• ABYSS OF THE BIRDS

    1

    During Hitler's War, he lit the eyes of prisoners
    like stars in a frosty January, soldiers in their hundreds
    crowding round him and his première:
    a froggy joke at best to Stalag guards, Messiaen
    humoured piano in concentration as a soldier.

    April and May dawns in his mouldy bunk moulding in his mouth
    rusts in that place of starvation, scarce a snail round,
    waiting for the first bird calls to jot down as given,
    he could not wander the woodlands beyond
    the barbed wire to animate the chorus.

    That addled him a lot. How in hell to play the piece . . .
    The best he could muster was a cello walking wounded
    all three strings wailed Messiaen and Henri Akoka
    Jew, clarinetist lucky with a clarinet; the old key-sticking piano
    Messiaen'd play himself, Jean Le Boulaire, violin,
    rehearsals six to lightout in the splashing washrooms,
    and there were the ad lib birds, his playing with them on the score
    four of the seven movements with the weeping cello
    Akoka whimpering it's too difficult. "You'll manage,"
    Messiaen growled.

    Swastikas sniffed at the bars on the page: Messiaen's
    white lie, "it's about doves."

    Laughing, they left the madman with his ear cocked
    for the birds across barbed wire. "It is all love."

    Huts in Gorlitz all chipped in, a new cello for Etienne.

    2

    Górecki, at the piano, recalled how as a Polish boy
    with other boys he ran into Auschwitz when the Nazis left

    so many bones, they just kicked them round the place
    sometimes a callow skull or two for soccer

    and, then, Górecki, he turned away to choke in chords.

    3

    From daybreak his two manic fists painted the wheeling crows,
    the caws of crows, over yesterday's hailstone-battered wheat.
    Lightning storms. Deluges. Gales. These pass for weather now.
    The sun nails him and his flaming hair out mid-way in our wheat.

    Reapers waiting for Van Gogh to finish, we grudge him
    one more day of easel and palette.

    His eyes into mine swung sharp as scythes, so I got down
    (let the cleg-bitten horse go feed a bit on the corn),
    offered him mug and more of buttermilk,
    but he was too far snared, nor took the drink,
    knew he was wasting time as the heavens split and crashed.

    Under a rippling poplar after we'd eaten, drunk, pissed,
    we heard the shot or one more rip of thunder,
    saw him stagger like a drunk out of the corn.

    We cut, bound, stooked and stacked his acre
    in an hour.... more »

  • BOY AMONGST SPARROWS

    I

    He recalls Tony's hay benchknife that carved halfmoons
    and a white-beamed sun over wintry boughs
    on a hurley Sunday his cousin Michael did not come.

    They were the days of family and grain farms,
    of oats tall in the stem lodged by a rogue shower
    the end of August when the first gale blew,
    when crows and pigeons glided down in flocks.

    We children were dispersed to scatter them.

    Each midland house with its own tilled ripe cornfields,
    grain scattered freely in yards of rhode island red and sparrow,
    grain fed to pigs and calves and ground in a barn where the new
    electric grinder spread a fine white flour dust even out the door.

    Contesting the troughs with turkeys, ducks and geese
    untameable, domestic, close and yet distant, the birds
    held assemblage over him, as a child in the yard, up in the great elm.

    Sparrows battling with wyandottes for the evening victuals.

    Their cheeky skulls are long fallen into nettles, mosses of the dyke,
    covered in the ground like fathers, mothers,
    freckled cousins let loose in the back meadow
    where sparrows of the air rose up for them in flocks.

    Sparrows no strangers then in blue changeable skies.

    II

    . . . and the young calf dying.
    I do not recall what malady left him prostrate kicking,
    made him bawl so. It happened all the time.
    Half a century before, children fell down in swathes

    from diphtheria. Staring at us, through us, we cradled
    his head with an armful of fresh straw.

    Whether fattened animal or old man,
    Westmeath was a county where death
    . . . called like the postman.

    III

    And after supper, they'd bury you
    sorrowing one to the other for you never bothered sheep.

    All the late sunlit afternoon you lay, my brothers' collie
    by the garden hedge, but out on the south-facing riverfield,
    your white teeth bared in little ivories for your tongue,
    glossy bluebottles tinkling one open almond eye.

    (Late August or so for sweet pippins with magpies
    up in the old tall apple trees ripened red and unseen
    the orchard side of the hedge with the bitter crab,
    your bushy tail rigid, your thin legs, too).

    Corn was on the noisy mind of reaper and binder.
    Gold barley bearded me like an older brother.

    And I who loved to raise up my two arms
    cross them round your ruff neck, rub your slender nose
    that tapered,
    touch the black-tipped ears that looked forward
    hurried past you in the hot sun. Bluebottles lit all over me,
    magpies in the apples cackled for your other eye
    and I was so afraid in my heart of the dead.

    IV

    No bawling as the nose ring gripped. Orgy of kicking of a sudden went numb. The
    sawing of horns started in dusk, and my mother thought mist was mist falling or midges
    grasped vainly in the bloody fist (hot water to wash she left on a shed window sill for
    fear the beast lunged). Sawing through horns sounded poor, like sawing a hempen sack,
    or sacks together as the bullock peed. Crows cawed eternally towards Lynch's and the
    pine plantation. Water splashed as she lashed milky water on sliced flesh. Head runny
    with blood to be dry before morning, and the flies, the bullock unchained staggered off
    shaking his hornless skull all down the long garden. Then the next bullock, and the next,
    eyeing us through torn galvanized. Outside, below the elm tree, thin bracelets of hair
    adorned horns piled in a heap at the gate post into the long garden. In the kitchen as men
    sat down to a meal, a faint odour of blood on overcoats hung in the porch.

    V

    Always on the dusty summer roads
    after mealtimes when the men had left
    they'd call at the kitchen door. Males in flight,
    they knew the short-cuts parish to parish,
    said little. Sometimes word travelled (de-frocked
    and priest, another lost his farm in poker).

    Sussed out the sheds for a doss
    as they sat at table for a bite of bread.
    Once sawed a whole panloaf for one
    till our eyes met over first names.

    Something wrapped for them,
    a little pep then in their step,
    their stained windy greatcoats filling out like Suibhne's wings
    they hit the road to put down some other house miles away
    where they might expect the same

    no questions asked.

    VI

    . . . that whirr-whirr-whirr of wing
    . . . that high-pitched honking in the sky
    passing over, mostly sideways wild geese
    like a correct tick on a copy at school
    from the north west south south-east
    across November trees gone bare.

    In their long necks a virility of ice-ridden times,
    a promise of snow for us in their grown-up plaints.

    Their wings like the arms of ballet dancers grown dancers' wings in the now musicless
    heavens, but we heard them on their skies to the green sloblands, no nuisance to cattle or sheep-intense acres to peck and peck long intervals within ease of flight and the sea. At
    school, history caned our arms and legs in short pants with dates old finger-gnarled Mammy
    Burke said were important and she breathless in her chair by the fire.

    Neighbour met neighbour stopped on the road,
    their legs crooked over the bars of bikes

    looking up too late to the empty heavens.

    As kids, we wished them like foreign cousins back

    till they were specks lost on the sun's horizon.

    Look at them, look at them, we cried

    VII

    You, high up, stretching to each fruited twig
    a rising October moon east of our damson tree

    a nip, then, in the freshening east wind from Murtagh's
    you, shirt-sleeved, up the branches after the tartiest

    your fingers nimble as talons
    closing on the velvet harvest

    gathering the last of the damsons
    the indigo sky at your back.

    Balanced on a hook
    from a trusty bough

    the galvanized pail filled,
    or nearly so, with tangy fruit

    goodly-sized and wild;

    you reached out to whet your tongue,
    Tony, spit out the stone.

    A pale and placid midland moon
    rose higher with a blackbird cry.

    With ease of limb
    you lay horizontal on the boughs you loved

    on branches you could depend on
    to gather your knees round

    lowered a full bucket
    to a boy in corduroy.... more »

  • LEPERS' PASSAGE AT CASHEL

    My wrists
    with their stumps
    wave down to Sister Assumpta
    in the nave.

    I grow soft as boiled rice
    Help me, Lamb-Boy, to rejoice.

    While I've my own grainy masses,
    red tissues in flames, my face
    has neither tear ducts nor tears.
    I share my obligation
    with roof-nesting stares.

    He epistles me,
    lances his gospel in my side;
    flesh credos from my thighs
    in a private jeremiad.

    At the bread and wine
    I bite on one more screech
    recall how daffodils
    kissed my toeless feet.

    I lift my heart
    as directed,
    wait for more wastage
    as expected.

    At the consecration
    of his body and blood
    I could almost believe
    in a powerless god.

    They rise for the Pater Noster
    and I worry about my backbone (will
    it hold for long?), rest my head
    on coldness of limestone.

    Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei . . .
    I met you in the pastures,
    the bleating of your voice
    endures in my ears.

    From the communion rails
    none dares walk up to me.
    I have a robin who picks
    dead morsels from me.

    She must feed her family,
    all her beak-open young.
    Anything goes it seems
    as final hymns are sung.

    Time to scamper down and away
    before the wholesome crowd mills
    at the doors, waves.

    No speech in me anymore, no fight,
    no testes anymore; O Love, be calm;
    at least today brings sunlight
    southwind like a balm.... more »

  • NEAR TYRRELLSPASS

    I walk the gravelled arteries
    of the Split Hills
    and the Long Hill Esker;
    all 5k, with scarce grass
    thinning like a scalp,
    touch in my passing
    ash, hawthorn, oak, an Irish whitebeam;
    finger primrose,
    kneel to bluebells,
    bittercress.

    Pungency, and its babies,
    with narrow leaves
    appear, then disappear
    among the esker stones.

    On the old and active faces of hillsides
    yellow-wort and carline thistle
    beam in midland weathers.
    Millennia like children
    hear the polar torrents cease,
    watch the arctic ice retreat
    till the gravels layered like the couples over there
    settle into hills.

    All that celtic entourage with kings
    righting their broaches
    across warring centuries
    on their speeding chariots
    sweeps across the esker.

    Here, years ago, Tyrrell and his men
    sabotaged the British.

    The land shrugs them off for pity's sake
    like night mists, like recurrent nightmares
    wakes in a pristine lake with yellow gorse
    blackthorn blooms, a marsh with slender sedge.

    Not many walking all over it, like heralds
    slim students like botanicals
    where it's hazelled on the knolls.... more »

  • THE SALT CRESTS COME WITH AMBER

    Yes, through dry and ever hollied
    dunes, pale granite sands, I have known
    the salt crests come with amber. Nights
    I never slept, naked, stretching
    at birdlight. I spent my days
    striding up and down your garden
    up the peaks and down dark
    folleyed glens; cascading frenzy
    poured out of me in happy gulps.

    All I could do was grope for pages, my orchard
    spirit shaking words.

    I still laugh. I sigh, heave
    of living. I wander fiery
    now that I possess platform to speak,
    stumble with incoherence,
    can't form words. Dumbest of priests
    laugh at my plight.

    My lines add no nectar to combs.
    With you, I could put the run on malady,
    undress my cloudy brow, focus
    on something practical.
    I pray I will love
    with the feint touch
    of the butterfly

    my heart still beats for, stands
    apart. I stall in the season of confessed
    and fallow earth. I'll fold my decline away
    before the night arrives so that the stars
    may the brighter candle my blank pages
    after twilight. I sense I'll be made luminous
    in my weakness where the ground's slippery
    as a childhood rockpool.

    I hope to die as I lived out my best work
    loved, and giving love, and, at the extreme,
    railing that love was not celebrated.
    To each his scaffold. Losing the head,
    what of it?

    Thomas?
    Do not
    addle me with unctions.

    Love that sees us come
    hassles the very brambles
    in our fiery paths
    as friends.... more »