They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel, You’ll know them if I can get them true. They kneel under the hedge in a half circle Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through. They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill Of the leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes Buried under the straw. With time to kill They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes Lazily halving each root that falls apart In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam, And, at the centre, a dark watermark. O calendar customs! Under the broom Yellowing over them, compose the frieze With all of us there, our anonymities.
He would drink by himself And raise a weathered thumb Towards the high shelf, Calling another rum And blackcurrant, without Having to raise his voice, Or order a quick stout By a lifting of the eyes And a discreet dumb-show Of pulling off the top; At closing time would go In waders and peaked cap Into the showery dark, A dole-kept breadwinner But a natural for work. I loved his whole manner, Sure-footed but too sly, His deadpan sidling tact, His fisherman’s quick eye And turned observant back.
Incomprehensible To him, my other life. Sometimes, on the high stool, Too busy with his knife At a tobacco plug And not meeting my eye, In the pause after a slug He mentioned poetry. We would be on our own And, always politic And shy of condescension, I would manage by some trick To switch the talk to eels Or lore of the horse and cart Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art His turned back watches too: He was blown to bits Out drinking in a curfew Others obeyed, three nights After they shot dead The thirteen men in Derry. PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said, BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday Everyone held His breath and trembled.
It was a day of cold Raw silence, wind-blown surplice and soutane: Rained-on, flower-laden Coffin after coffin Seemed to float from the door Of the packed cathedral Like blossoms on slow water. The common funeral Unrolled its swaddling band, Lapping, tightening Till we were braced and bound Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held At home by his own crowd Whatever threats were phoned, Whatever black flags waved. I see him as he turned In that bombed offending place, Remorse fused with terror In his still knowable face, His cornered outfaced stare Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away For he drank like a fish Nightly, naturally Swimming towards the lure Of warm lit-up places, The blurred mesh and murmur Drifting among glasses In the gregarious smoke. How culpable was he That last night when he broke Our tribe’s complicity? ‘Now, you’re supposed to be An educated man,’ I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me The right answer to that one.’
I missed his funeral, Those quiet walkers And sideways talkers Shoaling out of his lane To the respectable Purring of the hearse... They move in equal pace With the habitual Slow consolation Of a dawdling engine, The line lifted, hand Over fist, cold sunshine On the water, the land Banked under fog: that morning I was taken in his boat, The Screw purling, turning Indolent fathoms white, I tasted freedom with him. To get out early, haul Steadily off the bottom, Dispraise the catch, and smile As you find a rhythm Working you, slow mile by mile, Into your proper haunt Somewhere, well out, beyond...
Dawn-sniffing revenant, Plodder through midnight rain, Question me again.
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies, But best of all was the warm thick slobber Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied Specks to range on window sills at home, On shelves at school, and wait and watch until The fattening dots burst, into nimble Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how The daddy frog was called a bullfrog And how he croaked and how the mammy frog Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too For they were yellow in the sun and brown In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges To a coarse croaking that I had not heard Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.