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Canto XXXIII

By Philip Terry.

Raising his mouth from that horrible snack,
This blood-soaked shade wiped his lips clean on the
Squashed thatch of that head he had chewed up behind

Then spoke: “You’ve got a cheek, wee man, asking
Me to rake over the coals of a grief so desperate
That the very thought of it freezes my bones;

But if my words are to be a seed, that may
Bear the fruit of infamy for this traitor
That I gnaw, then prick up your ears,

For you shall hear me weep and gas at once.
I’ve no idea who you are, nor what business
Brings you traipsing around down here, but something

In your voice tells me that you were once from Belfast.
Know then, that I was Bobby Sands, and this
Here is Maggie Bloody Thatcher – now let me

Tell you why I am so unneighbourly.
Maybe I’ve no need to tell youse that it was her
Government that locked us up with common criminals,

Denying us political status
When there was a war on. But the cruelty of
My imprisonment you can not imagine.

When they took away our fucking clothes, we went
On the blanket; when they emptied our chamber pots
All over our fucking beds, only then did we

Start our dirty protest. The stench was appalling,
The cells were literally covered in shite,
And everywhere you looked there were flies and maggots.

It was like something out of Dante, you know,
Only this was really happening, in 1979.
Through the thick pane of frosted glass

I had gazed on many passing moons, when I
Woke to the banging of truncheons on perspex.
Before you could say ‘Up the IRA!’

We were ripped from our cells and dragged along
The corridor by our legs, then we ran the gauntlet
Of the ranked riot police who hit us with

Truncheons as we passed; we were kicked and
Pushed to the floor, where they held us down,
Then sheared us like sheep, scrubbing us

With floor mops, before they tossed us back inside
Our cells. They had done their best to break us,
And had failed, when at last they seemed to give in

To our demands – but it was a lousy trick,
The clothes they offered were not our own.
We trashed the place screaming blue murder,

Vowing revenge on the whole pack of them.
The next day we sat in silence, and the
Day after that as well.

It was around the time they brought our food
That the idea came to me, it had
Worked in the past, so why not try it again?

Hunger Strike. But this one would be to the death,
Each striker starting at intervals, and each time one
Of us died, another man would step into his shoes.

It’s no joke watching yourself die like that,
The pain is indescribable
As you start digesting your own innards –

Anyone but the immovable Thatcher
Would have compromised before ten men died,
But all she said was ‘A crime is a crime is a crime.’”

When he had spoken these words he rolled his eyes
Like a famine victim, then seized the miserable
Skull with his teeth, which as a dog’s were

Strong upon the bone. Oh Long Kesh, blot
Upon the landscape of that fair country
Where the sound of “aye” is heard!

So what if Bobby Sands bombed the
Balmoral Furnishing Company,
Did that give you the right to make him

And nine others die before letting the
Politicals wear their own shirts?
The greatest betrayal in politics is retrenchment,

And the British Government’s inflexibility,
Matched only by the inflexibility of the hunger strikers
Themselves, prolonged the conflict by 20 years.

We made tracks to where the frost encases
Another pack of shades, not bent downwards
But fixed gazing up.

Here the very weeping puts an end to tears,
And the grief, which cannot find release through their eyes,
Turns inwards like desire in hysteria,

For their first tears formed a frozen knot
And, like freezing eye-packs, filled up
All the cavity beneath their eyebrows.

It was so cold that all feeling had been driven from
My face, my lips were numb, like skin that has
Hardened to form a callus,

Yet even so, it seemed to me I felt
A wind getting up, so I asked Berrigan:
“What’s the cause of such a wind,

I thought no heat could reach these depths?”
And Berrigan replied: “Just be patient, soon
Enough you’ll see for yourself the cause of this blast.”

They must have heard us talking, for one of the shades
With their eyes buried beneath the crust
Cried out as we passed: “You wretched sinners,

Sunk so low that you’ve been given the last post!
Remove the hard veils from my eyes,
That I may give vent to my grief a wee bit,

Before the tears ice up again.”
Then I told him: “If you want me to give you
Some first aid, first tell me who you are,

And if I don’t help you afterwards
May I be sunk forever beneath the ice.”
He answered then:

“I am Gerald Barry, I was given life
for murdering Manuela Riedo, a Swiss student
on vacation in Galway, in 2007,

Then they gave me life again, even though I
Pleaded guilty, for the rape of a French student
A couple of months earlier.”

“Oh,” I said, “and you’re already dead?
Didn’t you serve your sentence?”
And he replied: “Just what my body’s doing

Up in the world I couldn’t tell you,
But I’ll let you in on a secret:
This isn’t the only corner of the campus

Where you’ll find a fellow who hasn’t yet
Popped his clogs. And just so that you’ll be
All the more wanting to peel the ice-flows

Off my face, let me tell you, when a soul
Behaves like I did, a demon takes over the
Body, controlling it like a zombie

For all its remaining days on the earth,
While the soul drops straight into this cistern here;
And that smarmy Baptist wintering out

Behind me, he may well be up on earth still,
For all I know, perhaps you could tell me,
If you’ve just come from there: he’s the

Baptist dentist, Colin Howell, who bumped off
His wife and his mistress’s husband,
Then staged their joint suicide in a car

In Castlerock. He’s been down here so many years
I’ve lost count.” “But that can’t be so,” I said,
“I’ve heard about this case, it was only recently

he confessed, after a crisis of conscience,
he’s only just started serving time.”
“That may well be,” he said, “but believe me,

The souls of Lesley Howell and Trevor
Buchanan had not yet reached the muddy shore
Where Dr May greets the freshers before

The dentist left a zombie in his place
At the surgery, and the same goes
For his accomplice. I swear to you,

That’s God’s own truth. But enough of that,
Lend me a hand as you promised, open
My eyes.” I did not open them.

To be rude to him was courtesy itself.
Ah, Londonderry! You’ve bred so many
Fucked up fanatics it’s a wonder God

Doesn’t wipe you off the map, for I found
One of your men, consorting with Galway’s worst,
Who for his foul deeds bathes already in Cocytus,

But his body seems alive and is serving time amongst you.

photophiipterry-author-photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philip Terry is currently Director of Creative Writing at the University of Essex. He is the author of The Book of Bachelors, Ovid Metamorphosed, Oulipoems, Oulipoems 2, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and translator of Raymond Queneau’s Elementary Morality.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 10th, 2011.