To think what stands against me still
is not the harm of falling
off a ladder at two-storey height, nor
the live wire that ran a chain
of blisters the length of my arm,
nor any amount of pulling and scraping
around the farm, but the bunch
of grapes I can still see nestling
on the side of the hairnet
the woman wore – long ago, I tell you,
long ago, under the chandeliers
of Killalaghton Hall. And the twist
in her name works the same
in my saying as if I am tasting some
sun-struck fruit of Italy
or Spain, not this plain draught of stout
I sup in The Spinning Wheel
after suffering a day of calumny
from neighbours and rain. But where,
despite the big things they say,
do any of these men go?
Surely, no less than me, they find
themselves shunted sideways
here, ours the one refusal, put gentle
or put crude. I feel it, earnest
and exact, the prospect of our lives
lost only through grind
of hardship, absence of kindness
begun early, still this thought has me
mistaking one thing for another,
mourning an old infatuation –
as if time has stopped just as the band
swings into a jaunty air
and, turning, I distinguish
the dark gemstone eyes of the woman
with a cluster of grapes in her hair.
Seumas O’Kelly’s bedridden old Malachi Roohan twists
or wrestles somehow up, determined to settle,
once and for all, the proper site for the weaver’s burial.
He grasps the rope tied to the bed’s end rail, heaves
himself half-vertical in order to pronounce
on communal connectedness, on memory and source,
but more, on the dream nature of everything. The task
of location, which will prove beyond him,
is resolved finally in a comic quarrel involving two other
ancients, a nailer and a stone-breaker, only to stand
redundant next to the budding love between
the weaver’s youthful widow and a young grave-digger.
I sit, aged thirteen, turning the pages of my father’s
far-out relative’s magnum opus, and weeds
spring to mind, blood-barked yew trees and crooked
trellises of ivy. A pluck of dust happens where herbs
are tugged loose, and rhizomes that rip a sequence
of thin disturbances off the loamy graveyard ground.
A lone bush materialises, by which to lift
the grassy scalp of the ring-fort mound. I struggle down
to the subterranean, struggle and suffer
and snuggle into this dank and dismal yet strangely safe
reverse, this last recourse, bowels of the earth.
I smell humus and musk, sense something stirring – a wan
tendril or a rat’s tail – while about my stultified head
clay molecules collude, mouldering the bones
of my placid bedfellows, the dead. Here, the stokers
of fires, the shapers of farms and folktales.
Here, the famine priest’s vestments, which a mechanical
digger is destined – years from now – to raise
aloft in pristine preservation, to set as hastily back,
after we let slip through our fingers what’s made marvellous
in the village mind. And here, unsullied
in its delft pot, the butter that was churned more than
a millennium ago, which the girl next door will
declare edible, touching it with a finger onto her tongue.
KING OF THE WOOD
Winter egg-breakfasts. We saved the shells
to helmet twigs of Spring –
which was a whitethorn tree, buttered
and creamed with primroses from the ditches,
and danced around. Our childhood,
if we but knew, a wilding dolled up
in pagan ritual, a throaty echo
of the barbarian’s lost hurrah. He threw shapes
with us there, our woodman father,
stubble on his chin and sawdust
in his hair. His old credulousness from
before the calendared moon,
the unreliable sun configurated to a clock,
had been gradually tempered
to gentle wisdom. He became tranquil
as the summer wood, his speech
so many silver-grey ash trunks
ascending to leaf-canopies of linking branches.
In his face, the sun’s luminosity
was occluded now, now a sparring opulence.
Once, he lifted his hand
to shield my eyes, and it grew green-blooded.
I was well off and I didn’t know it, my rheumatics quiet
for the summer, only the corncrake
keeping me awake nights. I always took a knock at the door
for insult. Just turn the handle, walk
straight in, bring me blessing. There was a key
you might call communal – I never locked a door in my life,
far as I saw, neither did anyone. Able
still, I cycled to Gurtymadden, got the few groceries.
Butter vouchers filled my churn.
I let the meadow, kept a clocker hen. Church devotions
dusted my knee; I had right-of-way through darkness.
The late-callers wore mummer masks.
Whooped a hullabaloo around me. I was lifted and shaken.
“Where’s your stash?” My mattress gutted
with their knives, my dresser smashed. “Where’s
your stash?” The sharp years flash across – I forget myself.
What am I now, looked at in the glass?
A wizened face, twitched by thin white stitches of scars.
It’s falling dark. My key slots the lock.
I hear a reaper-and-binder working late, but no corncrake.
The egg you found, mother, in a hole
in the ring-fort hill, brought out
your “bad cess to the layabout hen”,
and I remember it for that, but more
because it possessed no shell,
yet could be held in its slack satchel
up to the light, yolk and albumen
intact, and intact as well – though fifty
summers have come and gone –
the papery feel of that quirk of nature
you gave your quirk-of-nature son.
Here I learn to cry again, cry absences,
the way we wear the world
of wildlife thin, yet fresh in my mind
you hand me this flimsy keepsake
as if it might prove a counter or a stay
to crake and Greenland goose,
all the wetland birds bound to fly away.
Flag- and rush-land, always
to be looked down on,
wherever he happened to stand.
Grey pools reflecting clouds
destined to drag.
Hidden quags. Scummy wells
with algal edges
green and calm. Bony cattle
whose mud-prints set
solid sculptures in summer.
drab-plumed birds. Streamlets
wandering lost, swamping
just when it seemed
they had given up the ghost.
A map of boredom,
expressing nothing, nowhere
to begin. Stillness
a camouflage by which
he might catch the quickening.
No quickening came.
Helter-skelter overtook him –
risk after risk
until the day he was thrown
by a flighty horse
beside a petrified blackthorn,
and cracked his head
against the makings of a poem.
And rose, a stranger
to himself, shouldering
home, then away
from home, his Callows bed.
IN MEMORY OF SEAMUS HOGAN
Virgil in his Georgics
birthing verse upon rough verse,
staining the pages
of the land he ploughs
in early spring,
when the frozen moisture melts
on the white mountains…
comes back through afternoon –
he makes it clear –
to lick his bundle of verses
into shape, the way
her cubs are licked by a she-bear.
Were these yours, Hansheen, three small
triangular plots in Foxhall Little?
Who owned them if not you – before the Famine,
when a thousand people lived
where now there is no-one? Wildflowers
taking the eye, untrammelled hedges
driven to utter greenness – Hansheen, these say
nothing, nor can the honeysuckle
pushing through a hole in a thatched roof
offer any clue beyond its own
aroma, its nectar, its cream-white colour.
Our hushed and hidden kinsfolk!
How demurely they lie about us, bedded
into the summer lea, giving rise to bird cherry
and blackthorn. People
whose only possessions were plots of rented mud,
lean-to shelters, lumper spuds –
the more fortunate owning a pig, a dunghill.
They exert a pull, the way news
of far-off, latter-day atrocities will,
that sinking feeling, nibble
of unease or helplessness under our ribs.
We fumble and sift, our full bellies, our good
health, serving almost as a reproof.
Probe a span that is less than three lifetimes,
yet can’t know how quietly,
how indignantly they struggled until
their agonies drove them scraping and rooting
amid the burnt leafage
of their crops, the rot-smell
hanging over an otherwise healthy landscape.
Folk memories linger – of dark-haired Maria
who got away to America
never to return; of blind Catherine, beset by robbers
who seared her eyebrows with a candle;
of a great-grand-uncle who rose
from his fireside hob to prophesy: “Wires will sing
above our heads, carrying messages
far and near – stories on top of sticks.”
What we hear is the humming of bees,
the creaking wingbeats of crows as they shift,
ramshackle yet implacable,
from beech tree to sycamore, sycamore to ash,
ignoring us though they
would surely grease their cackles with our guts
if we held still for long enough.
Go, the loneliness seems to echo,
let dusk usher old ghosts
back, this place isn’t meant for you. Hansheen,
we barely skim the surface,
and all that stands named or claimed
by us slips to posterity’s losing and forgetting.
Learn more about Patrick on the Contributors page.