In the astonishing poem An Arundel Tomb, Phillip Larkin wrote, “What will survive of us is love.”
He didn’t mean to make it sound so final, though. The truth is he agonized over that line and its implications.
But time has a way of taking the poem out of the hands of the poet. What the poem means for the rest of us is out of their control.
Memory plays a similar trick, by taking the days you lived through and surrounding them in amber, making them sentimental or searing, adding footnotes to an experience that didn’t have them the first time around.
In Geraldine Hughes and Jimmy Kerr’s In Shorts, a series of short stories which presented together in a world premiere at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City last week, the two writers and performers – both from the North – took contrasting routes into the past and drew fascinatingly contrasting conclusions.
Hughes hails from Belfast’s inner city, and her stories make clear how her young life was in part shaped by the legacy of the wider religious and political conflict that waged around her. Punishment shootings, army foot patrols, raids, shootings and snipers all make frequent appearances, and all are treated with the same delightful casualness that only people grown used to truly ghastly circumstances can demonstrate.
Kerr grew up 30 miles from Belfast in what the locals call the country. His experience was a tranquil and Hughes’ was fraught.
Instead of bombs and shootings he recalls days spent turf cutting and butter churning, and his stories are vivid portraits of the red letter days in a young person’s life – and beneath that they are venerable and venerating meditations on the fate of love.
Love is all over Hughes’ portraits too, but it is the tough love of Belfast, which is possibly the least sentimental city in Europe. Hughes introduces us to her mother and extended family in terrifically endearing vignettes that manage to convey how dearly she holds them.
For both writers Irish rights of passage like first confessions play out in different but highly relatable ways. Kerr manages to conjure his seven-year-old self and the indignation he felt at the way his youthful expectations were flouted by the humdrum experience.
Hughes is especially good at conveying the exasperation of children mystified by the bizarre doings of adults, but her stories darken at times to recall the sheer cruelty she witnessed or experienced at their hands.
From the evidence supplied by his stories Kerr’s early life had a more countrified rhythm and this he conveys with a beguiling reverence. The audience is left to marvel at the way where you stand can determine so much of what you see and experience. That fact alone proved how successful the idea of combining the work by the two writers and performers turned out to be.