A Poem from Jim McElroy’s award-winning collection, We Are The Weather, has been shortlisted for Irish Poem of The Year. Jim was asked to reflect on his journey to writing ‘Unmaking His Chair’.
As a boy, one of the closest moments I had with my father, Bernard, was standing beside him in the loft of our farm in the Mournes, County Down, watching him remake the timber of a fallen ash into the armchair that he sat on. To my childhood eye he seemed indestructible. Tall, broad-shouldered, hard-working, a man of few words: like having your own John Wayne to follow around the yard. It was a shock to get my mother’s call thirty two years ago, telling me to ‘come quick, your father was up in the field digging and he just dropped dead’.
I’ve always wanted to pay tribute to him and in my semi-retirement I began to write as a way of remembering, of saying thanks. My chapbook, We Are The Weather, is dedicated to him. Having left the farm for University and a life away, I only recently learnt that my father gave his chair to a younger brother, PJ, convinced that its firmness would sort out his bad back. A few years ago, Uncle PJ gifted it back to me at a family gathering.
Like myself, it’s a little shorter in the leg now. PJ clamped it in the vice and shaved a mill off the legs, maintaining it was ‘coggly’ when he got it. Our 93 year old mother insists PJ’s floor must have been off, that it sat level when it left her kitchen.
Its return triggered memories. The loft light shone on Dad’s overalls and his rolled up sleeves as he toiled to give us our own seats at the dinner table, his narrowing eye gauging the straighter branches; the rasp and pant of the saw blade, the scrape of the plane shaving off the bark, reducing its trunk to the frame, the legs and their dowel rods; the winter sunlight filtering the gable window, flickering on the shavings, glinting in the bevel of his chisel. He dispatched me on the bus to Ballynahinch to buy the rolls of hemp that were woven into the roped seat.
The scent of his sweat, the anisette aroma of his pipe smoke mingling with the sniffs of linseed, resin, glue, still hit my nostrils and stirred the compulsion to put down the memory, to begin the poem. Writing it brought a strong sense of Dad urging the return of its timber to the field: the ‘wrought hands’ of his spirit dismantled it. His ‘mallet taps’ encouraged out the dowels, eased ‘the tenoned ends’ from the legs. The poem’s reversing lines, the blocky form of its stanzas, gave the chair’s timbers back to the land he farmed, to the nature that gifted it to him.
The chair sits in my kitchen now. Better men than I have graced its seat. It was very moving, last month, to stand by his graveside as the ninety years of Uncle PJ were laid to rest in the foothills of Mourne soil, while ‘Unmaking His Chair’ was a shortlisted choice of Listowel Writers’ week judge, Ian McMillan, for An Post Irish Poem of The Year.
Through ‘unmaking’ the chair, the handing back of its wood to the land and the written word bringing the ash back to life, perhaps the blesséd spirit of two great men will live on, stay lit in the loft light of poetry.
‘Unmaking His Chair’ is from Jim McElroy’s collection We Are The Weather, winner of the 2021 Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition. Award judge Pascale Petit described the poem as a ‘tender moment’ and ‘a lyrical eco-poem told backwards. A linguistic delight!
Jim McElroy. First published in 2018, Jim McElroy is a winner of the Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition, the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, the Francis Ledwidge Poetry Award, and the Mairtín Crawford Award. In 2019 he was selected for Poetry Ireland Introductions, was awarded second prize at the Bridport Poetry Awards and an Individual Artist Award by Arts Council NI. He has been shortlisted for the Rialto Pamphlet Award, Gutter Edwin Morgan Prize, Bridport Poetry Prize, Cúirt New Writing Prize, Gregory O’ Donoghue International Poetry Competition, runner-up in the Fingal Poetry Prize and nominated for Pushcart and Forward prizes. His winning pamphlet, We Are The Weather, is published by Smith|Doorstop