Our featured publication for September is After the Riot by Neil Young, published by Nine Pens.
‘After the Riot’ is both elegaic and defiant. The poems begin by revisiting a Belfast doorway where ‘no-one has kicked the carpet dust in forty years’, then open out to explore themes of migration, displacement, war, legacies of violence and loss but – ultimately – regeneration. They unravel instants, or snapshots, as stories, and are acutely concerned with the struggle for memory, amidst myth-making, as our personal and political histories collide.
“Neil Young recalls themes with which, you’d hope, our children will find it difficult to connect: war, sectarianism, poverty. I’ve always thought the job of a poet wasn’t to secure sales, workshops or honours but to memorialise their people. Young tells the story of his people frankly, brutally even, but with grace, skill and humanity – love, in fact.” Hugh McMillan.
“A socialist poet par excellence. His poems have that rare and authentic quality of the best of folk music” Brian Patten.
In time…… they all stopped here,
those folk we called our family or made-up clan,
from half-a-half-cousins to uncles of aunts,
sailors and navvies with oversized yarns,
women in floral 60s skirts and head-scarves
who got their bags from the market stalls.
They wiped their feet on the front-door mat,
all their histories passed that spot
then filtered through to the living-room fire
and kitchen thick with tea and talk.
This was my mother’s refuge from Orangedom,
she carried her Dickens hardbacks from Yorkshire to Belfast
as if their touch might be her last thread to a civilised world.
My father – once the latchkey kid – stood on the landing
in dripping overalls when I was born
halfway through his evening shift.
He’d ran three miles in a deluge, swerving cars and buses
from the gasworks to Ballyscillan’s new estate.
Granny Lizzie arrived with a cough that stuck
like knotted rope to her lungs from 1920s TB;
my grandad like a stray dog with his whisky eyes;
his own father in final years, tramping brogues on twisted legs
that once had moved loose-knee across the Somme.
These men who tripped from war to civil war and back –
they palmed their curses onto their daughters and sons.
Here as well the priest-afflicted neighbours sang at new year,
my mother slipped them cake and clothes
in hushed insistence at the door, my brothers
larked with me in Liverpool shirts for our first Kodacolour snap.
And then, as fleet as shadows, they were gone
though they brought all this land’s fierce history to a single spot:
half myth, half real, troublesome and warm,
too proud and fast to grievance, garrulous and thrawn,
god-drunk and heathen, intoxicating with their strange lyric tongue.
I hold them bitter-sweet as a song I did not know I’d memorised
though forty years have passed since anyone kicked the carpet dust
and I am all of that house that now is left.
After the Riot
The teapot still touch-warm from hours before,
slops of leaves in cups and tumblers whisky-wet
where I now wiped my finger, tasted life, that heated life
that hurried in for refuge through the door.
Ashtrays packed, some butts half-smoked
and cirrus of last night’s smoke where loud hushed talk
was not supposed to stir the little ones upstairs.
Black-stained clothes lay dumped on a chair,
their smell stretched from the front room to back gate
where others had slipped homewards after dark.
While adults slept, I took their empty space
as if enacting my small part in a wordless pact:
I washed the cups and glasses, emptied butts
and threw the bloodied tissues in the grate.
To the Young Woman Who Wrote Her Number on My Left Thigh on the Nightclub
Stairs in Cushendall, September 1994
If I hadn’t been so hasty to take a shower
I’d’ve called, you would have been in,
I’d’ve have caught the train to Dublin
the next weekend,
we’d have met under Clerys Clock,
you’d have mistaken me briefly
for someone exotic,
introduced me to your five brothers as a friend
you were showing round town.
We’d have inter-railed
and slept on beer-sticky floors,
you’d have fled your horrified parents
so we could share a flat in Camden.
By now we’d have our own
fridge magnet collection,
hate each other,
you’d be blaming me
for the baby out of marriage
that heaped eternal shame
on your god-fearing folks back home,
we’d be getting divorced,
feuding over money and the kid.
Or by some unlikely fluke of luck
one of us might be well-paid,
we’d be making an annual pilgrimage
where we’ll get pissed in Johnnie-Joe’s,
you’d make a ritual
of writing on my inner thigh –
or someone else’s thigh,
a young feller’s who skipped the shower
and took the train to Dublin.
I’ll catch you on the rebound.
There was this feller, a dad he was.
Don’t ask me why he was there
but not to protest against war, I’m guessing,
unless a sleeping bairn in a pram was his covert weapon,
because just as the riot broke out and people
were scattering, charging, surging, trampling everywhere
and smoke bombs thickened, flames were rising
and up on the wall of the US embassy three masked
demonstrators were strutting, burning the Stars and Stripes
to the roar and salutes of the crowd, and just
as we could hear the first incoming clatter of hooves
he was right in front of me, lifting the pram.
And me and two women without any prompting
grabbed an end each and hoisted the wean
– still sleeping through the whole shebang –
onto the pavement beside the side-street
and then the dad was shouting, stranded,
so all of us lifted him, he was crowd-surfed
to the edge of the riot, and smiling, laughing, thanking us
as he was planted down with his child, then hurrying off
from the scene. And that was the instant I hunched down low
just in time to miss the shattering glass from the pub windows
and the Robocops as they zig-zagged on the street
and swiped through bodies and smoke;
and it makes me wonder, these many years later,
why it was so easy to lift a small child
backwards in a pram through a riot
when millions, millions of us, couldn’t stop a war.
Neil Young hails from west Belfast (1964 batch) and now lives in north-east Scotland. He worked as a labourer, kitchen porter and stage-hand before becoming a journalist and going on to report from New York post 9/11 to the Gaza Strip. Neil’s publications include Lagan Voices (Scryfa, 2011), The Parting Glass – Fourteen Sonnets (Tapsalteerie, 2016), Jimmy
Cagney’s Long-Lost Kid Half-Brother (Black Light Engine Room, 2017), and Shrapnel (Poetry Salzburg, 2019). A new pamphlet, After the Riot, is forthcoming (Nine Pens, ninepens.co.uk). Neil co-founded The Poets’ Republic magazine and Drunk Muse Press.
After the Riot is available to purchase from the Nine Pens website.