The most arresting feature of this poem is its voice. The short sentences and clinical tone of the first two verses echo the nature of the task. The last three verses open out a bit more, tone-wise, inviting elaboration. It’s a poem of management-speak that is realistic in its language, yet it also satisfies the parameters of the poetic simply by being placed in the context of this poem.
There are moments of straight-faced humour, as in lines such as “For some of our lads their ways/ are just too compelling” and “She showed him a ball alley”. Considering the coldness of the speaker, this humour seems unintentional on his part, which only exaggerates the humour for the reader.
You could imagine a short film based on this poem. It would have a slow, contemplative quality about it. It would visit dark kitchens and winding, grass-mohawked roads. The protagonist – given the task described by the speaker of this poem – would wrestle with his or her conscience. And that’s what this poem invites the reader to do – to wrestle with the notion of allowing the modern, the so-called “better” yet often so impersonal, to replace the traditional. In Ireland (and probably in every country, I suppose), we treasure the character of the countryside and its people, yet more and more of us are drawn by the great magnets of city life. The death of a post office is the death of our own embrace with a simple way of life.
Death and the Post Office
The job they’re given is fairly simple.
Find the place,
go in for half an hour and discuss the settlement.
Consider, if it’s appropriate,
the few antiques: the safe,
the signs, the switchboard.
Glance at the books, the electrics.
Perhaps fill out some forms.
But these aul’ ones, these Cathleens, these Annies,
they can be fierce long-winded.
For some of our lads their ways
are just too compelling.
Some accept a drink, some’ll have lunch.
We’d a Polish guy who took
a ninety-two-year-old out in the van.
She showed him a ball alley.
Fair enough: dozens of ghosts
and no graffiti. But if you’re not direct
about the job? You understand,
we’ve had to weed out the dreamers.
Immunity to stories, I find,
is the primary quality.
You don’t want to be sitting at an old table,
under a clock that strikes you
as fabulously loud.
Or find yourself cradled by the past,
thinking a man need venture
no further west than the brink he meets
in a mouthful of milky tea.
If the archive-harbouring frailty
of the postmistress soothes you;
if her wit grants you the lost farm
and maternity of the world;
if her isolated, dwindling village, a place
without a pub or a shop,
whose nearest decent
sized town is itself desperately quiet –
if these things move you …
What I mean is, if you can’t meet
a forgotten countryside
head on, and calmly dismantle her,
fold her up, carry her out,
and ship her back
to Head Office, however ambiguous,
however heavy-handed or fateful,
however bloody poignant
the whole affair might seem to you;
if you can’t stand your ground
when a steep moment
of hospitable chat and reminiscence
might tempt you to put
your mobile phone on silent,
or worse, blinded by plates of fruit cake,
to switch it off completely;
if you cannot accompany
an inevitable change, knowing
you did not cause these people, these ways, to vanish,
and if you will not sign off
on expired things for us,
then, I’m sorry, but you are not our man.
Martin Dyar’s debut collection of poems Maiden Names (Arlen House, 2013) was a book of the year selection in both the Guardian and The Irish Times, and was shortlisted for both the Pigott Poetry Prize and the Shine/Strong Award. He has also written a play, Tom Loves a Lord, about the Irish poet Thomas Moore. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2009, and the Strokestown International Award in 2001. He has also been the recipient of two Arts Council Bursary Awards for literature. A graduate of NUI Galway, and Trinity College Dublin, where he did a PhD in English Literature, most recently Martin was a writer in residence at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The poem “Death and the Post Office”, first published in The Stinging Fly in 2009, has been included in the Penguin Ireland anthology Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916, edited by Niall MacMonagle.
Can you tell us about the genesis of the poem? Did you witness/hear about a specific situation like that depicted in the poem? It seems you’ve captured the thinking very well.
There is a political thrust to “Death and the Post Office”. But I arrived at that thrust in a roundabout way. The poem, and another called “Local Knowledge”, which is also in my first book, Maiden Names, have similarities. Both have characters who seek to reject some version of poetry. But they do so in a way that makes the rejection preposterous. I grew up in County Mayo, and the increasing quietness of Irish towns is very close to the bone for me. But in terms of catching this as a theme, when I look back on the writing experience, I see it as being present only as a filter. It somehow introduced itself automatically. Or I introduced it, and expanded it, by virtue of being a native. But my real focus was the character of the listener, the person being addressed by the darkly bureaucratic speaker. I recall that I was also very concerned with simplicity of language, with holding the reins, and only here and there permitting myself to include more high-strung or stranger phrasings. In writing the poem I had an experience of balance, but I had no sense of writing a particularly Irish poem, or a particularly political poem. When the poem was almost finished, I did visit a few post offices in small towns, and had conversations which helped me to appreciate what I had been writing. But the body of the thing came about while I was foostering with other more abstract themes and while I was lost in a happy technical fog.
Did the tone or “voice” of the poem come to you from the very beginning, or was that something that was developed in later drafts?
It was there from the beginning. The poem was taken from something longer, about twenty or thirty pages. I had encountered a version of the voice in the wonderful “Directions to a Rebel” by the Belfast poet W.R. Rodgers. Being excited by that poem, I was keen to try to develop an authoritative speaker who might list a set of commands in an aphoristic or in a slyly beautiful way. Along the way I may have been reminded me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a teenager, and the possibility of implicating the reader. The poem “The Mind-reader” by Richard Wilbur, which I love, is another example of this mode. I repeated the device in the poem “Huckleberry Finn Day”, which was produced as a chapbook by the international Writing Program at the University of Iowa last year.
This is obviously a how-Ireland-is-changing kind of poem. Considering the space for exploration is limited in a poem, do you have any thoughts to add on how Ireland is changing, whether rurally or otherwise?
The poem says more than I can say now about what I see. The west of Ireland seems to be getting quieter and more fragmented, and yet it remains a beautiful place, with a great supply of good people and good humour. Many are committed to making new lives in the west, and the regeneration of towns is a real focus for some. The summer is the best time to imagine the possibilities. But even for the ways it is leeched and bewildered, and even for its reservoirs of loneliness, the west remains the ultimate subject.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer of poetry, what would it be?
I’m not sure about giving advice. A poet is likely to look for praise and money before advice. But I might be tempted to advise the beginner that poetry is writing. And that to pursue poetry is to seek to become a writer. All aspirations to quality and creative fulfilment must belong to a vision of graft and perseverance. The American poet Wallace Stevens famously said that a book of poems is “a damned serious business”, by which he meant slowness should not cause anxiety, and that a poet’s best work is buried very deeply in their personality. Another quote from Wallace Stevens comes to mind. For Stevens, poetry inescapably required “the courage to be an amateur”. To my mind, these words embody a caution in relation to intellectualism, and also a sense that, aside from basic technique and one’s relationship to one’s core themes, development is deceptive. Poems are not things that accumulate together. Each poem can be seen as an absolute beginning, an absolute punt into the stars. In this sense, all poetry is experimental. There’s a line in Yeats’s poem “Ego Dominus Tuus”, in The Wild Swans at Coole, which might connect to this: “I seek an image, not a book”. Yeats was a careerist, and he was desperately egotistical, but he also dwelt very purely within his gift, and he knew that his ultimate stature was irrelevant to the essence of his mission. If there’s advice among these nuggets from two of the masters, it might be something like “slow right down”.