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POEMS

Damian Smyth reads:

'The Mighty Arkle', 'Except Me', 'Big Jim', 'The Wind Among The Reeds' and 'Paddy Celtic' (Downpatrick Races, 2000);

'Mrs Greaves', 'Mid June, The Townlands Empty', 'Having Kept Watch All Night' and 'Tidy McCavera' (The Down Recorder, 2004);

'A Sweet for Jerry Tully', 'A Haircut from Tommy Miley', 'A Matinee in the Grand Cinema', 'A Bag for Life from Lidl', 'A Christmas from Skeffingtons', 'A Death in Killough', 'A Coach from John T McLaughlin', 'A Cortege for Jean McConville', 'A Basket from Ellen McKeown', 'A Note for M T Orr, Harbor Master' and 'A Pair of Boots from McCartans' (Market Street, 2010).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul

for Padraic Fiacc (1924-2019)

 

I could begin to describe a circle:

The Giant’s Ring; or the Grave of Ossian,

That lovely boy betrayed by the miracle

Of the saint of Christ and a broken buckle.

 

So little it took for the Cross and Passion

To bring the natural world to its knees:

The big sky making its first confession

Of rain to the soil, the grass, the trees.

from Downpatrick Races (2000)

Swimming Up English Street

All I did was go for a swim up English Street,

Swallowing miles of water that only looked as blue

As the Mediterranean, but that was the cerulean tiles;

Only looked to have lanes shimmering on the surface,

Runways walled by stone to keep order, but in fact

Those were markings on the inside, on that ceiling

The pool floor was, to which I aspired as a collector

Of weights and rings, medals, lungfuls of worn air.

A culvert bomb a mile off, on the Ballydugan Road,

Had sent the chlorine lapping the pool walls; something

Like the wine in the Europa Hotel, thrown out when a report

Shattered the linings of Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar,

Or might have; powder of glass tincturing the vintages.

Another element, like a holy well, full of miracles,

Once a year, pool water shared with the Protestant school:

Whole lovely selves articulate, refracted, unbroken by surfaces,

As if we had come there to be healed and were undamaged,

Each armful or embrace pulling the known world to ourselves.

There were vials of Struell water for sale in the Town Hall,

But nothing, trust me, as electric as their bodies bathed in:

New wine in new wineskins; nose-fluting mouth breathers,

Exotics from the other nations: Nubians; Shebans; sea nymphs,

Watersprites, naiads; those necessary others, from those isles

To which, though barely afloat, I’ve not ceased to stretch my arms:

Those still possible intervals, laps, widths, strokes, lengths

 

from English Street (2018)

 

The Bishopscourt Sun Tzu

 

Of all the things one might do under pressure,

As they say (those who rarely or never are),

There remain the options: to walk away, or run;

Or turn one’s face aside; or just stay there,

As that old man did when they came for his car

And he refused the keys, not once but several times,

Even as the muzzle printed between his eyes

An imperfect ‘O’, a modest statement of surprise,

And he, who had so clearly made his peace

With all the force at work in the universe,

Kept faith with faith and the morning papers,

The milkman’s rounds and the smallest roses

In the smallest gardens, those compacts with neighbours:

Clippers on loan, the step-ladders, the few pounds

Under a stone for next-door’s window-cleaner,

That stuff, those transactions, that discreet love;

There is in that one moment every stratagem

One might wish for from The Art of War,

At once, without reserve, without a blow being struck

And all resolved in the affirmation: No, No, No.

from English Street (2018)

 

The Moneyslane Adventure

 

Someone said ‘But the only history you write about

Is your own childhood; and what a pity it is

Such imagination doesn’t travel much further afield’;

And that’s when I think most about Kilkeel,

On the far side of the Mournes, its flaking vessels

Mounted on breeze blocks in the gardens of fishermen

Who watch the tides fatten every day at the quay

Through the windows of cafés, battering fish suppers

For tourists just down from the Spelga Dam

And the Silent Valley, back to the five-bar reception

Of the ordinary earth; and of the weight of history

That pressed down, for the best part of 80 years,

On the club foot of Paddy the Bump, a mortal wound,

Sustained, as it were, by his father at Mons

And mimicked, day by day, at the school crossing,

His bobbing, garish patrol sign a target for marbles

Catapulted from under cover making the tin roundel

Yelp and sing, some hitting the disc so hard at the edges

It spun in his hands like a radar dish, and some

Hitting him so hard, out of nowhere, he set it down and cried.

from English Street (2018)

Hurd Hatfield in the Grand

It was one of those summers when all hell had broken loose,

As I can see now (Bloodies Friday and Sunday; other days

Marked by single murders, masked men, mistaken identities;

And a metaphysics of simple things at work in Croke Park:

Ali’s jab placing carnations in Al ‘Blue’ Lewis’s buttonhole; booby-

Trapped milk churns; gorse going off across Knocknashinna,

Burning the landscape from technicolour to monochrome;

The girl who died twice on the table but lived to tell the tale

Incompletely, but who is now dead for good; incendiaries

In the jacket pockets in Lenny Fitzsimons’s gentlemen’s outfitters

In Irish Street, his big window sheathed in rattly yellow plastic,

To keep sunlight from rotting the Van Heusens and Harris tweed).

The Picture of Dorian Gray was to be screened in the Grand

On Market Street – grotesqueries of hand and eye in the stalls,

Escapees out of the light into the velvet darkness, odour of dust.

There was talk of the main man himself guesting on stage,

Many decades after release, after even a turn as Pontius Pilate

And a fop mistaken for the Boston Strangler; that he might

Travel from Cork to peep through the curtain at the rest of us,

Mesmerised by that portrait of a graceful, a younger self,

Gliding in phosphorescence, shimmering, promising,

But moving to where that reality is which is always grim:

The ordinary lives made remarkable by homicide,

The shuffling gait where once there had been a gazelle.

In the end, what peered out across the cigarette haze,

Among the moths, his moth-like hands and eyes, in a cravat

The like of which only Frank ‘Tidy’ McAvera would chance

On English Street, emptying silver dustbins into the lorry,

Was a star. Hesitant, transfigured, perfect, suddenly tired of himself,

And, for a moment, somebody else again; somebody beautiful.

 

from English Street (2018)

 

The Tyrella Newborns

 

Children always appear ancient when they die.

There is nothing of the modern age upon them.

They are unsophisticates by the roadside, bundles,

Unadorned and older than us by centuries

And this is no conceit but demonstrable fact.

There are still ditches and they are found in them,

Salty, marinade, put aside as tradition would have it,

In the larder of the earth, such perishable goods.

Their faces burnish to a bulb or an artefact.

Where there are roads out to the edge of things –

Coastline or foothills – there are those who travel them,

Starting out early, purposeful mostly, certainly burdened,

And the journey is always away from company

Towards those antique, elemental places

That are not lit up and on whose pathways

The beautiful complex tread of trainers –

Webbed structures built by the larvae of footprints –

Are identified later when it is far too late

For tenderness of either technology or old care.

Womb evacuees. Ghosts of the undergrowth. Those darlings.

We are in the middle of weeping; interrupted only

By faces in the supermarket aisles, the clinics,

Turned to the floor of the bus in the mornings

Where sand is walked in on the electric carpets

And the tiniest broadcasts of earpieces are plainsong.

from English Street (2018)

The Corpse of Takabuti

 

Even when peeling the bandages off

For the first time, these centuries later,

Our touch was so indiscreet and rough

Her skin cracked and came away, wafer

 

-thin, burnt, low-slung at the neck like a blouse,

But opening so to her interior

We could make out the filigree tattoos

And speak her name aloud in heavy air.

 

It seemed a while, as our men bent on her,

Scalpels lifting blemishes like gold leaf,

That we were in fact like shades and she had power

That we might learn to recollect as love.

 

Afterwards – ugly, skinned, interpreted,

Her head a little inclined as if tired –

A future of exposure stretched ahead

To this same day when nothing more’s required

 

Than that she lie as if she is at rest,

Mute, unmoved, uncanny and on show

Among the furniture of the deceased:

Those things, those objets d’art; a scarecrow

 

Of those strange rituals we once endorsed;

As if she were still out there, still interred

And had not turned up begging at our doors,

Embarrassed, naked and just now murdered.

 

unpublished

 

 

 

 

The Mighty Arkle

bay gelding by Archive out of Bright Cherry

 

That horse bought fridges, TVs, motor cars.

It was no wonder thousands gripped the rails

When the hero hunted Mill House down again,

Pulling back the earth with each great stride,

 

The pride of England frothing, broken, bate.

If I had a cap, I’d throw it in the air.

This was how the Irish won the war,

Everything riding on every whipping boy

 

To face the white man down against the odds.

I have my grandda’s photo of the god,

An icon, like good Pope John and JFK,

Pat Taaffe up, who, he used to say,

 

Needed that horse ‘for he couldn’t sit on a  stool’.

But the beefcake underneath is Cassius Clay,

The footwork perfect, the arrogance a joy,

The sucker punch a lucky horseshoe in each glove.

 

from Downpatrick Races (2000)

 

 

 

 

A Pair of Boots from McCartans

 

It is not the point that the boots belonged to my father,

Though his recent decease might lend one patina of meaning,

How he left them behind, how they clung on in their organic way,

Their not being dead, their not being inert but ever travelling

Around what moves them till they become that thing and hold it.

The point is not that we invest in things more than we are worth

Or that we stay loyal to them after death, keeping them on

Like retainers or old dogs through sentiment or failure of nerve.

Those boots were abandoned years ago, stiffening into shoulder blades

Or the saddle bags marsh gas made of the Crusader’s skin in Dublin.

Discarded already, but in waiting and indecipherable as a prophecy,

It is not that we believe in them as talismans or understand at all.

The point is inanimate objects present an unshakeable faith in us

And do not let go but remain in place afterwards exactly as they were

And volunteer perspectives on how the end, theirs or ours, arrived.

In the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which),

It is related how, in extremis, the explorers tore at their boots,

Tenderised the strips, boiled them, eventually just chewed on them,

In the hope the leather would recover enough of its former incarnation,

Remember enough, to save their lives.  Heels, toes, eyes, soles, tongues.

 

from Market Street (2010)

 

 

 

 

1974

 

Poems talk to each other over time

Even those that don't know whose they are

Or whose tongue they've been implicated in.

 

Like one's own face in dialogue

With earlier versions, captured, also true.

There was a blackbird singing on the roof

 

And somewhere else one other in reply,

As if it was itself, its memory,

And it pausing, puzzled, then quizzing it.

 

from Apparitions: A Hurricane (2012)

 

 

 

 

Shrines

 

It’s just as well no one pays any heed.

It lets the town ramble on as it does,

Taking the lives of young men as they breed

Early with young girls here in the ghettoes.

 

Parcels of blooms from the all-night garage

Stuck to telegraph poles with Sellotape;

Cellophane rattling wherever damage

Is done by Stanley knife, car wreck or rope.

 

Hard memory. Versions of permanence

Which do not work. Wayside altars to the gods,

Though neglected, still are as talismans

While their old technology degrades,

 

The tea-lights fail for want of batteries

And the colours drain from plastic bouquets;

At their best when they grow anonymous,

Denatured, despised, then stumbled across.

 

from Mesopotamia (2014)

 

 

Francis Sheehy Skeffington in Downpatrick

 

There used to be a way to get into the old gaol

Though it was foreign lands: epic, Victorian,

Oddly English but equally oddly our own. It’s ’75;

A back door on a shocking hinge; an eye skinned

Across a gravel yard where convicts certainly trod

A surface so rattly even a ghost’s foot would register

In a tiny subsidence, absolute certainties giving way.

Then inside to the cool of everything secret and confined:

Pigeon shit and their throaty purring overhead.

Then there were the discards from Hayes’s Hotel –

Tall bottles of Guinness like a procession of rectors;

With the hare’s lip of a bottle opener, shiny

And as coveted as a key. Such transfiguration.

Such living among the forbidden dead; a crossing over;

Acts of stealth in a stone maze, an empire’s bone house.

Half a mile off, in Skeffington’s Butchers (or Skivvitons

As our own English had it), they were wheeling carcasses out

Like bony cages the animals themselves had been held in.

Who was to know then what unfinished business was?

Not that corpse of his stretched out in Portobello Barracks

A lifetime before, the bullet that killed him stuck in a brick;

Or that of the dead President, his gaunt beak right then

Rising in Dublin Castle above borders of satin and oak;

Any more than those kids climbing into ruins, in those months 

The summer was hot, and the truce just about holding.

from English Street (2018)

Butchers

 

Skeffingtons used cleavers on the meat,

Slapping haunches wetly down on wood

And hacking through the bone before your eyes.

 

Behind the marble altar, in surgeon’s gowns,

They rolled out sides of beef like concert harps

And racked up pigs like blazers off the peg.

 

The butcher’s hand was a finger short.

The young would stare at the knuckle’s tucked-in skin,

The meat hooks in the window like question marks.

 

from Downpatrick Races (2000)

 

 

 

 

 

A Gift from Downpatrick

 

I

 

From Killough and Ardglass two roads take aim

At a cathedral raised in Patrick’s name,

Down the Gallows Hill and over the Dam,

Picking up speed for a millennium,

In from the coast, along the Old Course,

In past the Mental and the Flying Horse,

Past the holy wells at Struell and the Priory

Of St Thomas the Martyr, where the Spring of Glorie

Still heals the sick at the Hospital of Downe,

Then up John Street to the heart of the town,

The Gullion, on by Lynn Doyle Place

Down Irish Street to the dead clock face

That turns to Saul and Kilclief up the hills

A timeless gaze, that yet never fails

To watch for three saints and their daffodils.

 

II

 

This is my town with all of us there:

The town of the Man from God Knows Where,

The Shambles Fight, the Purple and Black

On parade down Market Street and back

And shame on the man who won’t stir a peg

For the great William Johnston of Ballykilbeg

Or the old Archdeacon, who returned from Stormont

With whatever concession that Fenian would want.

The whole town’s a shambles.  For better or worse,

There’s more than one rider on this old horse.

 

III

 

Fresh from the siege and Defence of Crossgar,

From the hospitals, banks and the Arkle Bar,

From Páirc Tomás Ruiseál and the Orange Hall,

From English Street, Irish, from Scotch and from Saul,

Inclusive and generous, eager to please,

There is a town you can live in with ease,

Like Leslie Montgomery (aka Lynn C Doyle),

In lovely Downpatrick on the banks of the Quoile.

 

 

from Downpatrick Races (2000)