VENN WORLDS (2001)
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLARE TORRY?
USING MY FATHER’S RAZOR
THE LOST CHORD
THE BEES AT SURGEON KIRBY’S GRAVE
THE OLD PIANO
A MUTE LIBRETTO
MORE REASON TO PRAISE
A PAINTING OF A TREE BY A RETURNED EMIGRANT
THE SNIPER PLAYS BRAHMS
ANGEL AND HOURGLASS
UNDER THE IVORY GATE
MY LITTLE GIRL
(from Seán Ó Ríordáin, Conas)
How will we say what has been unsayable;
how flesh the word true to the syllable?
How nerve ourselves to the impulse of the unsaid:
as our tongue the bone, our soul the marrow-cell?
Tremor cordis. Remember how it was
at about twenty
trying to decipher Latin tags
in the winter garden
but nothing connecting,
language resolute in keeping out;
the soil too, locked and blank, leaves swept or ribboned,
verges black and razored;
everything neat, controlled, indifferent
as points of foil
in a bare sky ferrying to contentment
There are names we didn't know those days: depression,
panic attack, anxiety,
we'd heard them maybe, mouthed by some comedian,
now common currency,
but no phrase can coin or catalogue
the unnameable uniqueness
of pain you think peculiarly your own;
imagine unending absences,
the frozen space between untouching hands;
summer solstice breaking on a land
you'll never visit.
(i.m. Paul Johnson)
Where it is now none of us can tell.
We used to see it just below the road
when we were bussed to Louth or Monaghan
waving flags and scarves at coming cars.
Strips of shirts, wires of ribbon hung
strangely limp and ragged round its thorns.
You'd only see the bush, never the well
where pilgrims came to carry home a cure,
a bottle of brackish, sediment-stilled water
and wrap round branches scraps of patients' clothing;
the cloth before the cure, token of faith
calling back to Patrick and beyond.
The water's drained now, part of land improvement
or piped under a stretch of widened road:
gone anyhow. A trucker in a layby
reads about the weekend-breaking scandal
or how the talks are stalled, or in the balance.
Still we need to pin a scrap of hope
like the Celtic scarf that hangs out where you died,
no other mark, the grass not even gashed.
The cloth before the cure, token of faith.
So great a world, so small a piece of cloth.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLARE TORRY?
(for Tom Flynn)
A perfect day: light, time, possibility,
summer still and breathless, uniforms
discarded; martins on the wing, greenery
unmoving. Where is that haunted, dreamless
sleep? Whatever happened to Clare Torry?
Tiny sounds in dawn-attendant rooms
flickered, the uneven pulse of want.
A quarter-century on, another need:
three nights ago I read Macbeth. That scant
first studying, punctuated by reedy
pirate tracks, digs deeper now as bombs
bleed into a blackened Asian sky;
too horribly true the slaughtered babes of Fife
littering a mountain road. How can I envy
you in your retirement: book-lined walls,
mist-early lawns, commentaries, the luxury
of pondering human baseness? Spared the waking
news, the paperboy brings more: no bells
toll, the imagined weapon real, each scruple
simple as sand. There's a terrible edge to the dreamy,
sun-drenched vista. That it once was true, it seems,
must be sufficient consolation; and, though doomed,
that there is somewhere as sharp a purity
as when Clare split summer with a wordless knife.
The metronome is still; neutral
the co-ordinates of that other triangle -
lamp, seat, key. The score waits;
peaks and troughs, that run of distant notes.
Don't walk under ladders, its small sky-
corner cut, the trinity
offended. Spirit lurks where unwary
thought or step is meshed in air.
It was here I was taught the rudiments
and learned, in spite of all was meant
to show me otherwise,
truth was beyond the brink of hand and eye;
the left line by itself had a togetherness
more pure for having made no sense. That bass
of all I've done since. Harmony seems
to flee my hands' clumsy hovering;
quavers on the stave weave,
stand petrified, and die
as fingers blink then break atonally.
Beyond the brain now, the room
and its every artefact dumb,
music in the broken air
dissipated, but still whole somewhere.
Slow day wheels by,
nurses wheeling leave lines of light
as if by trick photography,
dark sparrows flit
dappling damp leaves, land to feed
from an abandoned plate.
Shapes, no substance; bodies
cross lit doorways to adjoining rooms.
Small silences; a ladle-
tap conjures home,
the suffocating sense of intimacy lost.
It ticks the death of time.
Ceiling cracked, plaster
flakes to a shaky Mississippi River
drawn from a surreal atlas,
mould oxbows meander
the huge blank territory of the young
- O my sweet love
forgive me any wrong
I ever did you, those kindnesses
ignored, burden of the strong -
too late: the blinds
are drawn by others, unconcerned,
the trolley steered by antiseptic hands.
The floors you knew are crumbling: nizzen huts
freaks now like huge greened-over cloches
or trellises for rampant breeching weed.
No odds of brass glint under sudden sunslant;
polythene on briars, tarry crows
measure the muted passing of a sound
marooned in the dark dooms of its memory
and we in turn abandoned to the constant
cold that sang then in our unwilling knuckles,
Christmas strangely, comfortingly bleak -
people gone to eat in one-day rooms
with walls subdued, the fire damp and smoky.
The empty square promised us New Year
ready to be written on. No more:
we never cared which way the wind was blowing
or where cold came from. It was all the same;
what was, was what was happening, that simple;
no doorway to a hidden place, no need,
no longing we could recognise as other
that a kind of mental itch long days would cure.
Words and music then were no evasion.
The nearer a place, the less inclined to visit.
So with the past, it seems; those railway coats
my closed eyes hint at already once removed,
broad-suited men who gruffly smelt of valve-oil
and stabbed out Woodbines in pre-carol chorus,
what world did they inhabit: was it gone
before their eyes, or did they ride that flux
in rough, deep, uneven silent nights?
I see their fingers awkward on the valves,
at home there, too; the rest is sound past hearing,
discomforting, a baton passed, a sense
of weight that never leaves, however free
or rhythmic-gracefully the body glides
or stops, exulting, wonderfully breathless.
No one can measure the crumbling of a house
or of the people in it; how their thoughts
slip a notch to worry, then to fear,
from irritability to futile rage;
rising damp, a thousand minor faults
dead citizens of a forgotten state;
whatever page the book falls open at
whispers the end of empire. Outside, children
made up games, were caught in strawberry nets
or split ripe pears with careless windward casts;
other walls hold them now, worldwise scattered,
one at least at any time in light
but none of them enlightened, except perhaps
by constant dark encroaching on the edge.
And always now, when I hear a brass band march
I tense my body against recollection
while the bass section brings us down to where
we are today; and wait for the change of key
that brings the trio, falsity and hope,
resolution, journey's end and triumph
before the drop to sullied innocence.
No blackbird scream
illuminates the dim
richness of that now-dreamt
foliage. This yellow
sea is deadly, sallow
corn; only the doomed dew
lingers till noon,
no remnant of surface sun
survives where stalks refuse to bend.
Here you stumble, feet
lost where once you sat
meditating the nature of light,
conjured, in whose distance
the possible welled like a sudden fragrance
and a wordless voice
flooded that pinpoint space
with Sunday evening in Provence.
birds open-mouthed and slow,
tree-tops split by relentless blue,
the hammer hit -
feet's leaden weight
lifting, falling back without point
as in that dream
of perpetually walking home
lost in a visible tightening gloom
no day dispels.
In that second of appalled
epiphany, something cosmic stalled.
the clock in the next room, dipped
to semi-second silence, leaps
and is off again,
rhythmic as a cough
defines the space, the ornamental delph's
the budgerigar's grip tight
in the cage, its mirror somehow lit.
lets false dawn linger
in dark a while. Among
are those golden bones
whitening; in what corner
of a yellowed ditch
their feather-carbon leach
through stagnant husks of slime-soft beech?
Return. Straw gods'
blank numberless fields
are squares of dry ungraven gold,
outline the pained earth, etch
ghosts of fern and habitation, trenches
whose bones inter
the innocence of mapped frontiers.
No use waiting for blind triumphant winter
to pare to skeleton
stone ruin under green,
or a new barn to pound all to foundation.
USING MY FATHER'S RAZOR
How could I have forgotten how you smelt!
And now I know I never will again
I bend and curve my memory to the warm
crook of your arm about me in your chair;
a midweek night, the television off,
I asked your age; you told me thirty-seven.
And I was five. O the green of that armchair
whose dappled cushion-squares were hedge and pasture,
the whole room too, that massive portholed sideboard,
heavy drapes, the kitchen table-top
layered like liquorice.
it's there and gone, recalled without being seen
but something lingers, something of Donne's quintessence,
and all he has to say of death, though true,
crumbles and blows to dust, and here we are,
you and I both, blind before a glass.
THE LOST CHORD
The first snow is come. Uniform, grey,
hill, sky, buildings, rear and dissolve
in their own revolving oneness. Let us say
the horizon is fixed at an arbitrary eye level,
what does it tell us about that leap
of faith? For to be sure it teases memory
and opens, like alcohol, a well that seeps
into the darkhour waking pores, the mills of secrecy.
They say that when we breathe we exhale atoms
of the onions Archimedes ate. What then
of chords in an abandoned room; whose hum
electrified the blood, whose crashing din
was all there was of art, of love, of hope?
How much was more than optimism, grit
round which the beautiful in spite was wept,
pure mind in waves like sound stretched out and split?
Visiting, you court the empty spaces,
remaining walls are blank renunciation
of how your years away controlled such loss -
no power can match the drip of patient ageing -
myself no better, trying to second-guess
your line of vision in a flurry of snatched hours,
that mildewed patch a blotch on the street's face
- chatter in cold, renounce the metaphor.
Tomorrow, risen above the storm, all, hidden,
for once the same, will not exist except
in plan or recollection. In your sudden
own non-being, suspended by the jet's
temporary tear of flame on air,
what talisman to charm that naked terror -
a locked-on prayer; that past and present roar;
a rush of blood, or strange inverted laughter?
Twisted, those lines of Marvell
lodged in his mind,
stuck like the immovable ticking
of a broken second hand,
the seen and remembered melted like time's
dribble on his chin
until grasses' pins and needles
across ear and neck
and the fall of the topmost apple, from which
there was no drawing back,
were for the moment a drunken comfort,
Not since a child had he seen the heart
of a living wall
or peered from ground level into
an aphid world,
or later, a fixed flattened fragment
of that great black bowl
under which they found him, blank and rigid.
Dark greyed to a mist
as he knew someone had lifted him,
earth's smell lost,
the hedge moved to a pin of light, his eyes
locked on the east.
THE BEES AT SURGEON KIRBY'S GRAVE
The bees will find no heart,
no hollow stone
soften to their persuasive jaws;
they hover, stack and land
on the granite ledge
whose cracked cement has lured them
to swarm and futile death.
Their queen at rest,
forever wedged and bloated,
they arch above the path,
whose last remaining instinct
is to sting. They guard
the grave from gardeners
and the curious. Cypress, gravel,
cede to a weedkilled wilderness,
ivy, bat, blackbirds
home on certain
shelter in branch and brick;
no wind may blast the queen's
from the perfection of her shell.
THE OLD PIANO
The old piano waits
two perfect half-moons burnt into its ivory
earth-brown, a black equator between notes,
resolutely stiff: an odd arpeggio
fragments under hammers' damp resistance.
Its dust-sealed lid topped
by the perfect red of a single fresh-cut peony
lush, black-tipped, the vase more often joining
in the cavernous hum
of attempted songs, their incompleteness sealed
by hands' relief after the tune's abandoned.
A step back: pan
along damp striped paper to that odd alcove
enriched minutely once by Bach echoing;
a worn stool, piled
unsteadily with junk, and under all
a sheet, clean, crisp, virginal, that held
within, its own life,
mind-mastering until mastered in turn,
held too in someone's hands, that dark delicious
doubt of anticipation,
and somewhere there the crushed dust of a flower,
its petals trapped, transparent, indeterminate.
Last night I stopped to hear
the rooks out-drench their treetops.
Soon other leaves will slowly
wash over the round glass roof
where stars tracked the gazing months
and this tower of yours will be
a hard, unbudding stem.
Open the huge steel fins to swell
in distant light like puffed plumage.
Already May seduces the air
with scent and damp, whitethorn,
fennel, cow parsley, fruits of patience.
Silent striving, brief sacrifice,
blossoms are blotted commas
where the rain won't dry.
You pass through rooms
that are your folded self. The steps
swirl, no more a trompe l'oeil
that the frozen spiral of that dance
you dreamed. Burst out of that body
you drew but could not inhabit
into the raucous day of promise
where wood is wild and sheet metal
gleams like slivers of a far fall.
(based on the model designed by Eilis O' Donnell
for the exhibition A Room of One's Own)
A MUTE LIBRETTO
Your life a mute libretto, typified
by those books on opera you never read.
The weeks they lay about your bed, no sound
seeped into mind except those nuggets mined
where wave has scarcely air to travel on.
Encased in rarity and damp, you wandered
where - among the dust unstirred to hidden
song, or that yawning gap of the absurd
aching to be filled with warmth and genius?
All kept to yourself. The day-sick bulb, weak eyes,
dry tightened lips, were eloquent of a world
glimpsed at a remove, piecemeal, fragmented,
knotted in a pained wish to make all whole,
the sumptuous still sought, the drab still panned.
A lifetime is scarcely enough to notice
colour veining stone; striated years leach
into vision, pocking in highlights
that punctuate an unrevealed epic.
Darks and greys line, bowed. Arrested
by a sermon on the sea, imagination
winds round the thread of their minimal
movements; odd heads bob like black buoys.
And that girl who is leaving the funeral early
has nowhere to go but into her life.
Unexpected porch-light widens her dry eyes.
She has prayed her life into her reddened cheeks.
There is no edge anymore. That noon
banking on the molten, blue
Atlantic is pure illusion: islands
stretching into an emptiness no longer
articulated - the last phantom
voyagers have long left sails
and hawsers rotting
on a minute-pointed quay.
Even on the brightest day, Slievemore
looms, an ever-sudden breaker,
the curved walls and crooked corners
of its deserted town, centuries'
brief flotsam. No roads dare
here, no high moving roofs glinting
beacons. Instead, advancing scaur
funnels light ungraciously down
past neat new dormer homes,
bone-white, harsh in high summer.
No longer random as beached
boats, they ring the pass at a safe,
neutral height. Built to windward
for the view, they refute
in this tough green strait, the very
narrowness of their passing.
Possessions pitched like leaning
towers on their backs, the couple
who limped in late last night
are on the move already. With the stillness
of slow nomads, they look into a middle
distance: day set, muscle-measured time,
an enviable immediate. His hair is combed,
wet, everything is ready.
The sea is behind them. They have a view
that will change as and when they wish.
She is perfectly poised. Weighed only
by a sudden, vanquished urge to speed,
they thread between guy ropes, past cars
that will pass them in an hour. They embrace
hills, heat, the certainty of tired soreness.
An old pot suddenly gleams like a knife
as they step onto the road and are gone.
The eye has no patience to follow them,
it would be easier to follow a star
or a pale sail static in a stabbing sea.
They had an elegant disdain that was somehow
painful, a completeness in their stiff knees,
an exhausted strength that was unbreakable
in the way they turned their backs on the white houses.
MORE REASON TO PRAISE
(for Gisela Noy)
There is a certainty too
in this "more reason to praise"
you mention. And it is,
as you say, a matter of age. Mellow?
I think not; more a reckoning
of wonder, as a child will zoom
longingly on a loosed balloon,
eyes amazed at the floating
pattern rather than his loss.
For an instant that gap is a treasure
in itself, his stunned mind a haze
through which no logic passes.
It is the sky we can't traverse
we gasp at, more so as we plant
ourselves in what we once wanted.
We can still look down at the universe.
(after Gustavo Adolfo Becquer 'Volveran')
The black swallows will return
to nest on your balcony,
their wings as they hang at play
knocking on your window pane
but those who paused to see
your loveliness and my unmeasured luck,
who learned our murmured names - they
will not come back!
The thick honeysuckles will return
to climb your garden walls,
will open to evening again
their flowers even more beautiful
but those, dew-curded, whose rolling
drops we saw tremble and fall
clear as day's tears -
they will never reappear!
Once more your ears will burn
to words of love; perhaps
something in them will stir
your heart from its deep sleep;
but kneeling, mute, as men
worship at God's altar:
that you'll know love again
as I have loved you? Never!
That lime-green paint
you applied with an unusual
thoroughness, still seals
the bay sill;
packed with odd accretions
of absent dysfunction: item,
as a kitchen table; shirts
I remember pressed in a hurry
for Friday gigs.
My week done,
I'd call to find you creasing
collar or band suit, breakfast
intersecting at a point
of humorous disappointment,
of joke or gossip
- the dead cat hidden
in the piano player's case,
the stage cleared -
we never named,
although we knew, the tedium
of the rehashed, futile plan.
You rarely mentioned
the hard road
you knew you'd have to take
to leave a harder. Mute
that shelf of tapes
we knew were maps
to an impossible country
whose vegetation closes round
A PAINTING OF A TREE BY
A RETURNED EMIGRANT
elm I remember: not this,
trunk a desert stone,
pillar or torso
reddened by a remembered sun.
Contours are grains you could
wear your fingers on; near,
the eye blears with ribbons of
raw colour. What voices pine,
words knot in sandy
throats! The imperfect
O of an amputated branch
is a mute Munchian
mouth rimmed in black outline.
One drinks from such a bowl
once or twice in a lifetime,
wood stained with the taste
rough and heavy as an old vine,
a perpetual green
dancing on surprised buds
at odds, as it should; the tree
born of a stone-triggered thought,
struggles to belong,
pains: here no canopy shelters,
every stroke cries a wish
to be rootless again,
for the barren to flower.
Everything we take with us,
nose against the earth,
is lost to itself,
blooms in the unsatisfying
new, already dying, lost
in the brittle present.
So you paint for its own sake.
No, for the elemental
you can't feel: still air
hardening the vague
into an indestructible
statement: life, in despite,
bound to its own release.
And we look beyond, into
the ever-shifting snapshot,
of a memory.
In an unforced surrender, we
recognise each other,
the tree always a tree.
THE SNIPER PLAYS BRAHMS
The tiny weight on the palm,
all balanced, tending towards the perfect
point, the atomic arrowhead of rapture.
He bows along infinitudes of stillness,
each one a recollection.
the wrong palm warmed, the eye not trained,
the moment now expanded to long,
rhapsodic lines. And now no climax,
or rather height without that mad
coda of escape, the rhythm ragged,
all that missed, misted
swimming before the eyes
after recoil's release.
Outside, the lights are on,
rubies, diamonds, thread the tarred slick hills;
Brahms' atman throws a blanket round
his nerves steeling themselves against
the wet of siren undergrowth.
He thinks of gut. It hits; the string
squeals slightly. Gut and the snapped
cord. From nowhere, this, or so he thinks.
But no. He knows he has been bought
by Brahms and the vulnerable warmth
of brittle wood, precious, trusting;
that he can at any minute smash it
tenses him to sway pleasantly
like empty scales on wind.
Pearl and grit. Dirt under nails. The tired eye.
He shuts them now to smell old wood and resin,
others' sweat, the fretboard
smoothed by unremembered fingers.
Tomorrow Sunday. Suits and organ. Angular
beauty of nave and surround. The straight
line, the air-dying phrase, the feel
of feet on the ground,
coins in the plate clinking.
ANGEL AND HOURGLASS
No sun lights the stone
where the angel dances on the hourglass.
She faces the shaded earth
where parched birds once in a lifetime
maybe, shelter. Her sisters the sun
has faded, soft rain and frost
taken to themselves, grain by yearly grain.
Such a harvest there, where the raised
dead wait their spilling onto the streets!
It was madness then, that angel
to appear, clumsy and strangely radiant among
the memento mori. But it was done.
The mist has lifted. Already warm,
the pavements gleam in favoured patches
and the smoke from last night's celebrations
hangs rich in the air. Entries away,
a barman is piling a skip with bottles,
their clink an occasional music. I keep thinking
of those rare discords you passed off as jazz.
(You laughed but were surprised when they struck clean.)
On such a morning one could
wish for sound. No word, sense, noise:
just sound, its resonance a space
like countryside behind dispersing fog
real and inaccurate and full of promise.
And before the wish, simply pleasure,
odd wakenings collided into chords,
warm and inconclusive minor sevenths.
Now like a river the town gathers
apace, moving away from itself without
knowing, as everything on such dismembered
nights measure themselves by distance -
the gambler's gap between musicians; the split
before a chord when everything hangs,
and a finger-film of sweat
can tilt or right the axis of a song.
And where you are the sky spreads
evenly, an empyrean gold to blue,
time neither puzzle nor sequence.
As you bank, the horizon pivots
silent and obliging; your path unfogged,
curved and certain as a phrase mark
or the running swell between shores. You traverse
the same daybreak, the same high tide.
"For example, he discovered that one old lady,
who had spent the fifty years of her incarceration
on the Burgholzli making stitching movements
as if she was sewing shoes, had been jilted
by her lover just before she became ill:
as Jung was able to discover, he was a cobbler."
Jung: Anthony Stevens
The shoe will not keep away the world
any more than the parting
air is sewn by the retreating stream
which is her sole succour
from that day's taste which has never left her;
her weaving is a vain spitting out.
Although she knows the watching face is kind,
the rhythmic, soothing phrase is a babble of the dead.
Suddenly sun floods the room with sense,
her hand stilled above her head,
dust and insects dance unconducted
and in this heartbreaking
ravelling, every other afternoon
those fifty years past, floats like honey
or the pained, remembered small of leather,
time reasserted in its own annihilation.
The gesture is a gesture again,
the arm tired, the muscle sore
with a freshness that holds every ache
not yet experienced
and because to come, ever negated.
She is back in the safe, work-lit womb
of the cobbler's shop, warm with promises
and the dizzy, assuring freedom of betrothal.
It passes. Light is a reprieve,
her hands begin the long swim
into grace, into muddied meaning.
Winter falls, but gently,
the small glitter in her eyes is the last
mirroring of that short, shadowed life;
if she lives, she will walk among the buds,
her arms breaking the mimed silence of wall and still shrub.
"I cannot think it pedantry that a man
desiring to speak (or sing) something important
should also desire to speak with certainty."
The bikers rise like horses out of water.
They break the ridge of the road
on one wheel. Saturday shatters,
two young boys powerwashing cars
stare, pallid and jealous. The engines die
somewhere between hills, some time
before the smell of oil and speed.
The imagined space they dwindled into stays,
an unwanted echo mars
the certain rhythm of our plans.
Wind-bitten, dizzy with the kind
of disappointment that redeems itself
in laws, we daydream to the line
the machines drummed against our ribs.
But they feel nothing, those stiff-solid figures.
no breeze flaws face or hands,
the roar beneath no more than the briefest
flickering of power, they hurtled, locked
within the gravity they defy,
living on the edge of pain
but never nearing any kind of centre,
their lives fulfilled by risk.
We pass a pub where gleaming bikes
are neat as tuxedos on a hire-shop rack;
they walk outside, faces framed by froth,
their lives by swapped stories
and the sure smell of sweat and leather.
It's only later when in dark you sit
under the glass you'd sleepless nights about
that all unfolds, and we're sucked back in
the swell that nearly took your life, begin
to feel that terrible enormity
break in on us. No one of them can see
how guilt in me pounds like surf; humility
that the thought you thought your last should be of me
going home without you, not as we then did,
skirting the Erne with sleeping, sand-socked kids,
red sun low, on the radio the restoration
of part of the Thomastown Royal canal,
that silence now forever virginal.
After a long while he stops
above the water that was purer once,
watches himself looking at the flat,
ripple-free reflected chiaroscuro
of the Minnesota sky, a statue
full-eyed, Unblinking, he dips
a finger; water dripping from the lifted
tip fractures the face which joins
unsettled, cat-like; dark,
dense, unmoved, he is back
and of a piece with what he tried to scatter.
That child he'd hoped to see
in the settling refused to come.
Again he stirs. The water is decisive:
nothing but himself. Beneath
a small sudden cloud, the bottom
propels into sight, pressing life
indifferent to unaccustomed eyes.
It comes to him that he is so much past,
a past that has rejected him.
The lake the same in each particular
makes him feel that he has never
visited before; the boy he was,
layered by refusals to let go,
has long escaped.
He cools his defeated hands
deep, his forearms seem to hinge.
He contemplates them browning into dark
then lifts them, hands cupped,
he wants to feel this water dry
again on his cheekbones and forehead
but he has lost the knack,
his fingers leak. Then he notices
the tiny fish, writhe-glinting on his palm.
Could he have been so still? It is still, now,
so minuscule a mouth to part for air.
Pondfish, maybe, or fry biding
the pull of the river, never knowing.
The hull of his knuckles sinks, his fingers
open like lily leaves;
the fish surprised by life, and for
a moment it floats, side-on,
its fullstop eye drinking down the sun.
I remember your parting words "We are never beaten."
And though I knew them false I let it go
because the sun was full, wild fields in flower,
we sharing an instant the spendthrift's optimism.
I have a dream of flies about a barn,
drowsy, full, where a man may walk unbitten;
an illusion not of sun but light's uncertain
angle, promising like apple-pink in May.
Science says our field had none of the miraculous
but miracle enough its name, as this green page
whose grain is every pollen cell that aged.
We must, now barred, believe that where we live
holds every hope sufficient for the past,
remembered hedgerows, trackless road-viewed acres
forever of a piece. You heard me out,
eyes wide with humorous uncertainty.
And then you said "Isn't it all for nothing,
yours as well as mine?" The honest kick,
full-frontal, feared for what it leaves - eye-contact.
Maybe so. Humbly. maybe so.
But where does that leave the sun, the evening swarm,
a shot of beauty in a well-glade; sculpted
salt your father left for distant cows,
their milk our bones somehow? I turned at the gate,
after a final wave, to feed fat roses,
their uselessness a kind of affirmation.
Picture if we can, the view:
those hills, no longer blue, their trees
peeled like pre-operative skin,
are desert ochre. Near, too near,
their quilted contours, focused, bare
in midday's harsh neutrality.
The fabulous he'd sung into
fabric of school's brocaded hours
were deep dark breakers on a horizon
read in dreaming books. Now sun's
stripped ditches to a Martian dark,
baked lead among the azure wash
that was Tyrone, his father told him
and names like gold rained through his head,
the myth of Ireland and his future.
He trembled in his father's hand
at the huge earthquake of sight and story,
Tyrone an ocean, Ireland, Canaan.
Fifty years ago he stood,
bike balanced on the wind, out there
and looked across the same, a pea-
green sea peopled with shingled farms,
their gables bobbing gulls. Afraid
to venture farther, he came down
and ringed himself against Tyrone
with knowledge and forgetfulness
until those blue waves settled back,
becoming more than what they held.
The upstairs room, too high, too close,
peers on the sides where blue is pared
to green-brown bone of sight and age
whose scars are purpled threaded veins
exploded; the room as sparse and bleak,
stripped of the possibility
of colour or beginning. Vague
as incense, food and varnish drift.
UNDER THE IVORY GATE
"The beauty of images is situated in front
of things, that of ideas behind them."
The Skylon in October,
a strange hazy mix
of the clean and raucous.
A footless second-year
barges in a circle,
eyes fixed, full.
Who is he? And that girl
whose name darts from a list
about to be shredded?
A winter war on Proust,
wide windows white-shuttered,
recall the impractical
hiatus that passed for learning
those years ago, an absurd
cosseted tenure, the kind
we vaguely wish our children
grudgingly, though, gambling
the safe against the futile.
Polished music rooms
where few notes belled,
Led Zeppelin erratically booming
from a boarding hall;
between such gaping poles
no centre held
but the comfortable, avoiding
blanket of the mundane -
lecture, library, pint,
the ease of having settled,
dream of comely maidens.
(Before first term began
I'd seen Dev's grave decked
with fresh flowers; unironic
leaned against each other
like worn-out soldiers.
A car handbrake-wheeled
unremarkably: this was Dublin.
So wide the sky, unpenned
by hills, so many trees
still full on the avenues.
No dreamy, brittle music,
no skin-disturbing breeze.)
Summers - as they say
remembering the scythe-
crisp of sunwashed hay -
denied us then. We scattered,
made a dog-day myth
of odd noons patched together.
Now memory dies. That boy,
that female form engrossed
in a thought piercingly hers,
were never there, no, never.
The dream, like the excuse,
has brought alive the lie
that beauty co-existing
uneasily with truth
can body out like Lazarus
and simply be: a self
to end all selves, a proof
from which no soul is safe.
Instead we grab at brightness
or a dim illumination
we hope will soften
the enemy hours we fight
before lapsing into half-
shadow, defeated tones.
Such time recalled is filled
with darkness now, a state
of sore bewilderment.
Truth never seemed to stint.
But no gate is visible
under the ivory gate.
MY LITTLE GIRL
(from the Latin of Martial)
To you, my parents, Fronto and Flacilla,
I commend with a kiss my darling and delight,
my little girl Erotion. Shelter her
from dread of shadows or the horrid jaws
of Tartarus. She would have seen just six
cold winters had she lived as many days.
Let her play, protected by such elders
and lisp my name perhaps, in playful chatter.
Heap no hard turf on her gentle bones,
nor, earth, lie heavy; she was not thus on you.