Homage to Gaia / At Ursula’s

Derek Mahon

copyright ©Derek Mahon 2008

A cold and stormy morning
I sit in Ursula’s place
and fancy something spicy
served with the usual grace

by one of her bright workforce
who know us from before,
a nice girl from Tbilisi,
Penang or Baltimore.

Some red basil linguine
would surely hit the spot,
something light and shiny,
mint-yoghurty and hot;

a frosty but delightful
pistachio ice-cream
and some strong herbal
infusion wreathed in steam.

Once a tomato sandwich
and a pint of stout would do
but them days are over.
I want to have a go

at some amusing fusion
Thai and Italian both,
a dish of squid and pine-nuts
simmered in lemon broth,

and catch the atmospherics,
the happy lunchtime crowd,
as the cold hand gets warmer
and conversation loud.

Boats strain at sea, alas,
gales rattle the slates
while inside at Ursula’s
we bow to our warm plates.

Notes on the Poem

As we note with great sadness the passing of revered Irish poet Derek Mahon, we are comforted to be able to turn to his fine and wondrous words. Join us in revisiting a selection from his 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Life On Earth. Derek Mahon's "At Ursula's" draws you in swiftly from "a cold and stormy morning" to a haven of warmth and sensory delights. Part of Homage to Gaia, a nine-poem sequence at the heart of his collection Life On Earth, the poem is clearly reveling in creature comforts. Let's enjoy exploring this poem once again. Those delicious sensations spill out in the tumble of succinct, rhythmic lines that comprise the poem. You can feel the radiated literal warmth of the room and the figurative glow of the gracious, friendly greeters and servers in Ursula's place. And oh, isn't the menu rolled out with a riot of mouthwatering tastes and colours and scents, from "red basil linguine" to "mint-yoghurty and hot" to "frosty but delightful pistachio" to "strong herbal infusion wreathed in steam"? Your tastebuds are devouring this poem as much as your eyes are leaping over the lines. Combined with the joys of a jaunty rhyme scheme, the whole occasion of being at Ursula's fine establishment is lent an air of celebration of everything toothsome and companionable. Even the increasing hubbub in the room - something that might annoy at another time - adds to the cozy pleasures. But in the midst of the lunchtime festivities, these lines strike a slightly dissonant tone: Once a tomato sandwich and a pint of stout would do but them days are over. Has the narrator or has Ursula changed and become pretentious in their culinary choices since their more down to earth days of simpler, local fare? Is the narrator making light of one or both of them with his reference to "amusing fusion", suggesting they've become a tad ridiculous, maybe even wasteful with combinations of Thai and Italian influences, of squid and pine-nuts and lemon broth? But then that suggestion, and the larger world with its storms and troubles, is conveniently shut out in the clatter of dishes and conversation ...

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