Fiction

In the High Cab

In this chapter from the picaresque novel-in-progress, The Poets” Stairwell, Boon and Henry journey across central Ireland to the ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise, a shrine where both are afforded some insight into the character of their respective muses. Percy is an amiable, shrewdly watchful drunk with whom, in an earlier chapter, Boon has had a conversation on the ferry at a moment he was contemplating abandoning Henry.

The morning above Enniscorthy was blue and cold with fast-moving pods of cloud making eastward. At my insistence we visited the town’s Norman fortress, wandered its stairwells and chambers, peering at the displays of weaponry from the 1798 Rebellion. Henry’s evident boredom with the array made me self-conscious of my own interest in this sinister cold steel, halberd and cutlass with their genial curves, the crude blunderbuss and musket.

His mood brightened when we learned of the castle’s role in English poetry. Elizabeth I had given it to Edmund Spenser as bounty for his dedication to her of The Faerie Queene. “… To that mightie and magnificent Empresse renowned for pietie, virtue … etc etc,” I recited from the brochure the dedicatory text. “In English One, I used to feel guilty if I didn’t read through all that prefatory guff.”

“Vital to an understanding of the poem,” Henry asserted.

“Why?”

“K’ching, k’ching,” Henry rang up the Spenserian profits. “Imagination is livelihood. Eddie knew who buttered his bread.”

“You’d flatter some fat cat if the reward was a castle?”

“Like a shot,” Henry rejoined, then qualified. “I’d prefer cash to castle.”

“And compromise the sincerity of your work?”

“Sincerity has nothing to do with poetry,” Henry pronounced. Hands thrust deep into his pockets, he affected to be absorbed in the brochure, though I could see the topic, or perhaps my naive challenge, aroused in him a sportive mood. “Poetry is a kind of money. That’s Wallace Stevens.”

“You know very well you’d scrap a poem if you believed it untrue.”

Henry shrugged. “I would scrap it only if it was not a poem,” he said complacently, looking past my head, smirking rather, I thought.

“Which would be the case if it failed to communicate the conviction you intended.”

“Hah, the old intentional fallacy.”

“And if it is?” Now I was just a little nettled.

“The true poem will always outwit intention in favour of itself.” Again the pronouncement was made with that surpassing Henry airiness.

O, he was right, of course. Not only could I see that immediately, but sensed I had always known it from some resource of sub-articulate knowledge. My trouble was, alas, the crudity with which I knew my own mind. Nonetheless I persisted. “The true poem will always be in character.”

But Henry trumped this promptly. “The true poem will always be a step ahead of character.” He nodded sagely, then wandered out into the uncertain Irish sunshine. He had enjoyed himself with me.

And why should he not? At some level of my understanding I also knew his equation between poetry and self to be true. Was it not the very thing that had elated me on those occasions when one of my own efforts had come off? Had not my satisfaction arisen from having captured some chimera that alluded to more than myself? So why, then, did I seem to plod when it came to these exchanges with my younger colleague? Why must I invariably seem to come up with … what?

The under-charged?

I would not join him in the sunshine, but stayed for some moments, looking down at several flintlock pistols arranged behind the cabinet glass. Crude old things they were, like a crudity in my own nature that was unjust to what I knew to be its finer discriminations. So why must I blurt when trying to cope with someone who was clever? For it was not the actual validity of Henry’s statements about our common vocation that needled me, but the airy confidence with which he conveyed them, the way they seemed to corner me, make me distrust myself. Like a bee, Henry seemed able to alight on one bright maxim after another, while Claude Boon, Claudiculous, must nose about in the dirt like some gross, armoured creature? Poeta nascitur, non fit.

*

At the edge of town, no sooner did I turn towards the traffic than a German truck-driver stopped for us in a huge orange rig, laden with luxury cars.

“Ich brauche Unterhaltung,” he bellowed at us above the throb of his engine.

From my Schul-deutsch, I remembered this German word for conversation and so bellowed back to him, “Wir sind zwei australische Dichter,” and the news that we were Australian poets was enough to gain us admission to his high cab.

We climbed in, roared away, and it was soon apparent our driver, whose name was Willi, had no English, while Henry had no German. So I arranged myself between them on the commodious seat. As I did so, Willi was shouting something towards me in which I picked up the names of the Irish towns of Roscommon and Longford that lay along our route. “Durch der irischen Wirtschaftsaufschwung werden setat Luxusautos gekauft.”

“What’s he saying?” shouted Henry.

“The booming Irish economy wants luxury cars,” I roared the message on. “These cars are bound for the saleyards of Roscommon and Longford.”

Willi was a thickset fellow with small eyes in a slab head, a blonde stubble on cheek and chin, and the dark, pursy flesh under his eyes that suggested someone still young, but veteran. He let us know he had driven non-stop from Stuttgart to Cherbourg then taken the ferry to Rosslare. That crossing had been seventeen ungodly hours where he had been seekrank.

“Ich hab seit Mittwoch nicht mehr geschlafen.”

“What, what?”

“Willi says he has had no sleep since he left Stuttgart three days ago.”

As though to confirm this I noticed the man would stick his head out of the driver’s window that it might be invigorated by the onrush of moist Irish air. Our road was not especially wide, the huge vehicle swayed as it hurtled, and I could hear the clunk of the chain-ties on the trailer behind us as they slacked and tightened on the expensive cars. “Jetzt müssen wir schnell machen,” Willi bawled. “Ich fahre,” he pointed emphatically toward himself, then tapped the steering wheel. “Ihr redet,” he pointed to Henry and me, then swivelled his finger to his ear, before wagging his thumb and forefinger in a pecking motion to indicate verbal activity. “Dann bleiben alle wach.”

“What, what?”

“The arrangement is that we keep talking to Willi. This will keep him awake, and then we will all be safe.”

“Am I to understand,” Henry put the tips of his fingers together with some precision, “that our role is to keep him from crashing this vehicle into an Irish bog by conversing with him in German?”

I was impressed by my companion’s summing up, and also how Arden’s medal winner could make himself heard above the truck’s roar while preserving in his utterance the crisp dignity of the seminar room.

“That’s my understanding,” I shouted.

“Sag was. Sag was,” pleaded Willi.

“He says, ‘Speak to me, speak to me.’”

“Charming,” Henry decided once he had grasped our predicament, and sank back into the seat.

“Red mal!” Willi wagged finger and thumb again, throwing us a glance of urgent expectation.

“Ditto,” I informed Henry, who raised his eyebrows but appeared to have no ready chit-chat for me to translate. So I concocted the talk.

We were carried one hundred miles across the middle of Ireland in Willi’s orange juggernaut. As we churned the miles, I ransacked my Schul-deutsch for rousing subject matter as best I could. Did Willi come to Ireland often? Viermal im Jahr. Did he have family in Stuttgart, Frau und zwei Kinder. What was his opinion of Mercedes as a product? What was the population of Stuttgart? What was the longest period he had gone without sleep? … And so on.

For the first thirty miles or so, as far as Carlow, I managed well with this mundane palaver before my invention flagged. Meanwhile, with Irish abruptness, the weather had deteriorated and squalls of rain drove at the windscreen, prompting Willi again to thrust his head outside the window that it might be blasted with this hosing slipstream, fresh from the Atlantic.

“Sag was! Sag was!” he pleaded again, his face streaming.

“For God’s sake, give me some conversational substance,” I bellowed to Henry.

“Ask him what religion he is,” Henry replied.

“Hal, he’s a truck-driver!”

“He can still have a religion.”

“Was sagt ihr?” Willi leaned across to hear better, and as he did so the juggernaut drifted across lanes.

“Mein Freund will deine Religion kennen,” I tried.

“Katholisch,” Willi answered confidently.

“Did you get that?” I turned to Henry.

Henry nodded and supplied a prompt follow-up question. “Now ask him if he knows the works of Thomas Aquinas.”

“Get real!”

“Ask him.”

So I did.

“Natürlich!” Willi’s eyebrows lifted in recognition of this church father when I put the unlikely query to him, and his affirmative nodding caused Henry to beam with triumph. “Glaube macht selig,” Willi proclaimed.

“What does he say?”

“By believing something you …” and I faltered, not recalling selig from my school vocabulary lists.

“By faith are we saved,” Henry crystallised the German epithet happily. “Ask Willi how he encountered Aquinas.”

“Im Knast,” shouted Willi cheerfully across the cab, which allowed me to relay that knowledge of Aquinas had been acquired while our driver was in clink.

But now Willi was displaying the five fingers of one hand directly to Henry and saying, excitedly, “Fünf Beweise der Existenz Gottes,” as the rig veered and we heard the Doppler effect of an oncoming car tooting in alarm.

Henry appeared to understand the five fingers without my mediation, and as the jailbird and the university medal winner nodded approvingly at each other, Henry further translated the Beweise into Latin. “Quinque viae,” he held up his own fingers and shouted across, to which Willi nodded vigorously. “Jawohl!” He thumped the truck’s great steering wheel, and then began counting off on his fingers an enumeration I could not entirely follow.

“I think our friend has embarked on the five proofs for the existence of the deity,” I said, trying to keep up with the animation of their exchanges in the cab. But by now my Schul-deutsch was only intermittently needed. For the pair were volleying terms back and forth—Summae Theologicae, Summae contra Gentiles, intellectus agens and intellectus possibilis. The Latin seemed to proceed from the slab-faced truck-driver as naturally as it did from the scholar. (I have never in my life since witnessed erudition proceed from so unlikely a visage.) And when the Latin lapsed the two overrode the need for language altogether with expressive gesticulations.

“Offenbarung gegen Verstand,” exclaimed Willi, making the fingers of his free hand first erupt from his eyes, then point to his temple and inscribe circles in an enactment of the tension between truth achieved by revelation and truth arrived at by reasoning.

“Absolutely,” Henry absorbed this communication immediately. “The two high roads towards knowledge of God.”

“Autobahnen nach Gott,” I contributed needlessly, while Henry proceeded to discourse in English on the subject. As he listened, Willi nodded sympathetically at words and grammatical structures he could not possibly have comprehended.

As this warm theology passed back and forth, I was able to sit back and watch the world below the cab. Hedgerows had given way to suburban houses and we were entering, I saw, Percy’s town of Port Laoise, or “Part Leash”. The windscreen wipers swung back and forth in front of me and the rig slowed for the traffic in the town’s short main street. On the gleaming pavements beside us there were folk with umbrellas and transparent plastic rainwear, and among them, momentarily, I thought I glimpsed Percy himself, sheltering from the downpour under an awning. The dear fellow was in the company of a lady with an impressive jaw and in the twenty-four hours since I had seen him on the ferry he had acquired a windcheater, scarf and pair of gloves.

So fleeting was the recognition, it may have been in error. But I chose to believe it and was surprised by how the idea gladdened me of that benign drunk being welcomed back into a family bosom and his threadbare condition taken in hand. It must have been a charitable act on the part of that lady with the jaw, I thought, as I listened to the theology of my companions zeroing in their Thomian Latin on the saving properties of faith. Should I have requested Willi to stop the truck there and then in the main street of Part Leash, that I might leap out and shake Percy’s hand, allow him to see that the “Arzi” had indeed stuck with the book-learned gentleman after all? Had that been a charitable act on my part? I wonder. Arzi, Oi loikes yer stoil. Well, it was not practical to stop in Part Leash, though I would like, in the unfolding of the years, to have kept up an acquaintance with Percy, drunk, shrewd watchman on the quality of charity.

*

The opportunity was lost. Already we were leaving the town behind us for the countryside beyond. For a further hour the theological discourse continued, my Schul-deutsch coming in and out of commission. Henry commended much reading matter to Willi, and I could see that our conversational skills had been triumphant in keeping the German awake.

Then, a few miles from Athlone, Willi bawled, “Jetzt darf ich euch etwas aufzeigen,” and with a crackle of bluemetal under its tyres, the ponderous rig abruptly swung into a narrow lane on our left and proceeded down it, lurching in the ruts, the water-laden leaves of the elms on either side whipping the windscreen, ducks flapping away in indignation.

“What’s happening?”

“Willi wants to show us something.”

“I thought he was in a hurry.”

“Your Aquinas seems to have fired him up.”

“Aquinas would fire anybody up,” Henry observed, “even a diehard Nietzschean like you.”

The rain had stopped and the terrain beyond the bordering trees was smoky with cloud. We lumbered through a village or two and all at once broke into open country where we found ourselves beside a green sward, bounded by a low wall within which were scattered various ancient buildings and ruins. Beyond these lay a broad reach of water, the Shannon River, as I would learn, while above us, racked with cloud, the sky appeared huge, as though charged with significance, here milky, here swollen like the blackest of bruises. Yet through this turmoil there were shafts of sunlight penetrating to create patches of pewter-gleam on the dark river surface, oblongs of preternatural green on the luxuriant grass of the ancient site.

Willi brought his rig to a halt and when the engine died, abruptly we were aware of the silence. Furthermore, beside these compact, ancient buildings and crosses, and the interleaving of meadow and vegetation, the orange juggernaut appeared outlandishly out of scale. We climbed down, and Willi lit a cigarette.

“Where are we?” asked Henry.

“Kloster,” answered Willi, not needing my translation of the question. He breathed in his smoke meditatively, then rattled off some more explanation for us.

“What does he say?”

“Willi has brought us to the ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise,” I glossed. “He says this place is the reason he volunteers to make these long runs from Stuttgart to Ireland with his swag of luxury cars. He says next year his cars may be out of fashion, but this is a place that remains holy even though it is in disuse.”

“Verlassen, aber doch noch heilig,” he repeated. “Hier, wie sonst mehrfach in Irland.”

“This place, and others he has discovered in his travels,” I said.

Perhaps because of the spring storms, or the lateness of the April afternoon, we found we had the site to ourselves. Having brought us to his exhibit, as it were, Willi was content to smoke more cigarettes and let us wander as we wished among the buildings. There was a roofless cathedral, several adjacent temples, some tall, intricately carved crosses, all of them swept clean of human occupancy, the masonry glistening from the rain.

*

I should interpose this. At the outset of our travels, flippantly, hardly knowing what we meant by it, Henry and I had pledged to go in search of our respective muses. It was not until this hour we spent wandering the grounds of Clon Mac Nish (as it is pronounced) that I believe I glimpsed the tendency of my own imagining, glimpsed the substance that I thought might favour me, confer on my writings a character, elusive, but my own. And I was able to distinguish this because I could remark the very different effect of the place on Henry.

*

While Willi smoked, I took in the bare facts. The monastery was founded by a Saint Ciaran in the sixth century, suffered successive destructions at the hands of Viking and Anglo-Norman plunderers, was rebuilt from its ashes, and again rebuilt. At length the community was extinguished by the English during the enmities of the Reformation. The elderly lady who took our small fee and gave us each a brochure seemed to know Willi from previous visits. Were we the first hitch-hikers he had brought here? I suspected not.

These bare facts were one thing to me. But as I contemplated the patient craft of the masonry, the unfolding intricacy of the carved crosses in the gallery and the grounds, then glanced up at the tatters of cloud and sun-shaft, dramatic, momentary, perennial, I was moved by a complex response to history, as though the past might have a natural and vibrant presence within any instant of the present, whether in my own mind, or that of any descendant down the years.

For instance, I gazed at the lofty Cross of the Scriptures, traced the intricate reliefs carved into its surface. And from my concentration I thought I could construe in my imagination the exact calibre of the attention of that ancient master stone-carver as he tapped, then blew away detritus and dust, then tapped again, finessed, finessed, his mind habituated to fine attention and having the animal reactions of a mind habituated to fine attention, the gruffness, perhaps, of those who dislike being distracted, the unworldliness perhaps of those who indeed are a bit off the planet when a narrow course of chipping and grooving releases in the imagining grand scenes of ulterior possibility.

Thinking this, I glanced at the sky’s turmoil, and in my mind’s eye saw the simultaneous, impending Norseman. He was out there on the floodtide of the river, resting on his oar in the dusk, watching the points of light ashore. We know how from time immemorial, when the eye is adjusting from day to night vision, it is the opportunity when attackers choose to move on their victims. Can I say the man was an event, or a motif? He is here, now (as it were) an exact oarsman in an impending situation associated with his livelihood. For here was the business he could anticipate among the buildings, a shadow losing its nerve, breaking cover, run down, limbs kicking briefly. Here, again immemorial, were the victim’s last instants, how strange that sudden passivity before death, like all the creatures, accepting extremity with less desperation than one might expect.

His oar knocked in his thole, and as I felt his presence, I knew this oarsman’s construction of the world was as remote from my own as Pluto. Yet I knew myself to be intimate with his own watchfulness, could learn what for him meant opportunity, livelihood. Of course I was conscious it was starkly amoral. And yet it belonged to some common human fabric as intimately as my own consciousness did, and so must have value residing in it somehow.

As I wandered the Clonmacnoise ruins, this reverie animated me with a sense of being charged by the very quick of how past moments and personality might dance with my own moment. To feel its power within myself, this reverie did not need to be factual, only plausible, and perhaps mysterious in how it transmitted these past moments to my imagining, whether through dream, in fever, or via daytime reverie. Of course I knew from my reading Jung’s idea of collective mind. But the elation I felt as I wandered into one small, roofless temple after another was fierce, and to do with my own relationship to that deliberate master-carver, that plausible Norseman in the minutes before his workaday killing spree. Could an exact emotion, an exact psychopathology, travel the centuries to hatch a simulacrum in my brain? Yes, I believed, and my sensation was elation that this metempsychosis might be so. It should be said, I had the enthusiasm of my relative youth with which to feel the sensation keenly.

And where had Henry got to?

As I strolled and meditated, I had taken an independent course among the relics and for some time I had not caught sight of my companion. I made my way towards the river where there was a compact church, the temple Connor, still with its roof, still in use (the brochure affirmed) as a place of worship. I had seen Willi beckoning us from near the Round Tower. He had his deliveries to make before nightfall. So I went looking to retrieve Henry.

I found him in this small church, indeed in the very centre of the stone floor where he was on his knees with his hands joined before him, and for an instant I thought I was seeing an apparition from Chaucer’s era. He was evidently deep in prayer.

Outright demonstrations of piety embarrass me rather; I cannot envisage myself in so self-conscious a posture as the one I beheld at that moment. Years ago I left Nietzsche behind me, but in that moment of discovering Henry on his knees, my reaction leapt from that scouring philosopher’s scorn for the submissive Christian morale, and for one quite ridiculous instant I could imagine the leap of opportunity in some Norseman’s mind, the bludgeoning, the practised rifling of pockets for items.

“Hal?”

O his attention was too profoundly elsewhere. And as I stayed, accustoming myself to the dark of the place, my fierce reaction abated to a perception of how natural Henry looked in this prayerfulness. Who knows what was going on in his mind as he knelt there with his hands clasped, but the kneeling figure, like that in an early Renaissance painting, was extraordinarily proper in its suggestion of a life vulnerable and intently absorbed in the midst of daily peril.

I left him and wandered to where Willi smoked. Had Willi got down on his knees when he was im Knast, it occurred to me to wonder. Presently we saw Henry emerge from the church, look about himself as though our tourism in this place were the only thing that had ever been on his mind, then join us.

“You must thank Willi for going out of his way to bring us here,” he directed me to translate when we were once more in the high cab, and on hearing Henry’s acknowledgment, the truck driver bellowed something back that I did not catch, and we roared off along the Irish lanes.

At Roscommon we farewelled Willi, caught the last bus of the day to Sligo, where we arrived a little after eight and found a congenial B&B.

“Time for a writing break,” Henry decided, when he had examined the amenities of the house.

So it was that we stayed here four nights. In the mornings I wrote unsatisfactory forays on the substance of my own reaction to the monastery site. Vaguely I had the notion I would use the sestina form, its enclosing pattern apt for the sense of fatalism I wanted to communicate about my response to Clonmacnoise. But my attempts wandered off into contrived poems and left me unhappy.

Meanwhile Henry, with intent focus, penned two of his five “Prayers at Clonmacnoise”. I had the desk, he wrote on his knee, or under the lamp on a small bedside table, his thick black handwriting going through draft after draft. In the afternoons we took a local bus to Yeats’s grave at Drumcliff, or to a stop from which we could walk on Ben Bulben.

Henry’s five “Prayers” were to form the nucleus of his first collection of poems, Year of the Flood, and became widely anthologised in both devotional and general collections of poetry. On our last evening he read to me the completed two, the lines around his mouth highlighted by the lamplight. Were the poems sincere? They certainly took full account for their presence as poems in that extraordinary quietism and detachment from which Henry Luck was to make his voice.

I’ve come through rain to where the patient stones

Breathe in the prayers of the holy dead

Who choose for me a word …

“Where will you send these?” I asked when he looked up from his reading.

“One of the American journals of course,” he replied offhandedly, and when I queried this, he just shrugged and imitated the sound of the cash register.

“K’ching, k’ching.”

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