Poet's Notebook: A toast to my uncle, the prototypical Irishman

Two of his daughters came to see us recently, when I read at Inkwood Books in Tampa, and claimed that I look just like him (the elder Tom; I was never so dapper). He loved his daughters, naming them Maureen, Kathleen, Eileen and Colleen; and joked that if they had another girl he’d call her Kerosene. Jeanne and I named our oldest son Peter Thomas Meinke. In his few written poems, Uncle Tom was sweet and sentimental. I still have, in his very neat penmanship, a poem he wrote for my christening, which begins, To write a poem for a new-born child, / One’s thoughts must be divine. / No decent law should be reviled, / For a baby’s pure and spotless mind…

I don’t think he read poetry, but was naturally verbal, in the way his father was able to play the piano without ever taking a lesson. In those male-dominated days, my macho grandfather wouldn’t let my mother — an “A” student — go to college, even though she had a scholarship. He said they’d save their hard-earned money to send Tom, instead. Ironically, Tom dropped out of high school to get a job — he always had good jobs. In the end, neither of them went; and I was the first of our family to go to college.

After Jeanne and I began our odyssey through the college and university system, we didn’t see him much, though we all wound up in Florida (he died in 1984, age 71). But on this St. Patrick’s Day, I thank him for the poetry that he brought to our family tree, which he watered with Jameson Irish whisky. So today, we’ll tip a bit of Jameson ourselves for my rascally Uncle Tom, whose voice is in my head (along with his cheekbones), and whose good intentions and high spirits run through the veins of our children like tipsy leprechauns.

I ask a blessing, by Sweeney’s grave.

His memory flutters in my breast.

His soul roosts in the tree of love.

His body sinks in its clay nest.

—from “Sweeney Astray”  by Seamus Heaney (1983)

Jeanne & Peter Meinke will be featured at Studio@620 on Thursday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m. with an exhibition of Jeanne’s drawings, and featuring two matched books: Lines from Neuchâtel — poems by Peter, illustrated by Jeanne; and Lines from Wildwood Lane — a collection of Jeanne’s pen & ink drawings.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s 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 Clinton’s 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 Yeats’s tombstone. It was snowing lightly. The sharp limestone cliff of Ben Bulben rose behind the old church. We were the only ones there. This wasn’t a regular stop; we had to ask the bus driver to drop us off. Like Yeats’s 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 Ireland’s 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 mother’s 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.

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