The Year of the Knife Poems

Cover Endorsements

The Year of the Knife Cover Photo Tony O'SheaThings that please me in poetry are precision, compassion and images that surpass the common run of language; also that the poet must have an ear for language as a musician has an ear for music. The work of Philip Casey, especially The Year of the Knife, possesses all of these in abundance.
Michael Hartnett

The splendour of Philip Casey’s work is that it is rigorous and hard; and somehow also at the same time bright and kind. It’s this unique mixture that sets him apart. Jubilant, edgy, ordered, wild – a New and Selected Poems as good as gold.
Sebastian Barry


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A PAGE FALLS OPEN

A page falls open
and the reader’s name
is there.
It always has been
and will be always.
Over the years
he opens the book,
wondering about doom
and heaven,
how they fade into
each other,
like a sensual woman
walking into the darkness
on a beach, leaving her man
to listen to the tide
as best he can.

 

MAKING SPACE

Sometimes, when looking at the stars
on a clear night in summer,
I wonder about light
and the energy that keeps me upright.
What does the Principle
of the Conservation of Energy
say, and does it apply to me,
and when I die
will I be transformed into a thought
travelling at the speed of light?

Perhaps, you will turn me on at the flick
of a switch, to bathe your smile
while you nod off over a book.
My light and how lovely you look
will describe a time and place
as you reach out, making space
in your calm sleep
for your lost black sheep
whose molecules keep your bedroom lit.
I will burn for you all night.

 

THE FREEDOM LETTERS

Your pen moves under an expansive hand
revealing your abandon to being loved.
Such a delight suggests
you hadn’t hoped to be cherished
more as you grew older,
as if dreading the tissues losing elastic
had made you forget
that others will always find you magnetic.

Your subsequent letter sees your script
panic across the page in hellish doubt.
One day in raptures,
the next in turmoil, the next fighting back –
you draw on your grit,
and sex, to find equilibrium and respect;
the need to feel secure
blacked out in a night of sensual touch.

 

BODY LANGUAGE

Again your body seems so light
as you enter the garden and hesitate
over what to choose as my gift.
Watching you, my solicitude
which shielded us both from an old wound
relaxes as I marvel how you’ve forgotten
you exist, alive only to your aesthetic.

I leave, carrying your token
of a night we might have spent as one
but for concealed reasons – its scent
a potent reminder of one more pungent and heady.
Days accumulate to no perceptible avail,
and our passion, which amounts to a false trail,
goes into itself, quieted by love and pity.

 

THE BLUE TENT

Light filters through the blue sheet,
like it did once as you lay
beside your loved one. Then,
you raised it with bended arms
till it bellied like a tent
in the Arabian Nights, wherein
the warm light floated,
you both floating in it
and in your laughter.
That was free of its past and future,
unfettered bodies and emotion
flowing in the blue tent scented
by her presence, when you saw each other
differently for those flushed moments
that lodged in memory, forever.
Wakening slowly into the strange,
you stare at your bended arm that lies
so motionless, so heavy, and detached,
you wonder if it has been severed
during the night by a dreaming axe –
a thought no stranger than once,
when you turned to lie
with your belovéd
and cramp gripped your thighs.
You stared at her in surprise.

TOLEDO, ENCORE

O Toledo, I am parched
beneath your Moorish arches.
It’s too cold a morning
to wake abruptly from a dream.

My love bit my lip in anger
when I looked after
everyone but her,
fulfilling bogus obligations;

but I could not free
myself to be with her.

O Toledo, I am parched.
My sense of sensual self
ebbs to a vacant point.

There was a time
when I could feel
in gracefully spoken sentences.

Toledo, you have done for me,
it’s too cold a morning
to wake abruptly from a dream.

I cannot ask of another
what she cannot give,
when all I have to give
is my fullness of her.

No wonder if she turns away
in anger when I wake.

O Toledo, I am cold
in your Moorish station,
waiting for the outward train
that will never come.

All I want is happiness
for my belovéd.

I have nothing left to give
as I grow old.
My love for her has stolen
all I knew and owned.

 

THE PROPER AND ONLY SPOUSE

I
Time passes, and you resolve nothing.
A marriage is made in heaven
with much feasting and Country & Western song.
It’s a day to remember, of blushing terror,
aunts with lumps in their throats, and lost uncles.
You are tied to a stranger, when there is nothing
stranger than the unlawful desire to be alone.
Although not alone exactly, but at one with that
which demands that its space is not crowded out –
that it’s the proper and only spouse
with whom to do battle, to make love
and children with, in your own image.
Take off the garter in full view of everyone
and throw it to the spinner and virgin.
To wild cheers, cut the flaming tie into portions,
then share it among the sagging men.

II

You wonder again why you can’t settle down,
being unable to accept the difficult terrain
of defining your life by its limitations.
You must break through and live on the wild edge
where usually nothing accretes into achievement.
lf by a fluke it does, you are near to panic
and put it down to mischievous magic.
What had you to do with the making of children,
other than being the object the other desired?
lf your body moved and trembled at a given moment,
on that night just as on any other, there was no smile
in your mind’s eye, only the grimace of physical release.
What keeps you going is pity for the one you are bound to,
whose day is founded on, and held in place by belief in you.
But day is added to day and you deny and are denied
that all you crave is to be away from where you are.

III

Don’t gather possessions, or be weighed down by gifts.
After the break, it’s essential to travel light.
No one, least of all you, foresaw the end
as you played out a role instead
of lamenting the years you neglected.
Now you want to forget what drove you to this,
and make the haunted equations material
in a series of lovers who care about no one,
least of all you.
They know how to laugh, and are the most true.
For a time you will join in the laughter
that’s crowded with glasses and ash,
hurting until you forget you exist.
There’s no place in your wariness
for anywhere else, though you long to say yes
without thinking, to a random question.

 

THE FREEDOM OF JUNE

A buried gun has rusted for years
somewhere between the apple trees.
Washing hangs from the orange line,
awaiting bodies or a strong wind.
A rose hidden by weeds releases
its musky perfume to the snails,
to the cloudless suns that shine
on a yellow carpet of dandelions.

 

DIRECTIONS IN ONE

This or that flash of memory:
ebbing flood, gust of wind before silence
in a sweep of land from hills to the sea.
Waiting, always waiting, the probable rendezvous
and relentless clock tick on. .
Words peeled off – strips of honey-cured ham,
pulled away from a reluctant, stubborn mass,
this mound, lost in itself, keeper
of histories, hoarding, jealous of freedom. Jealous
of not being afraid of what to walk and to see
and to feel mean, of being on the midge-hung path
by the river with nothing to do; the echo of a voice.

 

WHERE MUSIC COMES FROM

i
Zebras at night,
attentive to grievance,
trot softly through streets,
nuzzling drunks
to keep them upright
as a key finds its lock.

ii
Plop of tar blister
on the remote boreen.
As long as l live
I will understand nothing.
The tar blister knows
what the answers are, now.

iii
It started with seed
drilled into moist soil
and a germ in an egg.
Swirl of dish water
will finish a meal
that ladened a ritual table.

iv
Carillions are pealed
till they alter the heartbeat.
A walnut clock runs fast.
Love letters found in a sofa
are read and misunderstood.
A low candle is snuffed.

v
On the wood floor, moss
is traversed by a spider.
The whine of a chainsaw
dries sap in the trees.
Ten maidenhair ferns
cast a 5 o’clock shadow.

 

THE WALKING SHADOW

Cows are not milked by hand
anymore and so will never again
swoon to the rhythms of Shakespeare.

O Macbeth, I learned by heart
your soliloquy
against the warm belly of a cow,
every syllable matched by a rich
swish into a frothing bucket.

– In that sharp dark morning
my brothers grasp
adhesive stars of frost
on the aluminium milkcan.
The number 28 sways,
the milkcan bangs
against their ankles.

As the step of one rises,
the other’s has fallen
onto the frozen gravel
towards the stand
And then is heard no more.

 

LYNWOOD, WET SUMMER
-for Philomena

Sixteen rectangles, sixteen window panes,
through these
I see a bank of white roses, and
behind those, an elder tree, its fruit
burgeoning.
Beyond that, a wild garden:
apple trees, red roses, pink roses,
lilac.
Rhubarb
hidden under convolvulous –
that everywhere
in the wet summer, and
snails everywhere. A voracious plague,
they seem to crave the lilac,
but the tiny young are on
almost every apple leaf.
The sun breaks through,
lights the crown of the apple tree.
How romantic,
yet unromantically beautiful too.

Cloud, mostly grey,
has dulled the flowers and trees,
the walls and granite steps –
this sliver of the world
through sixteen panes –
for many weeks now.
THE YEAR OF THE KNIFE

This voice speaks because it must,
when it overflows with endless night,
its jaws strained tighter than a Norman bow.

It is a denizen of darkness;
a drugtaster; a subject of the knife.
It lies on boards like a specimen:
caged, betubed, unmasked, outnumbered.

It dwells in a clenched fist,
outside of what it was, and speaks
with sober lips, knowing it is alive.

Its brain is sealed in green ice.
Its spine is stopped with jagged morse.
Its bones roar in rebellion,
its mouth will not open.

This voice speaks because it can.
In the sleepless reich of phantom pain,
it struggles to name the nameless.

It baulks at forfeiting its reasons.
It burns at the flight of will to have them.
It drunkenly swims in exhaustion.
It joins in the chorus of moans.

 

HAMBURG WOMAN’S SONG

Time has gone slowly by the hour,
by the year it has gone like a day
and you and I are of a sudden old.
But behind my bright eyes, papa,

I will always be a girl of ten,
and you, a grown man of twenty
when you cheated the dreaded police
who wanted to take me away.

I was born in a time and place
to a woman I look like now,
but fear grew like mould on bread
in my mother’s love for her slow girl.

I remember the sirens and cobbles,
then waking at dawn by a stream
where you left me with a countrywoman
and time went slowly by the hour.

She who was my mother
died in the Hamburg fire,
and he who was my father
never came back from the east.

My hands hardened and my bones grew long.
I trusted what I could not understand
until one morning you came up the road
and happiness changed my face.

I am a woman of Hamburg
who walked to the hungry city
side by side with my new father.
I have lived here to this day.

 

AND YET AGAIN, FAREWELL
for Mairéad i.m.

The Old World is confining, the New,
a giddy expanse, scarred and obese,
but pulsating in its bravado,
its vast, laizzez-faire, sexual gasp.
You go to pit your energies against
the tough dream of eluding a dead end.
And we know there is only so much time.

With each shift in the year I lose a friend,
lured away from parochial Ireland.
I drink with you to two worlds or three; drive
lost country roads after the pubs have closed,
or to a film through a timeless snowfall;
or gasping, just catch the last frantic bus
into the stretching shadows of the past.
DAILY BREAD

This morning, the sky cleared to reveal Spring.
I went to the bakery hard by the markets,
and the streets were vital in the fresh light.
A woman pushed a pram, her son holding on,
and she was happy to be with her children.
We dodged Japanese forklifts shifting oranges
from Jaffa, apples from Spain, potatoes from Rush.
With her sunglasses on, a driver reclined,
enjoying the breeze in the hold of her van.
The district was thronged, and juggernaut drivers
edged their way through on roads made for horses.
I heard some slagging, and a man with a moustache
studied his racing page, brooding on luck
as nearby a drayhorse relished abandoned cabbage.
I bought my two loaves of brown, and on my way home
the glasses were gone, as she loaded her van.

 

BECOMING A CITIZEN

A lone woman marshalls
her children to their breakfast,
their hair brushed from the scalp out.

They nibble on toast smeared with jam,
their mother’s voice barely distinct
over their belovéd radio music.

Of course they know all the lyrics,
miming and gyrating on a screen
in their sleepy brains.

They ignore their harrassed
mother who must pull and push
against the demon clock –

until dressed, they suddenly
wake and smile and are kissed
goodbye. Be good, be good.

 

THE CORRIDOR

On the walls are posters,
torn or curled at the edges.
One teaches mothers the stages
of looking after their babies
with milk from the sponsor’s powder.

One posits the question:
Did I drink to do what l did –
or do it because I was drinking?
Yet another gives a number
to call if you think you’ve AIDS.

In the gloom, no one looks at them.
Perhaps we’ve seen them too often,
or have more immediate perils, like
the light bill, or moneylenders,
or a spouse who’s chronically ill.

Old and young, we queue here
on benches and plastic chairs
when the last resort is a cheque
or voucher we may or may not get,
and this is how we spend our days.

 

BLOOM’S EVE

The windows are sprayed with fine
mud as he squirms onto a seat
from the jammed aisle of the bus.
His journey begun, he sees how he,
like the girl with the limp foot
and eighty others, are motionless,
yet travelling in blind trust
as one, beyond the city boundary
to estates ripe with children.
One of his recurring dreams concerns
how he will meet his son in a brothel.
As he has no son, it will never come true.
A shadow of himself, he goes
to a rendezvous he hopes will open his life,
repeating what happened a long time ago;
and in doing so, haunts a future unwary self –
to the step, to the mute gasp at the glance
of a beautiful stranger in a bar on the way.

 

STARLING

A green net wheels across a screen
in the pattern certain starlings follow
when they flock before taking off
for the south.

A mathematician has plotted their flight,
as if she had nothing better to do,
knowing the starlings will oscillate
and skim, regardless of calculation.
It gives her a sense of lightness,
as if by juggling her figures she might
grow wings, wavering between choice,
yet flying true to the destination.

What compels her is how they synchronise,
as if they were mobiles of the sky,
a geometry evolving to shadow continents.
“The computer is to the mathematician
what the camera was to the artist,”
she mutters, as if she has coined a maxim,
watching movement and changing shape –
how the equations vary and repeat.

When she was a child she would watch,
entranced, as homing pigeons wound down
their journey before the apartment tower.
For her the sight was a musical notation.
The memory returns like a bar from a song
as she presses a key and a colony of figures
perch on a screen, tense with potential.
The net stretches tight in agreement.

As if she has left her body and intellect
behind, she feeds a cluster of formulae,
which may not make sense, into the computer,
and her study darkens with the noise
of thousands of wings, of wheezing,
chuckling and clicks, of whistling, coughs
and kisses, and a bewildered flock
blunders into the room through a screen.

“I saw a queen in the clouds and she was myself.
Emblazoned on my thighs were triple spirals;
on my arms were stars; on my forehead the eye
of a bird.”

 

FIGUREHEAD

The consumed turf nestles in the dying fire.
As one sees shapes, or the face of Christ
in clouds, I make out the outline of a man
whose body is thrust forward, as on a prow.
Intense with a calorific glow, he wears a beret
and his mouth is wide with an urgent message.
Along his body there are cavities of red heat
already grey at the edges,
and his eye harbours a restless flame.
He has much to think about in a short time.

 

THIRST

Revealing its depth, the sky might open,
its longed-for torrents like you imagine
blood roaring over the tiny swimmer
in your brain that you now discern
as yourself.

You continue beyond this double vision,
to where a man you knew could not take
a deep breath and his back arched,
and
he stayed like that until his time was up.
A sense of acceptance passes though you
as you see it was all the poor man could do.

You stand across the dust-strewn road
from the saloon,
and think again how some men are obsessed.

Yes, yes, yes
he was dying for a drink but couldn’t take a deep draught,
the drink to end all drinks (because the river was dry),
and you walk on, and stumble through the sparse grass,
scattering seed on the sealed earth, crushing flowers
that will bloom nowhere else but in this blinding colour,
further into the centre of the city where the slums
were cleared and nothing built in their place.

The light breaks your vision; fragments of children
shimmer away from where they run and stop,
and tumble and skip – one brilliant evening
and they’ve turned away from childhood –
and haunted, you find a mound like his grave
and dash your desiccated boot against it,
and as you weep you glance up at the concrete
and glass office block where the bevelled glass
is a burning amber in the setting sun,
and a lone cleaner comes to the window,
at one with her task, and you stare at her
as if she is the key to what has driven you here.

 

WAKING TO THE PLAIN

–Here I painted myself, Frida Kahlo, from a mirror-
image. I am thirty seven yeas old, and it is tbe month
of July , nineteen forty-seven. In Coyoacán, Mexico, the
place where I was born.

I tried to understand you through the self-portraits
you began when the collision of a bus and tram
changed your life as time slowed down.

They chronicle the trials of your body’s broken column;
your love affair through two marriages with Rivera;
the miscarriages; your passion compressed
into a high tension and expression.

I must have known it was impossible, but blinded
by what I thought was love – and it was, by some measure –
l made draft after draft, losing my way through your
subtle world of guise and fantasy, through
what is at once concealed and revealed.
The Tree of Hope was my prime enigma:

Dressed in her red Tehuana costume,
she is Kahlo the desert queen,
reigning over her butchered flesh and bone
that lies defeated on a surgical trolly –
where the moon is mistress beyond the orange sun.

The moon, Frida, and that old orange the sun,
that your childhood teacher held in one hand –
a candle in the other – to explain the solar system.
Darkness and Light.
And the fissured desert that stretches to the distant,
eternal mountains is the desert that encroaches when
hope is ruined too often. Isn’t that so?
The images return to haunt,
and I repeat the attempt to write them out:

Bound in plastercast, she paints in
the hair on her lip from a mirror-image,
rapt in search of the meaning of what
she is doing again, and again, and again.

After dinner one night, an artist told me about you.
The house we were staying in was old
and later I sensed a ghost in my room.
I think it was a part of myself, long forgotten.
A few months later a letter arrived
from a friend, postmarked Berlin.
I read the excited hand, unfolded
the black and white copies: Kahlo.

So began the obsession. Spring passed into summer,
and one evening l ambled down Kilmainham Lane,
admiring the elderflowers, the peace of this rus-in-urbe
broken only by guard-dogs and the rhythmic clack
of my crutches. Then an odd thing happened:

A red car stops, a puff of dust
rising before the tyres,
and a Mexican woman asks for directions.
Later, in a bar, I ask her about Kahlo,
who, she insists, painted with colours
which don’t exist in Europe.

The burnt siennas of your Mexican earth, Frida;
your yellows at once pouring out sickness and fear,
sun and joy; your dark blues occupying both distance
and tenderness. Dark green, you said, was the colour
of bad news and good business. There is bad news
and good business in your Henry Ford Hospital, 1932.

In the Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit,
Frida has lain in her own blood
since nineteen thirty-two,
her miscarried foetus spirited above her
like an African fetish – her pelvis, her tear,
the hopes of her famished love – so much debris.

The foreground is green, and the spiritual drama
of your miscarriage is played out against a backdrop
of Henry Ford’s factories delivering Baby Fords.
It took me a while to see humour
where previously I could recognize only suffering.
Now I’m glad to know it was typical,
like your parrot who drank beer and tequila
and croaked: I’ll never get over tbs hangover!

This is a quote from the story of your work
and life by Hayden Herrera.
A friend sent it from New York, while another
gave me reproductions I had never seen.
It was then I realized that all my drafts were false.
I was writing about myself.

I have harassed you for significance for too long.
You are what you have left behind
and the only way to discover what you mean to me
is to forget all I know of you,
and think of whatever comes to mind.
Yet, as if I were in love with you,
you can appear anywhere.

Something as formerly innocent as a cloud
or landscape or as utilized as a polluting bus,
can recall you as if you were seated in them,
a mirror before you, your brush in hand.

So many correspondences where nothing
is strictly itself might unbalance a mind.
How many women limp through a crowd?
Might they have light moustaches,
or eyebrows joined like batwings

They, the correspondences, are sane
because you are unique, like a giant lake
from which rivers flow through the thoughts
and emotions of those who need you.

She floats, asleep
in canopied rest, rooted
high over the earth –
her vigilant companion
a Day of the Dead skeleton
decked in dynamite and flowers.
She has journeyed a long way,
and no one can follow
into the shell
of all she has yearned for.

NB for many of the paintings referred to here, see Frida Kahlo at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art review at the California Literary Review.

PROPHET

(The White Cockatoo and The Deep
are paintings by Jackson Pollock)

When he closed his eyes
he saw The White Cockatoo,
forgotten in the ganglia.
Pressing them further closed,
tension induced a magnified
print of connective tissue,
which he dripped onto canvas,
scattering electrons in fright.
He saw what physicists
would predict and measure.
“In the state of spiritual
clarity there are no secrets,”
wrote Frank O’Hara of Pollock.
In The Deep, there are no secrets.

WHITE HORSE

Nights in a hospital cot:
beyond its bars
a great toy horse
that a child’s breath
could rock.

A crab blindly crawls
through blood,
to devour marrow
until the bone is hollow.

There are coloured rings
above the door –
the rings of Saturn:
space falling inward
on a pillow
in dimmed light.

A radium machine hums.
Thousands of Röntgens
are aimed at rampant cells,
burning them and the flesh
which conceals them
down to the bone.

On dirt-tracks
in the back of beyond,
under every stone;
in neon lights
blinking in the low quarter,
in the surprising embrace
at at every turn,
one of the children
will live beyond reason,
to sift long for a sign
of why one might survive
and another must die.

The answer may lie
in the hidden wedding
of things, in the distance
between the X-ray and bone;
but the dead children live
in something of them he recalls
in the story of the rocking horse
lost in Saturn’s golden clouds.

The pale Queen has passed,
astride her white horse.
No one, not even she
knows why she has chosen.

She travels towards the sun
as it rises across the earth
and lets fall one
from her purse of death
into the endeavour of rebirth.

Watch over the sleepng children,
white horse. White horse, rock.

COLD IN THE EVENING HEAT

The Caudillo dies
but the stone-paved streets
still give way
to a dirt-track
down to the river.
In the university,
renaissance graffiti
etched on a stained bench
mean anything a stranger wishes.
Above the seminary,
the cathedral bell
tolls out the hours.
Poor women conduct their business
beneath its blind protection.
Soldiers drink back watery beers,
then go to leer in the neon gloom.

IMPLICATIONS OF A SKETCH
-On seing the Mies van der Rohe Centenary
Exhibition, New National Gallery, Berlin

His brush projects
a crude line
bristling
under
mutinous energy.

A sketch of seconds
decides
the future
of thousands,
of street and skyline.

The sketch matures, drafted
into a network of three
dimensions in blue
suspended in
“a high-rise skeleton frame.”

1ts steel is dredged
from an open pit,
carried by wagon
after wagon, poured from
an open hearth at 1600oC.
For millennia, amorphous
as sand, glinting
in prophecy,
sheet glass is realised
ton by translucent ton.

And in a derelict block
rats and the homeless
up on their luck
sleep as a pencil
circles them on a map.

Then, emigrants from his own
country, from ours,
uprooted Indians
with a head for heights
swarm above vertigo,

diverse cultures feeding
the maw of the new
corporate civilization
reflected in its ‘clear
and rational construction.’

Studied under glass in his line-
perfect Berlin Gallery,
his life’s work unfolds
and returns through a crude sketch
“into the realms of pure art.”

THE RED CATHEDRAL
in memory of Bella Akhmadulina

‘The Cathedral is aligned East to West,
a circle on two rectangles
over a blind spring where pilgrims sup.

Its redstone wings spread North and South.
It greets the rising sun,
and accepts darkness as it comes.

Requiring nothing, it is nothing to itself.
To enter into it
is to be given a hard grain as talisman.

Solitude touches its high, bare walls.
Grass has split the flagstones;
dust swarms in light from the stained glass.

The Cathedral is home to terrains and cities
and those who live in them
as they breathe fumes, travel on shunted trains;

and just now, a woman dressed in black and gold
is the swooned instrument
through whom the Cathedral fills with their song.

High in the dome, a swallow loops and skims
to the soar and whisper
of grief, to the little shuffle of the woman’s fun.

ART AND LAUGHTER

The lake gives back nothing to the visitor
who comes down to its shore to be calmed.
If it is iced over, or its surface is chopped,
or the reflection of a wooded hill lies down on it
in a certain light when the wind has fallen,
then this is intercourse with the restless elements
made free by the depth and weight of bounded water.

The lake reflects what the supplicant brings to it.
I could not be at one with you unless I could hear
a voice from my own story answering one from yours,
like black wings overlapping though they can never touch.
But then, over the years, what we do with our stories,
or they with us, is the common wealth of friends
making art or laughter out of the cruellest pain.

ANSWERING EACH OTHER

A voice rises faintly
over the beach as the train
passes, as the sunbathers
turn as one to wave; even
the weekend fishermen wave,
rods knifed into the sand,
friendly to anonymity
passing them by at speed, the sea
to the east, the wetland
and mountains to the west.

Implacably the rails
connect the coastal towns
and groups dismount and
disappear, a stationmaster
pleased, distributing time-
tables, welcoming familiars.
I go in my turn to face
what I was once, once again.

Friends take me for a meal
some kilometers out of town,
Ifield’s rapid yodels
a cue for hilarity as we cross
the invisible river and step
on the gas to the hillside hotel.

Morning over the mountain
beyond the housing estates:
landscape gives back memories
like rock its solar power;
a hawk alights on the gutter
of a terrace as we pass.

Again I talk with friends
over a meal, a metaphysical
moment clung to like
a reason for living, or credence
in heaven, the farmed trout
of the restaurant less succulent
than those a gleaming youngster
caught in a torrent
years before pollution,
the rain light and monotonous.

In the thunderous dark of August
we elect to drink outside.
Two combine harvesters
speed heavily down the street
as if on night manoeuvres,
leaving a faint print of fear.

In the morning we steer past
a field of winter corn
the harvesters have razed,
its grain contained by the ton.

Up past the graves of friends
we drive, then into lush valleys
and woodlands, by a cluster
of trees on the crown of a hill
until we brake on chippings
towards the end of a road,
at the house and farm
which I once called home.
It is faded and sunken.
I carry
this troubled impression
past the river and roofless
cottage of a long dead
and childless couple.

I catch the last train back,
the strains of a silver band
echoing over the town
and falling on the window dust.

We proceed along the line,
sealed from the golfcourse
as from the copper river,
from the industrial
odours of old towns
as the train hurtles on.

A woman with palsy smiles
at a tranquil bay
as we round the Italianate
houses which command it.
She holds her smile.
They answer each other.

COMING INTO PERFECTION

In the beginning,
there were many gods.
When they wept, it rained,
and in this way they gave life,
because to weep
is to give of one’s essence.
When they played,
it was known to be harvest time,
because to play
is to come into perfection.

Then, maddened by thirst
and mirages of dancing harems,
a hermit came from a desert.
His beard was crusted with dead bees,
and when he plunged his staff
into the ground, blood spewed forth.
God, he said, was a solitary being,
thirsting for vengeance and law,
and as his tongue took hold
and the throng quavered,
the dancing harems sank back
into the flames of the desert sun.

Long after this,
there flowered a need made flesh,
and born of woman,
gods walked among children.

Prophets and thinkers
voiced the genius of peoples,
inciting their innermost drama.
There was much suffering
as one fought the other,
holding one truth to be holy,
and all else anathema.

In our own era,
living is glimpsed
through the eye of a camera.
Beyond its lens
a particle will forever
fade ever further,
like the sleek craft
ascending to Andromeda
to sail beyond time.

JUST IN TIME

Cait is always asking questions.
She’s beautiful and young
but I’m past my prime
and therefore cautious,
as the wounds of my foolishness
weigh much and slow me down.
Her latest query concerns

What I would like my last words
to be. I’m trebly cautious,
and questions of my own
plod through my vintage brain.
What does she want to know that for?
Would she like me to make my testament
right away, in favour of her?

Instead I say that everything I say
is copyright. All my lovelorn life
my best ideas have been pillaged
and have made millions of euros
for big ears with notebooks;
whereas I, your cornucopia,
have been left in the silage.

Cait stares at me, dumbfounded,
thinking, no doubt, she could be
conducting her pathetic affair
with a Mister Megabucks
instead of a washed-up poet,
if only her washed-up poet
had kept his false teeth shut.

Ah yes, a dreamer as ever am I,
but it’s such who foretell the world –
from wind-driven electric cars,
to generating pristine power
from the pong of the metropolis
before it mucks up the sea shore
where grannies and children paddle.

All this and more, much more,
if only I’d had the money
and sense to patent my daydreams.
A clever and civilised country
would pay such as I to dream –
but impatient Cait interrupts
my reverie and repeats her question.

Just in time! I whisper, inspired
and delighted, and patently annoyed,
she demands to know what is just in time.
That’s what I want my last words to be,
I coo, and if in the rush I forget
my exit line, would you be a pet
and inscribe it on my tomb?

A CHARTER FOR IDLERS
-for Theo Dorgan

Before they came, you were fine.
You still buzz, shuffling along,
painting a wall blue one day,
another saffron, the next,
if you care to, which you do.
This is a model, not of
being occupied, but of trusting
the morning, your nuzzling brush
finding a new route across
the wall for you to ponder.

An active exploration,
a harvesting profession,
even if they nod, putting
you down as a charlatan,
and perhaps especially then.
It’s a charter for idlers,
they suggest without saying
so, unaware that every
point of your sable and stroke
is an apprentice angel.

When darkness is for us all
inevitable, whereas
light is not; when all true
colour ends in black, you need
to discover the unseen
colour of the wall, to feel
joyous tension in the wrist
as it blooms behind the brush,
like the fresh trail of a snail
in moonlight would stagger you.

But as they lead you away
sunlight catches an eyelash
and flares it a glistening
scarlet, for a fine second.
You hold your breath deep,
as if the glister is oxygen.
To leave your walls behind you
and bring them at the same time:
this is the gift that love gives
to the lover, in the end.


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