ABYSS OF THE BIRDS
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,"
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.
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.
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
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.
. . . 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
. . . 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
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
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
wait for more wastage
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 »
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;
kneel to bluebells,
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?
addle me with unctions.
Love that sees us come
hassles the very brambles
in our fiery paths
as friends.... more »