A WET EVENING IN MAY
AT A PRECISE TIME
DALKEY IN NOVEMBER
IN THE GALLERY
OVER THE HILL
She straightens up, stiff-backed, garden-gloved,
to brush away the mould of last year's leaves.
She kept faith and was badly served for it;
what reward has she but your regret?
A solstice shadow runs along a slope
where distant noise distracts a knot of mourners.
A clay bank waits; wreaths appear to float.
The sudden sun hovers like a butterfly,
too briefly; now, the dreary half of shadow
where the current of prayer cedes to the tide of talk.
The ground here will never be the same,
no time will smooth this crease. I wipe my hands
and wish I could do likewise with my mind.
The hearse’s vapour blasts a startled bird.
Later, I take the blackest coin I find
and hurl it into emptiness. It lands,
the waters close, and then the purest nothing,
as if it never were. Too late a nothing.
I bend to wash my hand of filth and metal.
Words alone can answer your questions
But each thing answers itself. – Sandor Weores
Something crackles underfoot.
Incurious though, I remember:
the smell of mould in spring,
the unimagined danger
of a pitch night on waking,
the ache of dizzied years.
Nothing remembered answers
to any word or question
but to its remembered
self. There is no origin,
only the pain of consequence,
words flying like hail
into the dry eye,
the cataclysmic, hidden
drop into truth.
A bell across meadows
too vast to be real:
I drove that road one May.
It was, I see now, a reprieve.
Today there is none. Shadows –
Church, market, institution,
a distant burial –
illuminate the day.
This is what we have;
all else has fallen
to a toxic dust
Still I hope to dream,
just once, of a floor
bare under trees
where no light falls,
nor rain, beyond
a stirring of bluebells.
Too soon to wake, too late to welcome sleep,
I fight what's become a nightly war with stillness,
a waning moon's imprint on threadbare drapes
weak as a fading memory of wholeness;
I picture you today, all skin and bone,
your dinner of Red Bull and Mayfair Blue,
your shoulders tautened by a whirring brain
that spins a shadow of the girl I knew:
and all that pain no makeover can dull,
that word you still can't bring yourself to say
except as xxx or lol.
Strange how the simplest things are bought so dearly.
I think of you asleep, your dream of clay,
and all that beauty not quite lost, but nearly.
A WET EVENING IN MAY
What, in twenty years or less, will it matter
to your children, for instance, with children of their own,
that one bleak May you shivered and turned your back
on love - that word you dare not utter,
the bushes dripping in a public park,
the sun suddenly licking along the roofs;
or that a stranger balanced on your daughter's bike
before kicking it away. The years will pass as if,
as well may be, we're just a fine dust gently blown
and landed briefly in a colliding pattern.
Wish this house in someone else's hands,
this house that will never be whole nor home;
leave it open to misfortune and the northern wind,
you elsewhere and happy in what you have become.
In a momentary light where every wall
is white, and day waits to sink,
this time in empty silence,
a drunk weaving home, his t-shirt
blue as a boy’s, carries in his head
a clutch of speckled eggs
lifted from a hedge on a morning
that never was, clotheslines riotously bright,
aerials gleaming like rocket-silver.
Against the gathering hill, he threads
between pavement cracks, avoiding flowers
whose names he doesn’t know.
AT A PRECISE TIME
At a precise time
for one week of the year
the sun moves across
the attic window.
Its light is blinding,
the air stiffens somehow
as if it were an animal.
This is the summer we dream
those other weeks, impatience
marking an inner time,
and when it comes
it leaves us inert, wondering
at the change eight miles above.
Everything seems to hover: insects,
pen, the dust that has
its hour in the sun,
the breath soundless but still
caught in the grip of an old
feeling: love, despair,
the calendar calm, implacable.
I look out at an old crow on a wire.
He shifts and shits, then settles – just like that.
I watch with envy his unthinking balance,
the jade and sunset amber of his eye
a bead containing everything that’s needful.
He shakes his crop a little: then he’s gone,
the line not even stirred. I turn and move
back inside, to contemplate a world
of traffic meaningless as Roman legions,
a world whole once, before you moved across
my line of vision. Now, like Baudelaire,
I rail against the sweetness of sick love
as if it made a difference. Evening thickens
like dying light in rubies, day and night
in perfect balance elsewhere, while within,
an empty screen, a dolphin paperweight,
embers in a dead house by the sea;
the comfort of a repetitious danger.
Beyond the roof, dead roads, unwanted spaces,
a mighty falling off from childish dreams,
an ancient bakery floor, its Moorish tiles
open like Jesus to the elements;
the only hint of red, the sense of evening
bleeding from the canning factory floor.
Vows, perfumes, kisses. Shut each lingering blind,
one window left alone, a half-meant prayer.
Stretch before an unlit, waiting fire,
lost in the waking dream of other cities,
rising heat on pavements after rain,
old men content, their tales of war now vague
as a far chime over traffic; gilded domes,
shields and copper coats of arms on shopfronts,
that medieval faith articulated
lulling to belief in one whole day,
a glimpse, a fleeting visit, distant hope
in nothing but its saving power, its grace
when all else crumbles and no holding out
can dam or stem the pain. Rough beaks will tear,
machines will shatter pavements. Yet repose
exists: in inner-city graveyards, in the breath
of an old page being turned: vows, kisses, call
of birds at dawn, to build, to kill, to cure;
in the unknowable, that moment lost,
that unseen dust that wraps the sun in amber,
beyond our reach, beyond the reach of love.
Across the road, a woman
slaps her children. They ignore her.
Six maybe, and four, and already
she’s lost them. Unafraid
of traffic and the raised voice,
they lean over the footpath
as if at the edge of a stream
ready to dip their toes.
A practised sway. They are bear cubs
playing with the scent of danger.
The looming green of a church
is a hundred years gone
like a sigh, no more now
than a landmark, a domed
tent where history is stale
and redundant as sin.
The sky shifts across a city
at the edge of light, where distant
wars play themselves out
before landfall, more or less
and the tempo of the crowd
never fluctuates by more
than a degree. Now they begin
to pick up, dropping away in twos
and threes at café tables.
Mother and children
have disappeared. There was no stir,
no squeal of brakes, only the slightest
race in the blood as I conjured
what might have happened,
suddenly remembering my uncle
straighten up from digging
in the strawberry beds, caught
by a sound I’d missed,
a cry a quarter of a mile away.
What age was I? No more
than that older jostling child.
I hadn’t learned to worry.
That was when it started, the long
anticipation, listening for the smack
of metal on metal or bone.
It happened on the verge of open road,
long hedges, a worn stile
and a silence rarely broken. Here,
panic is almost a currency,
shoppers at a junction dart
and slow like oystercatchers
on a tideline – we passed them
on the train a mile out, rhythmic,
intent, their bills a metronome,
their short, angular flight the promise
of freedom to a child.
A hidden figure waits to douse the lights.
The stage is yours, its emptiness, its smell,
that silence swirling like a smoke.
No one can doubt you gave your all
but you: this space, like night,
still wants, it has a need to swallow.
It was more years ago
than you care to reckon,
and even then success, but it took
you first time, and there has been,
ever since, this ritual admission
of defeat - a dying of applause, a filing out.
Home. Among trinkets and mementoes,
wallpaper new where a photo was removed,
the hour to kill, the killing hour. It goes.
All your life you wanted a pleasant void,
it’s what you loved most, that space
none dared defile, the nearest face
blurred, expectant; and in thrall
to its own hope. It was yours to play with.
How many times you rode it like a swell!
Well it’s gone now. No enterprise, no pith
electrifies the nerves like bitter gin,
the blood laced with adrenaline.
There is a floor to pace, a ceiling
will resound to the merest whisper
and the sea a walk away
while you still want to: best in a swirling
monotone; a storm brings out that Lear
you never quite got. But resignation
may be the worst death. Go back,
walk blind like Kent into that rush
of terrifying silence, that crash
of parting air that sucks
life back into exhausted lungs. Play
beyond fear, to the shattered prop, the rifled curtain.
Green strips between blades of stubble
run along a field of early hay,
curve hillwise, mark tractor contours
or mirror a weather chart, vague
meeting of pressures.
Long, thin mist rises to a drizzle
soon burnt away.
Midday. Full for the moment, rooks
glide in an even line over the trees.
Featureless small birds mob a young hawk
which, forced down, struggles against spears
of cut grass, flaps and flops, balances
and screeches like a demented corncrake.
Seen off, the sky empties to a sudden silence.
Waiting. Evening rolls across, its heat
dies slowly in the margin
where owltime, crowtime meet.
The hillside fades to a dappled crescent,
trees are a mushroomed darkness
in whose shelter night and day compete.
Blackbird, bat, chase the same pallid meat.
I trace the stretched Z of a mountain road,
a swollen glen the storm has lately whipped;
now here, where rain has died on stone and statue,
I lick my lip. A salt trace in the wind
and suddenly I see my mother’s lip
flecked with the gold of fresh, untipped tobacco:
we walk into an Enniskillen cinema,
I step beyond the safety of her hand
toward the rainbow of projected drama,
the story etched on glass, pinpoint, reversed.
And it fades out, as every daydream must
except that now I’m dreaming in a dream
and in this space where nothing is the same
but for the empty hour, I wait for hope
or the consolation of a Western wind.
DALKEY IN NOVEMBER
You venture out,
taking the motorway down
onto that great ribbon of promise
that still comforts with its silent distant bustle
although we’re so far gone we turn
the early news off, pass
ten vans at most:
who can tell
where or why they head
past filling stations bereft of breakfast rolls.
Ahead, the first exit to hint at sea,
two roundabouts, right turn, Killiney,
a climb, a faux castle
gate, then Dalkey.
it has a light, a stillness
that seems to rebuke the turning world.
Small houses that look nowhere seem glad
of a wall between windows
and cars that turn
for the coast road.
A place for a cure
when no sickness is known
but the mind is poised for flight, aware
of some imprecise contagion in the air:
wholesome here, the breeze
plays along the maze
of lung and brain.
that sea, your first glimpse
when you wandered here, lost in the dense
winding of blood along unfurled capillaries
shot with adrenaline. Much
Night beckons now,
Dalkey in November
pulls dark like a blanket
and a house on the hill is the prow
of a ship aground, the crew asleep, thinking
of July on the Mediterranean
as they slowly sink
into a night
unlike any other.
You can turn away from the lights; they shine
like luminous coral or the huge humped spine
of a mythic creature reminding
of depth, story
and your own struggle,
all that futile
bringing to birth of what
you thought you were. That tight little knot
of light beyond Bray – where is it? No map tells –
is at the edge, content
to be so: and so
you. Time you went.
The fields belted with frost,
candles in fishermen’s cottages,
shiplights like notes in the bay.
Darkness is a blanket pulled for comfort now:
balancing those increments of morning -
a slight stiffening of the muscles,
an extra pinch of cold.
Two thousand years of words,
their weight light in the attic;
mermaid and cockle shells,
dust on the shelves, stars over the skylight.
This is a time for looking back or dreaming
and I’m a hundred miles inland,
thinking of the books I’ve never read,
children’s books especially,
that shock of wonder missed.
Fear of the lone child, that universal heart,
held me to a solitude
within the solitary hour: it holds
me still if I don’t step more fully in,
deeper into the core of the paradox
where there is no light, nor company,
nothing: and then a sudden burst
of joy, a flaring like midday
on a headland, dizzying, glimpsed
in that instant where the dream is felt,
charged with its having lived before,
rich with the knowledge of imminent waking.
(for Alan and Elizabeth Monahan)
I drain another coffee cup
and look out at the sleet that whips
across the lake, now fierce, now spent.
A kid blows on his hands and shunts
his snake of trolleys between cars,
a down and out returns the stares
of giggling schoolgirls on the mitch.
The country tries to start from scratch
but can’t resist the urge to splash:
a final binge before the crash,
we keep an old familiar promise
to spend before it’s taken from us,.
the nation going down the pan,
greedy, venal, also-ran,
our leaders confident, of course,
with not a whisper of remorse.
I think back to that trip we took,
the midlands’ leaden floods, the rooks,
your daughter bringing into song
all we hoped when we were young;
the brand new church’s leaking roof –
truth in an optimistic life,
the break no hand or word can fix,
whose healing is the time it takes.
Visiting his grave at last,
your son whose funeral I missed
that week I barely recollect,
I realised the pain I’d blocked
no longer mattered next to yours,
your lives a hymn to what endures,
a promise that we will prevail
in spite of all that bodes us ill –
what Hardy deemed capricious fate
or those absurd and petty states
we trail our heart and conscience through:
such parodies of all we know,
where there’s no wholeness, no redemption;
just music’s sudden consolation,
the cool joy of a late-March thrush,
the drumroll of a deluge-lash:
strange to find such sustenance
in crumbs of varied happenstance,
light given up for lost renewed
by a blade-slit in a sullen cloud.
The sleet subsides. The coffee’s cold.
A woman and a well-wrapped child
sit next to me: the easy gesture,
mild intimacy of boy and mother
teasing over Christmas lists,
are all I need to know exists.
I meet a girl who once was terrified
to read of Alice growing small and strange
then taller, stranger: something sparked inside
and sent her running to the art-room, where
she hid dry-sobbing while I scanned the page
to see what put her there -
the shared fear of never getting back
that lives on as a lack
in everything we do, but can redeem
the lack in others, draw them from the edge
a step or two, can let the breath grow calm.
Is there a point in this imagining?
How much can we absorb of a life told
by someone for whom memories are nothing:
will she, having moved so long, so far from harm,
hear for her part a stranger's fiction - fooled
by his picking up a book she'd never read
and by that never-overcome
urge to make sense of another's need,
blinded by what he thinks he sees?
The coffee cups are drained, and in the lees
are separate remains; and nothing spilled.
The train waits. Through a yard in disarray,
a cat is nosing cautiously. Two children
are soundlessly exploring
a long-abandoned garden,
pushing at a buckled greenhouse door
that will not yield, its bindweed tracery
the only tie that holds its panes together,
those that remain. The rest must crunch like ice
under trampled grass.
You have to wonder,
when their turn comes, will they too know the loss
in busy lives, their sense of self or place
bent and choked by what creeping undergrowth
our littered time has left them? On they go,
heads bobbing beneath
an arch of brambles. Now
is all that counts, for them if not for us.
They look and wave, hands stained with blackberry juice.
I go back to the black lake
in which I stood before I woke.
Distracted by a bobbing float
I’d turned to find the jaws of night
had taken me. Afraid to move,
I waited for a hold or wave
to finish me. Such utter dark!
My very eyes were sealed with ink.
They opened on a greyling sky,
birds moved across a glass. But I
stayed rigid, heart and limbs rebelling
against the truth my brain was telling.
I’d seen that terror in another
trying to swim from morphine’s smother
but falling back, to swim, to drown.
I’ve feared that ending for my own
and though it only preys at night
it feeds on daylight’s hidden fright.
A stranger straightens flowers on a grave,
knocked by one of several wayward children.
A gentle corner of a warring house,
she listened down the years. Did she foresee
these scattered stones, statues left and lifted,
the locket no one claims to have? Perhaps
a dream of hope held tight till near the end,
at last escaping like a tired breath,
sustained her through the invective of each call,
daughter to daughter, on her sickbed phone.
At rest now, earth is but a ticklish skin
no clash of wills can scar. A branch of palm,
first since her death, has shed uncounted leaves
like Bronze Age ribs, or question marks of gold.
IN THE GALLERY
Something tiny as a bristle-point white
in a fruit bowl, a prick of light
on a grape whose skin is sheer as glass,
can hold all to itself, the still, the centre,
can flare as madness in one who, when
the crowd moves on, is bolted
in terror to the floor.
A damp stone hidden by the kiss of vegetation
waited to scrape my knee and duly did;
I parted ferns to catch
the final digit of a date cut with a flourish
two centuries ago; the old courtyard
sloping toward the lake like a giant
stretched out for a long, earned sleep.
A storm breaks where you are, as it does daily:
behind your desk, rained on by a riot
of rights and questions, I wish the timeless
calm of that carved 2, a swan,
and that your mind will unfurl slowly
like a fern, its underside lined
as with a string of pearls, a prayer of beads.
The gaps are churned; summer will work out
before they green again. In a week or two
banked mud will be caked, bare blades
peep through cracks as from the tops of trenches.
Now the silence of an empty church,
the last marquee packed up, cows still kept
safe from scraps of undetected plastic.
There is a sense of rolling out, a tiredness
born of fulfilment, a letting go of days
to come, the body-clock unwound.
A young girl ticks a clipboard at her ease,
then turns and disappears. An engine purrs.
After a lonely winter of endeavour,
every thought and step a slithering,
work has become its own reward - what pain
to drag us here! But the exhilaration
of having trumped the odds still warms the blood,
still spurs us through the warrens of the mind
and lifts us through the nights of being tired
of feet and nails. Yes there were many: such sheer
exhaustion that the spirit tired of hope,
and potted plants died of a thirst more bitter
than cold that stoned songbirds in mid-flight.
Greater than fear of frost, fear of a thaw.
Yet we have arrived, have set firm feet
in days of dog rose and fields’ first cutting,
days of ease despite ourselves. The sun has topped
the mast of a mid-meadow oak. Only for the prick
of stubble we could lie down and dream
with the easy conscience of those who have come through
because that’s all there is; could lie and stretch
as if the earth were rooting us again,
the earth in which no toil goes unrewarded.
There will be a putting out, from soil, from spirit.
Already it is time to be elsewhere
and I quicken my step, restless and at rest.
In Annascaul the fuchsia will be blazing,
hanging over, nectar-heavy. Here,
sea darkens steadily and the headland
lights up to a rhythm it keeps to itself.
The last broken promise has been cancelled,
the green beacon on the furthest spit,
hidden by day, is coming into its own.
A woman lights a candle on her balcony
and foot by foot the boats are lost to night,
those three like Van Gogh’s at Saints Marie
that hangs, a sunbleached deadweight, on your wall
a hundred miles from here, as far from dawn.
Hours of glass, of scouring cutlery,
Van Gogh, yellow moon, an uncut lawn.
(i.m. Tom Flynn)
The sky suddenly stilled, swiftless. I turn
to turbid waters, overhanging lanes,
a sparrowhawk quartering the hedgerow,
its flight a perfect poise of scope and arrow.
Last month I banked and turned above Fermoy,
bridgestone caught in sun, a mason’s cut
that took me back to Hardy; thence to that
cry of Ajax: ‘Light, if only to die by!’
I should have made Kanturk. But let that lie;
there is a fact and place of birth, a scratch
of ink on paper, blade on stone. The eye
was made for more than seeing; to snatch
at wonder as a skimming hawk at movement,
to clutch, fasten, feed. And then to leave
for the mundane, but with a stubborn itch
for knowledge and beyond. To dream. To teach.
Water ran lightly. My fingers
in a stream were the bars of a gate.
The froth detached, disappeared; how swiftly.
The earth-sheering power of inertia.
Fingers numb round the leather
of a music case, my mind full of the notion
of books. I’d never thought of them
unique, beautiful and flawed as gems
or people I’d yet to meet. As paths
not crossed. I’d believed a sunset
forever lost, unseen by others.
That first poem was like a rock
loosed, dislodged, a ceaseless pouring,
the stream shaped by the cleft it mastered.
The first sparrow hawk I saw
hugged the dip of your front lawn,
vanished like dark into dark.
I forget the book I left that noon,
see only white frames, square panes,
and that late-year light, its struggle never-ending.
An early visit, my mind took home
the surprise of hall-tiles; a weight
of words – drapes, Ecclesiastes,
and an older memory of wax.
Time and returning gifted more lightly:
cell, trifles, air.
You seemed walled in by books
but drew from them a light
that fed the chiaroscuro
of our collective inner days.
Your age like winter, a stepping back,
a gathering like trees’ apparent sleeping.
To go back to where it began.
Ragged circles at noon,
double windows framing
magpies in a sleet storm,
inside too, an effort to balance
tipping this way, that,
truth always slightly off
so as not to topple over.
And drawing toward
the end of an hour
an easing, mostly; speech
rhythmic, gaining the evenness
of treading water
but for those who still
dive back into the wreck
not to salvage, but belong.
A sailboat rounds the point,
its keel gleaming with light
from a childhood island,
the white of waves’ soft kiss
on sand. Out of uncounted picture books,
it turns and straightens
Running with what breeze there is
yet stilled to the distant eye, drawing
day and two thousand summers to its mast.
I watch from a grassy height,
a taste of grapefruit tart against my palate.
The sun should be elsewhere,
the sea, too blue: a soldier worn out
in an ancient war, intruding on a scene
older than reed or chanter, all I can do
is mark the imprint of a lone
body on the grass, and wonder why stillness
remains an alien sensation;
I wish I could hang my thought
like an old skin at Neptune’s door
and let my gaze wander
like the flight of a gull,
mazy, purposeful, with the ease
of a mind given to uplift,
beyond weight, beyond fear.
OVER THE HILL
“..for there there’d be either radiance or nothing”
Easter; Derek Walcott
Black marble and clay, a sudden white like a bandage,
lilies unstained, smelling vaguely of earth;
earth, our portion of it, in retreat from the sun,
leaning back, a child afraid of the water.
An old man in search of firewood hokes out a branch
huge and grotesque as a python. He struggles to balance,
drops it and shuffles to cold for want of an axe.
A closing in, more than night, more than the hour;
over the hill, the lake where a swan has lain
unmoving for days in the nest of the end of her life;
a girl in the nest of her hunger, breast, bone all but one,
a morsel of nothing coaxed in the crook of her arm
in a house that looks down on the bones of contentment and fever,
her limbs like the cogs of a clock when the hands become stuck.
Her own hands, clean beyond cleanness from flour and salt
are those of a Trojan captive skivvying in a foreign kitchen,
cut off from all but truth, that beast that won’t let go;
when, like sun at a fortunate hour, her features settle,
something beyond mother, beyond blood, is there: a god mimes
peace, breaking a thousand years of body and words,
the clotted tale of our fumbling, our daubing a ghost.
And there is such peace in her features: a statue breaking
the plane of light at the window which gives on the sea;
her mind is at one with that boat, its cargo and crew
cleaving a sea calm as Tauris when Iphigenia came
into her own. The breeze through a crack in the door
has the death of the fierce warmth of sand. A chime in the hall
startles but punctures no silence. And so it begins:
a folding of life like a wing too tired to stir,
a settling of beauty like flowers in the dryness of noon.
And I, with a tooth not quite broken, waiting alone
but for a roomful of books and a mind full of others,
plain, empty and tired, light a wick for a face
I may never see: enough that it flickered and left
a space alive with its absence, a shadow of light.
There is a moment of imprisonment
by rain, by memory, by fear –
when we touch something given to us
before we knew what a gift was.
It never goes away: it will drown us
if we stay too long or venture too deep
and we will never know where it came from
nor where it waits.
But wait it does,
for a rain so harsh it wipes all
but bleakness and beauty, indistinguishable.