Dramatic openings aren’t used enough in poetry. Okay, it’s difficult to pull off, I know. But see how Flish McCarthy does it here. The first line gives no indication of what’s to come, leaving the reader intrigued. We read on, and a scene unfurls like wings from a cocoon.
What I really like about this poem is its seamless weaving of tones. Again, variety of tone is often underused in poetry, I think, but it’s practised with skill here. Following that dramatic entrance are two more descriptive and poetic verses. For the fourth verse, the speaker becomes that bit more reflective, even wistful. Finally, the poem’s coffin is nailed down with a very frank conclusion.
And yet the reader is left with a question (or at least this reader was): are the omens referred to in the title related to death in general or to something more specific? Check out the very thoughtful video for the poem at the bottom of the page, directed by Micheál Reidy (www.MDGD.ie).
Reading the Omens
A chorus of voices called, No!
when I reached for the latch.
Don’t let her out, she’ll die.
A monarch hatched from the rafters.
Her orange and black wings a mirror
to the hot coals that waked her.
A trail of twisted cobweb sported flies
as if it were a kite tail tied with bows
and she ready to be launched to the sky.
Though we turned away,
she is with me still, as
I plan for the days ahead.
Take this as written:
when my time comes,
to hatch from this body
I want you to open the window.
I am a poet and healer living in Salthill. In recent years, I have been published in Java Writers’ Infusions, GUH’s This Never Happened II, BoyneBerries 18, RNLI’s Anthology The Sea, and was also shortlisted for the 2015 Baillieborough Poetry Prize. In December 2015, I was a featured writer for Over the Edge Open Reading.
I studied English Language and Lit in a single honours program at TCD while raising four kids and working various jobs. I was a bartender in The Buttery Bar, the creator/manager of the Student Union bookstore that is still running as a business in 2016, and a founder member of the Finbar Cullen Co-op, TCD’s first alternative, political cafe. My life has been and is a roller coaster adventure, and I am learning to lean into the turns.
You’ve chosen a kind of oblique, unstraightforward approach to writing a poem about releasing a butterfly here. Can you tell us why/how you came to choose this approach?
I was quite struck when this incident happened. A number of poets gathered for the weekend last winter to write. That cottage was the setting for the poem. Long after I had returned home, I could not get the butterfly out of my mind. I wasn’t sure why it was important, but I knew that if I stayed with the image, let it keep annoying me, I would learn something. To do that, I needed to write about it. As I wrote, I began to understand why releasing the butterfly mattered.
So often, my poems are born out of my need to understand things that happen; things I have read, seen or experienced; in turn, these often hold a deeper, more personal meaning. Something strikes me and I think to myself, there’s a poem in there.
Yeats remarked that we make poetry out of the quarrel we are having with ourselves. This was one of those quarrels. Why did this butterfly bother me so much? I wrote until I understood that as I face the inevitable ending of my own life, I want to do it on my own terms.
As with many good endings, the last line here seems fairly ambiguous and hard to pin down 100%. Can you tell us whether opening the window, for you, refers to something specific or something more broad?
Both. The window represents the opportunity to live according to one’s own wishes, with the hard knowledge that a quicker death might be the result. Opening the window is giving the butterfly the choice. The butterfly is standing in for all mortals, but particularly for me. We don’t have a choice about dying; however, we sometimes have a choice about what we want to do before we die, and/or how we want to die.
I have said to my adult children that this is my DNR directive (Do Not Resuscitate) in a poetic form. I do not wish to die slowly in a hospital if there is a chance that I might enjoy a last flight surrounded by the beauty of this planet.
It seems that the butterfly’s fragility has reminded you/the speaker of his/her own fragility. Does fragility have a role to play in writing, do you think?
It is the fragility, or what I would call the ephemeral nature of life, that intrigues me. I believe this is the essential argument at the heart of much of the world’s literature. As writers we attempt to make sense of the fact that life, with all its beauty, must end.
This could be described as a nature poem. When some people hear those words, “nature poem”, they yawn, expecting something boring. How do you feel about nature poetry, yourself?
Some poems that might be labelled nature poems are great poems, for example: Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, or Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness.
The natural world is a resource and inspiration to me and my writing. I was born into a house that overlooked Lake Erie, so my ears are tuned to the rhythm and sound of moving water. The house was bounded by fields of tall grasses with tiny wild strawberries hiding beneath that only a small child might find. This grounding allowed me to feel at home in the natural world; with all that is beautiful, surprising, and constantly changing. I might say I fell in love with the earth as a child.
I was a teenager when the first photos of the earth hanging like a blue and green jewel in black space, embraced by a shawl of swirling cloud, were released by NASA. At that moment, the beauty and fragility of the planet came together and I was awestruck. Like many of my generation, I never got over it.
To love earth and write about it during this, one of its most trying times, is one way to become responsible to it and for it.
Why do you write?
I write to learn more about who I am, and what I care most deeply about. I write because it makes me happy to be writing.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Read everything; poetry modern and old, metered and free, slam and spoken word, local and global, poetry in your own language and in translation. Taste the words on your tongue. Use your voice and your ears. Also read everything that piques your interest. Follow your curiosity until it is satisfied. These things will show up in your work and make it particularly yours.
Next, understand yourself well enough to know the ways that wake you up to the world and what produces your best work. Then make sure you do those things. It is your opportunity, as Heaney says, to “Strike your note.”
Don’t miss it.