Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

We are continuing our ‘Sense of Place’ series with a second piece of writing about setting and bringing one’s own experiences to one’s writing. Do we really write what we know? We started our Issue 4 series with Jane Percival’s ‘Seeds of a Story’. Next up we have an essay from David Morgan O’Connor.

David’s story  ‘Berging’  appears in Issue 4, available hereDavid is from a small village on the Canadian coast of Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he is based in Albuquerque, where a short story collection and an MFA progress. He contributes monthly to; The Review Review, New Pages and The MFA Years. His writing has appeared in; Collective Exiles, Cecile’s Writers, Bohemia Journal, Fiction Magazine, After the Pause, The New Quarterly and The Guardian. He is very happy to be published in New Zealand, and cannot wait to visit one day.

Names of Place and Sense

When I was eight years old I went to a production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. My cousin Fiona was my chaperone. She was maybe sixteen, I was so excited to go out at night under her care. After the show, we crossed O’Connell Bridge, where a crowd had gathered. Some lost soul had committed suicide by jumping into The Liffey.

In the play, the three characters, who were never on stage at the same time, recited village names. Those names linked and anchored three versions of the narrative. For many years, before I re-read the text, I could only remember the recitation of those names and that I wanted to be Donal McCann, who, I later discovered, off-stage battled depression and alcoholism, while on-stage, was a charming lyrical god.

Kinlochbervie, Inverbervie,

Inverdruie, Invergordon,

Badachroo, Kinlochewe,

Ballantrae, Inverkeithing,

Cawdor, Kirkconnel,

Plaidy, Kirkinner … Welsh—Scottish, over the years they became indistinguishable.

This is my aunt’s horse farm, somewhere south of Cavan or Wicklow. I was there once, probably that same summer. I haven’t been back since.

 

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Now that I live here,

 

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I want to go back there. And never leave. I want to feed the horses and milk the cows and go to the local pub every Friday evening and down my pints and stare out the window and count the raindrops.

I grew up at 168 Lakeshore Drive, Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada, on the shore of Lake Huron.

That address is now something Shoreline, Drive, Lambton Shores, Ontario, Canada. The town changed names to expand the tax net and so the ambulance can find people faster. I don’t know the new number. I need to look it up every time I send a letter, which is rare and actually not a letter anymore, but an Amazon package. I learned to swim there.

 

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But I pretend I learned to swim here:

 

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This is the Forty Foot swimming hole in Dún Laoghaire (a name I must always Google to confirm the spelling). It is a few hundred metres from where the Holyhead ferry arrives in Dublin. Joyce’s famed Martello tower is just out of frame. They have a sign: TOGS MUST BE WORN. They used to have a sign: FORTY FEET. MEN ONLY. The MEN ONLY restriction was painted over soon after my grandmother decided to plunge into the ice cold snotgreen Irish sea. She would bring me swimming there whenever I visited. It was our little terrifying ritual. The name has not changed. Just the sign. She was the first woman to swim there. Or at least that is what I choose to remember. Men used to swim naked, now they wear togs. I believe I learned to swim there, but I didn’t. That’s the beauty of memory.

The last time I visited my mother’s house in Etobicoke (don’t you just love that name) near the Toronto airport in Ontario, Canada, I looked through her old-school leather address book. Under my name she had filled half the book:

301 Larch Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia

1208 92nd Street, NY, NY

33 Crosby Street, NY, NY

179 Delaney Street, NY, NY

117 Swindon Lane, SW, London

267 Shakespeare Road, SW, London

23 Via Fratelli, Porta Nova, Verona

800 Al Saad, Airport Road, Doha

16 Old Brompton Road, NW, London

1 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

406 Calle Putget, Barcelona

9 Pasaje Sant Felipe, Barcelona

501 Brickell Bay Drive, Miami

3239 MacDonald Street, Coconut Grove

1201 Capistrano do Abreu, Rio de Janeiro

354 Avenida de Nossa Senhora de Copacabana

1826 29th Place, SE, West Adams, L.A.

1905 Gold Ave, Albuquerque, New Mexico

For a year I lived in a favela called Chapéu Mangueira in Rio de Janeiro, above the neighbourhood of Leme. We had no address because there was no mail. To arrive, a visitor had to ask for “Joao the Portuguese”. The house was impossible to find, for the first month every time I drank I got lost, like in Venice after a good lunch.

 

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The trick is to ask a small boy who’d love to walk you there and tell you about his whole day on the way. There was no doorbell. You had to shout, normally the boy would. They loved shouting and they loved Joao. It was liberating not to have a formal address. No bills, no deliveries, no need to check the mailbox, I saved a lot of money. We were six hundred flip-flop-slaps from the sea and the morning sun made my blood flow with glorious anticipation of diving straight into a wave. We ate great meals and had profound, often heated conversations. An oasis from the chaos, a place of healing. When I left, Joao handed me a key and told me to return.

 

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For several months, I was a caretaker of this closed-for-the season-resort just south of Jericoacoara (say that with a mouth of biscuits) in a fisherman’s village called Prea in Ceará, northeast Brazil.

I almost bought some land there and put down roots. I wrote a few good poems and read Dickens and Bolaño. I tried to make friends but there was no one around. I started talking to palm trees and lizards and the sea. I learned to open coconuts with a hammer. I burnt my mouth eating a raw cashew fruit. I hallucinated for hours, vomited for days, kept to rice and beans and flour mush for a month. I realized the danger of unknown beauty. This is not pine cone and chestnut territory. This is cactus and spider and sand land. I killed my first snake with a machete.

 

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This is either Painted Rock or Tent Rock, I always get the name wrong. It’s between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, just off Interstate 20. About a thirty minute drive from my current rented studio. If I ever get “sideways”, as my mother likes to say, about terrorism or racism or injustice or greed or pollution or hate or the general state of my own existence, I just go there and sit on a peak in the wind and recite the names of places and my sense returns. In three weeks, I’ll be in Bali and I promise to learn and remember more names. A sense of place is the memory of a name.