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An Irish Childhood in England: 1951
The bickering of vowels on the buses,
the clicking thumbs and the big hips of
the navy-skirted ticket collectors with
their crooked seams brought it home to me:
Exile. Ration-book pudding.
Bowls of dripping and the fixed smile
of the school pianist playing “Iolanthe,”
“Land of Hope and Glory” and “John Peel.”
I didn’t know what to hold, to keep.
At night, filled with some malaise
of love for what I’d never known I had,
I fell asleep and let the moment pass.
The passing moment has become a night
of clipped shadows, freshly painted houses,
the garden eddying in dark and heat,
my children half-awake, half-asleep.
Airless, humid dark. Leaf-noise.
The stirrings of a garden before rain.
A hint of storm behind the risen moon.
We are what we have chosen. Did I choose to?—
in a strange city, in another country,
on nights in a north-facing bedroom,
waiting for the sleep that never did
restore me as I’d hoped to what I’d lost—
let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child
was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”
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Skating to Antarctica,
Desolation island –
A place apart where
The wasteland ends;
Soul on ice into
The silent land
The other side of you.
[more of my book spine poems]
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'A Grafted Tongue'
bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue —
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck
Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble
the altered syllables
of your own name:
to stray sadly home
the turf-cured width
of your parents’ hearth
growing slowly alien:
and field, they still
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation
as twice to be born.
that child’s grandchild’s
speech stumbles over lost
syllables of an old order.
— John Montague
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'The Death of Irish'
The tide gone out for good,
Thirty-one words for seaweed
Whiten on the foreshore.
—Aidan Carl Mathews
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Here’s my story; the stag cries,
Winter snarls as summer dies.
The wind bullies the low sun
In poor light; the seas moan.
Shapeless bracken is turning red,
The wildgoose raises its desperate head.
Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.
Anonymous Irish poet, 7–13th century. Translated by Brendan Kennelly.
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I am so happy, so happy.
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An era, midst its dim arena
No, in uneven union
Liars, alas, rail.
Leigh Mercer, ‘Four Palindromes of the Apocalypse’
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My destiny is in the Spanish language,
the bronze words of Francisco de Quevedo,
but in the long, slow progress of the night,
different, more intimate musics move me.
Some have been handed down to me by blood —
voices of Shakespeare, language of the Scriptures —
others by chance, which has been generous;
but you, gentle language of Germany,
I chose you, and I sought you out alone.
By way of grammar books and patient study,
through the thick undergrowth of the declensions,
the dictionary, which never puts its thumb on
the precise nuance, I kept moving closer.
My nights were full of overtones of Virgil,
I once said; but I could as well have named
Hölderlin, Angelus Silesius.
Heine lent me his lofty nightingales;
Goethe, the good fortune of late love,
at the same time both greedy and indulgent;
Keller, the rose which one hand leaves behind
in the closed fist of a dead man who adored it,
who will never know if it is white or red.
German language, you are your masterpiece:
love interwound in all your compound voices
and open vowels, sounds which accommodate
the studious hexameters of Greek
and undercurrents of jungles and of nights.
Once, I had you. Now, at the far extreme
of weary years, I feel you have become
as out of reach as algebra and the moon.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘To the German language’, translated by Alastair Reid. From The Book of Sand (1979).
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Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
The story goes: One February morning in 1360 the Zen monk Kozan Ichikyo, aged 77, wrote his jisei (‘death poem’), put down his brush, and died where he sat.
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This is the way the world ends
Not with an interrobang but a winkey.
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