Week 91: Alone, by E.J.Scovell

For me, this love poem by the English poet Edith Joy Scovell (1907-1999) more than makes up in resonance for what it lacks in length.


Nothing will fill the salt caves our youth wore:
Happiness later, nor a house with corn
Ripe to its walls and open door.
We filtered through to sky and flowed into
A pit full of stars; so we are each alone.
Even in this being alone I meet with you.


Week 90: Written in a Copy of Swift’s Poems, for Wayne Burns, by James Wright

Tributes from one poet to another can get a bit incestuous, but I really like this one by the American poet James Wright (1927-1980), which made me take a fresh look at one of the better things to come out of the eighteenth century. Just not sure about the penultimate line, which seems not quite in keeping with the general register of the poem.

If anyone can point me to the words of Brinsley MacNamara’s ‘lovely elegy’ I’d be grateful – haven’t managed to track that one down.

Written in a Copy of Swift’s Poems, for Wayne Burns

I promised once if I got hold of
This book I’d send it on to you.
These are the songs that Roethke told of,
The curious music loved by few.
I think of lanes in Laracor
Where Brinsley MacNamara wrote
His lovely elegy, before
The Yahoos got the Dean by rote.

Only, when Swift-men are all gone
Back to their chosen fields by train
And the drunk Chairman snores alone,
Swift is alive in secret, Wayne:
Singing for Stella’s happiest day,
Charming a charming man, John Gay,
And meeting, now their bones are lost,
Pope’s beautiful electric ghost.

Here are some songs he lived in, kept
Secret from almost everyone
And laid away, while Stella slept,
Before he slept and died, alone.
Gently, listen, the great shade passes,
Magnificent, who still can bear,
Beyond the range of horses’ asses,
Nobilities, light, light and air.

James Wright

Week 89: In Bertram’s Garden, by Donald Justice

This sharp yet tender study of seduction by the American poet Donald Justice (1925-2004) seems to me a beautiful poem, though the consolation it offers Jane for her loss of innocence is anything but consoling. There are literary echoes to be appreciated here, notably of Ben Jonson, but it is the movement of the lines, especially in the last stanza, that I find so masterly and so haunting.

In Bertram’s Garden

Jane looks down at her organdy skirt
As if it somehow were the thing disgraced,
For being there, on the floor, in the dirt,
And she catches it up about her waist,
Smooths it out along one hip,
And pulls it over the crumpled slip.

On the porch, green-shuttered, cool,
Asleep is Bertram, that bronze boy,
Who, having wound her around a spool,
Sends her spinning like a toy
Out to the garden, all alone,
To sit and weep on a bench of stone.

Soon the purple dark must bruise
Lily and bleeding-heart and rose,
And the little Cupid lose
Eyes and ears and chin and nose,
And Jane lie down with others soon,
Naked to the naked moon.

Donald Justice

Week 88: The Tinkerman’s Daughter, by Sigerson Clifford/Michael McConnel

I first got to know this ballad through the singing of the wonderful Irish folk-singer Niamh Parsons. The main credit for its composition, it seems, has to go to the Irish poet Sigerson Clifford (1913-1985), but it was then adapted and shortened by Michael McConnel (this sort of thing tends to happen to ballads) and that is the version that Niamh sings (with some minor changes of her own); the version I give here is Niamh’s.

It’s not that long ago, it seems, that women could be bought and sold – compare the famous opening scene in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. At least the red-headed Ann was feisty enough to rebel.

Incidentally Niamh has recorded another stunning performance of a poem by Sigerson Clifford, ‘The Boys of Barr na Sráide’, which should not be missed.

The Tinkerman’s Daughter

The small birds were lining the bleak autumn branches
Preparing to fly to a far sunny shore
When the tinkers made camp at the bend on the river
Returning from the horse fair in Ballinsloe.

Now the harvest being over the farmer went walking
All along the Faele River that borders his land
And ’twas there he first saw her twixt firelight and water
The tinkerman’s daughter, the red-headed Ann.

Next morning he rose from a night without slumber
He went straight to the tinker and he made his case known
And at a pub in Listowell they struck out a bargain
To the tinker a pony, to the daughter a home.

Where the trees cast their shadows along the Faele River
The tinker and the farmer inspected the land
And a wild gallant pony was the price they agreed on
For the tinkerman’s daughter, the red-headed Ann.

Now the wedding soon over the tinkers departed
They were eager to travel on south down the road
But the crunch of the iron-shod wheels on the gravel
Was as bitter to her as the way she’d been sold.

But she tried hard to please him she did all his bidding
She slept in his bed and she worked on his land
But the walls of that cabin pressed tighter and tighter
Round the tinkerman’s daughter, the red-headed Ann.

Now as white as the hands of a priest or a hangman
The snow spread its blanket the next Christmas round
And the tinkerman’s daughter got out from the bedside
Turned her back to the land and her face to the town

And it’s said someone saw her at dusk that same evening
She was making her way down by Lyreacrompane
And that was the last that the settled folk saw her
The tinkerman’s daughter, the red-headed Ann.

Where the north Kerry hills cut the Faele at Listowell
At a farm on its banks lives a bitter old man
And he swears by the shotgun he keeps at his bedside
That he’ll kill any tinker that camps on his land

And yet, when he hears iron-shod wheels crunch on gravel
Or a horse in the shafts of a bright caravan
His day’s work’s tormented, his night’s sleep demented
By the tinkerman’s daughter, the red-headed Ann.