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Borrowdale

night-skyThe lone lamenting of an owl
kept me from my sleep –
that and a silence
foreign and exotic to my ear.
I stood inside the open door
by marsh and brush
to gaze out on a nightscape
free of any human sign.
The far off fells were only
rough charcoal sketches.
Wind funnelled up Borrowdale,
bending dry autumn grass
that glowed in starlight.
Above me they hung
cold and mysterious:
my old friend the Plough
and all her pale neighbours
and all the bright emptiness
that often brought me peace.
But while their great presence
pricked my eyes with tears
and I was mute to my core
shivering with awe and chill
in the timeless quiet,
I wanted nothing
than to cling to this world
with its flaws and frictions,
as only here may we learn
and grow in virtue.
A wider peace followed
than is born of solitude,
and I journeyed back
to the rabble of the city,
to the unsecluded suburbs,
to the tasks and complications,
with new hope
and new affection.

2

Fountains Abbey

Fountains-Abbey-FullIt was here before, just so –
the long straight avenue
parting luxurious chestnut trees
and families of deer browsing
up to the Burges church
festooned with gilded angels
and parrot-coloured windows.
But was it I who walked it
with a heart full of frights
and a head of broken melodies?

It was there, just so –
the old tearoom staring out
to that lake shore reflecting
its hazy woodland double.
Jackdaws with grey buzzcuts
and blue marble eyes
still scratch for crumbs of baking
under terrace tables as before.
The recipe for currant scones
I’m sure remains unaltered.

It was here, I know –
the great wreckage of an abbey
gazed upon by countless
God-thirsty Cistercian eyes.
They called for Him
in rough white robes
before the plagues and fires
and swaggering monarchs
drove them all to hide amongst
the softening folds of time.

I wonder now how well
these walls remember
all their Latin pleas,
the quiet quarrels in the dark,
long and satisfying labours,
or lingering in summer meadows.
The walls I saw as strict and grey,
up close are shades
of mild sand and roses,
sugared rhubarb and custard.

God was here, I’m certain,
even thirty years ago,
and waited for me everywhere.
If I but had the nerve to hear Him
in the furtive rustle
of a ground-dwelling thing,
or the plash of brown-headed gulls,
skimming the river for minnows.
To see Him in the curls of this new fern
or that baby-faced blossom of haw.

Was it I who walked here, really?
No, not quite, or not so fully.
More now this self who tramps
a steep path up upwards,
gulping greedy lungfuls
of moss-scented air
and mists of wild garlic,
feasting on the echoes of birdsong,
greeting the rain with family fondness
as a cloud comes down to meet me.

2

Vallée de l’Orb

crowfoot blossomsThe hushing of leaves 

in tune with the river’s rush, 

while crickets sound alarm clocks 

that nobody heeds, 

as all the world’s awake, 

chirruping, squabbling 

unseen from treetops.

The spaniel gallops on

to dive-bomb her reflection,

but we follow gingerly

on two legs apiece, 

picking our way unshod 

down a dusty track 

of pebbles and brush.

On land we are various 

veterans and teens, 

and all stations in between, 

dark, fair, mousey,

strapping or thin,

Parisians, Londoners, 

coastal and country folk,

Straining to understand,

with frowns and smiles 

and schoolgirl linguistics,

picking our way gingerly 

through conversation, 

busy hands grasping 

at long-lost nouns.

But anyone knows

the language of cool water 

in shared sunlight, 

the tremble of goosebumps,

the shocks of glee,

of fright and wonder,

echoing up an empty ravine.

Some plunge in with the dog, 

while others totter in the shallows,

gripping greasy rocks

with soles and fingers,

leaning to the current,

stretching for a firm hold,

like infants for a favourite toy.

By ones and twos we reach a cove 

where crowfoot blossoms

trail green tendrils in the flow,

and minnows flash

their silver trinket bodies,

hovering against the drift, 

dangled from some great ornament.

Blue bejewelled dragonflies,

and silken butterflies 

of yolk and butter yellows 

potter in their floating gardens, 

where we lounge and gaze, 

a dozen timeless children,

flowers draggled in our hair.

The longest day of summer

stands still for us

and waits.

0

Praia da Falésia

falesiaWill you come too, I ask
Yes, she tells me, eyes gleaming
I can hear the distant breathing of the sea
and want to be nearer
We don’t know the way, but follow signs
from this maze of marble and painted tiles
out between the pines in waking birdsong
on a trail of lanterns and gangways
down, down through a dark chasm of shapes 
like giant stalagmites of sand

Let’s go barefoot, she says
Wet grains, aching cold
sink under our heels and grate on our toes
Blue light from an icy moon 
and the sun hinting orange
revealing raw pigments in the earth
Hot molten colours, cool and gravelly to touch
then only miles of empty Atlantic
Waves stretch and curl into land
fizzing like spilt lemonade

Can you feel your feet, she asks
Not in much detail, I laugh
We crouch to pull on socks and shoes
dragging warmth over salt and numbness
She hands me her coat and sets off to run
out beyond the edge of vision
leaving no soul in my sight
Footprints bigger than hers or mine
vanish ahead, the rest washed away
unless some lone walker took flight

A squadron of seagulls overhead
as the clouds catch alight
I salute it all with heart and senses
weird cliffs in fire colours, sea in sea colours
masculine shades of battleships and bottle glass
The air alive and bare
as though of some newborn world
The grit and shells, cuttlebones and razor clams
mussel husks and driftwood branches
placed just so, for me alone

Then runners come, one by one
trotting east, east through a pale mist
striving sunwards, alone and together
each with his own struggles, her own troubles
Ideas and memories, breathing and footsteps
all silenced by the sea’s infinitude
I watch them vanish in the haze
one by one, like the lone walker
God could be taking them up for all I know
Maybe He’ll come for me too

0

Maynooth Joy Day

MaynoothThe florist lines up peonies and lilies
as an audience of ladies
watching Grafton Street in the rain
A circus of fervid shoppers and trippers
a plump beggar mumbles through gold teeth
a busker charms jigs from a tired fiddle
in a breeze of cigarettes and candy nuts
Another shapes a dog from sand
hands smoothing ears and haunches 
as though warming them to life

Three weary English abroad
weekend cases and summer dresses
Bewley’s breakfast on marble and mahogany
full cream porridge and soda toast
Two talk of the potato famine
under potted palms and stained glass
while I conjure James Joyce on a visit home
frowning over Finnegan in the shadows
back when all these seats were modish
and tea was as tea is always

Red brick terraces and black iron railings
painted pubs with golden Gaelic names
Artists hawk their wares at Merrion Square
but we step into white serenity
tiptoe up three floors of quietude
and wait for God awhile on zafus
Scents of new carpeting and paint
wide windows on the sun and city
A statue of Sri Chinmoy waits for a home
hands folded ready and eyes agaze

We study our palms in fun to ponder the future
taking tea and fat scones at a street café
by the house where Oscar Wilde was born
A green train carries us through greenery
over the Liffey and west to Maynooth
where Lorna Byrne talks to angels sometimes
A walk through daisies to lie in a meadow 
the earth hard and damp on our backs
a window of sky through the flicker of leaves
curves drawn by swifts and lines by aircraft

Stillness at St Patrick’s seminary
pontifical university on summer vacs
Corridors of cardinals and bishops
portraits of finery and implied gravitas
Music and silence in a loft of sunlight
fifty travellers gathered in from the world
Plays made in twenty minutes
I laugh myself a stomach ache
but gone the aches and pains of life
in this makeshift family home

We fit two to a cosy attic cell
dorm windows over the cloister 
dapper gardens and grey turrets
Bells in the spire every quarter hour
chocolate cake and chattering after lights out
morning meditation comes early
Games on the lawn defying dark clouds
six-legged races and chasing the dragon’s tail
Time for a wander in roses and rain
before the last songs and goodbyes

0

Mouse & Mortality: A Small Poem On Being Small

Beeches shook their auburn curls
like closely clustered giddy girls
chattering to pose and tease
whispering jokes into the breeze

Peaceably beneath I trod
an early dark and dewy sod
wondering that all was good
deeply in the wandering wood

A fungus there, a cobweb here
a brown birdsong above my ear
every sense at once obedient
yet drunk on every sweet ingredient

The dog a dizzy blur of mania
in a squirrel-scent arcadia
while above her quarry peers
twitching grey and tufted ears

Taunt her more, nut-loving friends!
On your guile a life depends!
A patch of silver in the roots!
In my heart a shudder shoots!

A tiny child in velveteen
by all others yet unseen
much too young to be abroad
a loss a mother can’t afford!

Beneath perhaps in rooty rooms
she paced and sighed imagined dooms
pressing to his empty nest
as if to hold him to her breast

Above he clawed and clutched and stretched
his little tracks in soil etched
the tiny traveler damp and grey
with what eyes knew he his way?

Somnambulant or still birth-blind
yet no pause to turn behind
he clung with purpose to his goal
and reached the safe and sandy hole

Did he trace his mother’s love?
Then let me do the same above
wandering asleep or blind
the stark morass we call the mind!

God forget me not on earth!
Breath of life that gave me birth
draw this little child of Yours
safely to Your Heart Indoors!

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