Can you remember a time when a telephone was an object that would demand the attention of everyone throughout the household? Who was on the other end, everyone would wonder? A time when telephones were not dispensable objects with multiple functions to be replaced every few years, but rather long-time residents on the wall of a family home?
It’s hard not to read Mel McMahon’s poem with this sense of change and time lurking somewhere in our minds. Of course, the flavour of time and change that the poet intended was more personal. The telephone is an object weighted with sentiment and memories. It’s a symbol now of loss, or perhaps more specifically the inability to communicate.
Mel draws a comparison between telephone conversations and writing towards the end. The common ground isn’t immediately apparent, but that seems to suit the poem. The reader is left to linger on the connection, to wonder. Just as we used to wonder who was on the other end.
Large and white with numbers big enough
for an elephant to stand on –
my dad’s last telephone.
He would rarely use it, preferring instead
a house call.
When it rang he was often watching horse races
or getting ready to go out.
It is the phone he used
to call me, out of the blue,
one evening in France,
three days before his death,
upbeat about the summer trips
we could go on when I got home.
Holding its dead receiver in my hand,
I imagine my father listening.
My fingers tread the causeway of numbers
to a place that can’t be reached.
‘If your call lasts more than two minutes
it should be a letter,’ he would say.
So as teenagers, our calls were quick
to avoid dirty looks, a fight.
Now that I want to speak to him
I can only stare at this telephone,
re-imagine conversations, and write.
I’m married to Bernadette and have two children, Claire and Mark. I spent my childhood growing up on a large housing estate in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, but now live near the quiet slopes of Slieve Gullion.
I have been a teacher for over twenty five years and in 1997 I co-founded Abbey Press with poet, Adrian Rice. (We went on to publish eighteen titles over a period of fifteen years or so.)
My debut collection of poems, Out of Breath (Summer Palace Press) was launched in April of this year.
My poetry has been published in a variety of magazines, anthologies and literary journals including: Poetry Ireland, Fortnight Magazine, Causeway and The Honest Ulsterman. It has also been broadcast on the BBC. I was a prizewinner at the FSNI poetry competition in 2015.
Outside of poetry I enjoy a game of snooker, a curry night out with friends, fly-fishing, old movies, a long swim, travelling and watching my children enjoy themselves as they grow up.
A lack of communication between fathers and sons (and maybe between men in general) is a common thread in Irish society, so it’s refreshing to experience a portrayal of a father-son relationship that’s not short on words. Could you tell us a little about your impressions of Irish men and communication?
Where do I start? I’m not too sure if it’s solely an Irish phenomenon but there is no doubt that many men can feel more than a little awkward when talking to each other about significant feelings, especially fathers when talking with their sons.
That said, I was fascinated looking at the behaviour and giant bonhomie of both sets of Irish supporters at the Euros this summer. How easily those Irish men released their joy onto the world! The steep gradient of supporters’ smiles, the volume of their content voices, the (generally) impeccable behaviour borne out of their satisfaction to see their team compete on a higher stage, amazed. Very few countries could have ignored the warmth and fun they brought to an otherwise fairly pedestrian tournament. And yet… you take away the alcohol and the sport and many Irish men can find it difficult to show emotion and articulate their feelings. I think that the situation has improved from the 1960s when Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! came to the stage but there are certain types of communication and feeling between a father and a son that are very difficult to ‘get over the line.’ How many male readers have read Heaney’s ‘A Call’ and identified with the sentiments given?
On the last day I spent with my own father, before heading off to a holiday in France, we had a minor fall out and he spent the start of our last afternoon together talking to me via my six year old son (without making any eye contact with me). If we could have that day all over again, with all of its bitter foreknowledge, I don’t know how much different the experience would be.
I think we tend to clutch at objects when we lose someone. You’ve chosen a particularly interesting and un-obvious object here. Did you know immediately, when you first touched the phone after your father’s death, that you would write a poem about his telephone? Tell us a bit about the writing process, please.
Shortly after my mum died the sharpness of my dad’s senses declined. As a result he bought a telephone with super-sized numbers and a volume control in case he needed to make, or receive, a call. My dad was not given to making many calls. When we were teenagers we tended, like many others, to hang onto friends’/girlfriends’ conversations as if putting down the receiver would terminate our immediate oxygen supply. My father’s favourite line was, “If you’ve to chat for more than two minutes it should be a letter.” It was a great line in retrospect. I think that if I were to use it with my own children they would promptly tell me that no-one writes letters today and would ask if I’m telling them to send a text.
My dad died when we were on holiday in France but three days before it happened he phoned me, totally out of the blue, to tell me that he was in great form and was looking forward to a few outings on my return. After the month’s mind Mass my brothers, sisters and I sat down on the floor of my parents’ bedroom and quietly discussed what was to be given to charity, what was to be ‘skipped’ and what we should each take as keepsakes. I got the telephone. In those early months of grieving I held and re-visited some of the objects from my childhood home and the poem, ‘Telephone’ was one that arrived fairly quickly.
There’s an interesting structure here (especially choosing the division into two parts). Could you tell us about your attitude to structure in general in poetry, and whether you have noticed any particular patterns linking themes and structure?
I decided to structure the poem in two parts as each part seemed to capture two very distinct aspects of my dad’s relationship with the telephone– and us. The telephone is, undoubtedly, one of the most potent forms of modern communication but the end of each section of the poem tries to capture the uselessness of the phone when there is no-one at the other end to reply.
I remember reading how some grieving parents in Dublin had put their deceased child’s mobile phone in along with them when they were buried. Although the gesture is a startling and dramatic one it possibly underscores a faith in the phone as one of our most powerful forms of communication.
I do find myself structuring poems into distinct sections as I write. When my wife and I had our two children I found myself re-visiting games from childhood. Initially I thought that I would write a few poems on those games but I ended up writing close to twenty, ten of which make up the last section of my recent book, Out of Breath. I decided to give them their own section as they didn’t link thematically with other poems in the book.
As far as structuring a poem into sections is concerned, I tend only to do it when there are very distinct phases of thought or feeling. If the partitions weren’t there they could nurture a dysfunctional element to do with time, people or situations that I don’t want to be in the poem. I want my poems to speak to people not around them.
At times of loss in our lives, people often turn to poetry. Even those who usually shy away from it often find solace or profundity in it at such times, I think. Why do you think this is?
I think that Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize winning speech that if language is what separates us from other animals then poetry is the goal of our species.
For me, language, especially poetry, has the ability to help us travel further into ourselves. Yes, words can hurt, damage and alienate but when a positive thought or feeling is crystallised in an image, a rhythm, or form it can induce a lift, a confidence, an acceptance, a connection with that part of ourselves that many would call spiritual. Whenever my parents died I found lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations on Immortality’ invaluable in helping me to accept the awful carnage of grief that goes hand-in-hand with being human.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
The balance, the dignity and defiance in those lines gave me great focus to face the loss.
Why do you write?
It’s a very cheap form of self-medication that keeps me sane and constantly helps me to remember that being here is special and should not to be taken for granted. It helps me to find links between aspects of being alive and often it helps me to see life more clearly. Poems have helped me to discover things about myself and have also helped me to temporarily reclaim moments from my life that I want to keep in focus.
I love that feeling when a poem starts to form and you go hunting for pen and paper. The agitation, the disturbance, the excitement that writing a poem brings is hard to describe. I also love that unique, brief sense of equilibrium that returns shortly after the writing of a poem.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Don’t see publication solely as the end goal when you are involved in the writing process. Be patient. Bide your time. Let your poems grow from draft to draft. When they are ready, let them go. Letting them go too soon is like sending a twelve year old out to an over eighteen disco. Their time will come.
Write about what you know and who you know. Write because you enjoy it and try to be as honest to yourself as possible. Be genuine. If you can, keep a routine. A writer is, after all, someone who writes, not someone who just thinks and talks about it. There will be many off days when you doubt your work but that goes with the territory.