Flesh is heretic.
My body is a witch.
I am burning it.
Yes I am torching
ber curves and paps and wiles.
They scorch in my self denials.
How she meshed my head
in the half-truths
of her fevers
till I renounced
milk and honey
and the taste of lunch.
Now the bitch is burning.
I am starved and curveless.
I am skin and bone.
She has learned her lesson.
Thin as a rib
I turn in sleep.
My dreams probe
a sensuous enclosure.
How warm it was and wide
once by a warm drum,
once by the song of his breath
and in his sleeping side.
Only a little more,
only a few more days
I will slip
back into him again
as if I had never been away.
I will grow
angular and holy
keeping his heart
as will make me forget
in a small space
into forked dark,
into python needs
heaving to hips and breasts
and lips and heat
and sweat and fat and greed.
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.
From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.
And in me also.
And always will be.
Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.
And the dead walk?
This harbour was made by art and force.
And called Kingstown and afterwards Dun Laoghaire.
And holds the sea behind its barrier
less than five miles from my house.
Lord be with us say the makers of a nation.
Lord look down say the builders of a harbour.
They came and cut a shape out of ocean
and left stone to close around their labour.
Officers and their wives promenaded
on this spot once and saw with their own eyes
the opulent horizon and obedient skies
which nine tenths of the law provided.
And frigates with thirty-six guns, cruising
the outer edges of influence, could idle
and enter here and catch the tide of
empire and arrogance and the Irish Sea rising
and rising through a century of storms
and cormorants and moonlight the whole length of this coast,
while an ocean forgot an empire and the armed
ships under it changed: to slime weed and cold salt and rust.
City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.
And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its contradictions.
After the wolves and before the elms
the bardic order ended in Ireland.
Only a few remained to continue
a dead art in a dying land:
This is a man
on the road from Youghal to Cahirmoyle.
He has no comfort, no food and no future.
He has no fire to recite his friendless measures by.
His riddles and flatteries will have no reward.
His patrons sheath their swords in Flanders and Madrid.
Reader of poems, lover of poetry—
in case you thought this was a gentle art
follow this man on a moonless night
to the wretched bed he will have to make:
The Gaelic world stretches out under a hawthorn tree
and burns in the rain. This is its home,
its last frail shelter. All of it—
Limerick, the Wild Geese and what went before—
falters into cadence before he sleeps:
He shuts his eyes. Darkness falls on it.
—and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.
When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon
will not be there.
These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did; they are, they have always been
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
out of myth in history I move to be
part of that ordeal
who darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.