1 The Elsewhere Empire
In a glint of red candles and throat pleats
The house feels composed. White chrysanthemum
Revolution. The starling’s black bill turns yellow
In the spring, fake bird of Paradise.
I had you living beside me, a young saint,
Glorious cub of the household. I invented
A sister for you, named Paula, her possible soul,
Our eternal possessions, our digital perpetuity.
Sometimes our concern with moonrise,
Its insistence on midsummer and midwinter,
Is like a detail of a burial of any unsettled souls
In a sea of electrified language, dashes of lime
On the wall itself. The smoke grey coat
Of a laceworks of death – mavrone, for me,
There is no after the war, the rain of an earlier day,
The balmy elsewhere of winglets past the flowers
In their rifles. The diet was so poor, men’s voices
Did not break till they were twenty, not really believing
What they knew. And every time I turn on an electric
Light, I believe that love, The Orchid Hotel, South Flower St.
While she was rooted to her bed along braided
Pathways, I saw an advertisement that the mountain
Was for sale, frost wedging extra virginity
Woven around the dark nutmeg seed.
She is buried with herbs of love, ghost fishing.
The sound of one’s footsteps start to fade,
The stairs feel like they descend further than they do,
Or feel like a room in themselves, an afterthought.
The first poem is one of the last written and should really be at the end. It is typical of long meandering poems I’m writing now in the leisure of retirement and particularly the frozen state of the state in the viral present. There are lots of colours in it which battle against each other like the underground continuation of a war. The soldiers in the poem are roughly from the 1916 rebellion, some of the details, it is saying nothing is over, nothing is finished, to use electricity is to belong to that power, to depend materially on the very implements you are talking about freedom with. The natural properties surrounding the voice are praised and treated with gratitude, but illness and death drag the speaker down to a place where the actual composition of the country can be written off. The way Lough Neagh is still in the possession of a British landlord, the largest stretch of water in the British isles, where prison ships still lurk, in case.
2 While Stationed on the Border
One officer jotted down what it would take
To seal the whole length: 310 miles of mesh fencing,
A vehicle track along the entire length,
A hinterland security fence,
360,000 explosive charges,
165 miles of vehicle hazards such as ditches
And steel spikes, a hundred pillboxes,
A hundred observation towers.
The defence would also need command posts,
Bunkers, dogs, dog runs and thousands
Of arc lights – all that before
The boots on the ground are considered.
The statement in the second poem is from the other side of the fence. It is one of my mathematical pieces and an excerpt from a real article, based on a real announcement. It is a satire really on the way they actually think and the way many powerful governments operate to keep their control. So it could refer to the birth of concentration camps or the way borders are reinforced in any war. This is actually the calculated amount of military equipment needed to insulate one part of the country from the other. It is not in fact realised except in people’s heads, but is a pattern of defence which seems more like an act of aggression.
3 The Unanxious One
it seems she killed an officer point blank
The unintended beauty of this map
Of bomb damage crosses lines
With the names of the winds. Brown
Mountains rise in chains and brackish lakes
Reveal the river’s past, its dark tints.
Cherubs look through a telescope
From outside the sky, through a layer
Of different coloured stars, or flown
Stars, bits of a star gone wrong, placing
Weapons there, the wreckage from retired satellites.
Master of sleep, she gave me her limp hand
and returned to the oiling of her automatic,
Her revolver, which she kissed affectionately,
Then a rude crucifix made of black metal
Till a lip of metal formed, beads on her forehead.
Leaflets of green paper with black edging
Remoulded the breast of the menstruating moon,
Dark even in India. Blind flowers scorched
The quaint psyche knot at the crown of her hair
At the price of cutting Ireland in two.
The lake’s moodswings and its tame listless saints
Put me in thinking of a field of kinland I once owned
And its seven different names, its heaping up of stones.
It was free draining and could be ploughed dry
Even after a deluge.
The third poem is about Constance Markievicz, alluding to a poem by Paul Muldoon where he neither condemns nor approves her involvement in the street fighting. So it sets the context in Ireland and in the universe as an important breath-taking moment. The country and the planetary influences support the doomed army. The picture of the countess is of an absolute aristocrat in love with her calling and adopted religion. Her femininity both preserved and betrayed her. She is often depicted as a fanatic rabble-rouser yet I bury her here with dignity not as one who espoused ruthless murder but who loved Lissadell. She had unparalleled courage.
4 The Sands of St. Cyprien
Frozen sand: it looked so innocent.
It erased footsteps and soaked up blood
Behind the barbed-wire perimeter
Of that motley group of huts,
His very being was fistfuls of hardened sand:
Sand running through his veins.
Neurosis of sand. Sand induced fits.
The pull of molecules of sand.
In the sand-jail where consonants burned away,
The air was filled with particles
Of excrement, little L-shaped pieces …
From standing pools of urine
Blew their imagined wholeness in their faces.
I don’t know if I read it in a newspaper,
Or if someone told me,
Or I heard it after twenty-four hours had gone by:
But nothing reported could have been
Further from the truth,
How slowly, slowly, crushed by sadness
From a skeleton in a blanket
To a carcass in manure,
He backed into the calyx of the brown flower.
Whose tin can of champagne sticks in our throats
So we barely make it go down
Because God is forbidden to perform miracles in this place.
The fourth poem is a very old one and coded to reflect on the hunger strikes and so called dirty protest in the Belfast prison in the early eighties. I link these events with the camp in France where Spanish people evacuated from the Civil War. They were not well received or even fed, many just died on the beaches. This was a contextual comparison only I was not making a complete reason for why someone might in this day and age be driven to self his name-sacrifice. I make a play on his namelike a musical refrain. I use quite vulgar or disgusting language to strip all beauty from the physical horror of the time, which I think has still to be reckoned with.
5 The Beastliness of War
One night the depot suffered an intense bombing,
320 horses being hit, of which
About 180 were killed outright and had to be slaughtered.
I was on continuous duty for 48 hours.
The dead horses were piled on top of the other
To the height of one’s shoulder.
Perhaps the ones at the bottom of the heap
Were still breathing, some with their legs
Blown right off. I had to get them out
As best I could, my revolver was almost too hot
To hold. One poor fellow, I remember,
Had both hind legs blown off at the hock
And was standing on the stumps,
Looking like a bewildered rocking horse.
I could not get his head down for the usual brain shot.
I shot him just in front of the ear and leapt quickly
To one side as he came crashing down,
Nearly on top of me.
All next day I was getting the milder cases
Off on the one mile march to hospital
Before they had time to get too stiff to move
Under their own power, and loading the worst cases
Into ambulances. Right into the second night,
I was still extracting splinters
Where the missiles had not
Penetrated deep enough to require
Special facilities for their removal.
The fifth poem takes on the voice of a medical officer in the first World War, out at some front. The emotion connected with the vast numbers of dead and wounded is diverted towards the terrible pain and suffering of the many horses involved. The officer could be from either side in the battle. He is appalled and shocked but manages to retain his composure. The tone is very similar to the Sands poem, gruesome images of death are given a kind of heroic relevance.
6 Removing the Martian Sky
Yes, Mars is darker since we switched off Spirit.
Spirit’s third winter feeling out the rock
On Mars, was her last. I know this and still
Go searching for some trace of love’s infolding.
One way of reading white is all it takes
Not to buy anything else. Sometimes when the moon
Is young, birds fly to the moon for the winter
And become moon clues, our chemical cousins.
So there is less and less sweetness in the quieter
Countries (in which the story pauses a little),
The darker, thinner birds blacken the sky,
Their washed away nests soft bark under twigs.
With little or no honeysuckle, all flowers
Are knocked to the ground, in forest patches
Months ago, when autumn came, damp pearl
Essence of the blue lily, as winter deepens.
The sixth poem situates the world and Europe in it in a planetary negativity. The space effort has run aground, all creatures are hunted and retreating their habitats. Plants too as well as planets weaken and disperse, technology fails to support the essence out of which it derives.
7 The Moondial
They avoid providing their fingerprints by burning their fingers
Cups of night time water
are all that lifts easily
to another’s lips. My ever-giving body
must have self-lit from any red
interruption to the grey they offer.
The city seems to fall into pieces,
steered into a sliding cloud, goes rib
to rib, leans in to run the warning
out of my body where many
wintry things keep adding up.
At least I recognized the yellow thought,
caresses of an arm in days gone by,
or some Februaries that match,
geranium kiss inside the rain.
The flags are frozen, don’t move in wind,
they carry no sentiment. Flowers freeze
in liquid air and thick lake-effect snow.
For nineteen days I do the candles
to uncertain saints (why are the saints’
feet silver?) The brown garden,
fatal flower garden, stores a threadbare rose
of pressed blue until the bone blinks through,
until the cease-fire ceases. A sky not bare
of leather stars stands over their heads
in the hunched chapels. Clearly for them
everything had become words. When she read
her sibling’s diary, those deserving mother/daughter
dreams, (time can be shared), the blood had begun
like the morning. Cleaning buildings
late at night makes her bleed slowly,
you are that below, river wave.
“The Moondial” is one of those circle-on-itself winter poems, vaguely political in the middle, with colours and flower imagery. Centring on Belfast, on femininity, how women are linked to the moon, a trope I never tire of trying to understand. One is trying to generalize this experience for all women, not just in Europe.
8 Back in 1894
The president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce,
H.C. Lanyon, estimated:
I find the length of yarn produced amounts to about 644,000,000
miles, making a thread which would encircle the world
If it could be used for a telephone wire
It would give us 6 lines to the sun
And about 380 besides to the moon.
The export of linen during the year
Measured about 150,000,000 yards
Which would make a girdle of the earth
At the equator 3 yards wide,
Or cover an area of 32,000 acres.
Or it would reach from end to end
Of the county of Down, one mile wide,
Passing down the canyon
Of the Crumlin Road, the tall forbidding mills,
The ornate warehouses
The largest human moving objects ever made.
So the 1894 poem is again in the mood of a calculator but unlike the beastliness poem there is only arrogance and greed, no concern with the workers who run the mills, not even an interest in the buyers of the cloth. So it is full of grandiose estimations and a certain amount of imagination. The mentality culminates in the last line where the industrial and commercial dominance in Victorian Belfast leads to the creation of the Titanic and her short-lived rite of passage.
9 The Hotel Picardie
Slack-jawed, floridly unwell,
I disassembled the television
In my reverie-plus and wallowed
The contents over twelve hours’ sleep
Without repair, pounding hemp.
I awoke to find myself filled
With time, every mark was another
Small victory for the clock.
There was no touch from the peephole
That punctuates the door.
The not-yet events lose
Their lustre: you need to wade
To unhook from the past, from
The specialist winter-over syndrome.
There were more parts than I began with.
The Hôtel Picardie obviously plays with the most deeply resonant place name of the first European war with all its romance tragedy and patriotism. It is framed around manic descriptions of incarceration and the mechanics of mental hospital sectioning where one learns to recover by going back to the basics of learning. So it is another of these mathematical poems satirising poetry as the masculine art of numbers, and war itself as a competition of numbers, whichever side kills the most wins.
10 Landslides in Sensitive Clays
Little can be said about the apricot frost
That added white to the darling harbour,
The weather we meet and the different
Ways in which it rains ‒ the rain in the poem
Wasn’t falling. They were tearing out
The middle lane of the beltway near
Our home while the slightest deviation
From the conduct expected of her
Was caught in loops of thinking, in
That image thought gives itself
Of what it means to think, or dream
Through the internal clouds coming to
In the muscled heart. Unabated
Haunting in the daylight by extreme
Close-ups of her mouth crumpling up
In the withdrawal of her lips
Brightened the curtains with initial
Light enhancing waters. Small reflections
Shine on books. We taste the accumulated
Silence of the fierce, drab, absurd,
Streets of Belfast’s
One vast clinic
We fall prey to hope
In limited sun.
“Landslides” like many of my poems situated the unwell self in an unwell city, the imagery playing back and forth between. I suppose Belfast or the North is always a place they are trying to fix, there is always something wrong with it. There is natural beauty but the river it is built on is a symbol of the precariousness, the repressed violence that can erupt like an earthquake any minute; so it resembles the front, the trenches, the peace lines that divide so bluntly.
Can one be revolutionary enough?
I seized the chasm of anarchy
And ordered the chaos.
A constitution should be
Short and obscure.
I purified the revolution, ennobled
The people and reinforced kings.
I encouraged striving, rewarded merit
Of all sorts and pushed back
The limits of glory.
I suppressed sixty
Of the seventy-three newspapers.
What can one blame me for?
What is there that a historian
What can you possibly do
Without an army?
On the 17th the Cossacks
Finally moved on to Frankfurt.
The state of their encampment
It was strewn with dead and half-dead
Horses, the intestines and hides
Of slaughtered livestock,
Pitches, bottles, pots of butter,
Cheese, honey, beehives, flour,
Apples, nuts, whole heaps of spoiled
Hay, bunches of fruit, ladders, crockery,
Firewood, poles, sheepskins, whole
And cut-up sacks they had received
Full of oats, dried meats, all taken
From our region. On leaving
They burned their straw huts.
I have fought sixty battles and learned
Nothing I did not know
At the beginning.
Will they say I hindered liberty?
Will they accuse me of having loved
War too much? I was always
This poem is an attempt to reconcile two sides of Napoleon’s character and how he led the way to all the other wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the one hand he is arrogant in his innocence and self-righteousness. On the other he describes the Russian camp with a real disgust for the wastage and destruction. Obviously such a hugely important European figure can only be guessed at in a lyric poem.
King William’s saddlecloth, presented to Thomas Coningsby, his quartermaster general
King William’s gloves
A pre-1770 Williamite toasting glass
The Grand Lodge minute books from 1798 to date
The metal plate used as part of the process of printing the 1912 Ulster Covenant
Shrapnel from a car bomb used by the IRA to blow up the House of Orange in Belfast in the 1970s
Small collarette of George Best when carrying the banner strings as a young boy in the Creagh estate.