Friday, May 24, 2019

Short Notes on the Life of Bees

It was 'International Bee Day' on Wednesday and I meant to post a poem on the topic, given how preoccupied my first collection In the Library of Lost Objects was with these delightful creatures. One poem I wrote that didn't make it into that collection in the end, is the following series of small reflections on nature's invaluable pollinators. So, a little after the fact here is my poem to them. May they continue to thrive, though we know they are under threat more so than ever before...




            Short Notes on the Life of Bees


            I
            Deaf from birth:
             the sound they make,
            a trembling in the air
            that only they can feel.

II

            The red folds of the poppy,
            the blue-black colour of Gentian
            in their fields.

III

            Pollen-basket on their legs:
            the browns, ochres, reds and greens,
            an inventory
of where they’ve been.

IV
             
            Tail-wagging:
            they speak by dancing,
            like microbes
            on the tip of a needle.

V

            They wear their armour
            on their skin,
            the way we sometimes do.

VI
              
            A bead of rain
            can bring them
tumbling from the sky
and down into our world.

VII

            They only see us when we move.
            Be still. They will pass.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Station (Radio Short)




AMBIENCE: WE HEAR THE SOUND OF VENTILATION, OF MACHINES
HUMMING IN THE BACKGROUND.


WOMAN:                  It looks the same.

MAN:                         Yes, the same.

WOMAN:                  The same as
(a beat)
before.

MAN:                         Yes, the same.


A LONG PAUSE.


WOMAN:                  Will anyone think of us?

MAN:                         No. I don’t think they will think of us. We will just
watch them from here.

WOMAN:                  Watch them and see nothing.

MAN:                         Yes, see nothing. But the sky.

WOMAN:                  And the sea.

MAN:                         But no people.

WOMAN:                  No people.


A PAUSE.


WOMAN:                  But when they look up, will someone not think of us?

MAN:                         No one will look up.

WOMAN (matter-of-factly):  Someone will think of us.

MAN:                         No one who can help.

WOMAN:                  We’re beyond help but –

MAN:                         What else matters now?

WOMAN:                  For someone to look up and –

MAN:                         Feel pity? No. There is no pity left. Too much used up
already.

WOMAN:                  Not pity. I didn’t mean pity. (A beat) What about: with
sorrow?

MAN:                         There is no sorrow left either. It is used up.
 
WOMAN:                  There is always sorrow. It is infinite.

MAN:                         If you think so.

WOMAN:                  Like space.

MAN:                         Perhaps.


A PAUSE.


WOMAN:                  Despite everything, there is love also. Someone will
look up and feel –

MAN:                         Perhaps for you. Not for me.

WOMAN:                  But they will look up –

MAN:                         And see just another point of light in the sky.

WOMAN:                  A point of light that looks back at them.

MAN (resigned):        No one looks up now.

WOMAN:                  Somewhere, in a field of ruined corn or in a boat that sails the ocean, someone will light a cigarette maybe, and look up.

MAN:                         But no one who cares.

WOMAN:                  For that moment maybe, they will care. They will look
up and remember that we are here.

MAN:                         I doubt it. With everything that’s happened who would
remember us circling above.

WOMAN:                  Another point of light in the sky.

MAN:                         Yes.
(A beat)
Another point of light above the ruined world.


A PAUSE


WOMAN:                  When I was a child my mother took me in her arms and lifted me up. We were standing by the cherry blossom tree in the garden. Beside the pond where gold-fish swam, and water-lilies…

MAN:                         Was this where you grew up? Your home?

WOMAN:                  Yes, my home. And she lifted me in her arms and pointed to
the sky. She showed me the belt of Orion and told me he was a great warrior who lived in the sky. And the Pleiades. She called them the seven sisters, lost up there forever, wandering among the stars hand-in-hand, trying to find a way home.

MAN:                         Yes, the stars.

WOMAN:                  I looked up and told my mother I wanted to live there. She laughed and said nobody lived there except the gods. That all we could do was look up with awe.

MAN:                         Then maybe; not now.


A PAUSE


WOMAN:                  I would do anything for the sound of a voice.

MAN:                         Am I not a voice?

WOMAN:                  Yes, but…

MAN:                         You grow tired of me. I understand.

WOMAN:                  Forgive me. Not any voice. But my mother’s voice.

MAN:                         She is dead, your mother?

WOMAN:                  Yes. But does it matter what we long for? Whether it is
from the living or the dead?

MAN:                         I suppose it doesn’t matter. There is only silence now. If
we were to scream out no one would hear us.

WOMAN:                  Why would you scream out?

MAN:                         I said if.

WOMAN:                  Yes. If. But who would you want to hear it?

MAN:                         I don’t know.


A BEAT


WOMAN (quietly):    I would hear it.


WE HEAR THE SOUND OF VENTILATION, OF MACHINES HUMMING AND WHIRRING IN THE BACKGROUND FOR A LONG TIME.



WOMAN:                  Look, the sun rises again.

MAN:                         I am weary of these sudden dawns and sunsets; these
succession of days and nights. I want…

WOMAN:                  Tell me what you want?

MAN:                         What’s the point?

WOMAN:                  Telling me.

MAN:                         Okay. I want… I want to sit by a pool on a beautiful
summer morning with a cold drink. A rum and Coke. To know that the sun will shine all day as it’s supposed to. All day, as I drink my rum and Coke. And when I’ve finished drinking as evening comes, maybe I will jump into the pool – from the diving board mind, not from the poolside. And when I jump, I will feel a light breeze on my body as I fall through the air, then hit the water with a shock of cold on my skin.

WOMAN:                  This is what you want?

MAN:                         Yes. That’s all. For the day to last all day. Not like these
sudden dawns and sunsets. That if I shouted someone
would hear me.

WOMAN:                  I would hear you.


A PAUSE.


WOMAN (hopeful):  Maybe they will come for us.

MAN:                         They will not come for us.

WOMAN:                  Maybe they will.


WE HEAR THE SOUND OF VENTILATION, OF MACHINES HUMMING IN THE BACKGROUND FOR A LONG TIME. THEN:


MAN:                         It looks the same.

WOMAN:                  Yes, the same.

MAN:                         The same as
(a beat)
before.

WOMAN:                  Yes, the same.



FADE AMBIENCE SLOWLY TO SILENCE.










Saturday, March 9, 2019

Interview with Shauna Gilligan, autumn 2013

I have decided to repost this interview on the publication of my collection On Light & Carbon with the novelist Shauna Gilligan from autumn 2013. Shauna has reconstructed her website since then so the link to this very worthwhile conversation is no longer available. Shauna is an author of great courage and curiosity and I urge you to visit her new site A Girl's Writing is Never Done. So here is our chat. I was particularly pleased to talk about the long centrepiece poem in the book 'Timepieces'. Hope you find it interesting.






  1. Noel, congratulations on your second poetry collection On Carbon & Light. This first question has two parts – tell me a little about the title and cover, they are both intriguing and, in what way do you feel your second collection links to your first, which was nominated for the Strong Award?

Well, I had the title for a poem called ‘On Light & Carbon’ for maybe ten years. I imagined it would be a kind of technical poem about photosynthesis and while it would crop up every now and then, I never managed to write it. When I started this collection in summer 2010, I finally approached it and the poem that resulted was totally different than one I envisaged, written in counterpoint and a na├»ve voice. That said, photosynthesis still made it in there. It struck me as I went on with the book and wrote quite a few science poems about light, as well as another about carbon, that this would be a good title for the whole book. In a way, the poem also poses the central question of the collection, as it moves between religious notions of the nature of life and scientific ones that sometimes seem to override those. So, it may seem like a strange title, but it suits somehow. The cover idea really came from talking to an artist friend and he had planned to do the cover image by organically imposing the equation for photosynthesis onto actual leaves. In the end, we didn’t get around to it, but when I spoke to Mike at Ward Wood about the cover, I suggested we try to do something along those lines. So the leaves in sunlight and the equation came from that discussion. I think it’s quite striking.

To answer the second part of the question, this book connects in some ways to In the Library of Lost Objects, exploring the intimate dramas of life against the backdrop of science. Here though, I’ve replaced Natural History with human history and anthropology, for the most part, also exploring the role and meaning of myth and art in all this. So there is some cross-over, but I feel the tone is less lyrical and more metaphysical. I’ve also tried to push deeper into certain scientific ideas, but hopefully in a way that I bring the reader with me – whether they know much about science or not. That was part of the challenge.




  1. What was your general approach to writing poems in the book?

In the Library of Lost Objects had taken a long time to write as I often wrote fragments of poems and would add a bit and then leave it for months and then add something more. It was a very slow process, though oddly the three longer poems were written quite quickly in a kind of sprint over three or four days, and didn’t change that much after that. So, with this collection, it struck me to try that approach and see what might come out of it. One thing I found was when an idea or mood came it would immediately seem to suggest a title, but I also quickly realized I had to write a few lines down. This acted as a kind of key and a way back into the poem. Then, often the next day, I just riffed on the idea and wrote fragments down in a notebook. At a certain point, when I felt a poem was beginning to suggest itself, I would move all this onto the computer and generally very quickly find the shape and structure for the piece. I would then try to complete a decent draft on that day. Working this fast somehow led to the poems being not over-thought and often the results took me by surprise. I discovered that once I started this process, other ideas presented themselves and I would gather momentum. So I wrote like this for, say, three months at a time and would then stand back. Over three such (intense) spells of writing over a three year period, I produced the poems in the book – and a good deal more, I should add, that just didn’t quite fit the themes that came through most strongly over that time.


  1. I am interested, in particular, in ‘Timepieces’. Tell me about the genesis of this epic?

You know, there are a lot of poems about love or death or other subjects (I’ve written about them myself, of course) but very few about friendship, which is a bit odd when you consider the importance of friends in our lives. So this piece is about a friendship my dad struck up with a labourer at Dublin Bus, then known as CIE, where he worked in the late 70s. This man, PJ, turned out to be a respected amateur antiquarian and coin collector and drew my dad into his interests and they formed a great friendship through this, going to coin fares at the weekend or PJ coming over to teach my dad Ogham, which I explore in one section. Another crucial element to the poem is my perspective. It is really an initiation into both the adult world of male friendship, as well as how it awoke in me the excitement of the imagined past. I think it’s ultimately saying something about the power of art – both in terms of my dad and PJs story and my attempt to tell it.

So, I wanted this poem to be, in a sense, a kind of intimate epic, playing the ‘everyday’ notion of friendship against seemingly grand historical backdrops, such as Viking Dublin, or Imperial Rome. I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, which centres on a dispute between two farmers over a land boundary and how Homer’s ghosts whispers to him “I made the Iliad from such / A local row...”. This sentiment is central to the poem and is echoed in the final lines of the Viking section where my dad and PJ had found a Viking child’s leather shoe in the waste ground where the city council were dumping the soil removed from the Wood Quay site as they dug the foundations for new civic offices:
           
                        It was to me as this frail object found, opened
                        a clearing in my mind: the prow of a longship
                        approached from the horizon with its cargo
                        of stories. I leaned down close and listened.

So the events are first real-life ones, made epic in the telling – even if the language, in this case, is not what you might expect in an ‘epic’. So it is a narrative poem, certainly, but a fractured narrative reflecting the nature of memory, both personal and collective.


  1. Tell me about the writing of ‘Timepieces’ – did it evolve as you wrote it or did the idea come to you as a whole? I’m particularly interested in the back and forth of memory, imagined and real. 

Well, this was the one poem in the collection not written in the way I describe above. For a start it’s a long piece of 300 lines, so that put it on a different footing. In a way, the approach was similar to two long poems in sections from my first collection. I tried to come at the subject matter in a non-linear way and attack it from several angles, with jumps in perspective across sections. I found the shape of the poem came quite quickly, say within three or four weeks. This poem does something similar to those earlier long pieces, creating a fractured narrative of sorts that moves backwards and forward in time – both in the historical settings and the timeframe of the friendship itself. So its jumps and shimmies about us, mixing the history and the story of the friendship.

But by attempting to create this intimacy between the local and the historical, I also tried to use a quite casual, yet intimate, tone and the nature of the poetry had to reflect that. So much of the poem is written in a relaxed conversational and invitational voice. So is that poetry or prose? Some would say the latter, but I’d argue that I’m using a – let’s call it – flat-footed line, where the rhythm isn’t strident (for the most part) and the music of the piece is quiet and muted, though certainly poetry, I would argue. The challenge of rewriting this kind of ‘casual’ line, is that it is extremely tricky to get just right and, indeed, for it not to drift into prose. So, it actually took a long time to achieve that effect, massaging the music rather than imposing it. That really was quite a challenge. The other major issue was that with such rich subject-matter, there was so much more detail I included early on but had to cut in rewriting so that the poem didn’t get weighed down with too much narrative information. It’s long, but I knew I needed to keep it moving also. So, it took time to get that balance right also.
 

  1. When you were placing ‘Timepieces’ in On Carbon & Light, why did you place it where you did and did the editorial process effect how you put the collection together.

At about the mid-way point in writing the collection I had a lot of poems and started gathering them into some kind of coherent collection, which gave writing after that point a clearer focus. ‘Timepieces’ was actually one of the last poems to be written and accounts for nearly a quarter of the entire collection. So where I placed it was important. Rather like the poem itself, the narrative of the whole book shifts around in time, though generally drifts forward. The opening section deals with my university years studying physics, a time of both intellectual and emotional excitement. So the opening thirteen or so poems explore this part of my life. Then I shift back in time with two pieces about family and then ‘Timepieces’, which takes us basically to the mid-point of the collection. As I said earlier, this collection is less lyrical than my first and more metaphysical, but I realized this poem grounds the book. It is key in that sense, so I wanted that grounding at that juncture in the collection, before moving into the second half of the book, which mostly deals with hitting forty and the questions that asks of you, both personally and philosophically. It strikes me now, that a lot of the collection deals in different types of initiatory experience – those key moments of transition, and insight, in life. So perhaps that connects much of the material.


Thanks so much, Shauna, for asking such interesting questions. It was especially nice to get to talk at length about ‘Timepieces’. I really hope you, and others will enjoy that poem and the collection as a whole when it comes out in the coming weeks.  







Sunday, February 10, 2019

What the Crow Saw: Poems 1994 (Chapbook, 2019)





What the Crow Saw: Poems 1994 




Noel Duffy

              




Story

One morning, out of boredom,
God took an axe to the World Tree
and carved two simple figures
from it: Man, Woman.

To complete his morning's work
he gave them stones for eyes,
and about the holes that were their mouths,
he gave them figs for lips.

And so they stood before him,
mute like two guilty children,
the expression on their wooden faces
fixed, by his axe, in animal puzzlement.

God observed them for a time,
toy-like, almost beautiful –
imitations of life, but not life -
and he was dissatisfied.

So, he cut out his tongue
and gave each a piece for their mouths,
pulled out his hair in clumps
so that their heads would not be bare,

hacked off his ears and nose,
ripped out his own two eyes
with his bloodied hands,
cut his wrist with a knife

so that they too would have blood,
and veins for blood, and arteries
and fibres and muscles for blood,
and the history of all Creation in blood.

And there, lying in the sawdust
of the World Tree, deaf, mute,
blind and dying, God knew his work
was done.





The Stone

I

I entered the garden from the Western side
and found on the grass a standing stone:
grey granite, rectangular, six feet tall.

It was cold and bare there in the garden
with the rain drafting sharp lines down
on the grey-hung day, the stone no ancient

or romantic pillar but rock freshly hewn,
plain, almost ugly, to look upon – how
misplaced it seemed there in the stark cold

amid the bare branches and green lawn.



II

All winter I sat beside the stone.

At first, perplexed I just watched it,
occasionally placing my hands gently on,
following the regiment of its turns.

Later, frustrated and tired, I reflected upon it
merely, rarely touching its granite now,
huddled beneath the shadow of its form,

growing more despondent with each passing
day, staring blankly at its persistent walls,
lost within the lattice of my thoughts.

In time, I just clung to this changeless block
until, in the end, my fingers grew worn
in my cold and hard and desperate embrace...



III

That night I fell asleep and dreamt it breathing.
It was warm and green and summer when I woke.
That evening I left the garden walking East

and travelled out into the wide world to learn
from those who understood the manner of stone.
I listened carefully to their words

and returned to the garden I had left 
a season before. Patiently, I work now,
and discover the sculptor’s craft of line 

and touch, revealing from this strange form,  
the statue of a man, myself, as autumn comes.




Bird-Boy

I was ten the year I learned something
about life beyond my street. That spring
I left behind the simple games I played and found
Old Jackie’s field down by the railway lines.

I sat there in the long grass for hours
studying the secret life of hedgerows –
the frozen look of a hare, startled
and bolt-upright before me, then belting away

into the undergrowth; a fox glimpsed, nose
turned upward smelling the chill evening air.
But most of all I loved to follow
the frantic zig-zag of the hedge sparrows,

appearing from nowhere then gone in a flash
into the stick-maze of the ditch.
I found her prize there, buried away
deep in the tangle – an intricate weaving

to mind the delicate treasure: three sky-blue eggs.
My breath caught high up in my chest
as I rushed homeward to get my friends,
the bunch of us, all gathered around the spot –

all hushed and serious, I now the expert whispering
new knowledge to them. But the circle broke.
One hand reached in Don’t… don't touch it, I said,
the small already egg laying shattered at my feet, 

its insides twitching horribly in the grass.




Closer Than Coldness

Forsaking sleep I rise in greyness,
walk through the open door,
mutely welcome the laden dawn;

rain-pressed earth crouched in leafy-death

Into the silent garden I shuffle
in nakedness, to gather with bare
hands the shrivelled foliage;

blood-touched heart closer than finger-grasp

Cold feet upon the soaking ground,
my voice, like shedding trees, floats
murmured words into the morning air;

­moon-pushed hope cradled in whisper-thought

And I, standing by the stream
muck-covered and alone, offer
my decayed treasure to the water

thinking of you-love, me and soil




Julia is sleeping now...

Waking the chrysanthemums, I whisper
words no living blood has heard.
Waking the rain-brown soil with
words meant for another’s ears.
Waking the broken hour with
words lost into the listless air.
Waking dead love with words whispered,
and tears.





Orphean Song

I

Again, the sleepwalker I wander
into a tangle of branches, bruised grey,
and blonde decay, listening to
the perpetual whisper of leaves.
Everywhere among the drenched trees
I hear your final words, trembling,
wrapped in soft syllables,
lost into a silence of waiting.

In this shifting weather of September
I could lie upon the sodden earth
as rotten wood, to sink below;
to lose my forgetting of the soil
of a soul lost. Or indifferent
to life and death, be pulled apart
by drunken women and thrown to the river,
to murmur, over and over, some name –
perhaps your name, Eurydice.


II

What cruel tales, at times, men tell:
they gave you life and love, then exile
you to a place ghostly as a dream, where
for you, there can be no return,
no resurrection from the ground, just
her name looping upon your swollen tongue –
pebbles for the river’s bed,
stone flowers for your lover’s grave.

Before me, porcelain-white, my wrist
almost hides its twitching pulse,
faintly seen as a ripple upon
still waters, above a sunken source:
the slow-pluck and drop beating out
its measure through my hours,
pushed from beyond some mystery,
a secret in a dream of shadows.


III

Casting a tired eye about me,
I am frozen still by the sight
of my breath a brumous wash –
white life in cold autumn.
I stand in this enormity, frail
as fog, enduring. Heaving
and sighing like a newborn,
despite all the hurt I must
come, in time, to know.






Merman

She said, “the sea has no memory”
(quoting a line she had heard in a film).
So, he went to the sea to try to forget
all he had learnt from his books.

And he said (remembering a poem he once read)
“the waves are heart-beats on the shore...”
But the naked pebbles hurt his toes and
the water about his ankles was too cold.

So, turning his back on the waves, which are
heart-beats, he mumbled to himself
“I am too tired of sea-music to sing
of things brilliant and strange as Ariel did.”





Still-Born

The pen bears witness to my need;
I feel it trembling in my hand.
But a tiredness creeps through the veins
always whispering No, wait until summer
comes, when the long hours burn
and then fill the waiting line with words…
To write that poem about my father
coming home with muddied hands
from Wood Quay having found
a Viking coin with Aethelred’s head,
his hard features preserved in bronze…

The pen bears witness to my need, yet
on the page my thoughts are still-born –
clay flowers from a clay mouth,
a garland of dead words.
  



What the Crow Saw

Sitting in a bleak pool
watching the waters move,
mercurial and black, the crow’s eyes
rippling against the stark daybreak.


The Claw

Washing the lullaby child
at the Old-Stone lake,
holding him, the one still sick
for his mother’s milk.
Rocking him with a comforting lie,
concealed by him, a knife.
Then the killing of him with
a savage stroke and terrible doubt –
and thus, he ends the infant’s life.                             


Black Breast

Sadness sails strange heartbreak into the chest,
sadness that seeks the opened flesh, with long
white hands to stop the blood’s escape.
The burden of love’s task takes grip within,
like rain in trees after the storm is gone.



Flight

Beating the battered hour into a cup,
to contain within it, his crimson loss:
“Do not let the waters spill,
for the sake of this Holy well,
O do not let them spill, or plunge
down into dark destiny unwilled.”


                        All this the crow saw:
                        a man sitting by the water’s edge,
                        blood on his hands,
                        a deathly wound to his side –
                       holding a dead child.





Reykjavik

At first it was the word I heard,
simply the word. The throat tightens
and tongue taut, to spit out the sharp v
the clipped k’s. The rumble of the r
in the cave of the mouth echoes a harsh
landscape: Rey-k-ja-vik.

Then there was a grey canvas that lay
empty for days, just hanging there
somewhere inside the mind, swaying
to the thrum of that syncopated word
(it a mumbled mantra of sorts).

Today it is a grey sea, a grey sky rising
from it, flexing a heavy swell and fall,
coughing up a white froth. From below
the seal-god comes, calling from
his underworld: swim deep, cross
the sea, how else will you learn to speak?

Blue is my world now that I follow him.
We weave a slow course beneath the fishing boats,
soundlessly dodging the nets they drag behind them.
He has brought me to the waiting room
of myself across the blue corridor of ocean.
But I must not be fooled, for soon
I will stand alone on a glacial shore.

            *

The waves lash against the rocks. I crawl
up from the surf, scramble over shells and stones
and the thunder of seagulls that fills the world.
The salty light burns my eyes – colours are washed
and metallic here. A sharp wind licks my skin.
It is a messenger of the snow – follow, follow.


A city squats not far from here.


(I suppose it is a city like all others: people
busy in the shops and streets, cars going past
in a steady flow, conversation shuttled
along the counters of restaurants and pubs –
it is the currency of the living blood.)


I do not seek such comforts this morning.
It is the violence of genesis I’m after: the waters
breaking, the red mess of afterbirth, the first sounds
garbled out into the weak daybreak. I begin to walk.
With each step the years dissolve. I strip back self
layer by layer till there is little left:
the scrawling in a bird’s nest, the mysterious
writings on the underside of a stone,
the windswept syllable of the moon.
The word forms again on my lips. Reykjavik.

The place is named. I return to where I began.
A window. A desk. A piece of paper and pen.
The night huddles against the pane,
I all alone in my hidden den.








©Noel Duffy, 2019


'The Stone', 'What the Crow Saw' and 'Closer Than Coldness' first appeared in Live Encounters: Poetry & Writing (2018) edited by Mark Ulyseas.

'Reykjavik' first appeared in my collection On Light & Carbon' (London: Ward Wood Publishing, 2013).

My sincere thanks to Brian Walsh, Shauna Gilligan, Beth Phillips, James W. Wood and Adele Ward for their notes on the material included here.


Ogham Tattoo Art © http://nextluxury.com