STANZAS TO SAVE LIVES

“I wish I could be paid to think.”

Such is the only sentence I recall saying during my first encounter with Irish poet Tony Curtis in 1988. I was a 19-year-old studying in Paris on a semester-abroad program. My first time in Europe came with the life-changing fortune of meeting three generations of Dublin cousins. Tony is married to my cousin Mary.

Tony Curtis.

I was sitting on the floor with Tony, Mary, and their four-year-old son, Oisin, with whom I have grown quite close over the years. If memory recalls, a fire kept us warm. While I don’t remember what Tony read, his presence — his ability to make a living as a writer, to achieve international renown as a poet — further emboldened my love of literature.

O’Dowd’s Irish heritage: honoring poet Tony Curtis and suicide-prevention charity Pieta House. April 24, 2017

Throughout the years, our families have exchanged visits across the Atlantic and Tony’s books, too. When my father, Jerome John O’Dowd, died on March 16, 2009, the day before Saint Patrick’s day, we planned an Irish funeral. For my eulogy I read Tony’s poem “The Journey Home,” which he had written in memory of Mary’s father, Gus Canavan:

The Journey Home (from the book Three Songs from Home, 1998)

Some mornings

from my window

I can hear,

high up in the mountains,

the bell the monks ring

to call them to pray

for who they were,

who they are,

and who they will become,

on the journey home.

And some mornings

I join them in prayer,

imagining my own journey:

how far I’ve travelled

with so much baggage.

But the higher I’ve climbed

into the mountains,

the more I have discarded.

Let me tell you why I’ve come

to this ledge on a mountain,

this window on the snow-line:

it is to meet the ghost

who lives inside me,

a man or woman I have not

seen for centuries, whose face,

whose voice, whose touch

I have forgotten,

but who knows my fear.

This soul who holds a bell for me,

that, at my last breath,

he’ll ring to guide me.


Nearly seven years later, on December 29, 2015, my mother Ruthie Holthouse O’Dowd died in our home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As her death loomed, with my dad’s passing on my mind, I wrote a poem for the funeral:

Train Rides

I.

Mother and I hop off at summertime.

We’re home from a day at the pool.

The swing hanging from the maple

sways in the breeze

as we come up the back walk.

She makes me cinnamon toast

to tide me over.

Buttery-soft-sugary-warm —

I eat on the shady porch,

wiping my fingers on my bathing suit.

It’s quiet but for the flirting of birds

and boys on bicycles.

As my tummy warms to the food,

I feel the sensation of being clean

down to the whites of my toenails —

that’s what our days swimming do.

I watch her make dinner

through the window screen.

II.

We enter gay Paris,

mother and me.

The smells and sounds are new —

“World, how do you do?”

We eat cheese sandwiches

in the park by the Picasso museum.

We’re there to celebrate another year.

She writes,

“Soar on your swing,”

on my birthday card.

III.

Emboldened, I take the wheel —

life’s unqualified conductor.

Miscalculations lead us into a storm.

“Stay strong,” she says.

“Smile through the rain.”

“I’ll try, Mom,” I say,

“but it’s hard to mirror you.

At times my mind

is a box of dusty papers.

You are always in bloom.”

IV.

The train’s wheels approach

from the East.

In the living room,

on a hospice bed,

where the wingback chairs used to be,

she lies, barely moving.

“Wasn’t it fine,”

she says in her lucid moments,

letting each visitor

take her hand

for a requiem of block parties,

beach vacations and hockey games,

of Chuck Mangione’s trumpet

playing from speakers

on the neighbor’s front porch.

“There were grand moments like that.”

V.

She boards,

outside our house,

for the final ride.

I sprint alongside,

lengthening my stride to keep up.

Stay strong through the storm.

Smile through the rain.

I say,

“Just one more time,

one more time,

the warm hand.”

The pavement under my feet

gives way to a field

of wild grasses and sunflowers.

The train curves at the bend —

I lose sight.

Her window has become

the screen window of my mind.

I know she’s waving.

I’m sure.

And so we find ourselves in April 2017. I am thrilled to participate in Operating Systems’ Sixth Annual Poetry Month 30/30 by honoring Tony Curtis, the author of 12 books, who according to The Irish Times, “lives on the borderline between our world and the world of the Spirits.” His most recent book, Approximately in the Key of C, has just been published by ARC Publications. You can learn more about Tony and find links for purchasing his other works at tonycurtisirishpoet.com.


A note from the editors

Literati Magazine is happy to support international fundraising efforts to benefit suicide-prevention charity Pieta House.

In our first article, Sally O’Dowd profiled Joan Freeman, the organization’s founder who was recently appointed to the Irish Senate.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress — or if you would like to donate to help Pieta expand its therapeutic services — then please visit www.pietahouse.org (NYC) or www.pieta.ie (Ireland).


This essay was originally published by The Operating System as part of April’s National Poetry Month in the U.S. http://bit.ly/sallyodowdpoetrymonth Literati below includes my poetry reading, dedicated to suicide-prevention charity Pieta House. — Sally O’Dowd

Sally O’Dowd is a corporate communications professional in the advertising and media industry. She self-published Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World, a multimedia e-zine dedicated to the fundamental human right to free expression. After her mother’s funeral, she went on to write a poetry series, Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Other Tales of Love and Loss. You can find it on Literati Magazine on Medium here.