‘It all depends on your point of view / but from mine – and I know that men / can mistake colours and shades / – from mine the new suspen- / sion bridge at Toome is puce,’ begins Tom Paulin’s wry ‘A Spruce New Colour.’ Both sides of the Irish border, colour indicates religion, politics, tribe, and Paulin’s McCloud-like speculation about whether the new bridge is puce or an effeminate, scented lavender is comically absurd. The West Belfast joke was that other people had to turn on the television to watch the news while they just had to step outside. You could tell where you were by the colour of the kerbstones, and there was no confusing colour in the old Ireland: it was gloss and was applied to concrete straight from the tin.
Paulin presents a North embracing progress and property development: if you build it, they will come. Standing at the counter of a Belfast tourist centre, I asked what is actually in the Titanic Quarter. I mean, the ship’s at the bottom of the Atlantic, right? (Reader, beware towns newly hung, drawn and quartered by the same, sad, off the shelf marketing). The girl’s conflicted eyes bounced around their sockets as she told me, under the gaze of her supervisor, that it was well worth a visit: history and identity are being reinvented north of the border. Paulin’s shiny new puce or lavender bridge ‘brings the new long overdue bypass / across the River Bann / like a curved – curved or semi-circular / Jacob’s Ladder,’ yet he wishes ‘to drive through the village again / and see the old bridge,’ escaping the province’s property developer induced amnesia. The old bridge echoes from my childhood memory in the lyrics of the troublingly jaunty Roddy McCorley, an account of the allegedly Prebyterian rebel’s defiant march to the gallows.
The poem’s whimsical, interior designer’s opening is transformed in a shot into something darker. The gothic presence of the ‘barracks behind high walls’ creates the mise en scène of The Troubles, and hidden under the dark reach of the bastion is ‘the poster of the hunger striker / – young – thin beard – Kevin Lynch – tied high on a lamp post.’ A hunger striker he might have been, but the symbolism is inescapable. A rebel hangs on a bridge where a rebel was hanged in 1800, a bridge that Paulin sometimes feels the wish to see again, a history he feels the need to acknowledge, even in the new Ireland.
Love’s Bonfire is light of touch, delicate and disarming. In the past, I never really felt that I got on with Paulin the poet. It was all a bit too clever, too knowing. However, these poems are real growers and present a recognisable snapshot of the new North.