I had heard many firsthand stories  of the atrocities of the Troubles, and while I did take then into account when fabricating the conflicts found in that novel, I also relied on what I  know best: Philosophy, religion,  Irish folk music, myth, and poetry. In short, I am not William Stone; however, I do resemble Brian “Pockets” Blaney, whose story is told in my work in progress. The working title is Clattered. Its voice is quite different from the one found in Six Counties Seven Sins. There’s a few stretchers in the mix, but for the most part it’s pure gospel.

 

Clattered

Expository Passages about Will’s Parents

Originally the background history about Will’s parents, their meeting and his father’s end, appeared near the start of the novel. Dr. Harrod suggested I move the info to a latter place and dole it out in small bites, and begin with the wayward boy dialogue in the hostel. One major change to that text was the motive of Will’s father. Initially, he was booby trapping a bridge with the intent of setting off a bomb on parade day as the Orangemen crossed. After due consideration, I decided this placed him in an unfavorable light in the role of the aggressor, so I changed his mission to a defender against a sniping attack.

The Unreliable Narrator

I’ve received a few e-mails about the content of Six Counties Seven Sins questioning the accuracy of my “history” and/or the soundness of my religious and philosophical statements. Allow me to says this: The narrator is not Bill O’Neal. Jr.; I am the author. The narrator is an unreliable character. He doesn’t always see things the way they are for multiple reasons, all of which, I believe, I have shown or said within the body of the novel.

Literary Devices

Happy New Year!

All writers use literary devices. Former teachers of English are, perhaps, a bit more cogent of their importance. I probably neglected verbal irony to a disproportionate extent, for it is quite prevalent amoung the Northern Irish. Also, it is not unusual to find litotes present in a novel set in the British Isles. Dramatic irony is present in many places. I hesitate to elaborate any further, since doing so would reveal spoiler details of the novel. The same holds true for my use of foreshadowing, but one non-spoiler of an example  comes to mind– when Éimhear lectures “Liam” on Church & Bank Streets after leaving The Happy Asian. In regard to allusion, many of my allusions are to famous poets, but there are some to folk ballads as well (Little Musgrave, etc.), and also to prominent Northern Ireland musical artists, such as James Galway, Paul Brady, and Van Morrison. Two recurring biblical allusions—St. Peter and Cain– are key to the story. I use imagery quite a bit, most notably during the climax scene of the novel where the protagonist is moving from the Ulster Museum to Botanic Gardens and on to Stranmillis Embankment to Ormeau Bridge. Symbolism (some of Celtic origins) is present in the English Ivy references, in the Narrows, the rain, the Titanic, the bear, the trout, in other animate and inanimate objects (the oak, the flowers, and the stones), and in places, such as Ballybrady Island. When setting mood (and there are various moods to be found in the novel) I often relied on assonance and rhythm to give a poetic feel to the passage. One motif of note is the recurring references to the cardinal directions on the compass, symbolic of a distance between the peoples, and also that wisdom comes from the east. The protagonist’s stroll on The Mountain Road was first written as prose, then converted to poetry and then back to prose, a technique I use when teaching poetry to my students. Metaphorical applications include the river as both a fateful and changing force in life. Character archetypes are prevalent as well. Celtic myth is resorted to from time to time. For example, when Nick loses his sword, his sword being a phallic symbol; the story of the little bird is central to the tale; and the business about the Devil’s Half-Acre is drawn from a myth as well. Flashback is used in a few places, most notably to reveal expository details about the protagonist’s parents and his own past actions as well. Hyperbole is used in small ways. Smile  The Belfast setting contributes to the theme of civil discord while the specific setting of Will’s childhood home in Stranmillis alludes to St. Paul for the street names in that section are all of Biblical origins and his street is Damascus.  Point of view of narration was discussed in an earlier blog entry.

The Writing Process

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Happy Christmas!

I completed the first edition of the novel in mid-December and made it available for purchase today.

I began planning the novel during the summer of 2005, after participating in the National Writing Project summer institute at Rider University. However, not until 2012 did I devote myself to the task in earnest, but still part-time. Now and again I  worked on it while teaching writing and shared those small parts with the class. They were very interested and critical at times. Other than grunt work it was difficult to write during the school year or during the decompression time of July. I did a lot of the editing while waiting on benches at DMV, my son’s Irish dance classes, etc. I’m sure everyone thought I was wacko. Above is a photo of the hard copies. From 2012 to Jan 2015 there were ten total hard drafts of the book. The first draft was hand written. I would print out the draft, revise by hand, then type the changes then print again. That’s how I kept the word count in check. Beginning in 2015 I went to electronic editing. Above is a photo of the ten hard copies. The drafts to the right are the earlier ones. Each tab is a new draft. The first draft is the thin one on the bottom of the pile. The final draft is at the bottom of the stack to the left.

A Letter Home

7 March 1996

Dear Mum,

I hope this letter finds you well.

A short while after first stepping off the ferry in Dunshane Cross, I met a fellow named Nick Savage. We struck up a conversation and, over the course of a few pints, Nick briefed me on the local history. As near as I could gather from his slurred speech, the relevant annals run something like this:

In the thirteenth century, a fellow named Don de Corset arrived here from the east with the pope’s blessings. He was a straight enough arrow, a member of the Gerry family, who answered to a knave named Strongblow. In addition to the mandatory fistful of knights, de Corset also had himself a stunning wife, a princess from the Aisle of Men, who ordered the building of Ballybrady Abbey. Meanwhile, de Corset relocated the crusted bones of Saints Patrick and Columbine to some quiet spot far to the west of here, that their eternal souls might not be disturbed by the impending turmoil of his mission, which was to tighten the strings on Ulster until the desired shape was achieved. To that end de Corset set up camp somewhere north of Duncraven where he and his knights set about the tedious business of seducing the native race. In due time, the locals were vanquished. Don de Corset repaid his knights by granting them thiefdoms. The main thief around here was a knight by the name of Savage.

Old Nick also mumbled on about Pope Hadrian the Fart from the Temple of the Flatulation, who donated to Ireland a papist bull with a ring in its neb and how John Sorcery passed the ring minus the bull along to Henry the Sickened and he to Strongblow and he in turn to de Corset and in due course it fell into Savage hands there to remain until, come one chill January day, the precious jewel slipped from Lord Savage’s grasp as he rowed in the river. Lost forever or so it seems. Nick says it was forged from the finest gold and embedded with premium emeralds of diverse hues. But oh-the-pity for now that gem is lost.

Somewhere between our third second and second third pints, a few hundred years had passed. The Red Earl was now long in the grave, but the Savages remained. Your man Neil burnt the peninsula to cinders, much to the benefit of his Clammy Boy cousins, but then the Clammy Boys were soon history themselves and now all that remains of them is some old stone chair that sits in The Ulster Museum. The peninsula was useless after that, reduced as it was to little more than ashes and charcoal, so the crown imported a lorry load of lowlanders to grow plantains. And here they remain to this very day, comfortable and living off the fat of the land as they are. Somewhere along the way some Savage decided to change the family name to Newman, but to this very day most of the locals prefer an old savage to a new man. It has been downhill for the Savage clan ever since those new gents ascended to the title and built that two-faced mansion. So says Nick.

I was hoping Nick would elaborate further on the two-faced business, but he had to be off as the traditional music session was on the boil. Nick calls that stuff diddly dee. Your man has zero appreciation for those old songs.

I am trying my best to further educate myself about the local history. To that end, I was not unfortunate to lay my hands on a secondhand copy of Saga of the Six Counties. I study it nightly, along with my Holy Bible of course. Most of what Nick told me hails from the former. He knows precious little about the latter.

In closing, you will be pleased to know that the local aristocracy—Lord and Lady Newman—have taken a shining to me. Lady Eleanor Newman, who is also the church organist, has opened their home to me. I find my lady to be no great hand at the organ, although she does derive the utmost pleasure in playing the instrument.

I have now settled in at Eton Gate Lodge, situated on the Newman demesne grounds. Please send all future correspondence to this address:

William Stone

Eton Gate Lodge

Lough Road

Newtonards BT9 2XG

NI UK

All the Best,

Wills

The Middle of the Beginning of the End

 

I awake in a porcelain-lined bathtub.
She stands before me. I study her stunning face, her well-preened hair, her virgin-blue eyes while she massages my forehead with an icy, moist towel. What is she doing here? And why do I lie in this waterless bath?
Oh, yes: Pockets warned me last night before retiring: I walk in my sleep, he said, urinating everywhere. Only the other night I left a shite in the closet, he said. Mind yourself, it could happen again. No— it will happen again. No one’s perfect, said Pockets.
That is when I huddled a pillow and comforter into a neat bundle before staggering off to the safest room in the flat given the circumstances—the toilet.
She studies me, still holding the chilly towel against my crown.
“You look like the walking dead.”
Stiff and sore, I rise to crawl from the tub, to study my wan reflection in the vanity mirror. Your man in the mirror is not me, not the me who was standing in some blissful river three years past— happily married and well-employed, nor the me who stepped into the river two years ago and emerged on this side of the pond, nor the me who stood at the pulpit just yesterday and denounced his professed faith. And by no means is he the me who tied one on last night in the Botanic District and then stepped out in front of a speeding taxi. How I avoided being crushed by that taxi is a mystery to me. If not the grace of God and quickness of the Daryl Hannah Look-Alike’s reflexes, I might now be a dead man.
I believe God is not yet done with me.
“Feck all. I do look bad, don’t I? Say, I thought ye went home after breakfast.”
“I did.”
“Did ye meet up with yer husband?”
“He quizzed me nonstop for days.”
“Days?”
“Aye.”
“Days you say? But only yesterday…”
“Yesterday? Yesterday? We landed in Limerick four days past.”
“Four days?”
“And nights, now have your fry and then it is down the road with us.”

Black Taxi

black taxi

(Image: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye)

In short time, I am in the neutral zone as well. I ask Pockets for the key to the flat. Smiling, he refuses to hand it over. He motions toward two young women. He has sorted me out with the tall, attractive one, says he. She is a fetching blonde who favors Daryl Hannah. He fancies the brunette who would look like Sharon Stone if only she would drop six stone. I object, wanting nothing to do with Daryl or any other lady. I want to sleep, to steal away, to forget about the female species, to disremember what a beautiful woman like this Daryl look-alike can do to a foolish man’s heart.
Beaming, Pockets ignores my pleas.
An eternity later, myself, Pockets, Daryl Hannah, and Sharon-Plus-Six-Stone exit The Centre. We begin the short tramp toward Pocket’s flat. Up University we go, past Lisburne Road, walking, chatting, laughing at nothing in particular. Cabs and cars flash by. We pause at the multi-street intersection of Donegall Road and Shaftesbury Square to wait on the green man. Daryl Hannah wraps one slender arm about my waist and leans her head upon my shoulder. Lettering on the shops seems hieroglyphic; road signs, cryptic. Nothing makes sense, not the traffic signals, not our conversation, not even the paint growing long on stucco storefronts. Cars flash by in all directions, trailing past in illuminating streams of red and white. Malfunctioning traffic lights glow green indications in all directions. Cars enter the intersection from north, south, east, west, crashing into one another. They rise high into the city sky, tornado-tossed upward like rockets bursting into the foggy firmament. The ensuing din borders on the unbearable. Confused, I step from the curb into a river of chaos, into the oncoming traffic, as a speeding black taxi approaches the intersection.

Verse & Adversity: Reflections on the 2017 Princeton Poetry Festival

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Standing: Professor Paul B. Muldoon. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate right.

The biennial Princeton Poetry Festival,  a series of readings and panel discussions organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, was held this past Thursday and Friday in Berlind Theater, Princeton, NJ. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the festival. The panel discussions, moderated by Princeton University Professor Paul  B. Muldoon, centered on the issue of adversity in poetry. The conversations were stimulating. Professor Muldoon is to be commended for his efforts. The readings by the dozen or so poets in attendance were a pleasure to experience, as were the introductions spoken by our current poet laureate, Mary K. Smith.  The complimentary refreshments were also tasty and much appreciated.

One issue raised during the panel discussion was this: Should poets write about politics? Should their work be didactic or simply reflect the daily goings on of the human condition? This led to a corollary question: If poets should indeed make political observations, should only those poets living in the country concerned be the speakers, or might outsiders comment as well? In respect to Northern Ireland, both Muldoon and Longley grew up during The Troubles and were of the opinion that the poets should write about the human condition but avoid political commentary in the process.

Prior to reading his poem “Ceasefire”, Michael Longley introduced himself not as a citizen of Northern Ireland but as a man of “Ulster”, the inflection of which brought a shiver to my very being. His “Ulster” is not The Six Counties. His “Ulster” is the loyalist province. In contrast, Muldoon referred to the north as Northern Ireland. And, of course, Longley made the mandatory Orangeman’s allusion to the Battle of the Somme.

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Above: A mural commemorating the Battle of Somme locate din a seaside park north of Cloghy. Not he diminutive stature of the Irishman in contrast to his “Ulster” counterpart.

“Ceasefire” was originally published in The Irish Times and was written as commentary on the “IRA ceasefire” (his words, not mine, as though the UVF, UDF, etc. had no hand in the violence), so there goes any notion of no-poetry-of-a-political-vein. So one might ask after reading the poem, who is  the counterpart in Northern Ireland of the King Priam in this sonnet? The answer is plain to see. King Priam is analogous to Ulster (Loyalist Ulster) kissing the hand of the murderer (the IRA) of his son(s). I should mention in passing that when noting the nearly three thousand casualties of The Troubles, no mention was made that many of those deaths were the result of vigilante acts of terrorism in an effort for the locals, loyalist and nationalist alike, to maintain order in their neighborhoods, order which the RUC failed to maintain. In a sense Longley’s analogy is a valid one, since Priam’s son violated the rules of hospitality and thus incited a war with Greece much as the English did in Ireland. If anyone is adept in the art of violating the rules of hospitality, it is our friends the English.

To address the second horn of this bull, do outsiders have a voice in writing about the internal affairs of any given country,  I argue that we do and that task is what I have undertaken in my novel Six Counties Seven Sins. Over the course of my frequent visits to The Six Counties during the heyday of The Troubles, it became increasingly clear to me that the natives could not see the forest for the trees, partially due to the censorship of the press. The stranger often notices nuances of a society that the natives fail to see. Also, the stranger fails to grasp may of the nuances of the natives. Both of these factors make for an interesting and sometimes comical point of view for first person narration of a story. The protagonist of my novel sees events in the Six Counties in a far different light than does the native population.

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Professor Paul B. Muldoon leads the panel discussion. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate left.

Archetypes/Collective Unconscious

Many of the characters in Six Counties Seven Sins are archetypal. Will Stone is a dual archetype. First, he is the prodigal son returning home. Second, he is a reluctant hero on a journey into the unknown, having twice refused the call before realizing that, like Jonah, he cannot run from his fate. Father Peadair is the wise old man. The Old Woman in the cloak is the Old Woman, The Earth Mother, in Irish myth, the embodiment of Ireland itself. Éimhear, namesake of Cú Chulainn’s love in the Ulster Cycle Irish Epic The Tain, embodies the sensual Ireland. Éimhear has much in common with Judith of the Old Testament/Apocrypha. She is promised to a foreigner — a military officer of the nation which has for centuries oppressed her people. Lady Eleanor, part of the Protestant Ascendancy, is a temptress. Gráinne, as her name implies, embodies grace. Desmond is a blend of mentor and trickster, while Nicholas “Old Nick” Savage is clearly the villain of the novel.  

The collective unconscious proper is alluded to by Éimhear, who draws an analogy between the drowned drumlins of Strangford Lough and the human condition. Will Stone’s visionary dreams and mystical insights also point toward a psychic connection to the collective unconscious.

Verb Tense & POV of Narration

As often as possible, I have used the present tense. My reasoning will become clear when you reach the end of the story. Point of view of narration shifts between the first and the third point of view (one brief passage occurs in the second person) based on what the reader needs to know while keeping the protagonist in the dark and unreliable at best, for reasons that will likewise become clear when you reach the end of the story.

The Nature of Reality

Although Will is curious about his own intuitive experience of the holy, by no means is he preoccupied with unveiling the  nature of our universe. Will is confused, depressed, and subject to the many weaknesses of the flesh. He is also a Realist in the Aristotelian sense of the term, and that is why he struggles to make sense of a mystical experience that makes little sense.  Father Peadair, however, is an extreme Idealist whose duty is to enlighten Will to the true metaphysics of God’s creation. Peadair believes the conventional conception of reality is fundamentally flawed. Father Peadair’s source of authority becomes incrementally evident as the story unfolds.