Read sample poems and listen to audio recordings (*) of Sean Haldane reading.

Desire in Belfast *

Hothouse of desire,
In the Botanic Gardens,
Jungle damp, steaming pipes, banana fronds.
Against the railing of the goldfish pond,
Leaning back, she pulled up her dress,
Round-bellied as a Hindu goddess.

Volumes of desire,
Behind the shelves of the Linen Hall Library,
She sitting on my knee, I reading Dante:
‘He kissed my mouth all trembling’
(La bocca mi baciò tutto tremante).

School of desire,
Waiting for me in the park, her uniform skirt
Unbuttoned, knickers in her satchel –
We’d lie on leaves in the dirt.

Bush of desire,
Rhododendron dripping on us bare,
Blood-coloured petals caught in her hair.

Flowers of desire,
Hydrangeas in the suburbs,
‘Like blue notepaper’, quoting Rilke, she said.
I wrote our story in fallen hawthorn petals,
Printing it in the crushed daisies and buttercups
We made our bed.

Reservoir of desire,
Children and pensioners playing with model boats,
Us on a wrought iron bench,
Hands in each other’s clothes under our coats.

Concert of desire,
At recitals or the symphony,
Thinking of afterwards – against a wall
In the dark puddles of an entry.

Journey of desire,
The last Cave Hill bus at night,
On the back seat of the empty upper deck,
My eye on the round mirror above the stairs,
Her fingernails dug into my neck.

Song of desire,
The blackbird at Island Mohee
Which brought a saint eternity,
Us among the brambles kissing,
Purple-mouthed with blackberry.

River of desire,
The Lagan, factories wrecked by Luddite time,
Gladed by nettles, burrs, thorns,
Millwheels stopped in slime,
A muddy dell, us crouching in the mire.

Hill of desire,
Woods, sheeps’ paths, caves, paper and shit,
Peeping Toms… On the summit
Us lying in heather and gorse on fire.

Lane of desire,
Buttermilk Loney, where before the Twelfth
Townies dragged down branches for the bonfires
(And groped the two backward sisters
From the white, half-doored cottage),
She stepping around the cowpats
And singing ‘A la claire fontaine’.

Rain of desire,
Pouring down the windows of the car
We locked ourselves in
Parked off the Hightown Road on the moors
(B Specials patrolled in Land-Rovers with Sten guns),
Lying skin to skin.

City of desire,
Us walking hand in hand
(‘Stand still ye sinners!’
Bellowed at us by a soapbox preacher),
Half a million rages
Rising with the smoke from chimneys,
The air sparkling between our eyes.

Poems of desire,
Graves (‘one story and one story only’),
Blake’s Book of Thel, Rilke’s autumn day, Goethe
Tapping hexameters on his mistress’s shoulder,
Breton’s woman with the woodfire in her hair –
And from me to her how Spring would pass,
May blossom shivering from the tree
Falling white on grass.

Stones of desire,
The dolmen in the Giant’s Ring.
Among the chocolate wrappers
And broken bottles glistening
By moonlight, us in our blanket, trembling.

Stars of desire,
Orion ungirding his sword,
The rising Milky Way –
Sheathed in her I lay.

Coals of desire,
In January, heating a borrowed room,
Bursting frozen pipes in the attic,
Ceiling plaster falling on us naked.

Death of desire,
My disgust.
Love had turned to lust –
That sticky, tender love.
Recalled after thirty years
It brings me to tears.

Baie des Chaleurs

Boats are locked in the harbour, ribs cracked by the ice.
How can I breathe, how can I not breathe in your arms?

The mouths of lobster pots are smothered by snow.
How can I breathe, how can I not breathe in your arms?

As a child you skated on the ocean marbled white.
How can I breathe, how can I not breathe in your arms?

Your look is cold as these gusts bringing tears to my eyes.
How can I breathe, how can I not breathe in your arms?

But I know what moves under this snow-tongued waste of ice:
Shoals, eddies, tendrils of anemones. You emerge
From dazzling waves in summer with diamonds and pearls
On your shoulders, hair as darkly curled as seaweed,
Eyes bright as rare black jet among the pebbles.

How can I not breathe in your arms?


You come on skis out of the setting sun
Toward me in a gold halo.
Your shadow lunges forward across the snow.
Your eyes are darker than your shadow.


Let me off this frozen sea onto the frozen land
Across the salty slush and drifts that hide the frozen sand
To where the heads are falling off the snowmen in the thaw
And spruces stretch themselves to snap their manacles of ice
As I stretch out to you in clouds of breath my melting hand.


The bay thaws: cloud grey, drizzle grey, water grey,
Floes white, mist above a snowy point white,
Seagulls on the floes white and grey –
A film of white and grey.

I thaw with the sea in your arms.

In an old colour film you are belle of the ball,
Of graduation, Christmas réveillon –
Erect, high-cheekboned, an Indian princess,
Slow but with moments of quickness.

I move with the sea in your arms.

Your sudden smile, a flash of the sun,
Lights up the world: there is no cloud,
You are as dazzling as the summer sea
And sparkling as the tumbling waves.

I pound with the sea in your arms.

Letter from New Ireland *

October. Still the yellow butterflies
Dawdle around the yellow dandelions.
Asters like nebulas of Venuses
Drift in the field. Propeller search planes drone –
Like Lancasters returning to Belfast
After the war. The airmen here wear green
And hate it. As in that artsy poem by Frost,
This soft morning was mild etc. Am I obscene?
I’ve found my femme fatale. My thinning hair
Reveals the scar I got that otherwhere
(I smashed the windscreen when an A30
Hit black ice on the Malone Road, then a tree).
I’m not unhappy. Under this green sod
Perhaps a home awaits. If there’s a God
He’s in me (so I feel, without disproof
Until I take the thunderbolt of truth).
‘Dog is God backwards’, my daughters say,
‘Dad can bark like a dog.’ I’ll have my day,
Then under dandelion-dappled sky
Of aster blue, a sleeping dog I’ll lie.
My youngest climbed the shed roof in the garden
To pick some pears and told us ‘They taste golden’.
Son of a bitch, I could be, but I think I’m
The last in the New World to bark in rhyme.
Here they pronounce Dad ‘Dead’. A woman said,
‘Whenever he was dronk he’d lay in the bid
And roar. Oi always loved moi Dead.’ I like
It here. Maybe in time we’ll go back West.
All the best –

PS The postal workers are on strike.

The Blackbird*

(The italic lines are a version of the medieval Irish poem

Int en bec, known as ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough.’)


The entry where we courting stood

Is stained with lovers’ blood.

Across the Bog Meadows, bombs

And bullets break flesh for tombs.

The red buses we used to burn

Inside are charred with real fire.

The pub’s become a funeral pyre.

My dear, our childish moans

Were nothing to the groans

Of death.

Do not return

Unless as ashes in an urn

For scattering in that country.

The grimy walls of that entry

Are blown to dust, cobblestones

Dashed with bones.

Do not return

If there’s one granule left to burn.

But remember the hills

Where clasped as one we’d view

The land, the great city below,

Pink terrace houses row on row,

The chimney stacks of mills,

The cracks of streets and entries –

Pottinger’s, Joy’s – the gantries

Looming on Queen’s Island, bridges

To County Down’s green ridges,

The Lagan’s silver arm, the Lough.

See as we saw them in our day

The whins, the hawthorns where we lay.

Hear as we heard –

A small bird

            Whistling piped

            From sharp beak

            Pure yellow,

            Casts a cry

            On Loch Laig,

            Black from twig

            By meadow

And let the winds from the Atlantic

Tamed by the Sperrins to pulsing air

Ruffle your hair.

Think of me: It’s not so long.

I listen to the same blackbird’s song.

‘A Matter of Time’ *

She loved me. I loved her. It ended. Now

One eye hides behind a leaf, the other

Stares from photocopy pigment soot.

Is she alive? The repro doesn’t tell.

There’s no fragrance in a Xerox smell.

A Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.

Irradiated love. By what nerve gas,

What blastless neutron warfare was it killed?
So wails the lover lost and losing: I.

Toxins and X rays de-marrowed my bones

And weakened muscles like a fluorescent.

Inside myself I pulled her down to hell,

Not outside on those crushed glades of bluebell,

Not in that cold dawn when she came to bed

And gave me one last time the flower I’d bled.

Gone (click), gone (click), gone (click), gone (click)

Gone (click)…

Layers of Xerox back in time’s machine,

It ended. No. Gone (click). I ended it.

As love it started. I made it obscene.

And now I try to make a Xerox clean.

In Gratitude for the General

The Elect who followed in the General’s track,

His last mad rush to gain more territory,
Ran more risks than the bullets at their back:
Not all the villages were pacified.

Angry officials claim them but at night

Shiver inside, playing chess to smother

The clamorous beat of hearts longing for mother.

As leaves vibrate in the bush, birds call,

Or enemy throats, natives’ blowpipes avenge

The exemplary corpses newly hung

In the village square to proclaim control:
The villagers remember the General.

He fraternised with some, slept with their women,

Though openly at midday through the square

Would promenade his straight-backed, perfect wife,

Defying every hostile, knowing stare.

Some of the children playing in the mud

Show his characteristic marble eyes

And dominating nose. One broken woman

Still limps from when in drunken despair

He threw her down a high veranda stair.

Officials parrot his ideology.

It is said the Capo’s directorial suit,

His deputies’ shirts, jackets and ties

Come from the General’s trunkful of supplies.

In the city – where he had gone laden with maps

And strange devices, marbled rocks, odd plants,

To promote his finds – accused of playing God,

The General was shot by a firing squad.

The war between the villages and city

Is so old no one knows when it began,

Although the General himself would say

It started with his first rebellion.

Always moving along, he could not stay

In either village or city, each campaign

Would draw him further into new terrain.

The Elect followed his path. The dangers:
Mantraps, crazed loss, disorientation,

Visions, mirages of floating mountains,

Lakes that dimmed to swamps, wrens like condors

Looming with cyclonic shifts of light,

And then the terror of the sudden night.

On the journey no rewards except the greetings

And kind handclasps of passing savages

Who recognised them: in the lakes’ mirrors

They looked the same, bronzed and dishevelled,

Lithe as animals, cunning in their eyes.

Until they reached the high frontier, the stars –

As if they entered a new universe.

This, then, is where the General came

On that final survey trip from which he returned

Raving with his caravan of goods.

The Elect can learn from him: not to go back.

Sanity hangs on not trusting old friends,

Not trying to convince: bulldozers rust,

Skeletons in their seats, on the foothill track,

Recalling the final greedy thrust

Of city into new territory,

Using the General’s hastily drawn maps,

His converted guerrilla villagers

Fleeing from the cruel pillagers.

Frantic village officials with their bust

Of the General, and their in-house gossip

About the size of his penis, his sudden violence

(They bear proud scars) would shoot the Elect on sight,

Unknowing that beyond the horizon’s haze

Lies the world the General sought. The Elect

Beside the crystal lakes pointed with stars

Draw maps by moonlight and by firelight,

And write accounts of miracles and dangers,

Wondering how to get these to the few,

Disguised as citizens or villagers,

Whose eyes must brighten and whose hearts must yearn

For these eternal heights of no return.

Sometimes the Elect, disloyal to the General,

Disgusted with the village cults whose message

Crackles on the radio when not jammed

By city static, wish him stuck in hell:
He beat his women but they cherish theirs;

His track sometimes circles back on itself

Where theirs now cuts through rigorously straight;

Their maps are no longer the same, nor is their thought.

They shun the stagnant lowlands where he fought.

Then in bad times when their supplies run low,

Night chills and loneliness making them crazed,

They yell and quarrel and threaten to throw

Each other off cliff edges, or in fear

Stumble down rock slides, paths collapsing

Under their feet. It seems that their New Age

Is founded on a love infused with rage.

At times they sense the General’s eyes in theirs:
It was his restless search that brought them here

To mountain tops so passionately clear.

Sometimes on rocky paths they think they feel

His hand touching a shoulder, and they wheel

To face in ecstasy the midday sky

Where spinning waves, the vortices of time,

Whirl into points of light.

Do these create,

Or are they sucked in by, our life and breath?

This sky the General saw when facing death.

The Double-Goer *

Irrational π chose an island.

Rational II (his double-goer) town,

In which to square and multiply himself,

Mirrored with whore-bums, tits, and lip-sticked mouths,

And after (une fois philosophe…) debate,

Horrored by AIDS, clap, herpes, pimp’s knife-prick,

Went home (… deux fois pervers ) to masturbate.

While that absurd, irrational π,

Naked in pouring from the ocean rain,

Ate berries: salal-, salmon-, huckle-, black-,

Until his lips were purple with the stain,

Then scrabbling, knuckles skinned, in underbrush

Found tinder, kindling, struck a fire and blew

It high before his grinning face: uprush

Of sparks swirled to fir-tops. She appeared,

Her eyes like embers, hair burnished by fire,

Nipples like charcoal on Her smoky skin,

Queen of the night with π to dance and spin,

As from Her lightless radiance he, the surd,

Formed circles: from the island out and round

Spread pulses of concentric heat and sound.

π’s and his Love’s vibrations hummed and blazed

Even through II, the square, only aware

When he awoke under a tree, numb, dazed,

Bemuddied, ashed, beside a smear of tar

Where ravens picked at small splinters of bone

A merciful soft rain was washing white,

Falling through slanted bars of morning light.


Gaelic dán – What is given: gift, fate, poem

A poem is a gift

From me to you,

From you to me:
This circle makes it true.

It is a ring of love

Around us both,

Of golden light

In which we pledge our troth.

It holds our bad and good,

Our dark and bright,
Our life and death,

Our insight and outsight.

Nothing but all it takes,

All you, all me:
Possession makes

Us and the poem free.


To locate the ‘ear’ responsible, the scientists used a

process of elimination. They removed a mantis’s legs

and coated various parts of its body with a heavy

layer of petroleum jelly or melted wax.

Science News, 15 February 1986

The praying mantis preyed upon by men:
They stick electrodes in his abdomen,

And by a process of elimination

Submit all six legs to an amputation,

Seal with petroleum each orifice,

And bombard him with ultrasound – all this

To find his single Cyclopean ear,

A breast-groove catching all he needs to hear.

It is the well-known, pitiable fate

Of mantis to be eaten by his mate.

Now there’s one more thing for him to pray

For: that death comes the usual way.

Short Poems



On your grey days

My spirits fall

With the barometer’s trace.

Gnomon casts no shadow

On the sundial’s face.



Geometry of Doubt


A wall between us and you,

A wall between us and me,

A wall between me and you:

A Y of doubt trisects our unity.


The Alley


In this alley many have come

And passed a night or two.

The walls are slippery where they lay,

The bums who snored the darkness through.

And if this is my only way to you?


O Canada


Like Upper Canada on Lower Canada,

All night I curl around you from behind,

And as in French you dream, in English I,

A river passes through us to the sea,

Falling from the Great Lakes of the mind.





This prison fits me well.

I sent ahead, conceived in sleep,

Blueprints of dungeons, portcullis and keep:

I planned this hell.

Lives and Wives


The man who sets out to live other men’s lives

Ends up living with other men’s wives.





Missed the boat. Again. And glad to see

The flagged stern pulling outward from the quay.





Each woman saves me from the one before:

Is this the truth that I’ve been waiting for?


Hickory Dickory Dock


Disintegration into sleep:

Consciousness falls to bits.

The clock I am ticks on all night.

Scurries of images leave tracks

In the mind’s dust, but nothing fits.






Here where slaves rule

From towers of glass,

The only aristocrat

Is the bum asleep

On a wooden bench,

Though some would flinch

At his stench.





Pain keeps me from the poem,

And poem from the pain:
A pheasant on a frozen field,

A heron on a frozen stream

Seen from a hurtling train.

Poems Are

Poems are,

Novels are ifs,


Has been:

Life’s all three.




Slow as molasses in January

Her mother used to say (my love’s).

But not so slow when in love she moves:
Quick as molasses in July

She catches me fast as a fly.





Geese write letters in the sky

In a script I don’t know,

Frost on the fields

Looks like snow,

A steaming horse unshapes

Its shadow.





Alzheimer, Graves, Pick, Addison,

Korsakoff, Krohn, Bright, Huntington…

Having a disease named after one

Gives immortality.

(I wouldn’t want to be

Killed by a disease named after me.)



My Friend


My friend who worked on a novel for ten years,

Which got panned in one line by the (NY) Times, now appears

In a ‘critically acclaimed’ novel by another,

As the man who ran off with the other’s wife.

That’s life!

This and That*

This needs that

But this this,

This that ­ more

Than this or

That ­ must be

You and me,

This in that

Come to this ­

O that this!

But for what

Does that that

That is you

Need this this?

That round this

Come to that ­

O this that!