Every Thursday in the bookies, men would rush in after four o’clock, look up at the board of an upcoming race and the prices of the horses, quickly scribble something on a betting slip and hand it over to me. As I looked at the bet to see if I needed to lay it off, I would hear the crackle of cellophane and the tear of an envelope. The man’s wage packet. His ‘pay poke’. Opened in front of me instead of his wife. They would often go home with an empty envelope.
Owen Gallagher takes the ‘pay poke’ and writes from the perspective of a son who has to deal with the death of his father and the payments to be made from his father’s last wage packet: to the man from the loan company and the Priest, who was paid in silver and made them ‘feel special when he gave the house/a blessing, called each of us by our name.’ Thereafter there is a change in roles where the ‘mother became the man‘ and ‘now I set aside the money‘.
This is a rights of passage poem; in the first stanza the boy is still young, as he describes the debt collector’s minder as looking like ‘the Hulk‘ but then later older (you would hope) when now the money ‘is set aside…for the men in ‘The Chemist’ in the block who provide us with snort.’ The estate is self-governed by ‘the hard cases back from Iraq‘ who are now also in the pay of the boy/man. But his family still manage to give to ‘those who come with the Labour Party plate.’
The poem has many layers to do with, religion, politics, gender roles, the loss of the ‘head of the family’ and how they manage to live, and that of a boy who has to quickly become a man, even if this means him taking on the traditional female role.
Owen doesn’t have a video of himself reading, so I have included another poem of his from his collection, Tea with the Taliban. I can only describe The Gorbals Palace as a sectarian western romp. ‘Half-chewed toffees were fired as fast as a hand-gun‘. Hilarious.
Owen Gallagher is from Gorbals, Glasgow, and lives in London. He has awards from The London Arts Board and The Society of Authors. He has won poetry competitions and his poems have been displayed on London buses and in public places in Ireland and on the Listening Wall, and the Southbank Centre, London at the Poetry International Festival, 2014. His poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, PN Review, The North, London Magazine, New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, Time Out, and Red Poets.
The Pay Poke
Only the shadows of the two men crossed the doorway.
I peeled my father’s pay poke open, laid out his wages in piles.
The first man was from a loan company.
No words were exchanged. He was with someone
who looked like ‘The Hulk’. We included him
in our prayers. The second man was a priest.
God was his minder. Purses and wallets opened
for him like the sea for Moses. He was paid
in silver. We felt special when he gave the house
a blessing, called each of us by our name.
So it continued until mother became the man
of the house; father’s heart had had enough.
I would spill out her wages, wait for the rap.
I often wished I had a beanstalk. Now I set aside
money: for the men from ‘The Chemist’ in the block
who provide us with snort, the hard cases back
from Iraq, who provide security on the estate,
and those who come with the Labour Party’s plate.
The Gorbals Palace
It was a signal when the Commaches appeared
and the wagon train formed an O
in the Saturday matinee
for the Braves in the stalls to attack the Cowboys
up in the Circle. Half-chewed toffees were fired
as fast as a hand-gun could unload.
Rubber bands launched gobstoppers.
Ice-cream cones were filled with piss.
It was worse than Custer’s Last Stand.
Braves went to The Happy Hunting Ground.
Cowboys fell. The film would halt
when Many Horses leapt onto the stage
and did a War Dance.
The National Anthem stirred blood.
Those in the Circle stood for ‘God Save the Queen’,
whilst we in the Stalls sang the Irish national anthem,
threw Cokes back like firewater.