Family Dramas, Act One: The Glynn-Kanes

Whatever time the “boys” got home for dinner,
dinner would be ready, because something gray
was always bobbing in a long slow simmer

on the gas stove next to the electric wringer
my aunt had won (for once) on opening day
of the A&P that sold the meat for dinner,

boiled past telling was it beef or liver.
Now and then some washed-up horse or grey-
hound won against long odds, and then the simmer

of her long slow anger wouldn’t breach the inner
surface of the cookpot of her rage,
though she’d slam down plates as she dished out dinner,

Grandma eating in her room, having lingered
decades in her “sickbed” since her husband went away
and her heart boiled over from its long slow simmer.

Most nights they’d slink home losers or sinners:
like steak knives and teeth tearing into that gray
sodden mass that was being served up for dinner,
words tried their edges on what had long simmered.

Act Two: The Lynch-Spillanes

Mary on the wall in my grandmother’s room
with a holy palm frond stuck behind the frame
looked like a hussy with an ostrich plume

in her hat, by the dresser with My Sin perfume
and a silver-backed brush; but the walls were quite plain
across the hallway in my grandfather’s room,

and even a child could safely assume
that the bedrooms and silences meant that some shame
still lurked like a hussy in an ostrich plume.

Grandma made Mary Jane cocktails: one teaspoon
of cherry juice making the ginger ale stain,
while Grandpa just yelled at us: “Go to your room,”

when we stepped in his garden or banged out of tune
on his precious piano. “Our room” was the same
that my mother had slept in—its Mary, too, plumed.

Past forty, I learned what they took to their tombs:
once, sent home from school with stomach pains,
my mother found them in the living room,
her mother and the priest, like a bride and groom.

Act Three: The Spillane-Kanes

We three little girls would be sent outside
(she liked to call the street a “cul-de-sac”)
whenever the two of them had to fight,

although we were in our rooms the night
she shattered glass after glass after glass
on the bricks around the fireside—

clutching our teddy bears, terrified—
and even then, their words were held back.
Whenever the two of them had to fight,

We’d take our bikes for a good long ride
or play with our trolls or Mouse the cat,
and it could get dark and cold outside.

We, too, had truths we had to hide:
the times he begged for a loan of cash
from our china pigs (we knew they’d fight

if we told), the times she cried and cried,
and dinner was milk and Sugar Smacks.
Although we were always sent outside,
their words still burned like dead stars’ light.

Act Four: The Cavan-Tyrones

I read that play in high school. Mrs. T.
took morphine, but I knew the family well:
the language of their fights like poetry,

the silences like wind through stunted trees,
the drunken charmers and the n’er-do-wells
who couldn’t charm the bitter Mrs. T.

The backdrop of a gray Atlantic sea,
as cold in August as a heart withheld,
its rhythms those of Irish poetry—

O’Neill’s own family drama spoke to me,
“the ponies’ running like a carousel
whose painted glitter holds out mystery

but finish line becomes infinity,
how habits shape of lives a villanelle,
the repetitions turned to poetry.

I pray to the quatrain to set me free;
we Irish know that language is a spell.
I read that play in high school, Mrs. T.
my fate without the grace of poetry.