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Into that dark permanence of ancient forms by Aileen Hunt


In the circumscribed space of her short flash “Into that dark permanence of ancient forms,” Aileen Hunt creates a memorial to sorrow, braiding a visit to the Irish dolmen Poulnabrone with her grief over her mother’s dying and death. Hunt builds parallels through recurrent imagery such as the fog that “envelops us in its sacred shroud” while she and her husband visit the dolmen, and her “foggy memory” of her mother’s difficult last days, and beautifully metaphoric language. Of the complicated “heavy lifting” of the caregiving, she writes, “even as we hefted the last of the arrangements into place, we knew the foundation wouldn’t hold.” She and her husband have difficulty navigating the limestone blocks and fissures as they approach the dolmen; her mother’s old friends “hobbled in one by one to say goodbye” to her mother after her death; she and her husband “tiptoe” away when the “fog shows no sign of dissipating” and “drive carefully” because “it’s difficult to see the road ahead.” Hunt takes her title from the closing line of the John Montague’s poem “Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People.”  The poem, she said, allowed her to approach the painful subject of grief sideways, without knowing she was going there (see her wonderful “Author’s Note” on the importance of the poem and the utility of prompts). The prehistoric dolmen and Montague’s poem provide gravity and mythic resonance for her personal sorrow.  —CRAFT


 

I.

It’s getting late when we turn into the car park—newly constructed to accommodate the endless tour buses that otherwise clog the country roads. But the late hour has worked to our advantage. The car park is empty; the monument is ours.

Poulnabrone is the most famous dolmen in Ireland, a megalithic portal tomb that sits atop the eerie landscape of the Burren. We make the short walk to its iconic form, stepping across the large slabs of limestone that dot the field. Between the blocks, fissures known as grikes threaten to twist our ankles, but we reach the tomb unscathed, cameras ready.

And as if to highlight the mystery of it all, a fog rolls in from the hills and envelops us in its sacred shroud. We can’t see a thing, the line between past and present evaporated. I take my husband’s hand.

The ancestors wait.

 

II.

My mother doesn’t answer the doorbell so I fish my key out of my bag and let myself in. She’s asleep in the armchair, her shrunken form nestled into the cushions. I don’t want to wake her, but she’ll be sad if she misses me, so I make some noise, boil the kettle. Nothing.

In the end, I shake her shoulders gently.

Mom, I say. It’s me.

She opens her eyes and looks at me with such confusion, such deep unknowing, that I instinctively step back.

It’s me, I say again, and even though she says my name, her look of suspicion lingers.

And just like that, I sense the approaching storm.

 

III.

The tomb is striking: two large portal stones standing on either side of an entrance topped with a massive sloping capstone. Just how this enormous capstone was raised in place is a mystery; it must weigh many tons. Older than the pyramids, my husband says, reading the guidebook. Older than Stonehenge.

Poulnabrone is a phonetic transcription of the Irish Poll na Brón, meaning Hole of the Quernstone, but is sometimes mistranslated as Place of the Sorrows. I prefer the error.

 

IV.

Taking care of my mother was complicated. She was determined to stay in the house she moved into with my father when they married. So the house had to be adapted; a bedroom created downstairs, ramps installed. That turned out to be the easy part.

The more difficult part was figuring out who’d do the heavy lifting of the caring. My sisters and I interviewed carers and nurses, reviewed finances, applied for grants. In the end, we hammered together a system of twenty-four-hour care with a rota of professionals. But even as we hefted the last of the arrangements into place, we knew the foundations wouldn’t hold. The money would run out within a year.

 

V.

In 1985, one of the support stones at Poulnabrone cracked. The monument’s capstone had to be removed temporarily while the support stone was replaced, allowing archaeologist Ann Lynch to conduct a detailed excavation of the site. Dr Lynch found the partial remains of between sixteen and twenty-two adults and six children buried under the monument. The adults had died young—before the age of forty—their arthritic bones an indicator of the physical hardship of their lives. Along with the bodies, Lynch found a collection of grave goods: pottery shards, arrowheads, and a triangular bone pendant with circular perforations.

 

VI.

My mother was eighty-six when she died in hospital following a series of escalating illnesses. If you asked me to itemize them, I wouldn’t be able, so foggy is that time in my memory: the late nights and early starts, the succession of diagnoses, the swings in prognosis.

We took her home so she could be waked in her recently remodeled house; carried her coffin up the ramp and into her downstairs bedroom. And then, we sat beside her while her old friends hobbled in one by one to say goodbye.

Before we closed the coffin, I took the photo of her with my youngest daughter, the one she always kept on the mantlepiece, and gave it to my husband. He did what I couldn’t bring myself to do and placed it in my mother’s hands.

 

VII.

There are over 170 megalithic portal tombs in Ireland, as well as passage tombs, wedge tombs and court tombs.

My mother is buried in Bohernabreena Cemetery at the foot of the Dublin mountains. The cemetery is relatively new—it dates from the 1940s. Sometimes I think I see her or hear her voice, but I know it’s just the grief talking.

 

VIII.

We wait at the tomb in silence but the fog shows no sign of dissipating. “We should probably get going,” my husband says, and we tiptoe our way back to the car. It’s difficult to see the road ahead, but we take our time and drive carefully. Poulnabrone Dolmen, the place of sorrows, shadows our descent.

 


AILEEN HUNT is an Irish writer with a particular interest in flash forms and lyric essays. Her work has been published in various online and print journals, including Cleaver Magazine, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Hippocampus, Slag Glass City, and Flashback Fiction. Her essay “The Shell of your Ear” appears in the anthology Oh, Baby! from In Fact Books (2015). She lives in Dublin.

 

Author’s Note

 The right prompt at the right time

My mother died two years ago. I hadn’t written about her death—too soon, I thought—but a prompt from an online writing class spurred this meditation on her loss.

The prompt was fog. When I read it, I immediately remembered my visit to the Poulnabrone Dolmen some years ago and the thick fog that had descended on me there. And I remembered John Montague’s poem, well known to students all over Ireland, “Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.” In his poem, Montague confers myth-like status on the old people who populated his childhood. I thought I might write something similar about the old people in my own life, but it quickly became apparent I wanted only to write about one person, my mother.

I started to jot down memories of her illness and death. The details were foggy—I hadn’t realized until I tried to articulate them. Her confusion was a type of fog, my own grief another. Links began to emerge, but I needed to place my personal experience in a wider context. I began to research the history of dolmens, looking for echoes of my own experience in that of my ancestors.

Some of the connections were obvious. Placing a photograph in my mother’s coffin was part of a long tradition of grave goods, although I hadn’t realized it at the time. Other connections surprised me. Organizing home care was not simply a matter of endless paperwork. It was also as difficult as lifting a heavy capstone into place, with all the attendant risks of collapse.

I knew straight away the essay would be braided. Grief is a type of fragmentation, recovery a type of assimilation. I wanted the essay’s structure to mirror this process: two independent narratives that gradually coalesce, one mythical and universal, the other ordinary and personal.

The various meanings of fog are a unifying element, a direct result of the prompt that generated the essay. A second set of images also creates cohesion. These images relate to walking, or more particularly, to the difficulty of maintaining balance: old people hobbling, twisted ankles, arthritic bones, mobility ramps. The essay ends with my husband and me tiptoeing through the fog, negotiating uneven ground. Grief is imminent. We must learn to walk in the shadow of Montague’s “dark permanence of ancient forms.”

The essay came together relatively quickly, the happy result of the interplay between memory, prompt, and a much-loved poem. I don’t always respond well to prompts—they often exasperate me—but in this case, the right prompt enabled me to bypass my conscious resistance to writing about my mother. I was ready. The word fog helped me see.

 


AILEEN HUNT is an Irish writer with a particular interest in flash forms and lyric essays. Her work has been published in various online and print journals, including Cleaver Magazine, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Hippocampus, Slag Glass City, and Flashback Fiction. Her essay “The Shell of your Ear” appears in the anthology Oh, Baby! from In Fact Books (2015). She lives in Dublin.