He Walks His Several Cities
Lost again, he walks his several cities,
stranger among strangers, hearing tongues
that speak a language recognisable
though replete with unfamiliar phrases.
Moving always between past and present
and then back again, he makes his way
along new-tarmacked roads and new-laid pavements,
seeing cobblestones and alleyways
that once had overlaid the Viking wharfs.
The Liffey’s acrid stench – long-gone – assails him
and the river at low tide reveals
old mooring posts and ghosts of Guinness barges.
In the narrow medieval lanes
that wind through Temple Bar he finds a maze
of little Jewish garment factories
instead of restaurants and pizzerias,
all the weedy derelicts he knew
replaced by shining chrome and glass; the junk shops,
pawn shops, musty book shops vanished;
churches – open all day once – now closed.
And it’s the Pillar, not the Spire, he sees -
remembering the long climb up to stand
between the seagulls and the Admiral
to view the distant Corporation Housing
built to clear the tenements and slums
romanticised in story, song, on stage,
but screened away from view when Queen Victoria
rode her regal cart down Sackville Street
before this pocket city of the Empire
crumbled into insignificance
and remnants of old grandeur and became
a 1950s transit point for emigrants.
Unhappy times, yet he’s nostalgic now
and even for the hardships, comforted
that Smith O’Brien, O’Connell, and Sir John Grey
stand resolute on their pedestals as yet;
Cuchullain still convulsed in epic struggle,
constable Sheahan’s bravery remembered
at Burgh Quay – these stubborn survivors
offer compass through refurbished streets
where he is like a snail with house on back,
where he is like a book now out of print,
where he is like a refugee who cannot
shed the memory of what he’s lost.
The more he walks the bustling streets the more
he feels removed, part of a Malton scene
where well-dressed gentry stroll pet dogs across
a wide, almost deserted, College Green
or trapped in some old sepia print of crowds
that blur through thoroughfares of trams and drays
and he’s the only figure standing hesitant,
uncertain, wondering if it’s safe to cross.