Here’s a girl from a dangerous town.
She crops her dark hair short
so that less of her has to frown
when someone gets hurt.
She folds her memories like a parachute.
Dropped, she collects the peat
and cooks her veggies at home: they shoot
here where they eat.
(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)
Joseph Brodsky, 1986
In 1986 the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, exasperated with the bitter sectarian conflict between the IRA and the British State, the tension between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and the rather glum (though actually very good) verse of the province’s own poets, and the weather, commissioned the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky to write a cheerful poem that would attract tourists to the embattled corner of the Emerald Isle. Their thinking was, no matter how tense and unhappy he found the situation in the six counties, it would still be nice in comparison with the repression and misery of life under Soviet communism. Brodsky duly obliged and wrote the above poem, cheerfully entitled ‘Belfast Tune’.
Alright, I made that up. Brodsky was not commissioned to write this poem, and the poem, bristling with tension and threat, is by no means as cheerful as the title suggests (I wonder if the misleading title is in homage to Seamus Heaney, who also loves darkly ironic titles). Still, doesn’t he paint a rather fetching picture of this Belfast lass? For me, there is something very appealing about’ a girl’ from a dangerous town’ (my wife is from Seoul, since you’re asking – which may have a low crime rate, but is targeted by 11,000 or so ballistic missiles as well as a couple of nukes). Perhaps it’s that femininity cut with an edge of violence, or that mix of homeliness and fortitude, captured in that skirt ‘cut to catch the squall’.
The imagery in the poem is infused with double meanings and dark ambiguity, usually with a twist of gallows humour; being from the Soviet Union, Brodsky was adept at blending menace and humour. The second stanza for example conjures up two images at once: a conventional image of traditional rural Irish life, a girl cooking with their own vegetables (which ‘shoot’ from the ground), after cutting peat for fuel (a common substitute for coal in peat-rich Ireland); and the precarious life of a girl who shops in an area in which shootings have taken place.
You have to admire Brodsky’s facility for double meanings in what was his second language. His poetry, both that in English and that translated from Russian, often by Brodsky himself, is well worth seeking out. Read about his life too: there are some startling moments, including being exiled to the arctic circle by the Soviet authorities for ‘social parasitism’, that is too much time sitting around writing poetry being of no use to the workers’ society – and they call our current welfare reforms harsh!