Lines From the Stone Age *


River Bann, N Ireland

We lived here first, we of the big bones,
Craggy faces, brow‑ridges, high skulls.
We speared eels and salmon with ash harpoons
Edged with tanged flakes of flint, we pulled
Sea bass, blue-and-silver striped, onto the strand
With lines of twisted gut and bone hooks. We culled
Strawberries and bilberries, gathered mast
In oak and hazel woods (we grilled
Fowl on hazel sticks) and by the river
We made our wattle dwellings in this land
We had found our own: our great mother.

Before us came the fish, fowl, songbirds, eagles,
Wolves, foxes, martens, elk, hare, lynx, otter –
The mother’s scaly, feathered, furry ones.
And we, the naked, raised our heads
To scan the starry nights for the cold moon,
Mistress of the north‑revolving sky,
Of women’s changes, briny blood, and tides –
The death‑white breakers tumbling on the sand,
Eddying the great mouth of our estuary,
Forcing the salt taste upstream to the falls
Where salmon swirled into our withy weirs
And in the rainbow spray, on stepping stones,
We stabbed into the foam with blood-stained spears.

After us the small people, slope skulled,
Narrow headed, conceived in the dark,
The calculating ones who moved great stones,
Smelling of sour milk (we of fish and meat –
Our women’s breast-milk smell was honey sweet),
The smooth‑browed, calculating, sacrificing,
Landing on waveless inlets with their cattle,
Driving into the mother’s heart, burning
The dead elm trees they’d murdered by ringing bark.
Sacrificing! Why could they not let live?
Naming the mother’s rivers after cows
As if her crystal floods were rancid milk,
Building earth mounds in the river bends
With passages to let in the sun’s ray,
To catch it like an ox’s blood, worshipping
The sun’s death and birth, not the moon’s way.

After them the broad skulled ones, melters of ore,
Warlike, fort builders – people of things
(Swords, helmets, cloaks, cauldrons, torcs, rings)
And of ranks (farmers, chiefs, praise‑poets, kings),
The women not much more than mares they rode:
People of the horse (as the dark ones they enslaved
Were people of the cow – us of the salmon),
Worshippers of neither sun nor moon,
Neither fire nor tide: of thunderbolts
Like their swords, then the dead king on the cross

Invasions from the inundating sea,
Wave upon wave, a flotsam of these others
Who suffocated us just like the sand
That drifted in our dwellings on the wind,
The dunes advancing. We were lost in them,
Taken as their mates, women and men,
Becoming them – their fathers, mothers, children.

We lived here first. Not much of us survives:
A craggy brow here, deep-set eyes there,
Jutting nose, high cheeks, wild curly hair,
Something in the blood, the bone, the mind –
Of all of you. And now this weak hand writes
From one who comes from us, and on starry nights
Comes back to us, the moon above the waves,
Or, with a north wind blowing, by day
Stands at the great waterfall in rainbow spray:
His spear is this poor pencil, and his lines –
Of longing, terror, pride, lust and pain –
Are lines of breakers pounding in his brain.

As We Like It

We live where fragments of the past remain:
Otherwise we’re on an endless plain
Under death’s white mountain.

By day among the traffic in the street grime
We must work in the world’s time,
Our busyness no crime.

At evening along lanes known to Shakespeare,
We walk to have a drink at The Bear,
And know we are somewhere:

Among the forest of Arden’s last oaks we have a sense,
As we like it, of making no pretense
Of other than past tense.

You Don’t Love Me

‘I love you.’

‘No. You love what you do

With me. You don’t love me.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘You love the pleasure you feel

With me. You don’t love me.

In the dark, all cats are grey.’

‘What a thing to say.

That’s not true.

Cats, or women, are not all the same.’

We lie in the dark. I wait for the sound

I love of the after-midnight train,

Rushing over a mile of ground

Like a football crowd’s cheer,

And though I am aglow, I feel pain:

‘I do love you…’

(I love your skin. The round

Feel of your breasts and hips drives me mad).

‘No one else is here

In my mind.’

And I could add,

‘You came!  Then I came!

Does this mean nothing to you?’

But I don’t. Because I fear

Behind your statement is:

‘I don’t love you.

I came because you pleased me –

Not for you. For what we do.

I don’t love you.’

Lines

What duets we played on the violins of us!

What thrills from our organ flute pipes! How full-bellied

The throbbing from our tympani, how melodious

The strains from our oboe d’amore, our ophicleide!

Now our music room is locked up, silent with dust,

Our instruments abandoned. Mice have eaten the glue

Of the violins, the wood is rotting, and rust

Eats the metal where spittle ran in the winds we blew.

How sad this lack of any sound except the mice

Occasionally pattering among things not nice.

All that is left of the double concerto we played

Is notes: minims, black crochets and quavers, in bars

I scribble on old paper. The music we made

Is lost on its long journey to the stars.

My Father, St Mark’s, Armagh*

‘Ni hé Dia na marbh é, ach Dia na mbeo.’

‘He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.’

Mark XII, 27

I wonder did you hear the bomb

Whose blast rolled across your tomb.

But ashes are ashes – no ears

Nor eyes, though good for others’ tears.

Did the gravelly ground

Reverberating from the sound

Rattle the urn? But you

Can’t know or care for anything,

Not even springtime pushing

Leaves out on the lime avenue.

Or can you hear the funeral knells

Through the spire’s architraves,

As the occasional others

Join you, your sisters and brothers,

In the untidy graves?

Does the silent ringing

Of lime flowers’ golden bells

Carry above the singing

Of choirs racketing in the nave,

And reach across the grave?

Could you have heard the shot,

When a man – some violent thick,

Who knows? – was rendered not?

It floated across the Mall,

Innocuous as the click

Of cricket bat on ball

From the playing field, or ‘How’s that?’

Yelled out when wickets fall.

Can you hear calling you

The silent ratatatat

Of the lime drumsticks’ tattoo?

Atlantic*

On the golden sands of youth

Where I searched for truth,

Under clouds black with rain

We two walk in pain.

On Sheephaven’s glassy brink

Horn Head seems to drink

Like a crouching brontosaur.

In dunes behind the shore

Pink and yellow‑striped snails climb

And fall, niched in time.

You say all our emotion

Comes from this ocean.

We’re hit by a sudden squall

Whose rain smudges all,

Turning golden sand to black,

Blotting out our track.

Children of the wide Atlantic,

We can become frantic

With gales of rage or fear

Any time of year,

Or be swept by storms of grief

Drenching blade and leaf.

But, head down, soaked, I know

Soon a double rainbow

Will dip like steaming candy

Into a rippled sea

One: Between Ones and Ones

(… esta corporeidad mortal y rosa

donde el amor inventa su infinito.

Pedro Salinas)

We live not to be dead

But living die.

We change place:

Death / life, death / life

Time / not, time / not.

As the switch sparks

Do fuses finally

Scorch out to only ash,

Make only space

Of what was outside time?

Time / not, time / not:

The not the flash

Which is us true

Lost in the body’s lies;

The not this instant of us

Not ourselves but one:

Between ones (separate lives)

And what to universal one

Unwilling dies.

Rages*

They were terrible years,

Although I didn’t say so:

Begun in hopes and fears,

But – when I’d turned the pages

Of that book of images –

Ended in hopes and rages.

From the dying woods

Foxes came one by one,

As if emissaries,

At a wavering run,

With strings of saliva

Slobbering from bared teeth.

I’d rush to get my gun,

The old wartime 303,

And hastily I’d shoot them,

Then, wearing rubber gloves,

Inter the blood-flecked things.

There were worse buryings:

I had to shoot Louis –

My hound with the fleur-de-lys

(A marking on his brow) –

Mauled by a fox, and Jenny

The poodle (a stray I’d found).

I put them in the same ground:

 

A knoll above the creek,

Unflooded in the Spring,

Their graves the ones with stones,

Among the skunks and foxes —

The kind of carrion

Louis had liked to roll on.

There, by the end of August

Corn and squash were frost-blacked.

In the winter of the year,

At fifty below zero,

Apple and pear trees cracked –

Like gunshots in my brain:

An echo chamber

With floors of crazy camber,

Its matter criss-cross tracked –

Blood-spots on sheets of snow

Where wolves of angry pain

Hunted my past’s poor deer.

Black Hill*

Along the moorside, scattering sheep,

Clambering over walls of black stone,

Under the lark’s twitter in the sky sphere

And the hobby hawk’s begging wheep,
I’ve climbed. I’d thought I was alone.

But they were there. They are here

On the ridge in a round barrow

Tussocked with grass, crumbling down,

Boulders tumbled into its crown.

I lie on the grass and press my ear

Against a boulder. Dimly I hear:

Who I am you don’t want to know.

How it is you don’t want to know.

 

Dimly I see blue eyes scrunched narrow,

White cheeks and forehead, yellow hair.

You don’t want to know who I am.

I was killed with me Dad and me Mam.

Death is more than you want to know.

What it’s like you don’t want to know.

 

Yellow-haired girl, you don’t want to know

How all is changed, nothing is changed.

I lie despairing on this slope.

In this world I find no hope.

Here I am with the whiffling air,

And wheeping hawks, and larks so high

I can’t tell where they are in the sky.

No flowers for a grave, the moor is bare.

Draw me a circle on the stone

With your finger, a cross in the circle – so.

And put your lips to the circle – so.

This is my forehead, kiss my forehead

So I can feel that I’m not dead.

 

I’ve kissed the cross in the circle – so.

Along the moorside, scattering sheep,

I descend to the hazy valley below.

Three hares start from my track as I go.

Yellow-haired girl asleep in the ground,

Under the grass and stone of your mound –

I don’t want to know. You don’t want to know.

Oxford

An empty quad.

There is no God.

There is no one.

My friends are gone.

My days are done.

My thoughts are dust,

My pages must,

One book in a million

In the library’s light.

My consolation?

The remembered sight

Of a girl on a bicycle hurrying back to college through the night.

Remembrance Sunday 1999, Great Tew*

As the poppies spread

In the fields at Great Tew

The dead seem few.

The living on the wold

Are too many and too good

To be death food.

Inside the church is cold,

Pews bare as cattle stalls.

Cracked walls.

Those gone to public ends,

Gentry, soldiers, private friends,

Have their memorials.

Inscriptions carved in brass

Or in marble, caulked with grime,

Blur with time.

Outside, in the grass,

A poppy on a tiny cross.

A card: DICK. Loss –

A mother or a wife.

Where is the toxic tree of life,

The yew?

 

As the poppies spread

In the fields at Great Tew

Many are the dead.

Eye-lidded gloom

In brass or stone-lidded tomb

With endless dread

Is all our doom.

Notes

What duets we played on the violins of us!

What thrills from our organ flute pipes! How full-bellied

The throbbing from our tympani, how melodious

The strains from our oboe d’amore, our ophicleide!

Now our music room is locked up, silent with dust,

Our instruments abandoned. Mice have eaten the glue

Of the violins, the wood is rotting, and rust

Eats the metal where spittle ran in the winds we blew.

How sad this lack of any sound except the mice

Occasionally pattering among things not nice.

All that is left of the double concerto we played

Is notes: minims, black crochets and quavers, in bars

I scribble on old paper. The music we made

Is lost on its long journey to the stars.