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Three poems

The Work


My heart was where a hundred dusty roads

crossed and then ran on; or it was a station

full of hopeful travellers, though not one

had either lodgings or a real appointment.

Whatever it was-my heart, within a day,

was scattered on a hundred winds, and sped

through canyons, deserts, river-plains and valleys

to dark ports, sea-lanes, unmapped continents.

But now like a swarm returning to the hive

at that purple hour when all the crows go hoarse

and sail off to the crags and the black eaves,

my heart turns to its melancholy work

with honey gathered from a hundred flowers

and the hundred sorrows of the gathering dark.

Don Paterson

The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn’t fight.

He hadn’t fought at all.

He hung a grunting weight,

battered and venerable

and homely. Here and there

his brown skin hung in strips

like ancient wallpaper,

and its pattern of darker brown

was like wallpaper:

shapes like full-blown roses

stained and lost through age.

He was speckled with barnacles,

fine rosettes of lime,

and infested

with tiny white sea-lice,

and underneath two or three

rags of green weed hung down.

While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen

—the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly—

I thought of the coarse white flesh

packed in like feathers,

the big bones and the little bones,

the dramatic reds and blacks

of his shiny entrails,

and the pink swim-bladder

like a big peony.

I looked into his eyes

which were far larger than mine

but shallower, and yellowed,

the irises backed and packed

with tarnished tinfoil

seen through the lenses

of old scratched isinglass.

They shifted a little, but not

to return my stare.

—It was more like the tipping

of an object toward the light.

I admired his sullen face,

the mechanism of his jaw,

and then I saw

that from his lower lip

—if you could call it a lip—

grim, wet, and weaponlike,

hung five old pieces of fish-line,

or four and a wire leader

with the swivel still attached,

with all their five big hooks

grown firmly in his mouth.

A green line, frayed at the end

where he broke it, two heavier lines,

and a fine black thread

still crimped from the strain and snap

when it broke and he got away.

Like medals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-haired beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw.

I stared and stared

and victory filled up

the little rented boat,

from the pool of bilge

where oil had spread a rainbow

around the rusted engine

to the bailer rusted orange,

the sun-cracked thwarts,

the oarlocks on their strings,

the gunnels—until everything

was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

And I let the fish go.


Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;

Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess. I stayed there once,

Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that’s another story.

At any rate they lived in this decrepit caravan, not two miles out of Carrick,

Encroached upon by baroque pyramids of empty baked bean tins, rusts

And ochres, hints of autumn merging into twilight. Horse believed

They were as good as a watchdog, and to tell you the truth

You couldn’t go near the place without something falling over:

A minor avalanche would ensue – more like a shop bell, really,

The old-fashioned ones on a string, connected to the latch, I think,

And as you entered in, the bell would tinkle in the empty shop, a musk

Of soap and turf and sweets would hit you from the gloom. Tobacco.

Baling wire. Twine. And, of course, shelves and pyramids of tins.

An old woman would appear from the back – there was a sizzling pan in there,
Somewhere, a whiff of eggs and bacon – and ask you what you wanted;

Or rather, she wouldn’t ask; she would talk about the weather.

It had rained

That day, but it was looking better. They had just put in the spuds.

I had only come to pass the time of day, so I bought a token packet of Gold Leaf.

All this time the fry was frying away. Maybe she’d a daughter in there

Somewhere, though I hadn’t heard the neighbours talk of it; if anybody knew,

It would be Horse. Horse kept his ears to the ground.
And he was a great man for current affairs; he owned the only TV in the place.

Come dusk he’d set off on his rounds, to tell the whole townland the latest

Situation in the Middle East, a mortar bomb attack in Mullaghbawn –
The damn things never worked, of course – and so he’d tell the story

How in his young day it was very different. Take young Flynn, for instance,

Who was ordered to take this bus and smuggle some sticks of gelignite

Across the border, into Derry, when the RUC – or was it the RIC? –
Got wind of it. The bus was stopped, the peeler stepped on.

Young Flynn

Took it like a man, of course: he owned up right away. He opened the bag

And produced the bomb, his rank and serial number. For all the world

Like a pound of sausages. Of course, the thing was, the peeler’s bike

Had got a puncture, and he didn’t know young Flynn from Adam. All he wanted

Was to get home for his tea. Flynn was in for seven years and learned to speak

The best of Irish. He had thirteen words for a cow in heat;

A word for the third thwart in a boat, the wake of a boat on the ebb tide.

He knew the extinct names of insects, flowers, why this place was called

Whatever: Carrick, for example, was a rock. He was damn right there –

As the man said, When you buy meat you buy bones, when you buy land you buy stones.

You’d be hard put to find a square foot in the whole bloody parish

That wasn’t thick with flints and pebbles. To this day he could hear the grate

And scrape as the spade struck home, for it reminded him of broken bones:

Digging a graveyard, maybe – or, better still, trying to dig a reclaimed tip

Of broken delph and crockery ware – you know that sound that sets your teeth on edge

When the chalk squeaks on the blackboard, or you shovel ashes from the stove?

Master McGinty – he’d be on about McGinty then, and discipline, the capitals

Of South America, Moore’s Melodies, the Battle of Clontarf, and

Tell me this, an educated man like you: What goes on four legs when it’s young,

Two legs when it’s grown up, and three legs when it’s old?

 I’d pretend
I didn’t know. McGinty’s leather strap would come up then, stuffed

With threepenny bits to give it weight and sting. Of course, it never did him

Any harm: You could take a horse to water but you couldn’t make him drink.

He himself was nearly going on to be a priest.

And many’s the young cub left the school, as wise as when he came.

Carrowkeel was where McGinty came from – Narrow Quarter, Flynn explained –

Back before the Troubles, a place that was so mean and crabbed,

Horse would have it, men were known to eat their dinner from a drawer.

Which they’d slide shut the minute you’d walk in.

He’d demonstrate this at the kitchen table, hunched and furtive, squinting

Out the window – past the teetering minarets of rust, down the hedge-dark aisle –

To where a stranger might appear, a passer-by, or what was maybe worse,

Someone he knew. Someone who wanted something. Someone who was hungry.

Of course who should come tottering up the lane that instant but his brother

Mule. I forgot to mention they were twins. They were as like as two

-No, not peas in a pod, for this is not the time nor the place to go into

Comparisons, and this is really Horse’s story, Horse who – now I’m getting

Round to it – flew over Dresden in the war. He’d emigrated first, to

Manchester. Something to do with scrap – redundant mill machinery,

Giant flywheels, broken looms that would, eventually, be ships, or aeroplanes.

He said he wore his fingers to the bone.

And so, on impulse, he had joined the RAF. He became a rear gunner.

Of all the missions, Dresden broke his heart. It reminded him of china.

As he remembered it, long afterwards, he could hear, or almost hear

Between the rapid desultory thunderclaps, a thousand tinkling echoes –

All across the map of Dresden, store-rooms full of china shivered, teetered

And collapsed, an avalanche of porcelain, slushing and cascading: cherubs,

Shepherdesses, figurines of Hope and Peace and Victory, delicate bone fragments.

He recalled in particular a figure from his childhood, a milkmaid

Standing on the mantelpiece. Each night as they knelt down for the rosary,

His eyes would wander up to where she seemed to beckon to him, smiling,

Offering him, eternally, her pitcher of milk, her mouth of rose and cream.

One day, reaching up to hold her yet again, his fingers stumbled, and she fell.

He lifted down a biscuit tin, and opened it.

It breathed an antique incense: things like pencils, snuff, tobacco.

His war medals. A broken rosary. And there, the milkmaid’s creamy hand, the outstretched

Pitcher of milk, all that survived. Outside, there was a scraping

And a tittering; I knew Mule’s step by now, his careful drunken weaving

Through the tin-stacks. I might have stayed the night, but there’s no time

To go back to that now; I could hardly, at any rate, pick up the thread.

I wandered out through the steeples of rust, the gate that was a broken bed.

Ciaran Carson