What struck me about this poem was the vividness of its imagery/metaphors, and the fact that so many images were linked to one idea. Some poems that try this approach can come across as a mere list of images aimed at showing off. Not so here. Billy Ramsell weaves these into the thought of this poem in a way that seems natural, rather than showy.
Following the thought of this poem is, in a way, a process of zooming in and out. We focus on a galaxy, then closer, to overhead views of Baghdad and Prague. All the while, the main focus of the poem zooms down to a much smaller level – the contents of a womb.
And yet the poem finally resolves itself in more everyday images, which seems perfectly appropriate after the giddy flights of fancy which precede it. I’m not sure what the final line aims to express, but it hints at the idea of yin and yang to me, connected with femininity and masculinity. This seems very fitting in a poem conceived around an ultrasound scan, at a time when parents, like poets, are full of speculation.
Invisible and gentle hands.
The waves of ultrasound
probe the womb you float in
and trace your shape on the printout
that slides like a tongue
from the whirring computerbank.
You’re there in white, almost actual size,
a podding blob against the blackness
that could be a new-spawned milky galaxy,
a spiral at the lens’s centre
of a mid-western radio-telescope
or an image of Baghdad from the night-bombing,
briefed on in Centcom,
snapped by a priceless bird they set roaming
in fluid geosynchronous ovals.
But I want to think of you as Prague glimpsed on a night-flight,
a city glittering with the flimsy light
of the million people you will not become
and the one, touch wood, that you someday might
or as the moon in the river
under South Gate Bridge,
a bright and wrinkled disc upon the Beamish Lee.
You are a swirl of milk in a coffee cup,
the stuff that makes the black stuff white.
I was born in Cork in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. I was awarded the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013. For several years I edited the Irish section of the Poetry International website and I’m currently guest-editing the autumn edition of The Stinging Fly magazine. I’ve been invited to read my work at many festivals and literary events around the world. I’ve published two collections with Dedalus Press, Complicated Pleasures in 2007 and The Architect’s Dream of Winter in 2013, which was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
Did the idea to write this poem, and the startling images in it, come to you during the ultrasound scan or some time after? Can you tell us a little about a process involved?
The poem was largely composed during the summer of 2004 and the scan in question was that of my niece, Hannah Kiely. If memory serves, my sister had it stuck to the fridge in my parents’ house.
At the time I was working in a funfair in Kinsale. But the fun of that particular fair, it must be said, occurred only at intervals; there were longueurs of extreme and indefinite duration, of waiting in the rain beside glittering, empty rides. But these were periods of surprisingly productive boredom. Lines and images were generated, under the sadly spinning chair-o-planes, that found their way into this poem and into several others. Notebooks, unfortunately, aren’t standard issue in the carnival game so I had to remember these snippets of composition as best I could. And many promising phrases could and did go missing during a shift.
You could, without much effort, assemble a decent-sized anthology of ultrasound poems. It’s a popular topic. And why not? A friend texted me a picture of her ultrasound recently –out of the blue, I didn’t even know she was pregnant- and it was such an extraordinary moment. If they hit you at the right time those little black-and-white blurs can provoke some serious emotion. But whose heart won’t be stirred by those big-headed, alien adventurers in the throes of their ultimate crossing?
Technology features in this poem, just as it does a great deal in your second collection from Dedalus, The Architect's Dream of Winter. Do you consciously decide to write on such themes that many people might find unusual in poetry?
It was indeed a conscious decision, especially in the case of my second book. Of course I was interested in the machines for their own sake, especially in how they mediate and mesh with even our lives’ most intimate aspects.
But the decision was also motivated by an element of literary opportunism. I’m convinced, you see, that all writers have at most two or three such obsessions, and that we’re destined to spend our lives writing toward, from and around them. But how can we change given such an epically static backdrop?
One possibility, I think, is by re-skinning or repackaging those few obsessions with which we’re saddled. And in the question concerning technology I sensed a new-ish hook on which to hang my complexes, a means by which my core and inescapable concerns might be at least superficially reconfigured.
I'd say that your first collection, Complicated Pleasures, sings with a sense of variety, with many different types of poems and themes. Again, is this embracing of variety a conscious decision or just something that "happens"?
Thank you! Again, I’d have to say it’s conscious, perhaps even a little self-conscious. One of the great things about poetry is that there’s so many forms and approaches just waiting to be tried out, so many gimmicks and gadgets that can be combined and recombined, so many toys to play with. It’s a great spur toward versatility. Anything else seems kind of a waste, doesn’t it?
There are references to foreign places in this poem and many others you've written. I also see that you began writing seriously in Barcelona. Do you feel there is any connection between creativity and this sense of the foreign?
A very good question. And I think my answer is no, or at least that there’s no necessary link between the two. I’ve always admired poets who claim and mine their territory, who commit themselves to the colour and weather of a particular locale, or even series of locales. And to be honest I feel I can write with conviction only about places I’ve lived in; a handful of locations then.
I suppose there’ve been times when I’ve allowed myself to write about a place I know less well. In fact I’m doing so at the moment. But it’s in the knowledge that my engagement will be on a superficial level only. Or that what I’m attempting is a kind of fantasia, an act of imaginative literary gamesmanship. And in the knowledge, too, of course, that everybody hates a tourist.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer of poetry, what would it be?
Push yourself. You already know, deep down, the weak points in your poem, the places improperly insulated, where the joints don’t quite dovetail, where the rot’s most likely to gain access. So don’t let it go and hope nobody’ll notice. They will. You have to be honest with yourself, go to work, and sort it out.
All too often we have an idea for a poem, get it down on paper, and then maybe tweak it a little. But that’s not good enough. You have to ask yourself where you can force the issue, where you can push your narrative, theme or concept into terrain that leaves even you as the piece’s author disturbed and discombobulated. Where can you take this thing that no-one would ever suspect? You have to push yourself.