Poem Of The Week: Dead Man's Shirt, by Stephen James Smith
This week's Poem Of The Week, presented in association with Poetry Ireland, is Dead Man’s Shirt by Stephen James Smith, who recently curated and performed at Swift's Vision, the 350th Birthday concert as part of the inaugural Jonathan Swift Festival.
'This poem was written in 2015 in the London Irish Centre.
I was kindly asked over to do a gig by Gary Dunne. I had recently gone through a breakup and I was a bit low. My ex’s uncle had passed away and I was given some of his shirts. He was originally from Limerick but had moved to the UK and I felt it was fitting to wear one of his shirts to this gig in the LIC, as it’s a journey I’d imagine he would’ve made. I had wanted to write about how much the items of clothing I got meant to me and I wanted to write about the breakup somehow but I could never find the right way to say it. After having arrived a bit too early for the gig I’d sat down to do some emails only to find out the wifi in the Irish centre wasn’t working. In that moment sitting and having time to reflect on how I felt this poem came out.
Then in 2016 Gary kind as ever asked me over again to perform as part of the Céad Festival event. This time I took the wonderful director Myles O’Reilly with me and he filmed this video in the room where I wrote the poem. My ex had asked me never to name her in a poem. Wanting to respect this but not just call her ‘her’ in the poem, I thought a quote at the beginning might give her voice. Well it’s what I’m attempting to do anyway. Katherine Minola from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew seemed apt also.
While the poem is two years old and the video was filmed over a year ago, it only seems appropriate to release it now...'
"My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
or else my heart concealing it will break."
Katherine Minola - The Taming of the Shrew
Terry’s cotton shirt is pressed on my back,
he passed last October
this my memento of a dead man
her uncle, whom I never met.
We joked that if we broke-up
I’d have to give back his shirts, yet
we’ve parted a month ago and here I am
in the London Irish Centre, still draped in him.
I wanted to have a Mulqueen’s presence
again in this place, on these foreign shores,
a little piece of Limerick in London,
the diaspora returned so to speak.
Bringing together tributaries contributing
from the Shannon & Thames with names
of all the other ghosts washed away,
washed-up, overseas, submerged.
I can’t help but feel connected
to this stranger, this Terry. At first
I was very hesitant about taking his shirts,
being conscious of his son’s refusal first.
Yet they fitted me perfectly,
and now they connect me to her too.
Engulfing my torso in the way
I crave to wrap around her.
Was this the shirt he wore
when his heart failed him?
in the Caribbean, under a beating sun
in Hell or Barbados…
Did he dance with Wendy his wife in this shirt?
Holding her close, head pressed on chest,
where her eardrum would beat to
the God-given rhythm pulsing in him.
Before it stopped. Like I wish her head
was pressed on my chest now. Listening
to my valves opening, forcing this blood,
this oxygen, this breath around me, as once in Terry.
Where did he go? What did he do in it?
Watch Eastenders, fish, play cards,
have a shit, eat soup, shave and so forth…
there’s so much I don’t know and probably never will
now. So I wear this shirt to keep him alive in me,
somehow. Seemingly stitching together some meaning.