NOVEMBER WEDDING (1998)
FOLLIES 1: KITCHEN GARDEN
THE CHEMIST’S SHOP ASSISTANT
FOLLIES 2: DROWNED VILLAGE
MEMORY OF FRIAR CLYN
A BITTER FAST
FOLLIES 3: TUDOR WINDOW
A YOUNG GIRL PRAYING AT EVENING MASS
THE BRIDESMAID’S DRESS
FOLLIES 4: TOWER
THE FRUIT PICKERS
ALL SOULS’ DAY
POEMS FROM THE BLACK BOOK
Time to remake half-remembered things:
the road to work travelled years ago,
stubbled fields, skeletons of houses,
colours lost in yellowed photographs.
Such absences are lemon on the tongue.
Come, somewhere is a song that can evoke
a new entirety, can heal like poetry
used to, or a first glimpse of the sea;
that living tree that grew in lightning flashes
or rather was illuminated by them.
Still it stands, love as deep as widespread,
sensing dark and light, making them whole
somehow, in the bole of a leafy elm
or fruit run wild again along a hedge.
From every dying garden flowers fly,
they grow towards their past, towards the sea.
In a corner of the garden
the sisters lie, keeping their secrets.
They face the sky, untroubled by birds,
feeling no breeze on their backs.
Beyond the low walls, tennis nets
lie tattered, no weights to keep them in place.
In the garden questions are unheeded,
old newspapers no longer blow about.
Do they smile at ghosts of living loves,
knowing what they know?
Their lips are sealed, their fate is consummated,
they have shaken the stamens of the sun,
no dreams may taunt them.
In the morning schoolgirls walk
past the garden gates. Uniforms pressed,
they talk of music yet unmade,
their senses dull, vision sharp.
They were still encradled when salt waves
lapped upon two children's destiny
and the heart of the sun gushed out grey.
There should have been a banshee;
instead we had the sun and sweat,
the coast road stabbing yellow green.
Heat brought men into gardens,
boys to the handball alley,
faraway girls to gather shells.
That day is older now than barnacles.
Tar bubbled and bloated
when the girls came home.
Sandals sticky, friends walked in mysterious grief,
waves of petrol fumes rose densely, unbearably.
The pubs were closed, the sun refused to set,
skipping ropes lay twisted, the town throbbed
silently to strange music. Red-crowned,
a purple priest waited by chapel steps;
down the aisle, made whole again,
uncut by man or crow or crab,
the girls were led, with seaflowers in their hair.
Their father gave them to the sun.
Kneeling in the backyard, ten years old.
Polishing a blackened showband cymbal,
thick scummy rings of Brasso in the grooves.
A counter-clockwise rub brought it up gold,
enough time spent, it finished good as new,
so heavy, carrying it, I almost stumbled.
The first instrument my father sold.
Later, from the same spot, I watched the moon
through those binoculars I still have.
And having convinced myself I could see craters,
swung round unsteadily, saw for the first time
pin-point light dance as icy rainbows.
Last night by accident I saw an eclipse begin.
Mars' lunar shadow had a yellow rim.
And trying to count the moons since I was ten
I thought how we in turn have waxed and waned,
what gained and lost, the billion cells we've shed;
how the moon, each time it disappears, thought dead.
And all which can never be restored; how the gods
are nothing if not projections of our hunger,
the cymbal useless metal until rung.
How nothing survives except our being endlessly at odds.
Night begins on Dillon Street.
Dusk dances slowly, quietly in the wet.
No car in sight. Curtains
glow, paraffin or gas
globes lead in a row to where Dalton's
shop comes alive, fresh painted, never inhabited.
July sounds bounce off wooden housefronts,
carry the call of a visiting carnival
(colours caught in the ghost of a river)
or pure, early jazz.
This is not where I wanted to go
but where the backward glance
has taken me. I had thought to imagine
a street in broad daylight, immensely
wide, facing an invisible down-slope
until eye-level dropped
to sweetshop and corner. Summer
evenings, a drinking well and mountains
out of sight, a walk or drive away.
The scene complete, waiting to be conjured.
But even in our daydreaming
we lose control. Remnants of other dreams
thought laid to rest,
fears of the future, of a darkened room;
colours from a different day
into each other, muddy our ambition
to delineate, or lend it a dark,
unwanted clarity. So that awake
and half-ashamed at our attempted sorcery,
we shake off passion, beat a quick retreat,
sooner than admit defeat, the scene abandoned.
Passing an abandoned door, it struck me
how, at the last, we grow into our rooms,
root into furniture, carpet, radio clock
(curtains drawn, the garden gone to ruin),
until we have always been there,
creased like old wrinkles on bedclothes,
skin stretched, twinned with too-long paper,
dull paint flayed along a mildewed sepal.
As the root binds, so the shell dies, finally.
Outside where, pruned and planted,
bowed and sprung precisely as we wanted,
forgotten stalks toughen sway in a woody
riot, link end to end in a brotherhood
of vigorous ageing, an unintended irony.
Even in death they face
away from the others,
turned to the long wall
as if from barracks habit,
beneath a spreading tree
that could have come from Cheltenham or Poona.
How perfectly straight they are,
and uniform, though duller than
their counterparts in France,
regimental crest beginning to moss over.
Lost to the Mc Namaras, Ryans
on the townside,
to their own dust and bone;
to their great-grandnephews who keep
the place fixed up
on an indifferent training scheme;
to the men they would have shot
had they come back whole.
Across the hill the ghost of a railway
steals through an abandoned depot,
houses they might have hoped to build.
Under their heads the town
rolls towards mountains; into
the huge night of southern Ireland.
The south wall draws the sun like a poultice,
pulls it, pulls; it won't let go.
Hot plants grow lush as weeds here, seeded
peppers, radishes, a tough, prodigal soy; cool, though,
the huge headed leaves of Paestum cabbages; and a wild rose
that might have cupped once in Imperial Bordeaux.
Only the grub and indiscriminate caterpillar
have feasted here
since the blind ecstatic sowing, the disastrous
harvest that first planned, reckless year
when they owned the sun and the mustard seed that will
sunder the south wall;
when they loosed Virgil's bees among the golden ears.
(for Jim Braiden)
This is the door
we crossed, two thousand years after Actium,
on the floor
the same tiles, and round the corner, rooms
I can remember
with my eyes closed, and picture
to the core
the daily detail, any from twenty years or more,
and all that happened, how -
no, leave it, it's dead now
as the unintended tease
of that sudden glimpse of legs and knickers
(O lucky breeze
that played and made the heart beat faster!),
dead as penknifed trees
or that page of Livy I could never master.
(i.m. Fr. Seamus Morris)
Our first year there, his last, he taught
history and more - how a sculptor caught
by a sudden slip of hand or chisel
on a naked arm or back
had a special kind of wax
with which he packed and smoothed the incision
and how in ancient competition
a judge would stand by each exhibit
and hold aloft a piece of slate
on which was written 'sine cera',
without wax: from this, our 'sincere',
and suddenly names, places, dates
no longer mattered. He'd helped us find
a truth in art and history:
that we think with the same mind
as those who've cheated or played fair
since the first crude flint was pared.
Others have thrown away that key;
I see him still, straight and white,
marble-faced in gathering light.
THE CHEMIST'S SHOP ASSISTANT
What dreams are lost among the labelled bottles,
foreign names, the veterinary products.
Obscure light broke for thirty years or more
through coloured glass and planed a polished row
of presses, plaques, bromide, digitalis,
the sort of sounds no longer good for business.
And he, like the furniture, outlived his turn.
Not that a dull, small anger doesn't burn
at old shelves carted out, a fluorescent counter
in their place, white-coated girls giggling over samplers,
leaving the rest to him, to deal with bare-
faced boys who ask for condoms for a dare.
And trying to face down this vulgar world
it seems as though everything he'd learned
to reverence - science looking to its past,
even Lorenzo's powdered gems and pearls,
the magic which had held him here - all lost,
swallowed in the need to sell and spend,
in the shallow faces of the young.
Mostly in vacant faces his own age,
future promise sunk to a dull exchange
of words and money, all hope plainly gone,
the many-coloured boast, the youthful notion
dead in a trembling card, a new prescription.
In Monaghan, Nebraska, night gathers
into a hilly cluster of absences,
steeples never seen or guessed at
but which smother all dreaming.
From a porch, sky unfolds
to an indistinct horizon,
bear country, waiting for snow.
Stars glare, cruel without colour.
Lens tracked, a satellite rolls
silent, majestic, unmagical:
no dust, no fire, no wrapping of gold.
Dripping, crag to cave, whit to blue,
the steel glint of the sun,
feeding and widening its own,
gouges, wheels to mark scattering of eagles,
cleaves the stride of the petrified bear,
swollen the vine, the Rhine, sorcerer's stone,
takes on character of debris
- grey, gross on discarded lead -
sheds, at rest on a restless bed,
the sunlight it held, children it bled.
Bedrock. Beneath the quarrying
of disappointed flecks,
mired on uncharted silt,
the primitive wraps round an intrusive grit,
sweats a strange perfection
under an unchanging shell.
Whether a brittle world
layered to conceal a forgotten speck
or bodied forth as an unworldly girl,
until the point of yielding
impossible to tell.
Long and lonesome as a steel guitar,
a singer with a four-piece country band
warms up in a pub near Tyrrellspass.
He wails a mournful ballad about his dog
or how Daddy Frank the guitar man was blind.
The crowd go misty-eyed and tap their feet,
even the liveliest tune bears some bad news;
it makes you think that Chesterton was right,
that all our songs are sad. Bad country music,
the kind that plumbs each tragedy and lacquers it
in kitsch and cliche and Slim Whitman whine,
Appalachian fiddle, sad, sad yodel
over the huge lit emptiness of towns
dotting the blank mid-west. This is the exile's scar,
dressed in whatever decency the working man
could summon up on long November evenings
remembering home, the nothingness between.
Why fashion words when words will never do?
No, fashion a sound that wells like an unwept tear.
Out into the Westmeath night it goes,
a night so still a dog's cry travels miles.
Old people told of how a hungry child
could pierce the night and rip it into shreds.
The first week in September without fail
we did two essays: 'Gathering Blackberries'
and in the cóipleabhar 'Ag Piocadh Sméara Dubha'.
Our imaginations drank the last of summer,
a fox or badger strolled by in broad daylight;
someone ate too many and was sick.
Tired but happy we turned our faces to the road,
Mammy was waiting with rows of empty jampots.
If we'd been two years older we could have washed
and danced with comely maidens at the crossroads,
our fingers stained with the fruit of honest toil,
but since we'd never touch, it didn't matter.
Beidh cuimhne agam go deo na ndeor. Remember
a day that never was - for anyone.
Blackberries were the fruit of poverty,
food for the thrush, the finch, the evictee -
a porringerful might buy a cup of meal
if you got them to the town before they rotted.
Wet forty-six, they rotted on the briar
before your eyes, the few that got to ripen.
I met an old man once in Aherlow
and asked him about picking bilberries.
He sipped his drink and sighed. 'The flies, the flies,
they'd settle on your sweat and drink like blood.'
Boys picked by day and ferreted by night,
skinned rabbits paid for leather on their feet,
but they knew themselves more fortunate than their parents
who worked the mountain in the hungry nineties.
Berries sold for sevenpence a stone
helped pay the rent or put food on the table,
seasons were marked by other gleanings,
his mother and the other women scattered
before the bailiff's stick. He knew the story.
Not for them 'ag piocadh sméara dubha' -
cold rainwater running up your sleeve,
maggots between the pips, the desperate race
before the fruit turned fusty on the bush.
My great-grandmother Gleeson knew the same.
Her son joined up and fought against the Hun;
one of the Connaught Rangers mutineers,
condemned to death, he hunger-struck in Maidstone;
saved by the Treaty, he got out three years later.
Neither side would give him an army pension.
Bent by disappointment, stomach ulcered,
he drifted between jobs for thirty years
while Dev read the people's will within his heart
and farmers slit the throats of newborn calves.
He died just as Lemass's generation
spent their evenings watching the Avengers.
Their children, spared the necessity of collecting,
thumbed their noses at returnable bottles,
swapped Man from U.N.C.L.E. badges in the schoolyard,
took out their ballpoint pens, and without a clue,
dashed off 'Beidh cuimhne agam go deo na ndeor'.
For her sake he sank the fairy castle,
fantasy of slab, slate, turret.
Stories were told of later fits and jewels,
a perfect pearl, enormous, buried
under an altar stone,
but none could plumb those depths,
no cold hook snagged on roofs.
Ornamental carp peopled the streets, roamed,
bred themselves out; their sludge enriched
courtyards, soft bones in steeples tolled
time and gathering slime that hid the dream
from morning half-believers
who cast a crooked line, saw reeds take over.
i.m. John Monahan
Strange how we forget the things we shouldn't -
the pin, the prick, the perfect round of blood
and that unmeasured spread of Saturdays
wide as the desert. Our gold we knew was dust
shoring up a dead abandoned wall;
above the steps, a hard forbidden plot
rank with beet and kale. We made it lush
with crawling guns among hot jewelled flowers
but lingered in that jungle past our time,
were never able quite to let it go;
we clothed the dream in music and ambition
or in bad prose, or planning games for children.
The tyre you hung above a mountain steam
swung there, dumb and potent as a snare,
its silhouette was thirty sudden years,
a ragged tree, a twisted, naked sky.
MEMORY OF FRIAR CLYN
Walking along the shops, past cars
with European number plates.
Coffee and beer outside, the sun
Dame Alice modern-medieval,
signposts for Canice's Cathedral,
Black Abbey. Death. And you, John Clyn,
launching your name into the night
in desperate hope, the fevered task
completed. Nothing left but wait
alone, the final cry unheard.
Yet you, among the millions, sit
forever at a pain-racked desk,
will-drawing, drying, flesh made word.
And you, Niall, suffering, blaming
nobody, and dying so, shaming
those of us time treated kindly;
tonight this rushes through me blindly
and all I can give you back's your name,
and mark my guilt and grief, and see
how you and John Clyn kindred be.
Taken down, the corrugated paling,
final remnant of the greyhound track,
the damp rectangle within given back
to cattle, scutch and thistles. Evening
scatters across the road, across
the porch at Greenbank, misses the chicken-
shad left before it could be hidden
by late-planted cypress. Grass
hasn't yet reclaimed the tarmac path,
under the pines the driveway dry, moss-free.
New neighbours at the back, two or three
bungalows face away, disdaining north.
Last-generation, tame, peahens scratch
round corners, end of a collection, pride of place
until an escaped gamecock tore the rest to pieces.
Now pheasant shadows move along a ridge,
vanish at the unexpected sound
of visitors; then, door unanswered,
stare at disappearing lights from a wild shelter.
No more easy pickings on avenue or lawn.
Looking at a moth-eared tourist brochure
of Clones in the fifties, map and pictures
imaging a solid world, in reality
relic of a birth-doomed industry;
a Yorkshireman, pipe-smoking, stolid, shows
a first-time-lucky quantity of roach
before going on to pull a record bream
(for camera's sake to grace no further stream).
As 'a walk through a storied town' slows
to an embarrassed end, could they have known
the process would repeat itself, despite
the glossy page, planned factories, the bright
promise of the future - surely it must,
as they watched the railway sidings rust,
have dawned on the that there would always be the boat,
as when we asked our uncle and he joked
at how the Yanks had begged him back again.
The flat he left was our first glimpse of town
as we passed the Ford garage sign
on the home stretch, level with the disused railway line.
Saturday rides across an empty square,
a nineteen-sixteen plaque, last night's leftovers.
Hidden children put on holiday airs,
argue on a cheated game of rounders.
Four o' clock, I walked along the street
past the Luxor, cinema no more
(John Wayne forever lost on Donovan's reef),
the gaping space that was Ireland's first Mace store
with a basement nightclub called the Cavern
where my cousin played, part of an envied scene.
Boys a few years older that I found hidden
meaning in the words of 'Yellow Submarine',
initiates to a mystery closed to those
without an elder brother. By the time
I'd worked it out, it was all old-
fashioned, myself hopelessly out of line.
Revival night at the hotel. Seventies babies
listen in a stupor to something by the Who. A couple
home on holiday put names to faces
in a muddle of contemporaries, aunts and uncles.
And it was summer passing, those May days,
and we never even knew; thought it would go on
forever, like a Sunday seaside haze
or first holiday away from home
camping or biking, dreamed not remembered.
Everyone was everybody else
spaced out on connections never
made. So I put on years, willing myself
in and out of time, following whatever
notion envy clothed in glamour;
alleys became film sets, footballers
their own heroes in the eyes of others
and so on, each permutation more confused
until the whole thing made me sick
and giddy, the spell snapped, left me dazed.
Older too, though not by any trick.
Wondering if those a few years younger
went through the same, if they regarded us
as we our own Olympians; and whether
they carry in turn as deep a sense of loss.
Sunday. Short, cold and incense-free.
Time-killing, watching a re-run play
on faded New World aristocracy,
seeing it all transposed, the grey
provision stores, ageing self-made gentry
dying and not knowing why, at a loss
for words to rage against new vulgar money,
forgetting where they began. Magnolias - what else? -
run wild off-stage, the heir apparent's
Cadillac idles in the driveway, a girl
from the wrong side waits, a fatal accident.
The End. Out then, into a world
not much different, the park
unvisited, bandstand where no band plays,
the dog-denied field where, safe until dark,
rabbits crowd into a sun-lined space.
And the day dies over Greenbank, over
the living, bird and beast, the ghosts of greyhound owners,
over people who were never real, except perhaps
in their own minds, content to let that wisdom lapse.
The passion play is finished. Along the long
walnut counter plans and beermats drown,
a sudden squall hoses Sunday down,
its chips and cartons litter a clogged drain.
The room swirls, the brain in pendulum time
anchored to the grip of chrome, the long
stem of a hollow stool, the loud post-mortems
on what was lost, a flash, a free kick squandered.
And life's an open goal on treacherous turf.
When you stood up to blow, your veins stood out,
your eyes like those of Horace's dead sailor
begging three handfuls of scattered earth. Away,
then, on that long and lonesome flight,
riding whatever comfort music brought,
transcending it, as though it were escaping
like those sad, dried bubbles round your mouth.
A BITTER FAST
Above the din, the middle of a phrase;
brown fingers busy in the empty air
illustrate a tipsy-conjured theory,
mime a line of buried melody,
happily adrift on whiskey dreams
until the door jars open and you shake,
as when at thirty you wandered home in light
after an all-night card game, and a late frost
stung your heart for all the years you'd missed,
the smoke fell from your clothes and your lungs burned
cold with fresh knowing how the world renews itself,
cleanses itself, but nothing renews you
but sleep, and that fitfully, and the infinite variety
of sloth's excuses. You passed on hurriedly
into a house sleeping with a soundness
born of no imagination; and there broke a bitter fast.
The glass is breaking, the Elizabethan
rose darkened; the Virgin
looks away, in her face
pity and distress.
So deep a silence.
The void before repentance,
this, the utter blank of knowledge.
A tiny bird is nesting in a cracked ledge,
company is half a world away
or near at hand, impossible to say.
Stop a moment at the frosted door.
Without forgiveness, how can we endure?
If, as perhaps I dreamed, you came last night,
not whole, but bringing whole my ignorance,
a quick salt smell of terror at your fate
and shame at that misshapen mist, my conscience;
if it was you and fear deliberate,
- my tumbling in the panic-choking wave -
and that split second held a truth complete:
given all this is true, what's left to save,
what can we hold? A day on, and the mind's
a thin fist clasping dregs of tidal sand.
You must have known it would be no different;
fiercely we cling to earth, the dumb foundation.
You come to dip us in too deep an ocean.
Slip gently, child, back into your element.
A YOUNG GIRL PRAYING AT EVENING MASS
Like old music, her voice
drifts over flat familiar accents,
and the pious air crackles silently.
Behind the warning bell
the communicant psyche
searches for a parallel;
indifferent swans ride by the riverbank
where lover-leaned-on saplings
twist toward town,
bark smoothed by a million kisses,
and bike marks slick
the sod, neatly nick
beds of headless daffodils,
What germ of prayer does she
carry in that soul, what seed
to scatter or crush
as purple days unfold?
THE BRIDESMAID'S DRESS
Fold away the bridesmaid's dress.
That Friday, wet and photo-spoiling,
is history. One last caress,
silk as smooth as slow bells tolling.
All that's past is dead: the guest
who would have been invited once,
love-sting of the dispossessed;
the love that's never known, that blunts
on all-consuming innocence.
Nothing as dead as that unknown.
That flower, too, breathe its dying scent,
press it in a book, alone.
You should lie under a mantle of red gold
or under a silver, streaked-with-stardust sheet
and the vast vacancy of wheeling sky
or best that man can make become your due.
Absurd the only currencies that serve
your ordinariness - straight hair, round shoulders,
the way you sit behind a steering wheel;
no common phrase can feed the fantasy
not of the body, but the sacrament -
the radiation from a dusty tree
caught in a Spanish poem; long years at last
swept from the surface of some masterpiece.
And so for you a worn luck-penny spun
in the great gamble of the ridiculous,
under a sudden sun it blinds like beaten
gold that folds a sanctuary door.
Love that walks in hand with lust
beat a path among the briars,
laughed at every scratch and tear,
left on the thorn an unmissed hair;
laughed at the lock hair-thin with rust,
laughed most of all at his desire
who thought himself a knight in armour,
to win a girl but never harm her,
to love the thing he couldn't have.
How easily the hinges gave!
Then love that walks in hand with lust
rushed the tower, as lovers must,
made madcap patterns of the dust.
THE FRUIT PICKERS
The branch shakes drops bright
as a fish-flash,
bitter on bread
the taste of unwanted fruit,
its red spreading
over the wet white
uneaten slices. Back at work,
juice on juice stains
black as blood: they leave
on the underside of leaves
the dark grain of their fingers.
Remnants of rain
run through dirt and dye, mingle
in the chalice of girls' sleeves.
And they dream of the true grape,
harvest and all that's proper
to it: boys and wild
laughter among the midnight rows, the hush
that holds all. On they file
to the blue barrel, lust
a vague, far-gathering thirst;
for now, content with little,
like the shy black biker who will one
day feed the fish with stones,
or that girl,
short hair shaped by a bowl,
soon to wander among the souls
of drowned cattle.
All was perfection: midsummer moon
breaking through light cloud,
in the river field, cows
filling their swollen udders,
the promise of hay and full hay-weather;
softer than soles of soft slippers
the sweet, silent pit, the certainty of soon.
Certainty of time, most awesome god,
god of the cell and sickle, mother's
and all round, sweetness. Is it any wonder
acrid nicotine reassured her:
where was Jesus when fag-ends fell
random as roses round the imprint of her feet?
In summer nothing's neat,
all's a mad profusion, the familiar
routed, swallowed in a never-ending shout
of fecund joy - grass and spider,
black sycamore, the least pore on the doe,
the licked calf: half-remembered
scents from long-dead flowers
startle the senses, annihilate the sense of hours,
and in all, above all, she was herself,
had taken to herself the power
of who she was: not mapped
by where she stood to someone else;
drank deep of whitethorn
and tobacco; dropped
on the dew the last match; numbered
perfections the moon could but diminish;
recalled with a smile, cigarettes'
innumerable comforts. Wanting not to forget,
she stood a while after the last was finished,
letting that thick inhalation burn
her nose and throat, a coat against
what sweet brown would be her last.
Dark as it ever gets on such a night, she bent
above the solid bank,
laughed at the never-written note;
her time was up. What would they think
of such a trite, unthinking quote
and she a million miles from there - wild as it gets,
where a fox confused by momentary human scent
goes nonetheless in search of blood.
Above in the lit house they slept. She understood:
knew too she must embrace her future state
head first. When, almost by accident, they saw
one slippered foot above the slurry pit
they knew despite their heart and conscience,
it had been deliberate.
Such monstrous bravery! Men who had gutted cows
circled the scene that evening with an unacknowledged awe.
Like a brown crown of thorns, those butts of cigarettes.
Above mute keys, hush and hammering hearts
snapping the thread between prayer and grace,
the faces peer. Their place,
this, unremembered years ago, gathered
and lined, calmly
reaffirming their immutability. What can their faces
tell us, other
than that even as they stand, they fall apart?
What do they pray for, those beneath? Domesticity
and disintegration beckon
and stomach-tearing tragedy unreckoned
in spite of every pain they take to fasten
soul to time, to pin or clasp
joy of the lesson.
Cool as Cana jars, a wisp
of sound ascends, solemnizing certainty
but no: truth's a sad beggar shambling
the twisty puddled tracks worn down by faith,
and faith a cow whose milk rises to a noisy froth
in an empty pail.
Embrace if you will the certainty of failure
gallant and blind as birth,
indifferent to the cold glint, sure steel
of pure thought among the mumbles.
Surely love must have broken through the bland gaze
at least once before the frozen hour was over;
did any of them ever
think it could stem
those several tides - fear, tiredness, blood in the phlegm:
what dreams like muscles held in check as the hand hovered
above the leaves of dim
trees, and beyond, an unnerving haze?
The candle calls chaos, the candle shivering where stained
glass is darker than night outside.
Wine, wafer, every vow remembered
must come to this: blessings counted among unending
pain; the dying cell, the immovable mind
lost among flowers whose names have long died.
Somewhere float slivers of a heart-rending
hymn: and Christ denied beats in every thinning vein.
Strength when sight fails is what they pray for,
who have long lost hope that sight
can be restored. The only light's
a dull red smudge where the smith
blindly showers sparks. Underneath, lips move, despite
their knowing every word's a death of faith.
Send us, they say, no other Saviour.
The grey geese have come again
wing-whooping low across the west
towards weak sun and distant rest,
and the waterhen
has shaken off nest-shyness,
she prowls around the bottom of the lawn
before radio song and curtain drawn.
Where are the chicks that ran
like baby ostriches across a square savannah
or grazed along the shadow line
of grass and hedge? One we heard
pecked fiercely by the mother bird
had lingered near the stream beyond its time.
Day dies round that silhouette
where the sun in chiefest light
bowed to greet the covert night;
where in the wet
cows huddle, grey, half-hidden,
or wander aimlessly, shivering, like guests
at a November wedding
braving the town in summer dress.
November couple, under
which moon did you sit last summer
planning this day, marking the music -
thin, silver-horned, acorn-clasping
or at this very moment rising
blooded, full of one of Leah's rubies?
That call in gathering twilight could
be a lone swan, company-crying,
but hereabouts no pool replying,
you, who in purple gem and flame
exchanged this day the promise of cut flowers,
come into your name
as this bird goes blind towards its hour.
ALL SOULS' DAY
Past the storm-lashed hall, the eels are moving.
On the grave by the black oak
their bellies grate;
under the ridge of long-drowned garlic
the black stream waits.
Night runs down in dark diamonds;
the pipe sputters,
spews in the wind thin-tailed waves.
Remember roses at the gate, the taste of clove and cinnamon,
coins tossed, the spin, shout, clatter.
Search for that copper in the sodden leaves.
Too weak to warm hedgehogs, an early
sun scatters drachmas on rills
where stubble unburned is slit,
the sod turned. half-hope of barley.
A stray seed muddies an unseen aisle,
is picked and dropped
on a near kneeler. Begins the Creed:
today the organ stop
is set at reed and trumpet.
Outside, branches scrape
more slowly now, the storm placated.
The laurel by the road has snapped:
quick, bind it, sap to sap,
there's time yet;
drink in wet day, fasten
light to light: listen.
Something returns - not winter.
To everything its shape,
to bloom and burst, or fade to a fine
nothingness. The world's
a billion hidden overlaps;
the choral swell and climax; after, the tiniest
tock of a lid so softly closed, magnifies
as it breaks the stillness; deep,
deep in the cold whale-whirled
caverns of the Atlantic, ride
clouds of coming Christmas, moisture
that will fog those coloured lights,
current to counterpoint brass-band nights
and coloured bags of sweets.
On go the eels: the streams
are altars. Quietly they cross our habitations,
beyond love, fear, loneliness; beautiful
the pull that blinds them to batter at dams,
frightening, their nerveless patience:
on, to weed or predator,
their dark joy a greater fire
than hearth or gold extracting black.
After the storm, the great tree, bleak,
cold sunset, crescent, Lucifer.
Imagine an island with no
coastline. Sail there
under whatever wind you will: sow
unseasonal flowers, rosemary, rue
(too late that repentance). True
whatever enchantment you conjecture,
permanence from wrestling air;
conjure water, bright, pure
as that well the Gunning sisters drank from.
Look - from all sides, back: dumb
shows sign the grave at summer's end,
late primroses in sand.
After a storm the tops of eastern trees
shake hidden rainbow drops; huge
blue music under the day-drowned Pleiades:
we are spared, spared! When will it cease,
wonder of the perfect crease?
Cold, come, your morning trailed by gems,
spider sheets on hedges;
long hall-lit nights for some,
four stolen hours, the last chalk blown.
Under a watery moon
walk and remember. Stand, listen:
the air described, the mantle fastened.
And somewhere, girls' voices, not recognised,
but like the shadow of a dream
you hope to fall back into, leaden-eyed;
remote, they walk in echoing couples,
their laughter dripping dim and deep as pebbles
scattering clear water. Cut on that coral,
severed from the promise of honey and cream,
the psyche bleeds itself of every hope that's mortal -
kingdom of the drunk; pearl-consuming fish;
flowers to adorn an outdoor dish.
Range those flowers on the bare ground,
drown that laughter in any other sound;
go farther, deeper, through long humid dark to a sudden
clearing, round which trees form a vast green circle,
where you freeze or lie exhausted, unburdened
of all soiled treasure gathered;
under whose full sun each floor is fathomed;
tune to the island's rise and fall,
know time and all it holds, the primal crackle,
a black bush rooted to a stunted well.
Know, and be forgiven: a generous air
brushes the broad space, carries calm from where
the fever cooled. Far off, now, that remorse
finally reckoned, journey and journey's end.
These the drowning know, and the old;
these and every possibility
before the fair sea folds
and the island's once again complete;
for a different feast now, its curds and cream, all sweet
gathered to itself. O love that's nothing
if a land unvisited by catastrophe,
wake to some other breathing,
attend the storm's great loss; look
for the winter well, pool of the drowned book;
anticipate great nights' returning,
the hive not dead, but waiting.
POEMS FROM THE BLACK BOOK
How frail we are, how certainly we're shaken.
I watch you jump and laugh as the waves break
round you and the children, arm in arm;
above the wind you call me that you're warm.
There's no one else along this white half-mile,
they're all in caravans, out of the wild
that drowns your squeal of pleasure as you race
farther out and cold salt whips your face.
You're happy as a child there in the surf
but I know tonight sorrow will engulf you
as surely as that black cloud die upon us,
you'll dream about your brother, taken from us
by his own hand, whom no one knew to save;
your sleeping cry will break like a black wave
across the dawn, the dunes, the hidden tide
where now you lie and with the Atlantic ride.
In the middle of this chaos, I turn back
to that other room, crowded, vaulted, dark,
and that time-turning, corner-of-my-eye
first glimpse of you sitting, head inclined,
hands on lap as if you'd just been sewing,
so wrapped in yourself I almost kept on going.
I remember too the yellowed pictures hung
on my old classroom wall; each time they rang
the Angelus, we'd face the Annunciation.
Something in the Virgin's face on those occasions
reminds me how it was in the beginning
between us - silence, looks, ideas brimming.
Word and flesh have come and gone since then,
and we in middle age as if starting again
but this time in huge shadow: only love,
the kind we thought we knew when we set off,
remains unchanged, but will it be enough
to take us through this thorn-and-linen pain?
In a thin line over the northern wastes
sun's first streak lasts less than a minute;
the moment of relief from our own loss
holds, it seems, all future grief within it.
Into the light we come, into the dark,
and move from one to the other without knowing,
wonder why dawn or mood is bright or black,
wonder where a summer's day is going.
So it goes, my love: beyond dumb curtains
and cold, unheeding walls, the blind birds measure
sun's coming glory, while we, huddled, question
the miser's joy, the young man's squandered treasure.
The priest is speaking about love and death
beneath the silent stairs that witnessed both,
goes on to speak of Christ whom no one knows
anymore, at least not he who rose -
forget the Resurrection: that will come,
if ever, after an eternity of dumb
bewildered mourning. Not one scrap of faith
remains to light us down that tortured path
tonight as we gather for the first time
since the funeral, and you so thirst
for consolation that all thought or word
runs dry, and the priest's chant goes unheard.
I think of all the times I've let you down
and how you've paid me back with love in turn,
and knowing myself unworthy of such love
I see the same in Christ who's said to save,
and know whatever prayer you make this Mass,
whatever rage at what has come to pass,
or longing, or despair, must have a worth
beyond what I or anyone on earth
could ever begin to wonder at; and while
communicants line up in awkward file
I join whatever prayer I have with you,
as near as Christ, and suffering, and as true
I lie and listen to your breathing stop,
start, and level, as the nightmare traps
and then releases. An hour or more I've lain
unmoving for fear I'd cause you pain
of waking and having to face that dream again.
Black two o' clock, the hour it all began,
though we in that last sound, unbroken sleep,
an innocence now, perhaps forever gone.
What were we dreaming of before the phone
shattered the night and future?
Still you weep,
and maybe you'll weep forever, who can tell:
who could have thought a radio, clock, or bell
could leave us in this state of tossing fright
and for so long: and worse, no end in sight,
none till the dead can speak, or fade from sight.
Our words are air sucked out of a vacuum,
someday will return a time for them.
Meanwhile we console ourselves with the banal,
tired talk, waiting for sleep to come,
for former plans to reinvest themselves
with a meaning that once seemed plain and natural.
And none of it our fault, that the world
or best part of it, blood and bone, should crumble
overnight, to leave us sitting numbed
and speaking instinctively, almost in tongues,
giving free rein to every thought appalled,
and mutual support when one or other stalled.
But now a predicted stiffness has set in,
a knot that thought or gesture can't unpick,
nor words: although we do the best we can,
are sure to speak before we act or think.
The past is robbed of fragrance: of the future,
we hardly dare to speak to one another.
After the first strangeness, it's strange
how black becomes you,
how naturally, easily, you wear
its casual mourning;
how true it is, your face pale,
eyes growing clearer
each morning, the casual
birdcall drawing you to the garden window.
This is as it should be: we conceive
behind black frost as bird
and beast forage, part, and grieve;
now we reach in turn
for the subdued colour
as the earth splits, and daffodil
spears blunt and burst
bright into the dying dew.
Love is so little after someone's died.
You sit and wait for them like a faithful pet,
you wait as though they'd just stepped outside,
look out the door to see why they're not back yet;
you start to tell them something. Then you know
there's no one there to listen. It's that simple.
They're gone and there's nothing you can do,
there's no one there to catch you when you stumble.
Then there's love. It has a stubborn knack
of grabbing you and never letting go,
it tightens till you think your head will crack,
it knots inside your stomach till there's no
abiding it. Yet it's the one thing keeps
you going, long after you've forgotten how
you used to love before it made you weep;
when nothing mattered but to make that vow.
I told you, when you reached your parents' house,
that going in would be the hardest thing
you'd have to do, and haven't doubted since
the truth of it, although the ruined spring
brought different kinds of heartbreak, endlessly
repeated. Outward show and habit seemed
unbreakable at times, especially
the daily chores; milking, saucepans teemed,
grandchildren on Sundays playing games,
cattle to be checked out at the cross.
And still these things which have remained the same
throw up at every turn their stab of loss -
a house so obviously dark when evening falls,
a field of spuds unplanted; and, this summer,
the many times we've heard a chained cow bawl
after her calf when it's been taken from her.
Whatever healing's in your heart
I can claim little credit for my part;
time and letting go of what has gone
and that capacity for plodding on
in spite of all that tragedy works on us
has taken you this far, and seems to promise
peace of a kind this summer; so much so
that when this holiday came up, you said you'd go,
and only once I've noticed your eyes red,
beside the memorial to the fisher dead
who boarded a small boat one August morning
and perished in the bay: loss without warning;
grief comes back suddenly but, I think, more gently.
Tonight we hear a late lark soar intently,
behind the dunes, the lapping waves still warm,
we'll watch the moon glow through the afterstorm.