The oak outside my bedroom window,
when I was a child, taught me fear.
At night it would send its cold shadow
across my room, along the floor,
as if the dark were coming for me
with a famine-hunger for my soul.
Its fingers, twisted with age, bony,
groped blindly up the bedroom wall,
searching for me with awful patience,
until a wind would enter this world
of oak and bedroom and dark silence,
storming my dreams with grey, gnarled
armies of oak and birch and willow
marching through the black middle-earth
of midnight moaning a long, slow
dirge of the nightfall, hollow as death.
That song swallowed me. I fell far
in the void of the moon, down through God,
to the root of morning, sinister
as the sunlight creeping across my bed.
I was eight when we moved from Granite View,
grim estate of post-war council houses,
to a strange townland at the edge of Saval parish
called Benagh, from the Gaelic, ‘place of birches’.
And place of mystery, place of dark. I knew
this place had called me, like all the ancient Irish
heroes had been called, by some strange music;
a living stream, a pipe’s lament, the cry
of wild geese in the desolate winter sky,
a woman’s voice that echoed through the air
and made one man, though home already, homesick
for somewhere else, so that he followed her
to Tir na n-Og, across unreturnable seas,
leaving behind the rock-hard world of men
and disappearing into the twilit trees
to live in an utterly otherworldly vision
of time unflowing, wind not blowing,
the heart filled with heartbreaking harmonies
no human heart could hear for very long
without becoming cold to human hurt
and surrendering to that strange inhuman music.
I knew then, also, I’d one day make my art
out of this place of birches, a dark song
of the threshold between eternity and rock.
A smoky winter’s day
in the Linen Hall café.
I climbed the cold stone staircase
to encounter such a face
as smiled from Jean-Luc Godard’s
New Wave movie-postcard,
Une Femme Est Une Femme, a
60s-sexy Anna Karina
looking forward with kohled eyes
to the later Vivre Sa Vie
where she’d smoke and kiss and pout
with a vamp-vermillion mouth.
In that celluloid instant
you were muse-like. You were you
for Padraic Fiacc
I was brought up on top of a slieve
And cannot live on the earth, for the town
Of the earth which I do not believe
In, pulls me down, pulls me down.
- The Stolen Fifer
Above Belfast the gypsy horses stand
in their own breath, like spirit-horses, far
from the filthy tide, the furnace-fume and glare
of streets below, hell-hot in the rush-hour,
as the city dies its daily death, the damned
fleeing for suburbs through avenues of pale
smoke-cancerous sycamore and elm
like victims of the death-camps caught on film
before they vanish in the terrible calm
of evenings that stretch out like one-way rail,
who laugh like ones in padded rooms, as eyes
in corners watch them and take careful notes
of what they do when thinking other inmates
are unaware they have such lucid thoughts,
and go on laughing when the laughter dies,
or toast themselves, recalling a bon mot
made to a colleague over lunch, while, un-
known to said colleague, they’ve begun
an affair with someone, and not just anyone,
but their lunch-date’s partner, proving something so...
And what they prove is what the horses stand
above, beyond; the city’s consciousness
of nothing but its own controlled caresses
in rented hotel rooms, while gypsy horses
defy horizons, riderless, unmanned.
Although I’m sat across from you I’m not
explaining how I’m not quite here, despite
the inescapable fact we’re face to face;
me playing me, you you, in an unreal place
designed to simulate depths of reality
through mirrors deployed on walls theatrically,
showing us ourselves, the candlesticks’
flickering flames receding to the ticks
and tocks of clocks that tell the time but can’t
tell you that you’re in a restaurant
alone, apart from echoes and thin air,
while I, whoever that is, am not there;
but outside, peering through the window-scrim
wondering what on earth she sees in him.
after Sean Ó Riordain
Beside the wine
is a candle. And fear.
Our Lord’s statue
has lost all its power.
What the night holds
is a horde in the alley,
outside my window,
night’s dark ministry.
If my candle goes out
in spite of my praying
the night will leap up
and into my lung,
the fear will invade
and take over my mind,
I will become night,
but if it survives
through this one night
I’ll become a republic
of light lasting to daylight.
ODD MAN OUT
I’m going downtown where there’s people.
The loneliness hangs in the air.
With no-one real waiting there for me,
No smile, no flower nowhere.
—Richard Hawley, 'Cole’s Corner'
I staggered into a parallel world last night;
well, early evening really, round teatime.
I was coming out of the Hatfield, through the twilight,
towards the embankment and the filmic calm
of a panoramic vision of the city
that rose before me like the opening shot
of a bad post-ceasefire remake of a movie
that can’t be reimagined; Odd Man Out,
if only for the reason that Belfast
could never be more magical than when
James Mason stumbled through her on his last
legs, in hope of reaching home, or heaven,
before the law could bring him down to earth,
and found himself at large in a labyrinth
of the city changed so utterly, his own death
became a curtain through which he would gaineth
entrance to the Kingdom up on high
alongside Kate, the only girl he’d ever
loved in this world, or the next ... and I
followed the winding ribbon of the river
to find my own escape out of this all-
too-much-with-us-world, into the arms
of someone waiting, smiling, a foghorn’s call
promising safe passage from all harms.