The Bunting Tapes
(With thanks to Richard Swigg and Don Share)
A northern voice insists we hold to windward.
So late in the season, sleet on the dark,
clothes sodden, fingers swollen
fumbling familiar tasks
the craft shifts and squirms,
battering a hostile sea.
Tired eyes stare for the journey’s end.
Easier to turn and run with the tide.
Easier to find a safe haven now.
Easier to wait for a favourable wind.
And when is the wind ever right
for the stars you choose to steer by?
Things As They Are.
(Laytown Footbridge, December.)
Between the legends of the Liffey and the Boyne
the Nanny slides against the pillars of a railway bridge.
Sliced, furled, folded back against itself, cuts upstream, spins
down past banks of silt where flocks of common sea birds
fossick amongst the dog shit, condoms, broken shells
to meet a sunless, surfless Irish Sea. But
could the resonance of history, or the hand
that drew the Book of Kells, improve the patterns
on the surface of this dirty stream?
From: Rough Spun to Close Weave
From I'll Howl Before you Bury Me
Available directly from the shop on this site.
1. Lady Moonlight
come the sunlight
you and I may cease to be.
So until our histories claim us
let me hold you close to me.
You’re the moonlit
you’re the night breeze on the sea.
Fragrant as the scent of jasmine,
let me hold you close to me.
With the morning
I must leave you.
There are people we must be.
So until the dawn comes fumbling
let me hold you close to me.
A Literary Education
From sun up to sun down
the naked laughing boys
play in the river.
Shrieking they plunge
into pools above loud rapids
letting currents wash them
though the waves.
Their shouts rebound
from bank and back to bank
and echo after
they have stumbled home.
Boys go to school.
There they must learn
to calculate the force
they felt upon their skin.
Occasionally one child escapes
the teacher’s prattle
and learns in dusty library stacks
the river which he loved
is forty centuries long.
strip off, dive in, the water’s cold
at night it makes your skin
as pale as starlight
Now gainfully employed,
the well-schooled child
will sneak out of his office
to watch boys laughing on the banks.
He knows the names of all the trees
the flowers, the grass.
He waits until they leave
then strips, and wonders,
am I too fat
too tall too short
too tired and old?
He hesitates there on the bank
absurd, pale and lost.
dive in, be naked
let the river take you
The well-schooled child
knows modern theories
far too many “ologies”
to name: he’s learnt to ask
where, when, how, why.
be naked for me
feel the force you’d calculate
as current on your skin
a life’s caresses
in the water’s drift
it knows your body as you never could
it touches you in ways
no lover ever would
Lie back and drift.
Half blinded by computer screens
tired eyes still see the stars.
is not a bar to ecstasy.
To enjoy the river
you don’t have to leave
with your clothes.
Fireflies and shooting stars
and wood smoke rising.
The well-schooled child
to find a deeper river.
Lacan Outside the Gates of Eden
Adam in the garden is busy giving names.
He grunts and points: Tree, Fruit, Snake.God
pats him on the head and yawns.
Nouns don’t make conversations.
Language is the only thing that doesn’t grow
inside the gates of Eden. There is no other
and no absence, only the permanent, immediate
things which Adam can rename
when he forgets. No need for a superlative;
there’s no debate in paradise. God makes an Eve.
Adam wakes to find a version of himself
whose strange distortions lack all purpose.
First oral pleasure was the taste of words,
the joys of shaping sounds, soon superseded
by the tastes of Eve. Abandoning his words
they grope their way to ecstasy. But afterwards
in attempting to define what they’ve just done
they’ll find themselves outside the gates of Eden.
Why do you stand in the street on your own
like a child with a cap in its hands
surrounded by only the echoes that fade
in the wake of the vanishing bands?
The carnival’s over. The crowd has gone home.
The fairground is silent again.
So why do you stand in the street on your own?
What possible pleasure or gain?
He’s coming, the Fool, in a cap hung with bells.
He will dance to the pipe and the drum
and though the light fails and the rain’s on the wind
I will wait in the street ‘til he comes.
In the offices and factories,
the people killing time
ignore the subtle rhythms of the heart.
So I’m waiting for the Fool to come
dancing though the rain,
I am waiting for the miracles to start.
So, why do you stand in the street on your own,
in your motley suit hung with bells?
From Rough Spun To Close Weave
(Available in Australia from Ginninderra Press. Both print and digital copies are now also available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. A limited number of signed copies are available from the shop on this site.)
This Is Not My Life, She Said.
Conscripted body double in a foreign film,
she cannot read the script, so merely waits.
Marlene Dietrich on a chair, with hat.
Rain beating time upon the windowpane.
There is no street beyond the set for her to watch.
But in the non-existent city,
where some Bogart is heroic once again,
the fake light fades to hint at dusk.
(A car door slams. Down several flights
of ill-lit stairs, sad looking men
loosen their ties. Her posters greet them,
like a mantis in their stale bed sitting rooms.
That knowing smile. Those eyes that haunt
their repetitious dreams. The way cold street light
colours skin upon a threadbare sheet.
The way that she’d unpin her hair.)
The ancient lift clanks to announce: He’s on His way.
Beneath the inefficient light, the shadows
hint at rooms no one has bothered to define.
Spy story? Or a love affair that’s doomed?
(The smell of Gauloise permeates the air.
So, yes, this must be Europe; It looks like wine
inside the glass. The table’s laid
for two. Bread, cheese, a knife.)
Or just another bit part in a splatter film?
Her gaze now lingers on the shining blade.
Her technicoloured death may well look faked,
her sense of outrage will be unrehearsed.
My Grandmother’s Story
We hadn’t been there long.
That night, we blew the candles out
said our prayers and went to bed.
Hobnailed boots on cobblestones
in the dark outside the window
heading down the garden to the shed.
There were no cobblestones
outside the window, just an
overgrown, untended flower bed.
But every night: the unmistakable
familiar sounds of hobnails
on the cobbles, heading for the shed.
My dad, he told us not to be so daft.
He hated seeing garden go to waste
so dug, ignoring what the neighbors said.
Beneath the window, down a foot, or less,
he scraped his spade on cobblestones.
Looking up, he saw where they had led.
Well, lord, you can imagine
we didn’t sleep that night.
Father was right middling upset.
Even more so when he found
what was beneath the floor boards
in the garden shed.
More than a Broken Token Song
(for the ballad singers, with gratitude and affection)
On a night when the wild wind was raging
Came a knock at the old cottage door
A ghost from her past, who’d come back at last,
A sailor home from the war.
He’d a kitbag slung over one shoulder
Was wearing a fancy new hat,
He’d lost his right leg, so he leant on his peg
And his left sleeve was pinned up and flat.
It’s seven long years, said this sailor,
Since I left you and headed to sea.
I’ve hugged many shores, and kissed many whores
But I knew you were waiting for me.
Round the horn in a storm, we were down to bare poles
Then squashed flat by an eighty foot sea,
She went down with all hands, but I struggled to land
Cos I knew you were waiting for me.
When the Bugis men boarded our trader,
Outnumbered one hundred to three,
I gritted my teeth, and I gutted their chief
Cos I knew you were waiting for me.
He’d wrestled a shark up the Congo,
Been captured by cannibal tribes,
But he’d made his escape from that terrible fate
By offering his leg as a bribe.
He’d been stranded in deserts and jungles,
Been on ships that were crushed by the ice
It came as no shock he’d been stuck on Ayers rock,
And had been to the moon at least twice.
He’d been lost with Franklin, stranded with Bering
Been cook on the Marie Celeste,
Was sunk at Trafalgar, helped burn the Armada
But claimed sailing with Brendan was best.
And so on for fifty five verses,
Wrecks, pirates and battles and whores
I don’t say he lied, but she broke down and cried
When he said, I’m not finished, there’s more.
Well you’ve heard this before I imagine,
And you’ve guessed how this story should end:
She’ll say something silly like, I missed you, Willy,
Then call him her darling again.
But the question you all should be asking
Is who is narrating the story?
Not the man in the gale retelling the tale
To a girl who is bored by his glory.
Seven long years is one hell of a time
(unless you’re a nun), to stay chaste,
while he suffered at sea, she had shacked up with me,
for great sex, and my help round the place.
So I watched from where we’d been lying,
I wanted her back in the bed.
I could see his fine hat, so I took aim at that
And blew off the top of his head.
Intro: The Skulls Speak
And now your questions force us back to speech.
But do we speak our truth, or resonate to what you’d have us say?
Much is forgotten. Illusions stripped like flesh, desire
…The word rings hollow…desolate, we are all that can remain…
amoral truth, unwelcomed, ripped out of obscurity …
…Strangers to anticipation, prisoners of the present indicative…
the river carries rumours of a presence in the hills.
Fresh skulls bloom beneath their skin. Plant them here,
history’s chief crop, like tumours on the river bank…
Ghost Fences #1
…if we stared out, slack jawed, at “History”
incapable witnesses time polishes to bone.
The space inside the skull echoes the river’s susurration
wind in the canopy and the shifting light
splinter mosaics on the water’s purling surface.
If this is language then you search out its grammar
poor victim of your own sophistication.
We cannot tell you anything.
Be patient as this polished bone and the cracked skull
fixed on a stick will yield enlightenment?
A belief absurd as mountains dreaming acrobatics.
Insufferable conundrums? Eyes that searched beyond
seeing nothing: ears that strained for sounds
hearing nothing: no eyes, no tongue, no ears
still seeing, hearing, saying nothing.
Futile pilgrim, sifting through the past
in search of meaning. We cannot teach you anything.
You deride our answers: we denythere was alesson.
Inarticulate in life: our skulls are no less eloquent.
Ghost Fences #2
Conscripted to futility: seasonal witnesses to ownership
we stand guard for a while at the edges of the space
the tribe claims as its own. Obedient to directions
(how can the skulls ask questions of their sanity?)
we outstare time: oblivious to absurdity.
If this landscape could be named, then call it loneliness:
a blunt reminder of your insignificance.
Three bands of colour. Above, the endless
empty blueness of the sky, bleached by the sun.
Between, the ragged stripe of forest green.
Below, the blue-grey lake. And you are nothing
more than windblown dots across its surface.
Behind us in the dark, the platforms wrapped in pungent smoke
If we define a boundarydo we keep the terror out?
Or like the firelightcreate a place, familiar, near,
where children cry, old man tell stories.
and bodies writhe together in the corners of the hut?
…slack at the edges, even underneath the moon, the landscape
darkens into distance. We stare: failed antidotes to primal fear:
That sense that everything can fade away, cannot be grasped
or being grasped cannot be held but crumbles, flows,
as permanent as patterns forming on the surface of the lake.
Stake out the skulls to claim this place as yours but
it will not notice when you disappear.
Ghost Fences #3
Remembering nothing: at least we proffer evidence
if you but had the skill to read its signs:
Your studies and your theories make you blind.
The blade cut fades, the domed skulls fall
we crumble, fading, fertilise the soil.
This needs no exegesis.
The words that echo in the brain pan blur
and fail, but one last thought, before the dust
reclaims us from the stage. Take narrative
as reproductive metaphor. Don’t wince:
adopt our level unembarrassed stare and see
your role in life: ensure a fresh supply of skulls.
(First Published in Shearsman Magazine)
(A ghost fence is a circle, often of skulls on poles, to keep spirits out. In those villages they have many poles and large sticks of timber stuck up in the ground and on top of them were placed the heads of Indians…as trophies..or as tokens…or as souvenirs of their victories or as war reminders…as the chronicler of the first Spanish descent of the Amazon put it.)
From Lady Godiva and Me
Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as well as from the shop on this site
Draw me before your altar,
submissive, on my knees,
head bowed to priest and god.
Smooth my edges, show me
demur, obedient, calmed.
Why don’t you draw the rusting chains?
Burdened with the guilt of Eve
no matter what I am, the halter
of that inane, tragic lie remains.
The man who kneels beside me,
husband, master, lover, lord;
custodian of the bridle and the reins.
You love me, but Eve naked before Adam
named her, and chained her in the prison
of his definitions? Look up at me.
I will make public what you label private.
Flesh in the wind-blown spaces.
I cannot ride outside your language
but I can step beyond your shadow
dissolve the plural pronoun
disrupt affection’s feudal hierarchy.
Can you love the one who rides away
or who returns, before dismounting
to regain a name, a title and some clothes.
He slipped the robe from off my shoulders.
Unpinned my hair, as he did every night,
trembling hands, whispering, “later”.
But in broad daylight, in the market square.
From expectant alleyways the breeze came fumbling
fondling, fingering. So I mounted up and rode
into a dream of silent shuttered houses.
Like running widdershins around the church
I waited for an outraged God to strike me down
for flaunting breasts and pubic hair.
Until, one open window. Only one. A man’s face
smiling, to prove my courage.
I’m Peeping Tom, the voyeur’s patron saint,
the sordid little man who peers inside
your house, and lurks in kiddies’ playgrounds?
Get off the grass. Behind the shuttered windows
sound of hoof-fall, exploding in the morning.
God-fearing folk all longing for a peek
who mistook fear of punishment for virtue
and dreamed her in their bedrooms for a week.
And me? The patron saint of curiosity,
Tom cat, but blinded, never killed.
I saw Beauty, radiant, riding naked
through the grubby streets at dawn.
Why should I not desire to hold you in the dark?
To trace, moon lit, the line from shoulder down to hip,
to leave my lonely fears behind,
a winter coat now summer’s here.
Why should I not desire to make you smile
for me, and me alone; to see you naked,
taste the salt truth of your beauty,
share your body’s unembarrassed joy.
Why should I not desire to know your secret heart:
the self you run from in the name of duty?
Oh lady, with all reverence,
why should I not desire to hold you in the dark?
From Lady Godiva and Me
Shoulder to shoulder in the shield wall, grim and resolute,
staring into a stranger’s hatred. Thrust of the spear shaft,
board arm numbed by the blows, brain numbed by the noise.
Then to walk, alive, amongst the dead.
To reaffirm this is not a ghost returning. To touch the rough door lintel.
Enter to their wary welcome, experience for once the beauty
of small, dull, ordinary things: old men’s complaints,
your children’s noise, the case of someone’s stolen chickens.
To be still and quiet as she washes blood, cleans wounds.
Eyes search for recognition. Is the one who left the one who has returned?
To see dawn-lit, the colour of her skin. To wake beside her warmth,
remembering those who lie, eyes open, on the cold grass.
You didn’t ask me for the moon.
I would have wrapped the world
around your shoulders. Harrowed hell
or pillaged heaven. But you assumed
I’d let you go, and trust you would return.
The hours between stretched
on the rack of your absence,
amongst swift talking ladies’ men
competing for your hand
fear shuffled in the silence.
Devotion didn’t cut me from the crowd
but love’s a cold and lonely place to stand.
The stolid burghers say that she is proud.
They praise her charity.
I know a different lady. A rose
at peace with its own arrogance.
The first warm day of spring, the raw smell
of damp earth: cold wind over still water,
the grace of ripe corn shaping wind
and the clean sound of Sunday bells.
A winter stream in energetic spate,
her joy in her own lust, her pleasure;
the horse’s muscled back between her thighs.
The evening’s promise in her eyes.
From Lady Godiva and Me