Under bare Ben Bulbens head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
On November 4th, 1992, the eve of Bill Clintons victory over George H. W. Bush, Jeanne and I stood shivering in a graveyard outside of Sligo,
Ireland, reading those last three lines, carved on William Butler Yeatss tombstone. It was snowing lightly. The sharp limestone cliff of Ben Bulben rose behind the old church. We were the only ones there. This wasnt a regular stop; we had to ask the bus driver to drop us off. Like Yeatss poems, Drumcliff churchyard is starkly beautiful. I said, Good place for a poet though I also thought, Maybe, to the dead, one place is as good as another. And then we left and hiked a half-mile down the road to the nearest pub. After a few proper libations to the great Irish bard, we went out into the cold and flagged down the first bus to town.
The next morning the small Sligo newspaper trumpeted: IRISH VOTE PUSHES CLINTON TO VICTORY! Clinton, whose greatest accomplishment probably was his work on the truce with the IRA, liked to boast of his ancestry from Irelands Ulster County. We were happy and proud, too: we were Americans; we were Democrats; and my mother was Kathleen McDonald. (And Jeanne has Welsh in her background: close enough!)
I was named after my grandfather, James McDonald, from County Louth, the wee county (my full name is James Peter Meinke); he was a musically talented postman mail carrier in those days who was unhappy in America, feeling his talents unrecognized and wasted. He speeded up the wasting by drinking heavily and dying at 55.
My uncle Thomas McDonald, my mothers younger brother, was a charmer, a drinker, a gambler, a wit and a singer: in short, the prototypical Irishman. Lying on the top of the stairs in our narrow Flatbush rowhouse, my sisters and I used to listen to him sing and tell jokes, which were often bawdy (and the reason we were banished upstairs). Although far more extroverted than I, he must have influenced my early fascination with poetry it seemed both fun and a little dangerous. At parties, after a few drinks, Uncle Tom could jump on a table and make up a birthday poem on the spot ahead of his time, prefiguring slam and rap poetry, with its ribaldry and rhyme.