Today would have been Anthony Glavin’s 75th birthday. He died in 2006, from emphysema and a failed heart-lung transplant.
As I have often said, he was a mentor, and probably taught me most of what I know about editing (and bullshit-detecting). He could be a harsh critic, not only of poetry but also attitudes, points of view, careless remarks, failures of responsibility, anything at all really. But he was also fantastically quick-minded and possessed a wonderfully droll and mordant sense of humour. And he took friendship seriously; he was there, on call, perpetually. As was I for him, when his illness confined him to his house in Deansgrange. On my second date with the woman who was to become my wife, we had just found our seats in the cinema when my phone buzzed. Anthony needed me, so I went. Sam was good about it, though probably bemused. Appropriately, the film we'd come to see was The Man Who Wasn’t There.
My last meeting with Anthony was in The Mater, shortly before he died. He had been unable to speak for some time. I had visited him fairly regularly, but less frequently in the final weeks, something I regret. I was caring for my mother and helping with our two-year-old son, but I could have managed the drive from Blackrock to Eccles Street more often.
The meeting was awkward. I was extremely conscious that I hadn’t been in to see him (for days? a week? more? I can’t remember). I felt at a loss and didn’t know what to say. I think I was a bit shocked at his appearance and I’m sure my face reflected this. Anthony gave me one withering look and turned to the wall. I am still unsure how to interpret that look: Disgust? Accusation? Utter exhaustion? But it would be narcissistic to make too much of it. It was the look of someone close to death, and therefore, as yet, outside my experience.
In a sense, this was the second time I had been at Anthony’s deathbed. The first was some years earlier, in St Michael’s Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. He was convinced he only had days to live. But he radiated serenity, Thanatos, the kind of glow I saw in my mother’s face on one memorable occasion shortly before she died. Anthony pressed his forefinger on my forehead and quoted ET: ‘I’ll be right here.’ That’s how I prefer to remember our ‘last’ encounter.
He is often on my mind, though more so lately, for two reasons. One is the recent 75th anniversary of Hiroshima. Anthony was born on the Irish Bank Holiday weekend in 1945, just a day after Little Boy was detonated, a fact that came to haunt him and permeate his later work.
Another reason I’ve been thinking about him is that last week I finally opened a box of papers his publisher had misplaced and returned to me over a year ago. These were yet more drafts of his unfinished sequence, Living In Hiroshima, part of which was published in his only collection, The Wrong Side of the Alps, in 1989. He spent the final 17 years of his life reworking what he had hoped would be a far larger and more expansive sequence, though the first three sections –– Oblivion’s Throe, Ions and Half-Lives –– ran to 58 quatrains, making 232 lines (290 if the titles are included).
The sequence embraces far more than material directly or indirectly alluding to the explosion and its aftermath. Living in Hiroshima takes in personal as well as world history, including events, conversations, witness statements, scientific discoveries, political soundbytes, reports on Nazi, Japanese and Allied war crimes, lunar landings, art, photography… as well as elegies, snapshots and other ‘glancing images’ from Anthony’s own life. You might wonder how such wildly varied subject matter could cohere. It is held together by the several themes threading through it, the recurrence of certain motifs, the highly condensed, concentrated form/s and also the voice, compassionate, self-lacerating and given to what one critic called an ‘Hibernian appetite for dark laughter.’
Shortly before Anthony died, I managed to get some of this material published in Poetry Ireland Review, thanks to Peter Sirr, who was editor at that time. A year later, Peter accepted another batch.
Anthony had told me I was to be his literary executor, but it turned out that he had also informed his publisher, Peter Fallon, that he should take that role. In a way this didn’t surprise me. Anthony was anything but organised in his last years. I was glad to let Peter take up the challenge of making a final book out of the many drafts and redrafts. When, after more than a decade, Peter regretfully gave up the task, I was seriously disappointed, but again, not greatly surprised. Anthony left a vast chaos of papers, some of which are numbered and dated and attributed to further sections, but ultimately these hundreds of quatrains (he called them hironyms) are free-floating, and most of them are redrafted and corrected so many times that it is far from clear how he might have intended even a small number to appear in publication. You can get some idea of the work involved from the photo I took of drafts I was looking through earlier today, just a tiny fraction from one folder, in one boxful of folders, among many other boxes.
On the other hand, Anthony was a master of concision; he made the quatrain form very much his own, managing to express in just four lines what many couldn’t in far longer poems. Going through all these obsessively tweaked and rewritten drafts is like panning for dark gemstones. Every so often one finds what Anthony might have called a 'silt-wink'.
So I haven’t given up on a final book. I believe these little poems work remarkably well on their own, especially once you make a reader aware of their context as part of that unfinished sequence.
As to whether Anthony, fierce perfectionist that he was, would have been happy to see drafts of poems from the unfinished sequence published, I think he might. He gave his blessing to the first selection of 20 previously unpublished quatrains that appeared in Poetry Ireland Review in August 2006, some months before he died. And if he didn't wish any of the remaining material to be published why would he leave all those boxes of papers in the care of literary executors, rather than simply demanding they be destroyed?
I have often wondered what Anthony would make of 'our present historical velocity', and its funhouse mirror weirdness: the relatively sober English being gripped by a Cambridge Alalytica-driven frenzy of weaponised Empire nostalgia and paranoid distrust for the EU (and Europe generally); the cast of populist chancers: wide-boy Farage and Bullingdon Boris; across the pond, a torn page of atrociously-written fiction in the driving seat of The White House, with an extraordinary crew of crooks and conmen (his former advisor, Steve Bannon, boasting that 'Darkness is good, Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That's power'). And then, in the midst of this real time political thriller, the movie taking a sudden twist into dystopian sci-fi with a worldwide pandemic.
Anthony would find plenty of material in all this, ripples and ricochets of the 1930s and 40s, along with readymade chunks of religious and political satire, a warehouse of dark laughter.
Anyway, here is a taster from the archive: six hironyms from the recently opened box (the first is untitled):
Confusing Eric Morecambe with Philip Larkin –– it isn't proper!
But they were so alike –– balding, bespectacled, a lopped grin,
Supposedly slow on the uptake, or doubled-up-take ––
But Larkin singing "Bring Me Sunshine!" A show-stopper.
ON A PHOTOGRAPH OF MY FATHER WITH PIUS XII
The child who suffered it from Ballymadog to Youghal
Resplendent in a teeming square in Rome
Out of his mind with joy, his creature-soul
A flame in the real presence of a god.
“Did we have to drop the thing?” Bet your life!”
“As far as degradation went, we’d had it.”
“It was us or them!” “Think of the lives it saved!”
“Mistakes, mistakes, we gotta learn from our mistakes.”
TWO NEUTRONS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Out walking in London, waiting for the lights to change,
Szilard, pondering H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free
Suddenly knew the answer –– a chain reaction.
Fact and fission. And the rest –– as they say ––
We perfected historic agonies for hours.
Lights. Sound. Cameras. Action. Cut.
Cut. And suddenly for real
The wrap silence and stillness unrehearsed.
Only when I stood in a breathing-space
Did it occur –– blood-hum, wheeze ––
Between one slow footfall and the next,
A lacuna in the text.
If anyone is interested, I wrote a longer article about Anthony and his work (with 14 more of those 4-line poems), HERE.
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