from The Ha-Ha, Part II: I Cry My Heart, Antonio

by David Kirby

It’s just as the waiter has brought us
                    a single buttery dumpling
     stuffed with pecorino, parmigiano and ricotta

that arrives after the porcini mushrooms
                    and the seafood risotto
     and before the snapper with tomato and black olives

and the duck in balsamic vinegar reduction
                    that I touch my napkin
     to my lips and say, “There are no words to describe this”

and then feel the sting of tears as I remember
                    where I’d read these words,
     in that book about the trial of the English pedophile

and child murderer who delighted in recording
                    the final moments
     of her victims’ lives, the screaming, the promises not to tell,

her own tapes used in evidence against her yet thought so horrific
                    by the judge that
     he ordered them played in a sealed courtroom

and then, in the public interest,
                    to a single journalist
     who would only say, “There are no words to describe this.”

*

And even though the waiter arrives at that moment
                    to clear away plates and pour more wine
     and ask if everything is good, if it’s all to our satisfaction,

still, Barbara bends close to me and asks if everything’s okay,
                    says I seem a little upset,
     and I cover by telling her the story that Mark’s cousin Antonio

had told me about this prosciutto he’d bought
                    and had put in his basement
     for curing so it would turn salty and sweet and delicate all at once,

but something went wrong, and one day
                    he went down to check
     on his prosciutto, and it was maggot-ridden and moldy,

and here Antonio shakes his head and looks at me
                    with a sad smile and says,
     “I cry my heart, David,” and only later do I realize

I’ve used this story as a ha-ha, which is not a joke but a landscape trick
                    from 18th-century England,
     a sunken fence used to keep cows at a picturesque distance

from the manor house so they can be seen grazing on the greensward,
                    kept by the ha-ha
     from trampling the lawn and mooing at the guests.

*

Notes on the Poem

We've observed David Kirby's storytelling skills and the surprising richness beneath a great tale well told in a previous Poem of the Week selection. Let's explore another poem from Kirby's 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection "The Ha-Ha" and see what else we can unearth. As we did with his poem "The Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart", we discover again that Kirby's charming, seemingly rambling storytelling is anything but random or without purpose beyond the surface story. There are layers of meanings and agendas in "The Ha-Ha, Part II: I Cry My Heart, Antonio" - even just in the segment of it we're looking at here - and as we encounter and absorb them, we're simultaneously challenged, even jolted, while marveling at what Kirby has accomplished. (Once again, we're delighted to find another reader's blog who shares our enthusiasm.) The layers of meaning of the simple word/phrase "ha-ha" are a foundation for this poem. For starters, most would associate "ha ha" with humour ... and will discover that even while the tone of this poem/story is warm, it's not humorous at all. The judges' citation for Kirby's collection captures the effect well, how "the genial but disruptive spirit of these narrative performances" contains profundities that sometimes go so far as to startle. In this poem, the ridiculousness of juxtapositions - equating speechlessness at a lavish meal and heartbreak at a food storage mishap with a horrific murder case - is the jolt and the spiritual conundrum. The "ha-ha" as landscaping impediment and subterfuge (described and explained quite beautifully here) truly is the perfect metaphor for the complex emotional distance and distancing between states of awe and dismay in the stories layered here. Do we even have words to describe the effect of what Kirby has achieved here?

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