You were born to be a widow. Not that you
Didn’t love Michael O’Loughlin,
My father’s poor father,
But you broke him anyway
The way you broke your five strong sons.
I’ve read Freud, I’ve read Jung
But there’s nothing here to analyse
Their theories break on your brute existence
Like snow on a bonfire,

Leaving you intact
Proletarian bitch goddess
Virgin Queen patrolling your realm
For thirty years, obscenely alive
Moving amoeba-like
Through these ancient streets
A monument to mere survival
Life at its most stripped down.

Your widowhood was electric.
I remember my uncles, giants
Kneeling at your feet
In the tiny kitchen
Of the house Big Jim Larkin gave you
Smaller than the cars they had parked outside.
You shrank them like some sci-fi machine
Even now the perspective dizzies me.
The only thing that was constant
Was the framed photo of Michael Collins.

All your life you played
In the giant Las Vegas
Of the Catholic Church
With its Casinos of Sorrowful Murmurs
Their one-armed bandits of the soul
The flashing lights, the bells
The jackpots of Lourdes and Fatima.
I’d love to know what deal you struck
With the thing you claimed created you.

In my wanderjahre I wrote to no one
Friends or family, trying
To pare myself down to essence
But in every town I came to
I hunted out the local Virgin, always surprised
To find there was one, and sent you postcards
Of her different faces. We never
Talked of it, but you stuck them in line
In the frame of a picture of the Sacred Heart,
Beside the Child of Prague, in your front bedroom.

Why were you the way you were?
Original Sin or Oliver Cromwell
The Act of Union Eighteen O One
Twelve to a room in the Georgian tenements
The impacted pain, the squalor
Of drunken soldiers rollicking
In the biggest brothel in Europe
The strikes, the Lockout, the Somme,
The Black-and-Tan shot dead
In the local fish and chip shop
The Free State army who shelled your house
With borrowed British armoury?

In that holiday snap from the 20s
My blonde blue-eyed grandfather
Home from the war in Kerry
Shirt-sleeved and smiling
Lies relaxed on the Free State beach
Having survived a second time.
But you are sitting upright beside him
Dressed in your Sunday best
Bristling with black energy
A backstreet Sphinx on the sands
Your face insolent, ignorant, unreconciled.

You loved me more than you did the others—
Maybe you saw something of yourself in me
Maybe you put something of yourself in me.
What was looking out at me through your
Transparent eyes but the species,
Nature, and Mutation, Chance and Necessity?—
The O’Loughlins are a family of gamblers
But I never did. Maybe I myself am the gamble
Rocketing round the map
Like a roulette ball, unable to choose
Between red and black, aware
That the house always wins.

Now I take the new electric tram
Through your native realm, and
I pass through those old places: the church
Where you had me initiated
Into the rites of your tribe,
My first school, the distillery
Where you took me to one day
To meet my father, emerging
From a brick and copper cathedral
Of noise and sweet smells
Wearing blue overalls and a mask
Like a figure in a Socialist Realist painting.

And as I look out I always think
Of Polanski’s film The Pianist
Where the tram bisects
The Krakow Ghetto,
The passengers not staring
At a zoo whose business
Was survival, and now
Like this one, has disappeared
Beneath designer restaurants
Shining apartment blocks.

I’m beginning to understand why I keep
Sniffing round ghettoes, in Amsterdam
In Riga, in Wilno, looking for my childhood
Streets, now gone like Ruthenia, a country
Which only lasted for three days.
Three days or a thousand years
What does it matter
To Benjamin’s Angel Of History
His wings propelling him to Paradise
Gazing backward
At the growing pile of debris?

His focus tilts the planet and time
Like a child’s kaleidoscope.
Decades and distances blur
From Volgagrad to Dusseldorf
From Dublin to Barcelona
He sees tens of millions
Of old women, walking painfully to market
With stringbags and coloured headscarves.
Struggling against the wind,

The wind that is blowing him to Paradise
And looking back he sees
The air singing with the dead
And how the widows’ prayers come together
Like grey radioactive dust
To form a mushroom cloud which towers
Over the fading planet.