Cat [First prize, Bray Literary Festival]
The Book of Kells, folio 34 recto
The door, wattle and hide, edges ajar for the cat. Her master
lays a red ground around pricked outlines. He is good at cats:
stylised, whimsical, motley, interlined impromptu. But this cat
is Whitecat, his watchful companion. Sleek; she is no ascetic.
He glimpses a distant currach on the home tide; his mind hears
the frantic scavenge: fulmar, kittiwake. Beside him, Whitecat
perches by the open window, lazily scanning for goldfinch.
She hunts, sometimes. In remembrance, he sketches rats
fighting for a sacred wafer, each rat’s tail held by a cat,
each cat rat-ridden. A metaphor, maybe, good and evil.
Are there good rats? He’s not a schoolman. Carefully
he delineates his friend; the other cat counterbalances,
filling space and harmonising the conceit. (The abbot
said it looks like a sheep. He didn’t reply.) Heretic rats
beset the granary, the stores, the kitchen chests, the aumbry.
Whitecat sits, comfortable, disdaining duty. She has no belief.
She awaits scraps of dried fish in the polished yew-bowl
he bought in a rainy market in St-Gall. She sprawls
across his table, nuzzles his smock, mews, preens on his bench,
and then gets fed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, she thinks;
she is not a schoolman. After feeding, she fidgets, undecided;
she nudges him as he tends his palette — a drop too much water,
and the pigment swims in albumen. Patient with her,
he adjusts the mix, works in a measured pinch of red lead,
slowly strokes it into the fur of the brindled tabby. Letters
shapeshift to the page free of their words, doodles distend
with faces, tails, limbs; then he scores more edges, lines trailing
from boar-hairs gripped in a gull’s quill and lipped to a point.
Whitecat snuggles beside his absorption, purring with language,
replete as evening degrades colours, sunset soaking the reds
for the moments before dusk. There are no cats in the Bible;
she is not canonical. He half-genuflects his abrupt devotions;
she assesses the closing door, judges her moment, slinks outside.
Oystercatcher [Third prize, Bray Literary Festival]
Busy wings sketch urgency.
the rusted stanchion
of a breakwater long silted.
Kelp, carrageen, wracks
flicker under the shadow.
Existence as a trick of the light,
faded with emptiness;
a glimmer, a solipsistic blink.
sunset bill, skimming,
no touchdown, no rest,
low over the lapping surface
under a refracted sunset.
Crushed shivers, disjoined valves,
gristled smears of mussel,
The brief blur of mating
interrupted for lugworms.
That illusive stumble of ecstasy,
that re-digestion of waste,
that fictive nanomoment.
Fluttered and cooed
beside a pebbled roost.
Ghosts of consciousness
cowed by the breeze,
drift into the last pink cirrus.
Freckled eggs for the otter.
Reredos Winner, Fingal Poetry Prize 2020
Miguel’s nearly eighty, past scrambling up the ladder
to retouch the gilding. He kneels at the coffin trellis
mumbling sins he wishes he’d committed. I didn’t wish;
I did. The sins were fresh then; so he’s my lineage. Aloft,
I fitted the saints in their niches, lifting four-handed,
and reckoning calloused workshop hours and days.
A rude choir of ducks; a marsh harrier puts them up,
panicked and warning, from the lapping pewter lagoon.
The head of the screen, blunt like a wildfowler’s punt,
arches over the saints. They don’t need shelter here;
carved, gilded, painted faces. I painted the Virgin —
now there’s an irony. Routine faces, dolls’ heads,
man or woman, a beard or two; but mine was a portrait.
Carmen. The boys all knew it. Hell, they all knew her.
Two ibis cocks fighting over a hen. She flutters in wait;
they fly at each other, grunting. One wades away.
The priests tithed peasants’ thin cattle and dry crops
to the glory of God. It paid our wages and our pleasures.
At night the devotional fifty-cent candles glitter the gilt;
in the morning they gutter, trickle, dribble lost hope
hardening down the iron spikes. Elsewhere there’s a slot;
drop the coin, and a spiritual lightbulb flickers on.
Irreverent flamingos cackle together in the distance,
a pink stripe among the reedbeds. The faithful take photos.
Cosmas and Damian can’t see each other; they stand forever
the way I set them, eyes averted to the congregation, smug
with benign rococo suffering. I could have swapped them,
brother to catch a glimpse of brother, but I’m sure
God loves a little mischief. They were carved by an apprentice;
I hid them in the top row, less visible to the priests;
Miguel thinks he still hears the plover’s whistle. After Mass,
he scans by habit for tonsured vultures above the haze.
Christmas, Puerto Del Carmen Commended, Fingal Poetry Prize 2020
Twenty-three Celsius, hardly any breeze.
Regulars, ageing brown hide below ample shorts,
half-litres of Tropical masquerading as pints,
with the special full roast; no sprouts, though,
and the stuffing’s garlicky. The self-conscious ones
have tapas and sauvignon blanc, secretly
judgmental about the winter-holiday crew
and their fish-and-chips — OK, but not cod.
There’s half-hearted tinsel around the sunhats
and a battered Father Christmas by the till.
A few went to church, in slacks of course:
respect for the carols sung without meaning,
but it’s a childhood comfort. The service in English;
one or two prefer Nuestra Señora, smells and bells,
but the carols aren’t Christmassy. Afterwards
it will be sunblock and maybe a swim;
it’s not like braving the ice on The Serpentine
(they’ll see it on widescreen in the Irish Pub).
No one watches the news, not even for the Queen;
they’ve learned to look askance at news from home.
Identifications Winner, Ó Bhéal Five Words International Poetry Competition 2017
This shoebox is its own museum, enclosing the same
variety of odds and ends, artefacts, significances.
The statue is from the Pacific, the notice says
beside the remembered stairs just inside the lid;
Ionic columns lead into a fold of tissue
with a possibly Iron Age piece of pot from the garden;
inside someone’s mother’s prayer-book there’s a café
where the Reading Room used to be, but no books;
the Rubens St Christopher is the one Lucy was wearing
when the train hit her — it isn’t dented.
He gave her a random stone picked up on Ben Bulben
the day she proposed. The stone became a ring.
She kept the idea of it in her underwear drawer.
The stone is a stone, somewhere. The idea died
when she did. And no one knows who he was.
I like small-town museums; not the ones
with aggressive themes and interpretative graphics,
but mere cabinets of curiosities: five broken clay pipes,
found when they dug a new drain at the Post Office;
some Victorian fans given by Miss Farr (Miss Farr?);
three albumen prints of unknown men with sidewhiskers,
against a church wall looking exactly like the church wall now,
so there’s no information except that three men looked like that,
and who they may have been is buried in the churchyard.
There’s a tag from a Roman shoelace, someone’s assumed,
but it’s bent lead with fragments of fibres and nothing to say.
That ship that sailed into the bottle, sixty miles inland,
isn’t a good one, and the bottle is clean; not even fingerprints.
Nine, yes nine, tiles from the old workhouse floor, salvaged
when it was bulldozed for the new industrial estate,
the derelict sixties one on the north side of town;
except the tiles could have come from anywhere
that used red-brick tiles for flooring — I can’t see
starvation, typhus, or separation on these in particular.
And there’s a story not attached to that Bronze Age skull
which might have belonged to a warrior or a potter
or a saint or a thief or a lover, who may have died
violently, or not, near the playpark by the chapel; the caption
sets out meticulously what isn’t known about him.
There’s no label on Lucy’s St Christopher. She has no story.
Dante’s eighth, numbered like a symphony
or top of the eternal pops
hot pits for frauds and liars
and the hate-figures of old Tuscany
unless Dante and god lie
god of cancer, god of piles,
god of the tsunami and the weeping,
god of justice and the newborn starving
god of the chosen people’s misery
a wilful parental uncaring
a coward man-god gleefully wearing
sadist’s boxers he dare not show
under his holy pinstripe suit
cashmered celestial respectability
the divine mass-murderer
brutal lies in bad translations
for muddled generations of believers
bestowing cruel self-knowledge
but showing no signs of having any
the original text is ashamed
pitiful prayer never never answered
beyond random probability
sung hopelessly into the silence
Dante had a pit for hypocrites
we have the songs
the narrow chords
the surplus syllables
getting us high on words
a stumbled sound
of angry colours
if not forever then
not yet a zimmer man
it’s a fierce good year for the buachalán
he swiped the yellow curd with a bitter stick
an unmagic careless hazel wand
scattering alkaloid seeds intact
and long toxic forty-acre memories
torn gold-dusted ragwort hands
under her eye pitiless as stones
magpies clacking in the sallies
cursing the labour and the land
that was a fierce bad year for the buachalán
On the beach
Snot that isn’t snot
bubbles brown-edged scum from the nostrils
innocent incomprehension with airbursts of panic
little-girl curls washing like weeds
lazily drown out tiny salt-choked gasps
mother muzzy with tanned langour
close-lidded under the shades
murmuring idly towards the bucket and spade
Pillowed wrinkles of skin
a desolate drift of peace
absolves me from the coldwatershock of rescue
after the bonfire
in the birdsong evening
a lazy whirlwind
a few inches high
eddying the blind leaf-ash
for a faint moment
a few lost dust-motes
left idly on scorch and grass
and only I saw
Once upon a time
She sits with her canary
in a cage.
It was never glass
(vair, not verre)
but he likes slippers
without fur — of course
he sent to the kitchen
for the youngest daughter;
they aren’t jailbait
if you’re a prince.
Fairy godmothers interfere
like other adults.
round his father’s kingdom,
fitting the slipper
while looking up the skirts
of the uglies,
is a man’s way
of making a choice.
He didn’t ask
if she was unhappy sweeping.
From time to time
he puts on her slipper,
as a mundane habit
of power, though
(without regret) less often
now her belly is gross,
out of respect
for the putative princeling.
She doesn’t believe
in fairytale endings.
Honeycomb 'Highly Commended' in the Rathmines Anthology competition 2012
Street View doesn’t look at the backs of houses
with their terraced lichen of variations.
From the train, the cinematic clatter—
successive private, secret images;
homes and lives scamper past, frame by frame;
every cell differing; each distinction
registers infinitesimal and vast—
a variant blanket nailed across the window,
a different naked bulb, another table:
individual homely botches sketch
the tenants’ shabby immortalities.
In each noticed room, particular drones
burrow into their intimacies of beds shared
with every pixel zoomed on Google Earth.
Heels and eternities rattle into the twilight,
the skirt-hems of lost hopes flicker against the fire,
heat and sangria whirl sharp minds outside thought,
glistening skin slips from the daemon’s veil.
This is all, this frenzy, endless and dead,
the mad beach-shuffle, bare feet drumming on a board
to the slow roar of breakers over the dance-floor sand;
this is all, the sensual grit and glare and strum,
the carnal oblivious trance of the black widow’s mate.
The ghost dissipates, drifted by the onshore breeze;
every warm waft, every grain felt for the last time.
Broken and immense, the driftwood trees writhe
inert in bark-stripped, bleach-grained spasm. And, beyond,
an unwatched Death dances on the grey shore, alone.
No rules, no chance, no kindness;
mindless playmates make his words
dance in the air, teasing
the despair-streaked pig-in-the-middle,
riddles flying beyond fingerends,
his ball, his own ball, his own
passing from other hand to other hand,
phrases, haikus, conceits
in flat arcs, high arcs, curves out of reach;
each fragment of immortality
swirls beyond his catching.
I am the bully who gave him words
and tossed him the elusive ball of hopes.
Don’t ask me to pretend;
I cannot unhear
the tremolo tongued on your reed,
nor the strange speech I licked
into your secret skin;
my mind insistently translates
the ciphers of your landingstrip
springing against the spittle,
and I cannot shut out the whisper
of cheek-down against a tongue-tip caress;
my palate aftertastes the pungent braille
of every startled follicle,
and, eyes shut, I read vanilla messages
sweated from your silent breast;
don’t ask me to forget
how the languages of your body
became my only voice.
Reaching aside from the pastryboard
or the choppingboard
or the saucepan
or the mixingbowl
or the liquidiser;
eyeing the spatulas, knives, peelers,
new gadgets and old friends;
spoons heavy and round for dough,
or light and square-cornered for roux,
a long scalloped edge for bread
or a fine serration for tomatoes;
dedicated tools for lemon-zest, biscuits, potatoes;
judging balance, sharpness, the angle of the head,
the pleasure of a clean slice
or a neat firm edge
or a sensual smooth mixing;
sliding fingers round the handle
string-whipped for grip,
or resin-moulded by engineered design,
or time-worn by other hands:
caressing the task.
He made love, sort of, in wellingtons,
and got her to wear them too.
She didn’t mind,
as long as the boots were clean.
He called her Pussy-in-Boots;
he thought he was original.
She didn’t mind,
as long as the talk was dirty.
She never told him what she called him,
even when she came:
Behind the black iron door,
earth-colours in the fire.
Among the oranges, ochres, and startled browns,
hopes and hatreds, desiccated into untellable shapes,
burn in chemical fulfilment.
Dogmas and loves, wrenched in random spasm;
shrinking muscle, roasted skin, heat-curled bone;
brain shimmering as vapour.
Memories, jokes, embarrassments
burst from the swollen belly:
entrails writhing on the hearth.
wood and self will lie as interdusted carbons,
ready to drift anywhere in a breeze.
Still, beyond the curtain,
they are singing, in his name,
lying denials of oblivion.
lazy spring tastes
orange juice with bits
the urging smell of toast
crumbs in secret places
that love-salted tang
sex and peanut butter