One swallow doesn’t make a summer, that’s what they say. I saw my first last night. A single swallow, swoop low in the field beside me as I drove slowly along a mid-Ulster laneway in the mizzle. Despite it being so damp, there was a brightness in the sky; maybe it felt brighter to me than it really was because the swallows had announced their return. And, sure enough, no sooner had I spotted my solo flyer than I pulled up a track and there they were, in abundance, graceful fighter pilots showing off their skills, not a bit jet lagged from the long trip back up north. That’ll do, I thought, happy and satisfied with life – that’ll do.
There’s something about the country that pulls you back into yourself. It’s the opposite of what the seaside does for me; walking on a beach blows me free of myself. Both are essential fixes; both work to recalibrate us. It wasn’t a great night when measured against the glory of the sunshine and soft warmth of the evening before. “If you’d been up last night you would it have seen it at it’s best,” my friend said, as he welcomed me to his new house in the country. We turned and looked around us. Over yonder was a paddock, with a track around the outside. “It belongs to the man from the house in the far field,” I was told, “you can see the tip of his roof from here, he trains horses.” Three skeletal trees stood frozen in time in the middle of the field. Maybe diseased ash, theirs was an eternal winter. A steeply sloping field flattened out towards a row of aged boulders, moss and creepers making them look like they’d been there since the world began. “The farmer over on that side,” my friend pointed in the opposite direction of the paddock, “he said there was a wile wet winter in the fifties, and that field began to slide, and the boulders were moved there to shore it up.” The rain was falling a bit more heavily on us now. We shrugged and smiled and nodded to the sloping bank, as if to tell it to stay put. Rows of young saplings had been planted out around the plot: birch alder and hazel.
I drove home in the rain with the light falling, trying to make a mental inventory of all that was around me: the gorse out, the tips of the bluebells showing, and the hawthorn beginning to burst forth. It’ll not be long before you can cast your clout. Driving through the countryside on mediocre night in May; it should be mundane and forgettable; God knows, I’ve done it a hundred times before. But last night it wasn’t. I had been reading Kavanagh and trying to bring the ordinary moments to life; to remember the everyday with clarity, appreciate it as significant, beautiful, special. And the master of capturing and describing the wonder to be had in the commonplace is Kavanagh.
‘Kerr’s Ass’, by Patrick Kavanagh
‘We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s ass
To go to Dundalk with butter,
Brought him home the evening before the market
And exile that night in Mucker.
We heeled up the cart before the door,
We took the harness inside –
The straw-stuffed straddle, the broken breeching
With bits of bull-wire tied;
The winkers that had no choke-band,
The collar and the reins . . .
In Ealing Broadway, London Town
I name their several names
Until a world comes to life –
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.’
Did Kerr ever think that his donkey would be immortalised by the great poet; and that a County Monaghan town as simple as Mucker would feature in verse in all its foggy glory? (Could there be any more unglamorous a name for a place? And yes, it is a real place.) Yet, as Kavanagh reminds us, it’s on the bend of the road, and the splash of the sheugh, and the turn of the sod where the ‘God of imagination’ is to be found. I’m drawn to such poets and writers, for they are the scribes for the humdrum, the diarists of detail. Here’s what Canadian author, Alice Munro had to say about bringing detail to her writing. It’s a couple of lines from her novel, ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ about watching, noticing and remembering; making sure the everyday is everlasting. “The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heart-breaking. And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and together – radiant, everlasting.”