The Bower

The Bower

by Connie Voisine

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How can a person come to understand wars and hatreds well enough to explain them truthfully to a child? The Bower engages this timeless and thorny question through a recounting of the poet-speaker’s year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with her young daughter. The speaker immerses herself in the history of Irish politics—including the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles—and gathers stories of a painful, divisive past from museum exhibits, newspapers, neighbors, friends, local musicians, and cabbies. Quietly meditative, brooding, and heart-wrenching, these poems place intimate moments between mother and daughter alongside images of nationalistic violence and the angers that underlie our daily interactions. A deep dive into sectarianism and forgiveness, this timely and nuanced book examines the many ways we are all implicated in the impulse to “protect our own” and asks how we manage the histories that divide us.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226613819
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/02/2019
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
File size: 680 KB

About the Author

Connie Voisine is professor of English at New Mexico State University. She is the author of three previous books of poems, most recently, Calle Florista, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


The Bower

The summer before we packed for Belfast, my daughter D grew committed to butterflies, crossing streets at a flash

of color, crouching in the grass by peonies with hands cupped, still until she pounced. D, the terrible queen

of insects. Fireflies were cake work, ladybugs too random.
She argued with me, I will not touch their wings. Impossible,

though I pretended otherwise. For weeks she'd been working on a moving panorama, a scroll depicting a Scottish ballad

about a lover who builds a bower of wild mountain thyme all around the blooming heather, and she sang for me

without shyness its refrain, Will ye go, lassie, go?
as we walked together. But a bloodied shirt was stuck

to tar at the end of the alley, and a tall, Kevlared cop pointed her manicured finger toward the trash cans,

a stack of abandoned suitcases. Maybe we should not have watched as the busy ones set up police tape

from one side of the street to the other, as a woman sat on the curb with her head in her hands, shiny curls

separating in her grip, a sweatshirt bound about her pregnant belly. "Panorama" comes from the Greek

"to see" and "all." In the nineteenth century it was a popular form of entertainment, the painted scroll cranked

through images and stories while a narrator called the Delineator recited, sang and stirred feelings.

That afternoon a darkness punctured the silken sun,
the slippery ordinary, a knife still in the hand of someone

young and unknown who stood fearless, his face made of a bright, new material. Two others received

wounds — arms, torso — and maybe it humiliated,
our watching them step into the ambulance,

the two made obedient by their survival.
We had been on our way, our particular

zigzag of shortcuts, pretty trees, quieter blocks,
rogue irises, and rattraps from the government, boxes

set here and there printed with DO NOT TAMPER.
There was the dog certain in his grizzled blindness

and habit barking right up to a fence long since gone.
Thick antennae unfurled from a TV station van

and so the day entered neighborhood fame,
the neighbor Maria into the proffered microphone,

Twenty-seven years and never have I. My daughter asked, What is isolated incident? The ballad much later

finishes, If my true love she were gone, I would surely find another, which makes me laugh. The replaceable

beloved, the next true one for whom the fragrant bower always waits beside a crystal fountain. D says,

You got it wrong, Mama. She knows I built the bower for her and all the butterflies she will capture.

* * *

Pieces of the day: the fraternal order's parade of children in small suits with epaulets, banners, and drums. My husband,

H, requests a photograph and is met with a smile. I'm confused at their martial joy but D is not. She wants it all: drum, flag,

regalia galore. An image of the grave containing the three famous Irish saints above a cash register. Stacked newspapers

feature a man carrying a child, kicked as he runs for a border in some other European country. The gray cat lolling on the sunny stones

bears a collar: LADY. That wee'un, always in the streets,
says a neighbor. David's hallucinations from the Parkinson's

drugs, the specter at the periphery, Do you know the way a coat looks, hung on the back of the door at night?

That's who they are.
A man sleeping it off half on, half off the pavement moaning to police and social worker,

I am wrecked. I think it's urine in the bottle he clutches.
D scratches Lady while I describe "fair-weather friend"

for how the gray cat hides on rainy days. This is the gift:
a year without work at half pay and a life far enough away.

My kin never got paid for nothing or something like poems.
Admire the cook outside the chipper smoking cigarettes at the curb,

his clothes still immaculately white. Workers in cherry pickers remove lamppost flags left after parading season, months

late (Commission rules) above this ragged display, a toddler parade in peacetime. All I've done with my own life is change

my social class invisibly, alone. Somali girls, refugees,
down the street lounge on their trampoline (D says, Lucky!)

in their middle-blue Holy Rosary Primary School jumpers, dreaming on slow clouds, gray skies, the same fat gulls spiraling through.

* * *

In the books I've read and talks I've heard, the conflict scholars say "pornography of violence," or "new kinds of memories,"

and nineteen years into the staggering notion of peace is forgetting still perhaps the best option? I have found

so many ugly stories — a woman raped in a bed beside her murdered son, Remembrance Day celebrations bombed,

three generations in one family gone. Does a person need more stories? Colin Davidson paints the portraits of survivors;

the show is up in the small, well-used Ulster Museum.
Known for celebrity portraits, he paints the faces,

shoulders, a glimpse of shirt of a Brad Pitt or a Heaney and now these unknown. No smiles, paint thick to make

bone and light of colors that are mostly dull,
hair floating into backgrounds of unintelligible places.

These eyes are precise, though, so finely made. Eighteen portraits of those stove in by loss. The labels identify the bereaved.

I learn who was killed and the barest details of how.
Some are survivors of violence themselves and I read acid,

car, gun. Hard to tell why or what side are they if any,
who and what affiliation the killers. An interpreter

tells me a victim's group made introductions to the painter and none are for sale, that she will refer those who request it

to trauma care or Victims Services. My daughter takes the survey upon leaving. I write for her, It might help

to have sounds and things you can touch.
What kinds of things?
I don't know, her hair, some clothes, the bomb?

* * *

At the Victorian B and B in Derry the woman lets her bulldog,
Bertie, lather D's face. Her husband is away in Panama

researching the Scots province of Darien. The one Keats mentions in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,"

my husband points out. Well, sure, she says. The story is a group of Scots left their home on boats — Saint Andrew,

Unicorn,Dolphin, and Endeavour — signed treaties with native peoples to begin again in New Caledonia.

They foundered under pressure from Spaniards, diseases,
costing Scotland a quarter of its wealth at the time.

What hubris (old nag) blinded them to the difficulties of empire? I say, smartass, They had no slaves nor

could they make some.
Keats loves the colonizer's wild surmise: Cortez, who never was there on Darien Peak,

surveys the prospect with eagle eyes. The world's oceans,
turns out, met only in Keats's eye, Keats who doesn't mention

the folly of the Scots, but why would he? Everyone knew the grim bits: failed finances, disease, men in wools

paying for work with booze. Derry is said to be the last,
the only walled city left in Ireland, and we can see that wall

from our room. From turret to black cannon we run along its wide, avenued top. What if it snowed and I had a sled?

D wants to know as we gaze down one sloping view,
complete with hillocks and curves. Ah, a clean, white path.

At a few corners the top widens for restored cannons, one
"Roaring Meg," which in 1689 protected Protestants from Catholics

attacking the walls. Kids love a cannon — the wood wheel is a ladder, scoot up, or slide down the barrel. Atop one might see

over the wall to a mural of a schoolgirl killed in recent wars,
the words D can't yet care about (how could I make it so

she never needed to?) or words reminding Catholics to stay out. This world waits, inscribed in ways not always

as clear: Bertie's a bulldog because of who his owners are.
Bertie's name is that of an English king — the son

of Queen Victoria, the "uncle" of Europe. He licks my hands.
That night the Traveler piper plays wildly on a small stage

flanked by fiddlers from England, Scotland, and Oregon.
He quits midtune to tell the guitarist to stop his strum.

I can't hear myself in all this, he growls, begins again, alone.

* * *

The gift to our girl is a book of Irish legends. We settle in to read them. The dark started earlier today and

haunted our walk home from school, over Kings Bridge and the River Lagan. Our herons were lost in the murk

but we saw the rower inside her lit skull, an arrow through the dusk. Once upon a time, a girl named Fionnuala,

I start. D's buried in soft animal toys, duvet, and pillows,
She was as beautiful as sunshine on blossomed branches.

Once upon a time, St. Stephen's Day in Knocknagree,
"the hill of the hare," I sat and drank in a packed room

lit by fire, before my girl was born. A singer stood as if centuries had not passed. O his song, how it broke all hearts that night.

A song of baroque custom, of ornamented, winged trill,
and O the lean rise of his lament, curving facade of sound

then hiss of sibilant. O broken umbrella between the wind and my wind-chapped cheeks. This is the land of song. I felt it.

Of lush, maximalist Song. Her brother Aodh was like a young eagle in the blue of the sky; and her others, Fiacra and Conn,

were as beautiful as running water.
Before drifting off D performs the tasks for safe passage — kiss the bear, flip the pillow,

turn on the night-light teacher gave for being good — then asks me,
When did this story happen? The books say it's one of the three

great tragedy narratives from before St. Patrick and in those days sorrow was not known in Ireland. I tell her, Before everything.

* * *

I use money like a stranger, an immigrant, break large bills because I cannot recognize the coins fast enough

in line at the shops. I hold out a fistful and ask whomever to take the price. The weighty coins clank in my purse,

my trouser pockets, my coat. I wander like Marley's ghost,
managing my various regrets, vanities, fears to a clink,

clink, clink. To the butcher, the baker, and all the way home.
Today I feel dully mad and unreasonably dulled by

repetition. I come home and drop by drop the leak has filled the sink completely with a waste of water.

Once I had friends who laughed in bed. I heard them through the walls. I once had a friend who slept in her uniform,

a synthetic tux, to save time for the morning commute to Radio City Music Hall. Once I had a friend who was me and

I had a friend once a long time ago. It was not so long ago
(you see, Marley?), but maybe I was always this way —

do I recall any other? Soundproof the walls and keep walking.
Watching a zombie serial I mute the battle scenes as innocents

are consumed alongside the guilty in snarling, splashing waves of flesh. I prefer the program's moral questions —

Are the dead able to hate? Is it murder when they eat you?
Shouldn't the living try to get along to better scavenge, fight?

And why do the living fight at all? For our memories of the lives we had, for what we squander?

* * *

I'm back at the museum where people enter free of charge due to government gift, and during these thick, rainy days

it's hard not to. A painting of the 12th of July, a day for marchers,
for the losers who still suffer loss in burning piles of trash

with holy men hung in effigy, bloody songs sung by some about the others, some drunk, some unemployed, some

who consider it their identity. The painting is controversial,
the marchers depicted in white hoods, KKK-like, here

at the public museum. What would Rembrandt say? His face glows a honey gold, a self-portrait on loan from the Crown.

Prams bump through the gathered citizens here to see the Master, and I can tell he's one who knows his worth,

but is his haggard face one of regret? After a certain age who doesn't fight it? Throughout his life, he painted himself often,

painted his face four times in his last year. An X-ray of this self-portrait reveals two pentimenti: his beret was made smaller

and darker, and from his hands he removed the tool, a paintbrush.
A Macedonian proverb says Once you catch your bear

it will dance for you,
but no one buys a self-portrait. In his studio,
with a poodle, with helmet, and finally this rough, illuminated face

dancing for us his aged grief, or is it wisdom? Both?
We all see it, shining up the room. I read about his modest

parentage, three of his four children dead, his wife too by age thirty. Bankruptcy and auction, his own illness.

But what does he paint when he paints his face?
The search for meaning brings us all down hard,

boom, to the knees, and maybe it's good to stay there for a while and stare. It's where anger slew

citizenry, where love was used up for anyone but your own, where people burned neighborhoods,

where many are broke or old or ill, where someone wracks the night for a version of home, where a man

paints his own tired face. Rembrandt looks at himself who looks at me. Once you catch your bear

it will dance for you
only works if you're the bear,
only if the suffering in you rises to meet the suffering

in the other. I've no child with me today, no one to hurry me back into the flurry of snack, birds, Kings Bridge, Sunnyside

to home. I'll leave Belfast before marching season for reasons of family, visas, and money though I'll wish I could stay by then.

Rembrandt died penniless for reasons of appetite (oh, he lived!),
and he was buried in a debtor's grave. No, please, not regret.

* * *

No rest until Ireland is united, says he, the young one,
assured, calm. His grandfather and father's fight will be

his own and so on. The empty folding tables are surrounded by empty folding chairs, and sugar sloughs across the desk

where tea was made. I write it down — upstairs office and butcher shop below, the murals of masked men

with machine guns, the razor-wired gardens. We'll not forget.
I want to know more, what is this kind of remembering?

I know this fever, intractable. The symbolic thrives in Belfast:
a melancholic dove nests in barbed wire twined with slogans.

The wall behind is painted light blue and white, presenting that rarest thing, a sunny day; a memorial lit from 10 p.m. to dawn.

William, a musician, says, It's in our (whose?) DNA to march,
we must parade.
The example is his (Protestant) niece

who tantrums to march on St. Patrick's Day. A fecking diplomat,
mutters Mícheál who visibly shrugs it off. In those days

people face-to-face playing music with you one day, the next might bomb your car.
He rolls another cigarette, brushes

the tobacco off, heads home to carry his sick wife to bed.

* * *

The shore of sleep recedes too far, and I pass from bedroom to living room to kitchen for water

or magazine through the dark wreckage of house,
light now on against it. The computer glows blue and I

find stories of people I once knew or heard of,
the vast public scrapbook about joy, politics, lunch,

grief, that spit curl she had when they first married or how terrible the campaign coverage,

then an article of how Chekhov, after his brother died of consumption and he himself began to cough,

went to a remote Russian island in the North Pacific where murderers were sent to suffer exile with each other

and prison gates were always open to clean,
swept yards, because where else could they go?

Festival poster, shoehorn, fish clock with moving eyes,
a gilded plate kitschy and commemorative of Belfast's

Titanic, new silver stove, and, inside the glowing box of screen, everything else. Chekhov, dying,

wanted a place that was not ours, not Russian, to make the unknown known. The woman who sold pickled cabbage

had buried her infant, thinking she would get off easy because he was alive when she put him in the ground.

Or that's what she said. Anton, what stories made sense on Sakhalin Island? There the imprisoned married, starved,

and bore their skin-and-bones children. Chekhov writes,
In order as far as possible to visit all the inhabited spots,

and to become somewhat closer acquainted with the life of the majority of the exiles, I resorted to a device which,

in my position, seemed the only way. I carried out a census.

Is this what I am doing? What complicity is this? D kicks

the wall in her sleep. She loves the coldness of old brick.

* * *

The groomed Botanic Gardens, a walk through drizzle, and up the hill blinks the Palm House, an ornate

Victorian glass house with layers of flowers, the floor littered with petals. D asks if she can gather those

because she has been told the living blooms are for everyone.
We enter the Tropical Ravine (another antique idea)

from its second story and look down into a humid forest with thick koi circling, mottled, inbred. A couple of broken

panes of glass let in a chill rain, which pierces the steam.
A sparrow and a long-tailed tit settle in, exotic against the foliage,

their grays and browns made vivid by wide banana leaves and bromeliads with scarlet spears. Every day we attempt

to name the birds and other things as we walk to school down the bunkerish stairwell of the building to the fog-swathed

morning of Belfast. Graffiti, check. Empty cider bottles, check.
Dog shit, slush of vomit, double check. A magpie bounds.


Excerpted from "The Bower"
by .
Copyright © 2019 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The summer before we packed for Belfast Pieces of the day In the books I’ve read and talks I’ve heard At the Victorian B and B in Derry The gift to our girl is a book of Irish legends I use money like a stranger I’m back at the museum No rest until Ireland is united The shore of sleep recedes too far The groomed Botanic Gardens We’ve all done it The dead will walk A friend calls from America In the story by Saki Belfast’s murals The visitation of the jovial Either the children A root of balm As we are walking into Belfast Titanic Belfast I wake. I am older It was our privilege to serve A cabdriver told us Was there ever a movie lover The children of Lir are not immune A series of clicks and I find an essay Was Judas’s sin that he betrayed Jesus I walk along the Lagan I read about Denis Donoghue The epistemology of, nature and scope And weren’t they at it all night After nine hundred years As of late too much in the past Gerard scowls Achilles weeps over Hector’s body Let there be a firmament Pieces of the end of a day Notes

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