Wee Mary MacKillop minds the shop

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Young Mary MacKillop bronze statue

Poem for Miss Mary MacKillop, of Fitzroy
 
Today’s startling news: Australia’s only recognized Catholic saint,
So far, was born on Brunswick Street, in Fitzroy! Now, you might
Wonder why this is an astonishing bit of ironic and amazing news,
If you have never been to Fitzroy, a rough neighbourhood in the tall
Old seething roaring city of Melbourne – but I have been there and
I can tell you that Fitzroy always was and will be a wry wilderness;
Every colour and ethnicity and language you can imagine lives there.
I am not kidding. The commission flats, the dogleg brooding alleys,
The trams – I walked there for weeks and saw every kind of sad and
Cruel and lost and tough and gentle and graceful and awful and holy
There is, seems to me – I saw a lot of Australia in twenty city blocks.
And now I see wee quiet shy Mary MacKillop there, minding a shop.
She is fourteen. Her people are Scottish. She will be legendary, later,
For her ferocious dedication to helping the poor – you cannot ignore
Them, she will say one million times to power and money and pomp.
You cannot pretend you do not see them. You cannot say that we are
A great and lucky country when so many innocents are starving. You
Can lie to yourself and in public but I will not lie also. Look at all the
Huddled souls, raped and beaten and hungry and cold. They are all us.
Yes, they are. This has nothing to do with religion and class. They are
All us. If there is a great Australia it will be the one that rises to house
And feed and protect those who have nothing. I saw them when I was
A child on Brunswick Street and now I can’t not see them. Thousands
Of them in every city and county and state and reserve. They’re all us.
The whole country is Brunswick Street. Come with me to pick one up.
 
Times Tables
 
Just got a note from my mom, in which she tells me
That my gentle wry witty subtle sister, now resident
In a monastery, used to rock my cradle with her foot
While chanting her multiplication tables aloud. How
I would love to report that I remember every blessed
Moment of this, how my sister tried to achieve a sort
Of whispered chant (loud enough to be articulate but
Soft enough not to wake me), how my mother would
Forget about us and get absorbed by heated table talk
About religions and wars and then realize with a start
That my sister was on her seventeenth run-through of
Her times tables, how my dad would smile and say O
Let her rip for another hour and the both of them will
Be math geniuses! But I don’t remember…do I? Now
That I think about it, I worship rhythm and measure it
Unconsciously, automatically – I have an extra ear for
The cadence of crows, the coughing of motors, an owl
Calling eleven times to another, who calls back eleven:
And eleven times eleven equals a way to spell out love.
 
The Deft of It
 
Just spent four days with my mom and dad,
Who together are a hundred and eighty-four
Years old, and there are so many wry funny
Things to report, and some saddening things
Also, like fragility, and the ravines that pain
Cuts in faces after years of wincing. But I’ll
Tell you just one; my dad at one point tosses
A bag of bread from his seat at the oak table
Onto the thin counter to his right. Maybe six
Feet of air, and he didn’t glance at the target.
A little flick of the wrist, and the bread lands
Exactly right. This nailed me, but Pop didn’t
Look up from the crossword puzzle. It could
Easily be explained: Former excellent tennis
Player, knows the spatial music of the house
In his bones, probably made that throw sixty
Times, but still…the silent casual easy grace,
The deft of it! He’s all bones now, he weighs
Less than he did when he was a reed of a kid
Away to the war they thought would kill him
For sure, but when I hug him he’s still all tall
Though some of the tall is bent. Look, I get it
That someday he won’t be sitting at the table.
I get it. Believe me, I have examined the idea.
But that his deft won’t be there, his sideways
Smile when I gawp at something he says; I’m
Not quite getting that. He says he’d like to be
Buried in a military cemetery in a deep forest
About an hour away. There’s oak and cypress
And pine. This will happen, I guess, and then
He’ll be a thin kid again somehow or the most
Deft of the falcon chicks or the willow branch
That finally figures out how to sip from a lake
All easy and casual, like it didn’t take practice.
 
Bar Brawl
 
Yes, I was in one. In Chicago, many years ago.
A blues bar, not noticeably rough, on a Sunday;
You would think the odds would be against fist
In eye and smash of glass and table overturning
And guys picking up pool cues. The bartenders
Punched guys.  I saw a woman throwing drinks.
Yes, it was terrifying. This was not some movie
Gig where it’s choreographed. This was savage
And sudden and there is screaming. I see a man
Swing a pool cue like a bat and hit another man
With the sound of a pumpkin smashing. It ends
In about two minutes with one guy unconscious.
I never did find out why it started – I was afraid
To ask, and afraid to leave too soon, too, in case
I’d get blamed. I was afraid, is what I am trying
To say. I’m not trying to draw some conclusions
Here – I just want to record a moment we’ve all
Endured, and we do not talk about. We ought to,
You know. There’s no shame in it. We all drank
From the terror cup. I have friends who got shot
At and they were terrified, and I know men who
Were lost in forests, and we’ve all been terrified
In traffic accidents. This has nothing whatsoever
To do with courage or heroism. It’s about saying
Honestly man, I was so scared I couldn’t breathe.
I feel like if we say it honest than somehow we’ll
Find a way to trim the number of times when it’s
Our fault. Maybe we could outthink our own old
Urge to make other people scared. It worked for
Us for a million years, but now it doesn’t so well,
You know? I’ll stop – but you think this one over.


Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Image: Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Mary MacKillop, mathematics, Chicago, modern poetry

 

 

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Existing comments

What a glorious ear for language - thank you! Very moved by 'The Deft of It'.
Barry G | 15 December 2014


I don't like polished prose broken into lines of random length and called poetry. However, I loved these, especially the times tables.
Frank | 16 December 2014


When I see the name 'Brian Doyle' I immediately click on the link. . . and I'm never disappointed. How DOES he write about such tiny snippets of life and breathe so much love and wonderment into them? That's what I would like to know!
glen avard | 16 December 2014


You know, I am not sure that writers say thanks enough to readers, but the comments thread allows me to do that, bowing (creakily). To Frank I say I am trying to write some form for which I do not have a word, and use the odd word 'proem' -- cadenced speech, as Auden says -- something without the often-self-indulgent and -absorbed and -conscious artsy muddle of Poetry, but attentive to music and rhythm and voice even more perhaps than prose. And to Glen I say: I don't know how this happens; I just hear something, or see something, and sit down to take the idea out for a stroll, and then some inky carpenter's pleasure takes over. Something like that.
Brian Doyle | 18 December 2014


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