I am of Tullamore, the son
Of a gombeen man, so I know
The use of a good solicitor,
The value of nothing said,
The price of love lost
Or gained. To which we add
The cost of modern marriage,
The daily tally for the bag man
And the priest; ten Hail Marys
Twenty-two Glory Bees.
I know the gavel knock
On altar stone, wind at the door,
Ash in the grate,
A foreign body in the bed,
The bank of her belly,
The locked safe of her heart.

The Yellow Bittern

translated from ‘An Bonnán Buí’ in the Irish of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Gunna, 1679-1756

Oh yellow bittern, my heart is with
your feathers in the field, your wings
scattered like great Hector’s unburied bones.
You did no harm –
in damp country, it was thirst that killed you:
a key turned in the weather and the lake
was shut in ice. If you had but called me,
I would have broken it
so you could wet your beak,
great-hearted drinker, my friend.

The rest of them I do not mourn,
the cuckoo, the wren, the grey heron,
but the bittern honk across the marshes
was my own mournful boozing cry.
My wife says it will be the death of me,
and I say, Look at that poor bastard of a bird,
killed with the thirst. Put ice in your gin,
my friends, and slug it down. The afterlife
is one long Good Friday with the pubs not open.
Drink! while you have a mouth on you.

The Wren, The Wren

for Carmel

into bird
from hedge
to hand
she was mine

the wren
poked out
from the cup
of my fist
and was still

her eye, honour bright
to my vast eye
the whirr
of her pulse

the wren the wren
was a panic
of feathered air
in my opening hand
so fierce and light
I did not feel
the push
of her ascent
away from me

in a blur of love, to love
my palm pin-pricked,
my earthbound heart
of her love’s weight
relieved. And, oh,
my life, my daughter,
the far away sky is cold
and very blue.

The Calendar of Birds

translated from the Book of Leinster, anonymous, 12th century

From the ninth of January
all birds welcome the dawn
into their dim underwood,
whatever the hour of its rising.

On the eighth of April
the flickering swallows meet us
so we can ask, where
have they been since October.

On the happy feast of Ruadan
every beak is opened, and from this,
the seventeenth of May, the cuckoo
calls non-stop in her thicket.

In Tallaght, birds pause their songs
on the ninth of July for Mael Ruain,
undefeated by the carrion crow,
the bird of war. We pray for her protection.

Across cold seas the barnacle geese arrive
on the day of Ciaran the joiner’s son.
On the feast of wise St Cyprian,
the brown stag bellows on the red plain.

Six thousand white years
the world has had good weather,
but seas will break in everywhere
as night ends and birds scream.

Sweet as yet is their song of praise
to the Lord God in heaven,
the shining King of the clouds –
be glad and listen to their call.

The Bird of Lagan Lough

translated from ‘Int én bec’,
anonymous, 9th century

the wee bird,
blurting sweet
melody over
grey water
is a blackbird
hidden in gorse
(yellow, of course)

The Penny Drops

I am Brock,
four-square, low to the ground
under which I truffle out orange shell cases,
scraps of rotten cloth, the bonescape
of another animal, the thing you dropped
the day it happened.
Brock knew
by the whisper of its fall
above his head.

Brock can tell
the weight of a body,
the measure of a man’s tread.
Brock whickers and waits for the wind
to make good, grass to spring up, earth to silt over
the thing you lost: an acorn, a pebble,
a coin with a hen on the front.

My father had handsome stripes,
my mother was a ghost badger, very beautiful.
The thing to do with dogs, she told me,
is clamp down on the snout, crossways.
Let the dog do the work
of getting away.
I am Brock, I swim in earth
I go through.

These days, I snuffle about my root cathedral,
setting snail shells in a row.
Above me, the wind blackens
a dropped penny and dogs make hulloo.

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