Poem by Paul McMahon (Ireland)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 49
Sailors on the Banks of the Tiber
Eight a.m., early December, Rome.
I huddled in the frozen dawn
around the soup kitchen door
as the jostling crowd cursed
the false heat and slow rise of the sun.
When the door finally creaked open
we all shuffled in. Some entered
as they do everywhere, others were crouched over,
or thief-quick but everyone was smiling.
In the food-line, a middle-aged prostitute
winked unconfident blue and red eyelids at me
before turning to the hatch, slamming the counter
until two arms and the reluctant tray
finally slipped through the faceless frame.
She turned away, shrugging her spoon through the soup,
working through the noodles and the softening bread.
The queue thins,
as does everything.
Even here some are only listened to
by an audience of eye-corners.
Outside, the cobble is thawing,
deflowered and canine.
In here, arthritis and broken bones act as weather stations,
twitching in changing humidity.
Stories arrive, shouted over tables, through the din,
washed down with wood-wine.
When the soup is gone
hemming and hawing
through puffed clouds of tobacco smoke.
One old man at the table next to me
is silently shaking in shock,
his fingers grip the edge of his seat
in a doomed dovetail,
his crow’s eyes are shot –
he couldn’t take a joke:
five minutes ago
during a moment
of pin-drop silence
his table was violently slammed.
The soup kitchen is still
with the booms
of homeless laughter.
The shaking old man
is not alone at sea –
all of us in this room
are drowned sailors
washed up on the exposed
banks of the Tiber.
Paul McMahon lives in Cork. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Stinging Fly, Atlanta Review, The Salt Anthology of New Writing (2013), The Montreal International Poetry Prize Global Anthology (2013), Agenda, The Moth, The Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Southword, Poetry Saltzburg Review, Crabcreek Review, Crannog, Ambit, Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, and others. His poetry has also been broadcast on RTE Radio.
He has won a number of prizes for poetry including The Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize (2015), The Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize (2011), The Nottingham Poetry Open (2012), The Westport Arts Festival Poetry Competition (2012), The Golden Pen Poetry Prize (2011), second prize in The Basil Bunting Poetry Award (2012), second in The International Salt Prize for Poetry (2013), an Arts Bursary award, for poetry, from The Arts Council of Ireland, and a SIAP bursary Award, for poetry, from The Arts Council of N. Ireland.
His unpublished debut poetry collection, The Girl with Drowned Sailors in her Eyes, was a finalist in the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Prize (2015), shortlisted for The Listowel Poetry Collection Prize (2015), and was given a Special Commendation in The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award (2015).
Image: "Turkey Leg Bone" by Handarmdoc.