Week 278: The Lost Heifer, by Austin Clarke

I find this poem by the Irish poet Austin Clarke (1896-1974) enchantingly obscure, and since I set great store by clarity, ‘enchanting’ and ‘obscure’ are not normally words I would use together. The good news is that the poem does have a key to it: there is apparently a tradition among Irish poets of personifying their country in various ways, and one of those ways is to see it as a cow – Clarke comments that ‘the Heifer’ or ‘Silk of the Kine’ was a secret name for Ireland used by Jacobite poets. So the lost heifer is Ireland itself, and Clarke adds that he wrote the poem at a time when he felt that national identity was undergoing an eclipse. The less good news is that this still does not, at least to me, go very far to explaining what is going on here: what, for example, is ‘the last honey by the water’? And yet the poem still seems to me a beautiful evocation of something, even if I’m not sure exactly what is being evoked. As usual, any further enlightenment will be gratefully received.

The Lost Heifer

When the black herds of the rain were grazing
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery haze of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.

Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning the silver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain.

Austin Clarke

Week 277: A Father’s Death, by John Hewitt

Another lesson from the Irish poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) in how form may be used to contain feeling as a cartridge-case contains gunpowder.

A Father’s Death

It was no vast dynastic fate
when gasp by gasp my father died,
no mourner at the palace gate
or tall bells tolling slow and wide.

We sat beside the bed: the screen
shut out the hushed, the tiptoe ward,
and now and then we both would lean
to catch what seemed a whispered word.

My mother watched her days drag by,
two score and five the married years,
yet never weakened to a cry
who was so ready with her tears.

Then, when dawn washed the polished floor
and steps and voices woke and stirred
with wheels along the corridor
my father went without a word.

The sick, the dying, bed by bed,
lay clenched around their own affairs;
that one behind a screen was dead
was someone’s grief, but none of theirs.

It was no vast dynastic death,
no nation silent round that throne,
when, letting go his final breath,
a lonely man went out alone.

John Hewitt

Week 276: Parents at Eighty, by Jack Winter

A very sad and moving piece, far removed from a Darby and Joan view of growing old together. I have to say it doesn’t really accord with the majority of my own observations: from what I’ve seen couples lucky enough to survive together into old age tend to experience, now that they are relieved of the stresses of child-rearing, a new serenity and a new closeness, perhaps founded on the realisation that now more than ever is the time to love that well which thou must leave ere long. But I am certainly prepared to believe that this may not always be the case.

Parents at Eighty

Who loved each other all this while
Have now begun to hate.
(Too late, my love, and you, my love,
Too late, my love, too late).

He cannot bear the way she walks.
She cannot watch him sit.
(As for you, you’re none of three
And want no share of it).

They draw me into corners
Beyond the prying other
To dish me grievance heaped on tale
Of mother, father, mother.

He will not wear his ear device.
She says what’s not worth hearing.
He snores. She slurs. Not his nor hers
Is illness feared, but fearing.

She dare not… can not… never has.
He would… some other mate.
She’s joyless… he, deprived his joy.
(Too late, my love, too late).

Had she but known the wage of care
For every day of woe,
She’d not have tended him, she’d not.
(My love, it’s time to go).

(And you and I move homeward
Down tunnels shaped like years.
My love, I’ll do your smile for you,
If you will do my tears).

Jack Winter

Week 275: She Walked Unaware, by Patrick MacDonogh

The Irish poet Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961) was a contemporary of Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh, and incidentally an international hockey player. I love the Irish lilt of this one, and its folksong-like quality – indeed, its theme of the lover rejected in favour of a better prospect is a common one in Irish folksongs, such as ‘Going to Mass last Sunday’, that begins ‘Going to Mass last Sunday, my love she passed me by/I knew her mind was altered by the roving of her eye/I knew her mind was altered to a lad of higher degree/For it’s Molly, lovely Molly, your looks have wounded me’. But MacDonogh adds a lyrical awareness of the natural world not so common in folksong.

She Walked Unaware

Oh, she walked unaware of her own increasing beauty
That was holding men’s thoughts from market or plough,
As she passed by intent on her womanly duties
And she passed without leisure to be wayward or proud;
Or if she had pride then it was not in her thinking
But thoughtless in her body like a flower of good breeding.
The first time I saw her spreading coloured linen
Beyond the green willow she gave me gentle greeting
With no more intention than the leaning willow tree.

Though she smiled without intention yet from that day forward
Her beauty filled like water the four corners of my being,
And she rested in my heart like a hare in the form
That is shaped to herself. And I that would be singing
Or whistling at all times went silently then,
Till I drew her aside among straight stems of beeches
When the blackbird was sleeping and she promised that never
The fields would be ripe but I’d gather all sweetness,
A red moon of August would rise on our wedding.

October is spreading bright flame along stripped willows,
Low fires of the dogwood burn down to grey water, –
God pity me now and all desolate sinners
Demented with beauty! I have blackened my thought
In droughts of bad longing, and all brightness goes shrouded
Since he came with his rapture of wild words that mirrored
Her beauty and made her ungentle and proud.
Tonight she will spread her brown hair on his pillow,
But I shall be hearing the harsh cries of wild fowl.

Patrick MacDonogh