Week 478: Mirror in February, by Thomas Kinsella

I see that the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella has just died at the age of 93. He did great service to Irish literature with his translations from the early language, and I certainly wish I had had his version of the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ (Cattle-raid of Cooley) to hand when as an undergraduate I was fighting my way with Cuchulain step by step through the original text of that barbarous, magnificent epic. But he should also be remembered as a fine original poet, and here is one of his justly most popular pieces, a reflection on lost youth.

Note: ‘the age of Christ’: according to tradition Jesus was thirty-three years old when he died.

Mirror in February

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy —
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.

Thomas Kinsella


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