In 2001, while on a junior term abroad in Cork to study Anglo-Irish poetry, I learned that the actor Stephen Rea had recorded Derek Mahon’s recently published poem, “The Hudson Letter,” for broadcast on RTÉ Radio; and this is how I ended up spending the better part of that Christmas evening alone in the kitchen of an Irish stranger’s home, cozied up with a plate of warm food, a tumbler of whisky, and a radio.
My condition was not unlike that of the poet; I was an American student adrift among strangers in Ireland, listening to a (Northern) Irish poet writing from New York, a “resident alien on this shore.” The poem, in its eighteen parts, is a long letter home, though where or what exactly home is for either poem or poet, it is hard to say: one section is a reconciliatory letter to his adult daughter (“too busy growing up myself, I failed to watch you grow”—that was my father, too) and one to his son (“let me, Polonius of the twilight zone/ offer you some belated, functional succor”); another letter, to Fay Wray; homages to Ovid, Auden and Yeats; in some sections, the poet imagines others’ letters, assuming the voice of a young immigrant woman, Bridget Moore, writing home to Ireland from New York in 1895; finally, a devotional letter to his friend Patricia King, to whom the entire sequence is dedicated—it is a letter to the beloved, in the most Petrarchan sense:
I too sing, although she whom I admire
finds little to her taste in what I write.
I praise not only her clear skin and fine eyes
but also her frank speech and distinguished air;
so dumbstruck am I on her visiting days
I can find no words to speak of my desire
Yet, when she leaves me, my composure flees.
No one I know can hold a candle to her
and when the world dims, as it does tonight,
I see the house she goes to blaze with light.
The italics of the last ten lines in this section, called “Domnei,” are the poet’s; for the reader, they may serve as a marker, suggesting a long exhalation and a hushed gasp on the final line, which is how I have read this section every time. In 2001 I read it, longing to identify with the object of that male devotion; now when I read it, I’m the speaker, and the passage evokes my love’s clear skin and fine eyes, my fleeing composure, in the early days of our courtship. Long exhalation and hushed gasp—that’s how Stephen Rea read it, too, as I huddled closer to the radio.
What did they think of me, my hosts? This stowaway in the kitchen. To my benefit, they didn’t seem to think too much about me at all—they simply let me be, Romanian-American flotsam that I was, and carried on with their Christmas family merrymaking. To be clear, they weren’t utter strangers; the muffled cheer on the other side of the kitchen door belonged to the immediate and extended family of a man named Gus, one of “the lads” I’d met (though, not one I knew very well) a few months back, when I arrived to study at University College Cork. The “lads,” five or six bachelors in their thirties, were regulars at The Thirsty Scholar (sadly, since renamed), above which another exchange student, Georgia, and I had briefly shared a room.
Hard-scrabble episodes, under the pressure of advancing decades, often become the stories we most love to tell (though, only if the scrabble eventually softens). Our room, which was split directly in half by a visible crack running uninterrupted up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other wall, sagged on one side, and there was nothing but the filthy bloom of a balled-up bedsheet in the center of the mattress straddling the crack that surely ran across the floor, as well. However unappealing, it was free and temporary—a formula the impecunious know well. And, mercifully, pubs in Ireland close early; the crescendo of the bass below us broke by midnight, so we slept in our clothes, on layers of our clothes, under Georgia’s single, unzipped sleeping bag. (It was less than a month after 9/11, and the sleeping bag I’d asked to have sent from the United States was lost in transit.) Coming and going between the Thirsty and the college—I don’t remember if or where we bathed—in the three weeks before we found more permanent, separate arrangements, Georgia and I grew friendly with the lads, who in some way represented our reward for not ensconcing ourselves among our own. Here we were, among real Irish people, and—in a sentimental spirit that tempted me more than Georgia—in a pub during daylight hours. Wasn’t this the Irish writing life? The poet’s life? I hadn’t yet read Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons: “I know now,” she writes, “that I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed. One word was used to invoke collective nurture, the other to sketch out self-reflective individualism. Both states were necessary—that much the culture conceded—but they were oil and water and could not be mixed.”
My main trouble was that, while Georgia, an extroverted Australian (therefore, kin to the Irish not just in temperament, but likely also in DNA), kept pace easily with Irish banter and pints, I had no idea how to be among them. On the one hand, I had yet to learn that it was possible, indeed a good idea, to anchor new human relationships in curiosity and lightheartedness, rather than expecting the depths of life’s meaning to flower instantly, obviously, and perpetually, like a store-bought African violet. On the other hand, public drinking culture had never appealed to me (or, I didn’t appeal to it), and even Ireland wasn’t going to change that. I hoped desperately that there was some redeeming value in my painful and constant impulse to retreat into creative solitude (more accurately, solitariness)—painful, because I often lacked the will to assert my self-reflective individualism. This was at a time when, while not fully closeted, I wasn’t exactly out, either; I suspect I was having trouble just being, anyway.
What I still recall of Christmases of my late teens and early twenties: too much rich food and an accumulating nausea over the wasted paper, gift boxes, bows, ribbons, and the yardage of cellophane packaging. Also: one year, my mother cloaked herself for two weeks, including Christmas, inside an impenetrable shield of silence, composed so masterfully, that only I could hear it. At dinnertime with others, as if by sorcery, the shield dissolved; when company left, the shield went up again. She had learned, I know now, about a relationship I’d had with another woman. The silence had hurt, but the charade, the insistence on cheer, at the expense of grief, or joy—whatever real emotion could have been—distorted some part of my spirit. “Young poets are like children,” writes Eavan Boland. “They assume the dangers to themselves are those their elders identified; they internalize the menace without analyzing it.” Boland’s point here is about poets, but I have trouble getting past the blunt force of what she’s saying about children, and by children, I suppose I mean anyone with living parents. I don’t recall the specific reason for why I had booked my return flight back to the United States after Christmas—maybe I already knew about the airing of “The Hudson Letter” (this being before podcasts)–it’s easy to imagine that the unknown held more appeal than the risk of another such charade.
This might have been my first Christmas away from my immediate family, but it wasn’t the first (or last) spent in the bosom of strangers. My first Christmas in the United States was in 1988, six months after my parents split up. My second-grade public school teacher had found an apartment for my mother and me and had kept a key for herself, sometimes coming by when we weren’t home to stock the fridge and cupboards or to leave new school clothes on my bed. On that Christmas Eve, Mary took us out to dinner, while her husband lugged a tree up to our third-floor apartment, decorated it, and left it lit for our arrival. This I remember: Mary didn’t accompany us upstairs—she understood so well the privacy required for the completion of a gift, and how charity, if self-conscious, debases the receiver—and we stood transfixed and silent, the blinking tree filling the apartment with the smell and glow of home. No longer strangers, we continued to celebrate all holidays with Mary’s family for the next twenty-five years. It’s worth saying that she made the world beyond my world more hospitable. When she learned that one of her fourth graders was getting teased at school for being shabbily dressed, she arranged to get new clothes to his grandmother, so that he would not know his teacher had bought them. When a friend’s husband lost his job, Mary solicited her help in the garden, and the money she paid this friend carried her and her husband through that dry season.
In the final section of “The Hudson Letter,” having compiled the individual voices of the previous seventeen sections, Derek Mahon assumes a more prophetic, collective voice—humanity’s letter home from a noisy, irreverent modernity. Or maybe it’s a prayer to a powerful spirit, “be it Byzantium or the sphere/ all centre, no circumference,” when he pleads:
I’d say make all safe and harmonious in the end
did I not know the voyage is never done
for, even as we speak, somewhere a plane
gains altitude in the moon’s exilic glare
or a car slips into gear in a silent lane . . .
I think of the homeless, no rm. at the inn;
far off, the gaseous planet where they spin,
the starlit towers of Nineveh and Babylon,
the secret voice of nightingale and dolphin,
fish crowding the Verrazano Bridge; and see,
even in the icy heart of February,
crocus and primrose. When does the thaw begin?
We have been too long in the cold.—Take us in; take us in!
I’d been living in the Lake District, in the northwest of England, for four months when Mary’s cancer went from bad to worse; she died in the beginning of December, an hour before I touched down in New York on my way to see her.
When I returned, grief-stricken, to England a week later, several families in the little Cumbrian village that I didn’t yet know well enough to call home took turns in an unannounced vigil over my broken heart. I spent an entire day with a family I’d met once before at church, not long after I’d first arrived in England. The holidays had called from disparate ends of Scotland three out of four of their children, their babies, and a kindly nonagenarian who had once been stationed in Uganda with her husband, before the reign of Idi Amin. They were the grandparents of the Highland children. Invited for breakfast, I stayed on for lunch and dinner, unable to sever myself from the warmth of their bonds with each other. On Christmas Day I visited for a while with another family, then had dinner with the childless atheists (a designation they’d approve of), including a married lesbian couple that lived in the village. The kindest, most generous thing they all did, which Gus’s family had also done, was to give space to my alienation, space which had the grace-given capacity to contain and transform my alienation into . . . I don’t know what. I simply felt taken in.
That Irish family’s particulars have receded: after fifteen years, I might recognize Gus, but I no longer know the rest of their names or faces. (I can’t recall if there were children, if they were playing games or watching television in the other room. Was there, maybe, a small, black terrier?) But they made something like a hearth in me. Through the invitation, they built up the fire, then drew the flames in toward the heat’s center, letting the peat and wood burn low, glowing, throughout the night.
Oana Sanziana Marian is a Romanian-born American writer, photographer, and translator. She studied Anglo-Irish literature at Yale College (BA ’03), poetry at Johns Hopkins University (MA ’04) and is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. She has published translations, photographs, poems, features, interviews, and reviews with The Yale University Press, Words Without Borders, Guernica, Artforum, Iron Horse Literary Review, On Being, and others. She is an adjunct editor at The Yale Review and a Wurtele Gallery Teacher at the Yale Art Gallery. With the writer Prudence Peiffer, she ran a popular reading series in Brooklyn called The Folding Chair.
This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
Recommended Citation: Marian, Oana Sanziana. (2016) “The Christmas Hearth,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 7. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu