November, Like a Hole in the Heart. A poem by Séamas Carraher
“…you must realize that I am far from being discouraged or feeling beaten. . . . It seems to me that . . . a man ought to be so deeply convinced that the source of his own moral forces is in himself–his own energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means–that he never despairs and never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and willpower to overcome each and every obstacle.” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, (quoted in MR Online, 2018)
On a day this week, 27 April 1937, Antonio Gramsci, Italian communist, died, his health broken by years of incarceration in Benito Mussolini’s fascist jails….
November like a Hole in the Heart
Not being a philosopher (and even less a politician), like so many I have still had hopes of finding a way to make concrete and progress the always-circulating-thoughts and ideas that would give a practical shape to our movements towards freedom, now obviously so much in need in our rapidly deteriorating worlds.
Whether this is still possible and whether a poem (or any other cultural work) can give concrete shape to thoughts and dreams whose compulsion to belong to an unknown future of and for humanity, (a future founded on a radical infrastructure of respect, of real democracy and equality) – that is, a truly human (and humane) future – is probably much in doubt right now but not-so, perhaps, in the few short years when November like a Hole in the Heart was composed, written at a time when I could have believed this dream a possibility; when Gramsci’s project of creating “a counter-hegemony” through the long night of this ‘war of position’, seemed worth the difficult work it entailed.
This was the early 1990’s in Ireland when the complex thought of Antonio Gramsci offered a certain hope for tolerance and unity in the midst of a social struggle whose forces were (and remain) so divided (and too often murderously so) both in theory and practice.
Dublin before the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ (this revolution-for-the-rich: property developers, builders, auctioneers, lawyers, etc.) was a different place then… though it had all the seeds of the excess and middle class delusions (“values”) that would soon follow and come to define the world right up to the current crisis …
These early years of the 90’s, for those not suffering from the delusion that freedom had already arrived, as well as being a time of poverty for many, seemed also to be a time of promise…
…promise; a prelude to a peace process that would eventually turn into another epoch of “business-as–usual” if not for the sadness it brings back when we weigh up the price of this peace in a country that has been shaped by a long history of violence and oppression.
Despite the undercurrent of an economic boom – (“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci, 1930, Prison Notebooks) – ripples of revolutionary activity seemed to slip each day into the life of many city people who, while not being born among the working class streets of a Belfast or a Derry at war, nonetheless still organised amid the violence and the heartache that had become a way of life here…proving that, despite all defeats, hope still existed that history would have a direction, a purpose and a meaning, as well as finally bringing an end to exploitation…
All that despite the ongoing callous use of British military power and arrogance in the North and a ‘repressive state apparatus’ down South still making both urgent and relevant the undercurrent of the militant socialist project stretching back to James Connolly and before.
Thus, ‘November like a Hole in the Heart’ reminds me both of promises unfulfilled and the sadness that is part of my recollection of those years crossing the river from north to south, from Ormond Quay to the more affluent parts of our city…
…and where, in the midst of Gramsci’s complex, humane and optimistic thought I often met up with one of the many casualties of the almost endless war here.
Jimmy Brown was born in 1956 in working class Belfast and having joined the Official IRA as part of the war against the British presence on the streets of his home town, went on to belong to the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and finally to establish, along with others concerned at what they perceived as a need for change in the republican socialist movement – the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (IPLO).
Brown was also the organiser for the Republican Socialist Collective, which was set up as the political wing of the armed IPLO but which never developed from its embryonic beginning.
Early in the 1990’s (18 August 1992) Jimmy Brown was gunned down in his car on Clonard Street, in the Lower Falls area of Belfast. He was killed in one of the too-many internal feuds that have defined Irish revolutionary activity in the late 20th century.
Before his death Jimmy was living and organising in Dublin, with an address in the Ballybough flats but, in reality, with as many addresses as the places he found himself in, apparently since a UVF assassination squad visited his place of work in Belfast to find he had not turned up for work that day.
As an outspoken advocate of the socialist republican position on the war in the north that both states fought to contain, Jimmy Brown suffered much ‘bad publicity’ both while alive and likewise after his death, in particular following the early (1987) INLA feud that resulted in 16 young men dead and the disorganisation within that movement following that and other feuds.
Brown, to my recollection, did not take any of this personally, being deeply committed to the struggle for a different type of society than the one witnessed when the British army laid siege to the streets he had grown up on, and in firing the tear gas that almost choked has baby brother to death, all in the name of “civilization” or “empire”, meaning “business-as-usual”.
Yet, in all this time, like the figure he had learnt from as part of his revolutionary education, Seamus Costello, Jimmy Brown had never lost hope nor belief in a revolutionary outcome to all struggles, from citizens residents’ groups to an armed struggle linking the fight against the British military apparatus with the struggle for radical social change… and in particular his outspoken support for the armed struggle, like that of Costello a few short years before, being more important to him that the popularity gained through the “art” of politics.
“You are not going to get a cup of soup in a brothel… You are not going to get justice in a British parliament. It is designed to work against you…Connolly spoke… that the electoral tactic is only valid in so far as it returns a disturber of the political peace…we are not returning – in Ireland – whether it is the reformist left or the traditional republicans – we are nor returning disturbers of the political peace…” (Jimmy Brown interview, 1991)
So, in remembering his presence as well as those increasingly busy streets where a variety of groups organised for better housing, for rights for the unemployed, for a more equitable sharing of the wealth that already existed and the wealth that was beginning to be generated and for a society with more and not less democracy…
…all echoing the words of Antonio Gramsci: “Thus it has come about that in every radical stirring of the multitude, in one way or another, with particular forms and particular ideologies, these demands [“equality, fraternity and liberty”] have always been raised.” (‘Selections From The Prison Notebooks’)
…and this most quietly passionate of men I recall, with a good heart in the midst of all this turmoil…
…in another place and time…where history condemned so many young men and women, Irish men and women, to grow up in towns, in cities and in communities shaped by violence and the arrogance of states and privileged elites that still find the price in human life so easy to pay to maintain their own privilege.
On a day this week then…while we remember Antonio Gramsci, Julia and Tatiana Schucht …It would be appropriate if this other often forgotten comrade who gave his life to the struggle here also could be remembered… I measc laochara naGael …until we can build truly human societies where we are finally capable of being ”the guardians of creation”…
…lest we forget.
NOVEMBER LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEART
TATIANA & JULIA SCHUCHT
“Every current of thought has a particular
Language and vocabulary”
Antonio Gramsci 25 May 1918
Body, then, overlooking their swollen Liffey
for rain uselessly hits the river
they burst like veins.
So it is Friday, it is sad and other in
strangeness, (our homelessness, like rent
an act of god, like a death-warrant.)
Then once and once only
i have closed this city down like an eyelid
in dark depression
deeply regretting all labour, each body
and motion carving air into much delusion,
all dead gestures,
as also now in this rising day like damp
this last, dead, delusion of self
dancing between river and factory,
dancing this man whole who is half air
and all pain
his whispers and cancer hitting like bullets
they burst, poor body, like nerves, cracking.
All our shaven heads burst simply and
Here then we exist. Here is our popular
and national transformation
like an old sack, creased like a rag
with our muddled insignia
more dollar than currency in these
that we are people as a river
that we are mud and dirty and so grow,
that we flood and overflow,
such is our blood,
this is blood as beaten as our flag,
as red and labouring.
Our skin here, without culture, holds half
a name, full of promise, full? Flooding!
It is them ignorants who read our rivers like a prognosis,
who bills us coldly and talks of forecasts!
Here for these feet after all they’ve lost
then nothing matters. It is this damp mask of mud without
that rules and governs us,
like a worm,
eating like a cancer
from this rock called heart!
Hold it there, cousin,
(he, here, who no longer “gives a fuck”).
We are on our way back. Beyond undoing.
Over the river now a flock curls, in agony,
symmetrical to our diseased parts,
both, scratching, at our terrible peculiar position,
in this moment it can no longer be safe
who are trying to speak different.
Here the gulls scavenge and we
hit the river like bullets.
We burst simply.
There is a smell to this city, like
a big hotel,
no soap or cleric can wash it.
It is like river sludge. Oil. And
excess of constitution!
Excess of air, of words, promises,
of hope, of peace and
excess of negotiation!
Excess of right and wrong!
Here the earth,
sand thin and sawn with running feet
is more natural to our lung
more real in what they left us, our nothing,
so we may build.
Only empty this head first like an
old building or a parliament.
Empty it in this disturbance of rain
as if the city, like an argument
moved on our creaking backs,
like an unexploded furnace,
moving like a bewildered beast,
into the sea.
Tiocfaidh ár lá! In this slippery year.
Here almost headless and rotten with damp
we seek home safe in our untwisting.
This is our own savage core
a knot for each famished stomach
cruder as a billboard, half open like an eye,
we are fogged at our edges, violent, abrupt.
What a peculiar victory!
City, shit and wet. Full of both priests and murder,
of chequebooks and creditors,
here under surveillance, full of both tourist and profession.
Here we fill the river daily and secretly with:
Our feet flooding forward in retreat they
hit the river like bullets, like promises, like hope,
bursting, O savage body. Descending.
We stand simply at its edge, plain men, stunned
at our awful presence, its body uncrafted,
to be me in air and crude with hunger
our backs to the wind, our backs
implicated, diagnosed, criminal,
(like his own guilt, he hears,
with stitched lips;)
here is a smart arse whistling on the bridge,
that is what he sings through our gritted teeth,
here he takes the rain, metaphorical but cold
like a bullet in the neck
here his neck is thick under invisible ropes,
his feet cross ours like an anchor
this must be a beginning, sad like an ending,
here our feet are bare, at this bridge, on this
riverbank, here we travel like dogs undoing
This man crudely waves down who is a man ascending
and blesses the insane like a bishop,
as they pass, sheeplike, labourers and servants,
more schoolmaster to the lung’s rebellion,
more accountant to this unruly heart,
for each wind, corrupted, franchised.
This man, half animal, in our subterfuge
tells me, who is also nobody,
crossing the bridge on feet sturdy as a raft
both fear and justice drown here, half bird, half rot.
Our fists pointed.
Here, despite all must be the grave of our
(raging at the edges like a riot or a funeral).
Here is a memorial, a lament, an elegy,
no different from a bus!
(“In a complex and varied environment
like that of a major industrial city
the organs of capillary transmission of opinion
which the will of the leaders,
would never succeed in creating and setting up,
arise spontaneously.” Gramsci, May 25, 1918)
Still the heart hardens at its eating.
Also, sadly, a mortal passing moment.
Here is a man like my sister.
A working man much unemployed with a fist
as big as my mouth.
Both sit on steel and riverbank, his eyes explode,
river of bottle and old blades,
river lit with sun and twisted with our
our mechanical minds, twisted grotesque with hitting, all our backs
and labour and lies.
Here is a comrade, and our programme, whose voice is,
truly, like an ulcer.
Here then is another ulcer called “democracy”.
Here too is a Thursday with rain beating us into
our politics, our war and our culture,
these songs sad and empty as a can
as if we had nowhere else to go
always homewards from another election.
Here the Italian sits and dreams of his broken wife
more broken than his broken back, in Moscow.
Like this then the river hits
us in the eyes like bullets.
We burst, thinking like this in our exile
which is no thought at all.
Our antithesis, dumb nature,
i tell this man like my sister,
even drowns in this crippling
i say too:
it is no excess to be so sad here
to be worrying in doorways, in our shapeless mass,
to be carrying these
images, like our people, wet with cruel air,
all our years.
(And so we wish the wife we love
in Moscow or any safe place,
knowing now no other refuge but here
which is no refuge at all).
For all this we are frail in overcoats,
we burst, once, again and again. Daily in the hour.
Then why is it this way, comrade?
To be outside and outside, no matter how many doors,
eternally there in our bulk, massed with both
history and vision in our untimely hunger.
Then to be ferrying them insights in glances
more than this rain, them bullets, this
poverties, falling endlessly on shoulders.
Here where we are alive
in this long rain, bareheaded, again,
to be dark with glass eyes, waiting,
half murderous, joyful, listening
to the grinding of these organs, these stumbling mouths,
thoughtlessly surviving, struggling
in all our endless unbending,
the rain falls ceaselessly,
emptily, who is it? Here?
Brother? Sister? Comrade? Parent?
The rains falls and the river drowns in it.
We are like this to be shot in the street
in our headless crowds.
Here the rain falls, almost without
and here lies the dry rot and our damp
here is the cold being and unavoidable
in its necessity
of the proletariat
in this direction
with these million feet her own,
with her marching, like our fathers’ labouring,
the grave opens, yawning, and always us and them,
like poles in the wind, dying on his feet.
Then, finally, how to speak this sadness without words,
forgiving or swallowing.
This is a hard map to repeat, year following year in all
our dark generations
with our mouths filled with knives who never
this is how it is to be splendid and sung about,
to be always and already dead
to be electors and half faceless
our mind postered like hell,
here in this undawning dark where
everyone is free, and suffers accordingly.
Wave after wave in rain built
from our unbearing backs, endlessly.
He tells me these things as i pass under his arched back,
this scholarly hunchback, more Irish than Sardinian,
furious in earth and tool,
flying at the river.
Here where there is no shelter left.
In this grand hierarchy, like a bad cold
no change exists.
He flies. Flies grandly like an Italian communist.
In this way the labour and its loss,
still kills us slowly.
In this way we are surrounded by steel and boss.
In this way our wealth whips us mercilessly.
In this way our history is like a wall.
Still he flies grandly and listening
the rain bursting like bullets, like veins,
bursting like blood vessels in our necessity,
in all these shopwindows, all the glass of our bones
and waving arms.
Then it is Monday again. Much the same.
It is mortal and fragile in humans,
it is man and woman and all clouds deepen in our colour.
And this everlasting exchange
beats us like river into another shape.
So we are history and bending with each contour
and the air in which his bullets burst
hardening like concrete.
Gramsci, my sad man, we have told each other this,
to encourage the others,
as we pass in dark and sealed off streets,
our collars raised with this new flag
half knowing the dark route
(Dublin city, November, 1990)
La femme de Antonio Gramsci, Julka Schucht, avec ses fils Delio et Giuliano
Jimmy Brown image from
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nRcTA7AwlY (“fair use”)
Jimmy Brown Video
INLA – IPLO Feud
The IPLO Belfast Brigade shot dead IPLO leader Jimmy Brown – 18 August 1992
Vols Jimmy Brown and Hugh McKibben – Belfast – I.P.L.O – 1992.