Red Ink: Damien Donnelly
This a series where I interview poets about their process and writing in reference to a single poem. Today we have Damien Donnelly, who kindly invited me onto his podcast Eat the Storms in November. Listen to that here. Today we reflect on the writing process of his Pushcart nominated poem, Tattered Brown Trousers.
Tattered Brown Trousers
Father ate all the flowers
in the back garden
because he couldn’t swallow
the promise of happiness
blooming within the home
he couldn’t find his root within.
Father left all the flowers
in the front garden,
too proud for others to see
him pulling from the soil
everything he needed help with
but had never been taught the words for.
Father liked to laugh, first,
when others lost,
so no one could hear his own loss
tearing at him, like weeds twisting
behind the restraints he wore
like his inside-out jumpers
and the tattered brown trousers
he thought no one could see through.
Father ate all the flowers
in the shadows
of the back garden
and choked on a laugh
that no one understood.
DD- This poem seems to stir up the emotions and reactions whenever I read it, including reactions in myself. I could not have penned this poem a few years ago, certainly not when my father was still alive and definitely not when we were still all living under one roof. Distance has been the one good thing to aid in understanding and continuous writing has been a way of self therapy. I have poems from my childhood that I wrote about his strange man who lived in my house, there was no compassion in those lines, only hate and anger. I guess the boy who wasn’t really being seen or didn’t have any way to connect with that stranger who just happened to be my father.
DRL- What was the starting point for this particular poem?
DD- A few years ago I went back to visit my childhood next-door neighbours, the street where I spent the first 18 years of my life. Everyone had moved in at the same time and we all became one big family; apple tarts and stews were shared along with parties and drinks and clothes and laughter. And everything else. When I went back, I was brought upstairs so I could see into my old garden and it was gone, now covered in a practical garden of concrete, no need to tend to the roses or maintain the lawn or sweep up the cherry blossom petals after spring had scattered their illusions.
That visit was the starting point of looking back at what used to grow in that garden, in that house once a home, once both a place I never wanted to leave and also the place I wanted to escape. Familiarity can be comforting even when you’re living in your own closet with a man who has not spoken to you or your mother in 6 months, an annual treat.
But when everything is covered over in such a simple layer of cement it makes it easier to notice the cracks, to see where they lead or where they came from. Cracks rarely appear in the middle of a wall, or a ground, or a marriage, or in the centre of a relationship between a father and his son, they have their own foundations that were laid much earlier than the rest. As a child, there were too many distractions in the garden to notice the questions and pains and depressions lying beneath the petals; lying, growing, spreading out and trying to devour us all.
We were a family, like all the others, coming out the front door wearing broad smiles and polished patent leather shoes but around the back, that was a whole other untended story.
DRL- You described this poem as therapy, was it difficult to write and to deal with the emotions it dredged up for you?
‘I hear your laughter, wish for your tears, remember the cut of your smile…
…your mental torture in a physical form, on the bloody walls of my shell.’
I have notebooks of poetry I wrote when I was a child, the above lines are from a poem called ‘Pain Lunacy Sanity Fear’ from around the age of 15/16. Reading through the notebook now, the poems were deeply smothered in a child’s misunderstanding that they are at the centre of everything and whatever happens around them is integral to them and them alone. I didn’t question anything, in the same wonderful way a child simply believes in elves and fairies and guardian angels and magic. I just accepted. Therefore going back to those same walls and chairs and gardens and roots now is astounding for the boy in me to view them with the comprehension of an adult’s point of view and his knowledge of all the shades in between black and white.
Therapy, which I have had many different forms of, in the many different countries I have called home, is about taking the journey and that journey does not stop when the clock hits the hour. I have spoken to different therapists, in different chairs, under different examining spotlights about the same bruises on my story in the same way that going back to write about those same marks on my mind and memory brings me back to the same point in time but viewed from rather different perspectives. Therefore, it is never really difficult to go back but it is amazing to see what I will bring back with me and how even bruises can take root over time and find a way to flower. Yesterday I put up the Christmas decorations, here in my Mother’s house, and I played the Christmas record album we used to play when I was a child in our own home with my father where there was a lot of happiness too. I have not played that record in over 28 years. Some things bring you back to question and other things bring you back to a dance around the tree.
DRL- It seems like poems like this one are time capsules of experience for you. How much revision do you do to them? Do you prefer to leave alone to capture the thoughts of one time?
A lot of my writing stems from moments that have passed, often the best time to truly judge what has taken place is when that moment finds its final home in the memory and enough distance has been given to it so you can look back with a slight impartiality, as if you were catching someone else’s memory and can see it from more angles.
I really enjoy re-examining events through poetry, even varying moods within a single day can alter your perspective enormously; somethings are forgotten while other things that were missed in the chaos come gently to the surface of the mind and trigger a whole new flow of thought. Our lives are full of many stories and I think those stories can be told in many ways and time can be the biggest influence on how we tell them, so for me, going back, dusting, watching and listening again is part of the process for writing poetry.
We are in a constant state of revision; from hairdos to clothes, to scents, arms that hold us, roots that strangle us and beds that entangle us. It seems only fitting that my writing also faces the same scrutiny and update.
DRL- I love what you say about us being in a constant state of revision. We’re a palimpsest in that way.
Do you tend to write only when these memories present themselves or do you have more of a regular practice?
DD- I don’t really have a regular routine. Sometimes my mind rambles and the pen just follows. Sometimes I take a photograph that inspires a feeling and later a memory winds its way into something that was formerly not connected, or at least I didn’t see the link at the time but I think there are sparks always igniting between past and present, lighting things that we missed before. I say that my mind wanders, that the pen just follows but I think there is a subconscious thread linking the flow, it’s just I’m not quick enough to catch it immediately. Sometimes, I am inspired by a word, or a sentence that someone said on the radio, I don’t have any idea what will become of that word or that sentence but it will be the beginning of a journey to somewhere. That’s what I love about writing poetry as opposed to a book; you need a certain structure for a book, an outline and character development but a poem can start at the edge of the sea and work its way organically into a chocolate factory without having to really explain how you got there. It’s all part of the magic. Prose, of course, has that magic in other ways but poetry is allowed to flutter about quite easily like a dream we don’t quite understand but also don’t want to be woken from.
DRL- How have other people’s reactions changed the meaning of this poem for you?
DD- I don’t know if I can say that their reactions changed the poem for me as much as it might have opened a train of thought within others in terms of looking back and seeing things that we missed before, opportunities to ask questions, solutions behind the silences. But I grew up as a child of the 80’s and even though it wasn’t the 1880’s, men still went to work, brought home a pay check, drove the car and watched the news. That was their role. Ireland was and, at times, still is a very matriarchal society. It is run by the wives and mothers and grandmothers while the brothers and fathers and sons all think they have free rein but the women give it to them, it wasn’t free and they pulled it back in whenever it was needed elsewhere and that was often.
Women made the house and home and dinner and chatted about their lives and loves and worries. The men fell asleep and their feelings where never top priority. I think if I wasn’t a writer, I would have missed all this, these observations, but when you grow up as a shy child you see much more than the conversation hoggers who are too busy being centre of attention to actually hear the things that are not being said.
I was also a gay boy growing up in the 80’s and 90’s and therefore I knew about fake smiles and pretence and playing at being happy. I think that also makes it easier to see the shadows others are trying to cover over with a blinding light. Writing makes you question everything and it has taken years to dig down to the truth, or at least as close as I can come to the truth of the possibility that was eaten. And I have to accept that, that there is a limit to how much I can know, now. My father is dead, and so is his real truth. But then again, I also grew up as an adopted child, which means I already knew what it was like to be allowed to know only so much and have a blind faith in the rest. One day I might be able to ask more questions to those who gave me life, but for now I have my pen and poetry and occasionally a therapist if needed. I used to be very worried about what other people thought, but that changed as I grew up, I spent 10 years keeping my sexuality a secret. I have had enough of hiding. I don’t believe there is anything harmful in what I write but I do accept that it is not always comfortable for people to read it, then again, they can always turn the page.
Damien, 45, returned to Ireland in 2019 after 23 years in Paris, London and Amsterdam, working in the fashion industry. His writing focuses on identity, sexuality and fragility. His daily interests revolve around falling over and learning how to get back up while baking cakes.
His short stories have been featured in A Page from My Life/Harper Collins, Body Horror/Gehenna & Hinnom and Coffin Bell. His poetry has appeared in Eyewear, The Runt, Black Bough, Barren Magazine, Impspired, Neruological, Fahmidan Journal, Prismatica and Anti-Heroin Chic. His debut poetry pamphlet Eat the Storms was published by The Hedgehog Press in Sept 2020. He hosts the weekly poetry podcast Eat The Storms and is currently working on his 1st full collection which will be a poetic/photographic diary of living with Paris.
He blogs his poetry and photography at https://deuxiemepeaupoetry.com/ His podcast website and poetry book review blog is https://eatthestorms.com/ Instagram: @damiboy and @eatthestorms Twitter: @deuxiemepeau Tiktok: @eatthestorms YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/deuxiemepeau