This room in this old house, built in 1742, is where Johnny Igoe only ate oatmeal in the morning, a boiled potato and a shot of whiskey for lunch. Here he found Yeats’ voice to be his own, that marvelous treble and clutter of breath buried in it, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” popping free like electricity or the very linnets themselves, Maude like some creature I’d surely come to know.
Johnny Igoe wrote his poems here, and yielded me Yeats and Mulrooney and Padraic Gibbons out of the long rope of his memory, the knots untied every Saturday evening of his life and mine. Also, he launched many of my own poems here, by the dozens, and who, at the end, at 97, stained, shaking, beard gone to lengthy hoarfrost, potato drivel not quite lost in it, giving me that eye alive to this day, sounds out in his own way.
The saga of Johnny Igoe is the epic of a nation; The root cell—Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down; sick in the hold of ghostly ship I later saw from high rock on Cobh’s coast, in the hold heard the myths and music he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror of hers last touching his face. Pendalcon’s grace comes on us all at the end.
Johnny Igoe came alone at ten and made his way across Columbia, got my mother who got me and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia would need my hand and I must give. And one night in Korea, in 1951, I said, “Columbia, I am here with my hands and with my rags of war.”
As far back as I go he is there with great white beard and cane of holly that swung in circles at slim ankles, and the reaching hands of sisters and brothers. Perhaps he wrote The Roscommon Emigrant that he recited for us in the quiet kitchen at night in winter. I am not sure, but he wound the isle about us, and teased with his fairies and the names like “Ross, Culleen and Clooniquin.” “Though adopted by Columbia I am Erin’s faithful child.”
He had bent his back in Pennsylvania’s mines and Illinois’ and swung a hammer north of Boston, poled his star-lit way down the Erie Canal, and died in bed. His years are still with me in the wind he breathed and storms he stood against and earth he pounded with his fist to fill the mouths of his children and my mother. When he was lonely he was hurt and sometimes feared the pain he could not feel because he knew it and knew how it came; and said man had to think hard and often to be wise and nothing was useless to man: not a sliver of wood because it makes a toothpick; not a piece of glass broken from a wine-red bottle because it catches sun and makes wonder; not a stray stone or brick because it is a wedge or wall-part or corner like one, the first or the last, put to the foundation of the old gray house that clings to the light and had wide windows and doors that were never locked.
On snow-bound mornings he laughed with us when daylight sought us eagerly and in cricket nights of softness that spoiled kneeling prayers. Sometimes his soft eyes were sad while we laughed, and didn’t know about the man down the street or the boy who died racing black-horse train against young odds.
His prayers were not an interlude with God: they were as sacred as breathing, as vital as the word. And the politicians never got his vote because he knew the pain they intended and he hated hurt. Hated hurt. The floorboards creaked beneath him in the mornings and he brought warmth into chilled rooms and coffee slipped its aroma between secret walls to waken us.
The oats were heavy and creamed in large white bowls, and “Go easy on the sugar,” was the bugle call of dawn. His books had a message that he heard, alone, quiet, singing with the life he knew was near past and yet beginning. He pampered and petted them like he did Grandma, and spent secret hours with them and lived them with us rehearsing our life to come, and teaching us.
Then, a high-biting, cold spring day in 1955 I knew would be memorial, the sun but snippets, ice still hiding out in shadow, winter remnants piled up in a great gathering, me bound to a shovel for the tenth day in a row. That’s when I heard of Johnny Igoe’s death in his 97th year. Grass and buds and shoots and sprigs of all kinds were aimless as April. All vast morning I’d hunted the sun, tried to place it square on my back. But the breeze taunted, left a taste in my mouth. Sullivan Marino, brother-in-law, boss who loved the shovel, sweat, doing the Earth over, walked at me open as a telegram. Sicilian eyes tell stories, omit nothing in the relation.
“Your grandfather’s dead,” he said.
He was vinegar and oil and reached for my shovel. It would not leave my hands; I saw Johnny Igoe at ten at turf cutting, just before he came this way with the great multitude. I saw how he too moved the ponderous earth, the flame of it caught in iron, singing tea, singeing the thatch, young Irish scorching the ground he walked. He had come here and I came, and I went there, later, to where he’d come from; Roscommon’s sweet vale, slow rush of land, shouldering up, going into sky, clouds shifting selves like pieces at chess, earth ripening to fire. I saw it all, later, where he’d come from, but then, sun-searching, memorializing, Sullivan quickly at oil and odds, his hand out to take our tool away, could stand no dalliance the day Johnny Igoe died.
He had poled his star-lit way down the Erie Canal. Swung a sledge in Illinois.A hammer north of Boston. Managed a dump in Malden, MA. Scoured for books with broken backs and spines, but firm of page. Read their stories to us gathered on our knees, faces upon his face, eyes on his tongue., stretched to hear every word of his created stories spinning life and magic into our minds. Died in bed. But the tobacco smell still lives in this room. His books still live, his chair, his cane, the misery he knew, the pain, and somewhere he is.
He might be housed in this computer, for now he visits, or never leaves, Yeats on record but the voice is my grandfather’s voice, the perky treble, the deft reach inside me, the lifting out, the ever lifting out. In the dark asides before a faint light glimmers it is the perky pipe’s glow I see, weaker than a small and struck match but illuminating all the same. I smell the old Edgeworth tobacco faint as a blown cloud in the air, the way a hobo might know a windowed apple pie from afar, and I hear his rocking chair giving rhythm to my mind, saying over and over again the words he left with hard handles on them for my grasping.
I never knew my paternal grandfather or maternal grandmother, but loved every minute with my paternal grandmother, the bookbinder for 60 years, and my maternal grandfather, the storyteller of a lifetime.
Once I know, they held hands.
I wondered what or who they celebrated.