By Patrick Hicks
Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1994
The Rover yelped to a stop—no skitter, just two rubbermarks,
a lopsided equal sign between disagreeing poles.
The backdoor swung open and the police,
in full riot gear, leaped to the asphalt.
I stood smoking, words choking in my mouth,
watching my Belfast breath, its smokestacks busy,
its bonfires and bunting at the ready.
As they ran into the newsagent everyone moved away, suspecting a bomb,
but I, still smoking, still transfixed, listened to the Rover’s radio crackle,
as if it were underwater or sleeping in amniotic fluid—
the paint-bombs and scorches of last night tattooed onto its grey skin.
Then the police, talking of their children,
left the shop holding bags of sweets—
nourishment for the long night of riot-control ahead.
I imagined them in their armoured box,
petrol-bombs sunbursting against their cramped fortress,
eating sweets, wishing they were elsewhere.
With mouths honeyed by gobstoppers they would wait,
suck on their planets of peaceful childhood,
and concentrate on their busy tongues.
The whoosh-crack against the metallic womb of the Rover,
they would sit in the dark, waiting,
waiting, like all of us for that moment
when we are birthed into the world:
sweets spat out, the doors explode open.
in this heavy twilight,
in this malnourished city,
I hear the Rover gear-shift up the barren street,
and watch discarded sweets-wrappers dance away.
Poet’s Commentary: While the political nightmare of Northern Ireland’s slow burning civil war is often reduced to the easy labels of “Catholic” and “Protestant,” it involved far more than a theological dispute. At the heart of the Troubles were questions of nationalism, self-determination, and voting rights. Between 1969-1998, nearly everyone in Belfast was affected by violence, bomb scares, and terror. The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation created ecclesiastical division across Europe in 1517, and the Troubles offer a sobering example of how these old animosities can still be alive and well. Even though Northern Ireland is at peace today, these labels are still used and everyone is quietly alert to subtle differences in background, neighborhood, and culture. The police, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was overwhelmingly Protestant, and they were seen by the Catholic community as colluding with the British government. No doubt at times this was true. This poem is based upon an actual event. In 1994, on a night when the riots between Catholics and Protestants promised to be terrible, I was walking through the city centre of Belfast when an RUC Land Rover pulled over.
Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Collector of Names, Adoptable, and This London—he also wrote the critically acclaimed novel, The Commandant of Lubizec. His poetry has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, The PBS NewsHour, and American Life in Poetry, and his first novel was selected for National Reading Group Month and listed as a Top Pick for First Year College Programs. He has received honors and awards from the Bush Artist Foundation, the Loft Literary Center, the South Dakota Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A dual-citizen of Ireland and America, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University (Sioux Falls, SD), as well as a faculty member in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
*The poem was originally published in The Iconoclast and then reprinted for a limited edition chapbook entitled, The Kiss That Saved My Life: Seven Poems from Northern Ireland (Red Dragonfly Press). Used by permission of the author.