EXTERNAL AFFAIRS /
O’Neill’s Music of Ireland

 

When you play this air I live again in every breath,
In how you bend a note, in how our fingers overlap
A century apart, bound together by incomprehensible
Sets of squiggles a Chicago Police Chief jotted down
After I helped unload a cargo steamer on the wharf.

The longshoremen tipped me a wink to take a break
Because they were in awe of Chief O’Neill’s uniform
And relieved that he had not come to arrest anyone.
How cold the tin whistle felt as I took it from my shirt,
Blowing away ice with a blast that seemed to summon

Fellow Irish dock workers who clustered, bewildered
That such a big brass would waste his time to record
Some inconsequential tune I first heard as a child,
So long ago I’d almost lost the memory of being scared
At a wake until a woman soothed me, humming its air.

Some immigrants argued about the tune’s real name,
Others grew angry, urging me to play a music hall song,
As if I was dragging us back to the poverty we fled from.
They stood, cowed and sullen, as if accused of a crime
Best forgotten, with my notes taken down in evidence.

The notes I played that afternoon on the freezing wharf,
The notes a woman crooned to a scared boy at a wake,
The notes a cop pressed between the pages of his book,
The notes you now play, the notes you unconsciously hum
When you pace the floor at night, soothing your infant son.

 

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