In a specially commissioned piece for HU Online, Gerald Dawe reflects on the publication by The Gallery Press of his new collection, Another Time: Poems 1978—2023.
It can be distinctly disarming for someone to think they know you because they think you are someone else. Or, for that matter, when they know you are who you are, yet see someone else in the contours of your face and demeanour. It’s happened to me on a few occasions over the last forty and more years, causing great mirth to those around me.
Climbing the stairs to our room in a guest house in Derry where we were staying over to see a Field Day production back in the early 1980s, a voice behind me called out – ‘Seamus, Seamus’. It was John Boyd, the Belfast playwright and memoirist. He had mistaken me – or more likely, my head of hair – for Seamus Deane. As I turned on the stairs and said hello, John was obviously perplexed that he had the wrong man but we laughed it off and went about our business.
Bizarrely, sometime in the mid-1990s, at a book launch in the much-lamented University Bookshop in Belfast, Raymond Piper, botanist and artist, approached me amongst the book stacks, said hello, and asked if I was related to John Cole, the BBC political editor. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about but returning home I enquired of my mother was there any connection. Yes, indeed there was, the Coles and the Bradshaws (her father’s family) were in-laws going back in time. Bemused by this generational leap, she could see similarities alright.
Fast forward a decade, to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival and I’m accompanying my wife, Dorothea Melvin, director of Public Affairs at the Abbey Theatre, to the opening night of the revival of Frank McGuinness’s great play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme on its extensive European and UK tour. At the bar during intermission who is standing to my right hammer but John Cole. I am introduced to him and as we wait for our drinks to arrive mention the family connection. My recollection of the brief encounter was simple: he wasn’t the least bit impressed, particularly, it seemed, when he heard I was living and working in Dublin. But that could be a misremembering.
We lifted out drinks and went our separate ways into the crowded bar and that was that; matter closed; family connections over with, although for a fleeting moment in the surrounding mirrors behind the theatre’s bar, I did catch the two bespectacled men with a familiar look, but it could all have been an impression in my mind’s eye.
So recognition is all about how others see you/one. Or maybe that should read, the image one projects and what one expects to receive on the way back? I’m not sure. One late afternoon in Belfast in 2008 I called by the Vineyard off-license on the Ormeau Road for a bottle of wine to take home with me for dinner that night. Perusing the ample stocks I was distracted when the door pinged its odd little ping-pong and out of the corner of my eye, a quiet-seeming man entered the shop. I recognised him but his name escaped me. I continued weighing up my wine options as he concluded his and stood at the counter making his purchase. For some unaccountable reason his name dropped into my mind and I said it out loud, to my instant embarrassment, ‘Harry Tawb’.to which he graciously acknowledged with a smile and left. I saw him seconds later on the back seat of a bus heading down the Ormeau Road.
Harry Tawb had been a friend of my grandmother’s in the 1930s or ‘40s. He was one of Belfast’s best-known and much-loved actors for decades and there he was on the bus heading (I would later learn) to his rooms where he was staying during the Queen’s Festival, playing Teresias in Owen McCafferty’s version of Antigone. Harry Tawb had lived most of his life in England. He had hailed from the small but creatively dynamic Jewish community in Belfast - though born in Larne – and his unmistaken voice and mannerisms had endeared him to audiences of stage and screen since before the Second World War. Harry Tawb. It was indeed he. Going about his artistic life, one of our finest actors, and though recognisable in that split-second, I didn’t have the nerve to say so.
My final example is probably the strangest. Heading to the lift (elevator) at work one late afternoon about fifteen years ago, I noticed a rather tall and dignified man waiting for the lift to arrive. We stood in silence watching the arrow light-up. He smiled as it stopped at each floor. I smiled back. And as we entered the lift, he spoke with an educated American east coast accent: ‘You’re Charles Simic, are you not? How are things?’ Charles Simic, the naturalized US poet originally from Belgrade. ‘Afraid not,’ I said. ‘You look like him’, he continued. ‘Sorry, not me’ I chirped, ’My floor’, and left the lift with the perplexed American academic almost convincing himself, I thought, that I really was Charles Simic but for some undisclosed reason was pretending not to be. I have to say I don’t think I ever looked like him, even back in the oughties.
Now the reason I bring up these random and unconnected examples of mistaken identity is this: how we are known – recognised, acknowledged – is a curious question and one which has changed utterly since my early years growing up in 1950s Belfast. Then it was frowned upon to seek recognition: ‘Self-praise is no praise’ was one of the aphorisms of the time which stays echoing with me. The public realm was in some way or other literally that – ‘out there’ - and not a place inhabited by ordinary people. In fact, if anything, it did not belong to them and was held with a certain degree of suspicion and even distaste. There was a shyness, or reluctance to express yourself, which might, perhaps, account for the famed northern reticence. Compare, for instance, the generally modest celebration of a goal scored by, say, George Best in the early 1960s – a raised arm, a jump and turn, nothing more, so unlike the elaborate media-aware ensemble of theatrical gesture and dance move of today! The difference sort of symbolises what separates the backgrounds and lifestyles of the beginning of Another Time: 1978-2023 from the social mediated, commercially-driven age which more recent poems allude to on occasion.
Those very early efforts at writing poems were secret and private and there certainly was no question whatsoever of ‘sharing’ them.. It was only when I was about sixteen at Orangefield Boys School in Belfast that I showed my efforts to Sam McCready, an inspirational teacher at the school. His affirmation was all I needed to keep going, even if I denied having a poem published in an anthology when the matter was announced at school assembly by Mr. Brian Weston, the vice-headmaster. Strange that.
I was also, like many young teenagers, in love with poetry, reading it was an obsession, alongside the music we all listened to, and danced to, through endless days and nights at clubs and halls all over Belfast. Poetry had merged with the sounds of the city. The poetry lever had been switched and from the late sixties there was no looking back.
How I would make a living – what ‘job’ I would have – really sat like Philip Larkin’s toad in the corner of every front room and back room I lived in until I left college in Coleraine in 1974. It was only after that the deck of cards started to fall into place. A few years later my first book of poems Sheltering Places was published by The Blackstaff Press in 1978. Yet I had absolutely no idea, nil, about the business of publishing – where to go with your effort, what a poet’s ‘career’ might look like, how one could (or even should) advance.
Was there some kind of hierarchy of achievement? How would one know? Prizes, awards, fellowships were very few and far-between then so that form of verification was distant. It was all such a private business anyway, ‘conflicted’, not a word in use at the time, comes to mind. So much so that when I was working in the summer of 1973 on an oil rig in east Scotland – as a pipe-fitter’s mate, for heaven’s sake – earning serious dough to repay various student loans– when I received a redirected letter from Belfast from Faber and Faber seeking a selection of poems, I had to ask my mother to find them for me. The wonderful David Marcus, editor of the ‘New Irish Writing’ page of the Irish Press, had put my name forward as a possible contributor to the Faber Introduction series. It didn’t work out: the poems were caught between teenage angst and iconoclasm, a hangover from the sixties, while others were becoming more formal and ‘individual’ but not in sufficient numbers to impress. Though I was asked in response to keep in touch. But the twenty-one year old just kept going with encouragement eventually from friends and mentors who would become dear allies in the decades ahead. Their lives and our experiences here in Ireland and farther afield, are inscribed in many of the poems included in Another Time.
Poetry never really became a business and whatever I have managed to do as a poet burrows deep into the never-diminished pleasure language produces as well as capturing along the way a questioning of how those in power can run over ordinary people’s lives and aspirations through violence – as in the unforgiveable years of the Troubles – or globally in the scourge of a Putin or a Trump worldview, both of whom appear in Another Time.
My own particular leaning is towards creating scenes and landscapes in which the reader can feel free to wander, seeing what I mean rather than seeking their favour with sentiments already agreed upon. If that sounds brusque, apologies. I am like all writers a product of my time. Writing poetry for me has a lot to do with images of things, imprints, shadows, impressions, half-caught glimpses, unexpected, sudden, double-takes; parallel lives. And I’ve written, I see now, many poems which try to convey that doubleness, side-on mostly, being led by the moment of the experience. It took me quite some time to realise that this shadowy land was where I was headed. I hope Another Time, a gathering from almost fifty years of poetry-making, makes sense and readers will enjoy the trip. I have. Even when the skies are dark and threatening, there is always the thrill of thinking about whatever will come next. It is something that ‘Selfies’, the penultimate poem in the book, seeks to capture in the reality of one Belfast family’s early twentieth century life:
I look in the mirror
and my mother looks back,
the fall of the nose, brown eyes.
For her too there’s a grandmother lurking —
those tiny feet and hands;
layers of taffeta and lace.
When she was no age
a cheetah chased her into a tent in India
while her tipsy father
paraded on his dancing horse.
And then there’s the strict demeanour
of a Sunday with the blinds drawn halfway down;
a newspaper rustles in the front room
and a tram clatters down the light-filled street
to the worrying tremor of sash windows
and here they are in the one place,
suitcases at their feet — departure for London,
Toronto, Nottingham — between wars
and in the war and later on —
who knows where will be next —
just the recollected house
that doesn’t exist anymore,
and them all seated in their best
in a perfect silence they cannot forget.
For more information on Gerald Dawe’s Another Time: Poems 1978-2023 and his other Gallery Press collections: https://gallerypress.com/product/another-time-poems-1978-2023/