Time for my annual tribute to Terence Winch for St. Paddy's Day. Terence is the great Irish-American poet/writer/songwriter/musician. A national treasure for all, but particularly those of us who are Irish-American (and yes he is an old and best friend, but I'd be saying this even if I'd never met him).
With the Irish traditional band, Celtic Thunder (the original, not the PBS special "Oirish" version that copped that name later), Terence wrote and performed (usually on the Irish accordion, or "box") many tunes that have become classics for Irish-Americans. None more so than "When New York Was Irish" which is being played somewhere in the USA and many places in New York City as I write this I am sure.
There have been close to thirty or more recordings by various people of "When New York Was Irish," but this recent solo one (check it out here) is perhaps the best, other than Celtic Thunder's.
Not only is Terence a great songwriter and musician, but a terrific poet and writer whose books have won awards and whose poems have been read by Garrison Keeler on NPR, many times, as well as recognized elsewhere for their wit and originality. His latest book—THIS WAY OUT—keeps that tradition going with a slew of new classic Winch poems.
Here's just one example:
for Brendan Mulvihill
We have three bottles on the kitchen table.
One is filled with the music of a hundred old hornpipes
in the key of D that no one plays anymore. We drink
and play. Pretty soon they're no longer hornpipes,
but tricky little reels from long-dead masters
remembered by no one but us. We play them
and they are like nothing anyone has ever heard
before now. Oh, the ins and outs and ups and downs
of them, like an old song the jolly ploughman
sings to the fair maiden at midnight under her
window, enticing her out for a forbidden fling
that will change her life forever. But pretty soon
all that's left is an old waltz that we drag along
the living room floor by one foot till it falls apart
before we even figure out the second half of it.
We never even get to the other two bottles.
As is typical for a Winch poem, though none of his poems are ever "typical" in the broader sense of that word, this poem combines both humor and melancholy, adroit craftsmanship (look at the way he breaks each line) and conversational accessibility. Some Winch poems play with imagery so uniquely that the juxtapositions are like a new drug to confuse your mind and senses, others are as straightforward and linear as the one above. But all express a deep love of life combined with an equally deep understanding of how fleeting and fragile it is. As in this poem with the punning title:
GARY OLDMAN AND THE SEA
I will bonk my tuning fork
to sing of my native land, New York.
I will compose an immortal song
about my grandmother's town,
sweet Ballyvaughn. I will
accost people in the hallway
to offer praise of County Galway.
I will delight you, furthermore,
with my hymns to Baltimore.
But please don't call me up right
now. I'm tired, it's late at night.
I am sitting here drawing blanks,
empty of all meaningful thought.
Please pour me another. Thanks.
But put away your money.
I can't be bought.
Birds fly. Dogs bark.
Mothers take their children
for an outing in the park.
Old fathers contemplate
their failure to be great
enough to shed some light
on the impending dark.
She keeps asking if I'm ready for the emptiness.
I hold up two old checks with VOID stamped
on them. Oh yes, I know all about the Void,
I say. It has been yawning in my face all my life.
Even when I am wired into pleasure (sex or music)
the emptiness, I know, is waiting to snatch me up.
It's almost impossible for me to fall asleep at night
these days because I know I might not come back.
Time is a mighty ocean that wants to pull me in,
a cave where they make everybody turn off their lights,
a black hole of total darkness that swallows us all.
My son is reading the Sunday funnies. He is the light
in the cave. Not emptiness, she says: empty nest.
Oh, I see. That I am absolutely not ready for.