Poetry by Seamus Heaney
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home
History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
1. A Suit
"I'll make you one," he said, "and balance it
Perfectly on you." And I could almost feel
The plumb line of the creased tweed hit my heel,
My shoulders like a spar or a riding scale
Under the jacket, my whole shape realigned
In ways that suited me down to the ground.
So although a suit was the last thing that I needed
I wore his words and told him that I'd take it
And told myself it was going for a song.
2. A Tie
3. A Coat
"We're not a mile off it," I heard him say, with an ought
Dragging and lengthening out the sound of that "not" ?
For Mr Simpson, though he worked in Magherafelt,
Was from Antrim and glottal and more of a Pict than a Celt.
But an Ulsterman. An Ulsterman for sure,
Calling a spade a spade and the door the dure
And any child he was fitting with clothes the wean.
My father poked his cattle-dealer's cane
Into the coats on the coatrack for the only one
That took his fancy and when I had put it on,
"We're not a mile off it," Mr Simpson said again,
Uneager and sure of the sale; and confidentially then,
The Oxford English Dictionary even gives it.
Good cloth and good wear and the whole of your money's
I hear him still when I reach deep into the long
Cold draught of the sleeve of some ulster I'm fitting on
And wish my hand would come through and beyond all that
Deep glottal purchase and worth, like the virtual flight
Of The Red Hand of Ulster beyond the beyond of its myth,
Back to its unbloodied cuff at its unsevered wrist,
Flexing its fingers again and combing the air
And a wild, post-Shakespearean streel of gallowglass hair.
for T. P. Flanagan
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat set it up
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and #CCCCFF.
The ground itself is kind #CCCCFF butter
Melting and opening underfoot
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf
Calling another rum
And #CCCCFFcurrant without
Having to raise his voice
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner
Sure-footed but too sly
His deadpan sidling tact
His fisherman's quick eye
And turned observant back.
To him my other life.
Sometimes on the high stool
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And always politic
And shy of condescension
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in
PARAS THIRTEEN the walls said
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
His breath and trembled.
It was a day of cold
Raw silence wind-blown
Surplice and soutane:
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned
Whatever flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe's complicity?
'Now you're supposed to be
An educated man '
I hear him say. 'Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.'
I missed his funeral
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse...
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Of a dawdling engine
The line lifted hand
Over fist cold sunshine
On the water the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat
The screw purling turning
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early haul
Steadily off the bottom
Dispraise the catch and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you slow mile by mile
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere well out beyond...
Plodder through rain
Question me again.
In Memoriam M.K.H. 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head
Her breath in mine our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
In Memoriam M.K.H. 1911-1984
The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her first straight down the hem
And then diagonally then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand day by day just touch and go
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges
Blue smoke straight up old beds and ploughs in hedges
An auction notice on an outhouse wall--
You with a harvest bow in your lapel
Me with the fishing rod already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time and beats but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser--
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage and still warm.
Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.
So the particular judgement might be set:
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into--
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.
And after the commanded journey what?
Nothing magnificent nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away alone.
And it is not particular at all
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round.
Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.
Once as a child out in a field of sheep
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.
In that sniffed-at bleated-into grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting
For sky to make it sing the prefect pitch
Of his dumb being and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original
Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.
(I misremembered. He went down on all fours
Florence Emily says crossing a ewe-leaze.
Hardy sought the creatures face to face
Their witless eyes and liability
To panic made him feel less alone
Made proleptic sorrow stand a moment
Over him perfectly known and sure.
And then the flock's dismay went swimming on
Into the blinks and murmurs and deflections
He'd know at parties in renowned old age
When sometimes he imagined himself a ghost
And circulated with that new perspective.)
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then as the big hull rocked to a standstill
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown '
The abbot said 'unless we help him.' So
They did the freed ship sailed and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Some day I will go to
To see his peat-brown head
The mild pods of his eye-lids
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach
Naked except for
The cap noose and girdle
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body
Trove of the turfcutters'
Now his stained face
I could risk blasphemy
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered ambushed
Flesh of labourers
Laid out in the farmyards
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers trailed
For miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me driving
Saying the names
Tollund Grauballe Nebelgard
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people
Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost
Unhappy and at home.
for Michael Longley
As a child they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop the trapped sky the smells
Of waterweed fungus and dank moss.
One in a brickyard with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A #CCCCFF face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome for there out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now to pry into roots to finger slime
To stare big-eyed Narcissus into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself to set the darkness echoing.
Between my finger and m thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window a clear rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father digging. I looked down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out all tops buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly heaving sods
Over his shoulder going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre
Horned as a unicorn at one end square
Set there immovable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes leather-aproned hairs in his nose
He leans out on the jamb recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out to work the bellows.
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck the wind
on her naked front.
It blows her nipples
to amber beads
It shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.
I can see her drowned
body in the bog
the weighing stone
the floating rods and boughs.
Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
her shaved head
like a stubble of corn
her blindfold a soiled bandage
her noose a ring
the memories of love.
Before they punished you
you were flaxen-haired
undernourished and your
tar-face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat
I almost love you
but would have cast I know
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:
I who have stood dumb
When your betraying sisters
cauled in tar
wept by the railings
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal intimate revenge
Up striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass the skunk's tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.
The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.
After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again broaching the word "wife"
Like a stored cask as if is slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.
And there she was the intent and glamorous
Ordinary mysterious skunk
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.
It all came back to me last night stirred
By the sootfall of your thing at bedtime
Your head-down tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the plunge-line nightdress.
Like a convalescent I took the hand
stretched down from the jetty sensed again
an alien comfort as I stepped on ground
to find the helping hand still gripping mine
fish-cold and bony but whether to guide
or to be guided I could not be certain
for the tall man in step at my side
seemed blind though he walked straight as a rush
upon his ash plant his eyes fixed straight ahead.
Then I knew him in the flesh
out there on the tarmac among the cars
wintered hard and sharp as a #CCCCFFthorn bush.
His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me though he did not speak yet
a voice like a prosecutor's or a singer's
cunning narcotic mimic definite
as a steel nib's downstroke quick and clean
and suddenly he hit a litter basket
with his stick saying Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own
So get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don't be so earnest,
Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly. Forget.
You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.
It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face
as I came to. "Old father mother's son
there is a moment in Stephen's diary
for April the thirteenth a revelation
set among my stars-that one entry
has been a sort of password in my ears
the collect of a new epiphany
the Feast of the Holy Tundish." "Who cares
he jeered, any more? The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires
a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod's game
Infantile like your peasant pilgrimage.
Your lose more of yourself than you redeem
Doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide it's time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency
echo soundings searches probes allurements
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea."
The shower broke in a cloudburst the tarmac
Fumed and sizzled. As he moved off quickly
The downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk.
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office ?
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At our neighbors drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying--
He had always taken funerals in his stride--
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble,"
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
There, in the corner, staring at his drink.
The cap juts like a gantry's crossbeam,
Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.
Speech is clamped in the lips' vice.
That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic-
Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again;
The only Roman collar he tolerates
Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter.
Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets;
God is a foreman with certain definite views
Who orders life in shifts of work and leisure.
A factory horn will blare the Resurrection.
He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross,
Clearly used to silence and an armchair:
Tonight the wife and children will be quiet
At slammed door and smoker's cough in the hall.
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face
towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover
and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration?
a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.
So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating
data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.
And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road
past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.
The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling round you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow,
Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting
With laughter, but keeping the drone going on
Interminably, between catches of breath.
The whitewash brush. An old blanched skirted thing
On the back of the byre door, biding its time
Until spring airs spelled lime in a work-bucket
And a potstick to mix it in with water.
Those smells brought tears to the eyes, we inhaled
A kind of greeny burning and thought of brimstone.
But the slop of the actual job
Of brushing walls, the watery grey
Being lashed on in broad swatches, then drying out
Whiter and whiter, all that worked like magic.
Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we'd been restored to? Our shadows
Moved on the wall and a tar border glittered
The full length of the house, a black divide
Like a freshly opened, pungent, reeking trench.
Piss at the gable, the dead will congregate.
But separately. The women after dark,
Hunkering there a moment before bedtime,
The only time the soul was let alone,
The only time that face and body calmed
In the eye of heaven.
Buttermilk and urine,
The pantry, the housed beasts, the listening bedroom.
We were all together there in a foretime,
In a knowledge that might not translate beyond
Those wind-heaved midnights we still cannot be sure
Happened or not. It smelled of hill-fort clay
And cattle dung. When the thorn tree was cut down
You broke your arm. I shared the dread
When a strange bird perched for days on the byre roof.
That scene, with Macbeth helpless and desperate
In his nightmare--when he meets the hags agains
And sees the apparitions in the pot--
I felt at home with that one all right. Hearth,
Steam and ululation, the smoky hair
Curtaining a cheek. 'Don't go near bad boys
In that college that you're bound for. Do you hear me?
Do you hear me speaking to you? Don't forget!'
And then the postick quickening the gruel,
The steam crown swirled, everything intimate
And fear-swathed brightening for a moment,
Then going dull and fatal and away.
Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood
In spatters on the whitewash. A clean spot
Where his head had been, other stains subsumed
In the parched wall he leant his back against
That morning like any other morning,
Part-time reservist, toting his lunch-box.
A car came slow down Castle Street, made the halt,
Crossed the Diamond, slowed again and stopped
Level with him, although it was not his lift.
And then he saw an ordinary face
For what it was and a gun in his own face.
His right leg was hooked back, his sole and heel
Against the wall, his right knee propped up steady,
So he never moved, just pushed with all his might
Against himself, then fell past the tarred strip,
Feeding the gutter with his copious blood.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open
My "place of clear water,"
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass
and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,
after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.
For Mary Heaney
There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall
of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove
sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.
Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.
But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.
Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather
Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy
For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin.
So wether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don't care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.
The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.
When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.
When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-black,
polished sloes, bitter
Riverbank, the long rigs
ending in broad docken
and a canopied pad
down to the ford
The garden mould
bruised easily, the shower
gathering in your heelmark
was the black O
its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
suddenly, like the last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.
I am afraid.
Sound has stopped in the day
And the images reel over
And over. Why all those tears,
The wild grief on his face
Outside the taxi? The sap
Of mourning rises
In our waving guests.
You sing behind the tall cake
Like a deserted bride
Who persists, demented,
And goes through the ritual.
When I went to the gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love. Let me
Sleep on your breast to the airport.
I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
the pathetic colonies
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
were ocean-defeated voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship's swimming tongu
was buoyant with hindsight -
it said Thor's jammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behindbacks
of the althings, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, "Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep you eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known."
Once we presumed to found ourselves for good
Between its blue hills and those sandless shores
Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil,
Once we had gathered driftwood, made a hearth
And hung our cauldron like a firmament,
The island broke beneath us like a wave.
The land sustaining us seemed to hold firm
Only when we embraced it in extremis.
All I believe that happened there was vision.
One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all of those with their back doors on the latch
For the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones...
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The visible, untoppled omphalos.
Light as a skiff, manoeuvrable
I affected epaulettes and acockade,
wrote a style well-bred and impervious
to the solidarity I angled for,
and played the ancient Roman with a razor.
I was the shouldered oar that ended up
far from the brine and whiff of venture,
like a scratching-post or a crossroads flagpole,
out of my element among small farmers -
I who once wakened to the shouts of men
rising from the bottom of the sea,
men in their shirts mounting through deep water
and the big fleet split and
as we ran before the gale under bare poles
When they said Carrickfergus I could hear
the frosty echo of saltminers' picks.
I imagined it, chambered and glinting,
a township built of light
What do we say any more
to conjure the salt of our earth?
So much comes and is gone
that should be crystal and kept
and amicable weathers
that bring up the grain of things,
their tang of season and store,
are all the packing we'll get.
So I say to myself Gweebarra
and its music hits off the place
like water hitting off granite.
I see the glittering sound
framed in your window,
knives and forks set on oilcloth,
and the seals' heads, suddenly outlined,
People here used to believe
that drowned souls lived in the seals.
At spring tides they might change shape.
They loved music and swam in for a singer
who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening.
When I came here first you were always singing,
a hint of the clip of the pick
in your winnowing climb and attack.
Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.
I lay waiting
between turf-face and demsne wall,
between heatherly levels
and glass-toothed stone.
My body was braille
for the creeping influences:
dawn suns groped over my head
and cooled at my feet,
through my fabrics and skins
the seeps of winter
the illiterate roots
pondered and died
in the cavings
of stomach and socket.
I lay waiting
on the gravel bottom,
my brain darkening,
a jar of spawn
dreams of Baltic amber.
Bruised berries under my nails,
the vital hoard reducing
in the crock of the pelvis.
My diadem grew carious,
in the peat floe
like the bearings of history.
My sash was a black glacier
wrinkling, dyed weaves
and phoenician stitchwork
retted on my breasts'
I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs -
the soaked fledge, the heavy
swaddle of hides.
My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.
Which they robbed.
I was barbered
by a turfcutter's spade
Who veiled me again
and packed coomd softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.
Till a peer's wife bribed him.
The plait of my hair,
a slimy birth-cord
of bog, had been cut
and I rose from the dark,
hacked bone, skull-ware,
frayed stitches, tufts,
small gleams on the bank.
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won?t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job?s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.
"They just kept turning up
And were thought of as foreign'-
One-eyed and benign
They lie about his house,
Quernstones out of a bog.
To lift the lid of the peat
And find this pupil dreaming
Of neolithic wheat!
When he stripped off blanket bog
The soft-piles centuries
Fell open like a glib:
There were the first plough-marks,
The stone age fields, the tomb
Corbelled, turfed and chambered,
Floored with dry turf-coomb.
A landscape fossilized,
Its stone wall patterings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo
Before I turn to go
He talked about persistance,
A congurence of lives,
How, stubbed and cleared of stones,
His home accrued growth rings
Of Iron, flint and bronze.
So I talked of Mossbawn,
A bogland name. 'But Moss?'
He crossed my old home's music
With older strains of Norse.
I'd told how its foundation
Was mutable as sound
And how I could derive
A forked root from that ground
And make bawn an English fort,
A planter's walled-in mound
When you plunged
The light of
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.
I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.
I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.
Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.
My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,
Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.
And suddenly you're out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.