I. Spenser’s Tower
Kilcolman, Co. Cork
There is nothing left. The monument’s a ruin
His poem was to be, its allegory broken off
Like a partizan. He sat inside this tower,
Or walked beside the Awbeg’s illuminated
Page on which a sweep of sky’s reversed,
And under these alders’ small-branched virtues,
Putting a fantasy back together. The kingdom’s
Come to nothing, too, his poem was to celebrate,
Its sovereign power a vellum-scaled garrison
Disguised as law. From this tower he looked
Down on the shawls and glibs of the vagrant poor,
Anatomies of death who made their meal
Of other corpses cut down from the English gallows.
The evill that is of itselfe evill
Will never come to any goode for us, he wrote
Before the rebels—in our sense, the underground—
Their faces slurred with dirt and long concealed
In the leafy oakblind, drove him out,
Set fire to his tower, his tour of duty,
And to his infant son, the unfinished account
Of a life spent trying to be somewhere else.
To whom do they belong now, this safehold,
The poem conceived as an empire’s emblem,
The burning baby boy? Here in the field
Nobody’s about. No historical marker.
Surrender or advance, I cannot tell which
The bog cotton’s ragged pennants are signaling.
A mare, though, looks all at once my way,
As if to ask by what right do I threaten
The splayed, unsteady colt nuzzling her flank.
Is that how history looks, mutely accusing?
Minutes go by before she turns away and stares
At a foxglove’s comb of honeyed canticles
Two bees are poring over. There’s a story
In the morning newspaper under my arm
Of two policemen shot to death in Belfast
As they sat in a patrol car reading the paper.
Why should that be called a “story”? Does whatever
We read happen to us symbolically? Or to others?
Here in the kingdom of time and place
There are no beasts and bowers, no whilom,
No wights. Here is a country of ruins,
Vine-propped facing stone pushed back to clay,
The dead eating the dead down there,
And up here, where so many paths, so many
Turnings are to be seen that all is in doubt,
The way here and back again, a stair
That rises now into the murderous air.
II. After an Old Text
Handfuls of brookwash and watercress, the steam
Of breath bitter on my hands. The wolves watch
Until I run again with a stag across the plain
And each night sleep in the oak’s spiring crotch.
But the wind devours me whole, body and dream,
Like twigs in heaven’s own fire. How explain
The wind? Even the stars are blown this way
And that, and snow on the gorse, and grief.
It leaves a man full of emptiness and beliefs,
Making a home for himself, day by day.
III. Achill Island
High-piled haycocks edge to the cliffs, like beehive
Huts with long views seaward, a dozen fledgling
Monks all perched there, settled in under storm cowls,
Watching the ocean’s
Prayers ascend and fall onto deafened slab rocks.
Eyebright’s underfoot, and the square-sprigged self-heal.
Tufts of white sea campion fleck the cliff face,
Shrugging off danger.
Plunging through their hesitant peaks, the breakers
Rush at seal caves, empty now, pups and cows gone
Down the coast, the echo inside a second
Out the quartz-gashed precipice, past which black-backed
Gulls will swoop young rabbits to drown them. Listen. Mewing
Cries—of predator now or victim?—
Drift on the currents,
Spouts of air that curlews and petrels spiral
Up and down on, motionless concentration,
Backgrounds shifting toward the prevailing head wind.
One by one they crowd in with thousands roosting
There already, tiers of old pilgrims ranged on
Inch-wide, limed, precarious ledges, waiting,
Waiting for something
New to happen, silvering shoal or swollen
Cloud to break near land, on this island off an
Island. How the isolate soul will cling to
Seeming, sandstone, updraft, the gurge of seatides,
Faith of sorts and shelter against the rain that
Starts at last, a darkening wing they tuck their
Heads under, wary.