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New Selected Poems
By P.J. Kavanagh
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2014 P.J. Kavanagh
All rights reserved.
Curled in your night-dress on the beach,
Corn-yellow ghost, pale with sleep,
Head to the starry North, bare toes to the burning East,
Tracking the sun's climb into our seaside perch,
I watch you at the fringe of this other island
Our public love makes private for us two;
Your face in floating shadow like a moon,
Stretching your arms around the bay to yawn,
Ebony trees in your fingers turning to green.
I stand alone, in the dark, with the birds in the bush.
Like the pewter lagoon I am flustered by day,
Which turns, turns, like a pin to prick out my eye.
Now Sun, the angry bo'sun, straddles the sea.
'Is that you?' your murmur,
Grateful and blind my whisper,
'You and me'.
Little men at work reconcile me to the great.
Dogs barking. Men with guns.
The foul canal, brown-swollen by the rains,
Is lined with trigger-happy mothers' sons.
And not one simple man to clear the stinking drains.
Above my window cockney-sparrows build ...
Hard to doubt the gay congruities,
Hard to live without complacencies.
Things are just as bad as we were told.
These busy squatters seem accomplices –
Straw from a beak blurs the page as I write.
Out in the street this morning there was a fight.
One of the men fell jerking in a fit.
I took my watching white-face on my well-shod feet
Down to my garden gate.
One barefoot watcher looked at me and spat.
Well, build from spittle and sparrow-straw bricks for a
Why, when it is impossible to Belong
Do all of us long for that more than anything?
Perhaps to write and rhyme a sense of loss
Makes one isolation briefly less.
Steel-helmets make that seem ridiculous.
For us no quasi-romantic State of War:
You scarcely notice when you live with fear.
If little lights were little one by one
Could any of Europe's bonfires have lasted for long ...?
But who has words to say all that again?
Meanwhile the dogs are barking. Sentries yawn.
Someone, somewhere, switches the street-lights on.
Domestic sparrows end where they began.
We must leave tomorrow to the morning.
Perhaps tomorrow we shall wake up grown.
For if some bayonet or bomb cuts short the growing,
We know that nobody's better off, and that's worth
The rain is the same.
Some of the trees original.
Certainly the stream
Is the one that woke you, lulled you,
The tiny bridge identical.
And what has happened since you climbed the stair
Would neither have surprised nor killed you.
Behind that outhouse wall you kept your car,
Deprecatingly – salaried senator –
Which took you south in the winter
To die, advisedly, before the war.
I was a child when you died
And now I stand beside
What remains of the tower
You took your gift inside
To raise it like a chalice,
Maliciously smiling, out of reach of malice,
Over the small and sour
Country of your birth;
Over the lunatic earth.
The roof and the floors are gone.
Stolen your sea-green slates,
And smithy-work from Gort.
Your blue distempers run
In cobalt-coloured rain.
You will forgive the thought
That made me in your hall
Write with a tinker's coal
My small and grateful name.
Things being as they are
You'll understand the fear
That I may never pass this way again.
Thoor Ballylee, August 1957
Intimations of Unreality
A square-skulled moonfaced monotone fowl,
because it is twilight has caught my eye
and slowly insultingly turned its neckless back.
Snubbed by an owl.
One skirt hem of the sky is torn by day still.
Night continues to mend it, ignoring me,
As I move, nervous against my reason,
there are rustles and splashes I cannot mistake for
Blind white moths half my finger-nail size
zig-zag about my feet about no business.
I catch one in my hand, just to make contact
with some part of a world that's mine as well.
It even disdains to flutter,
but waits till I open my hand, then goes on as before.
I feel as though I, hungry,
have entered a room
where there was only just enough to go round.
Because I live in brick and change my clothes
must I allow the world and sky to ignore me?
Stay, Light! There is something you showed then that I
Well then come, Dark! In your tunnel I'll be more
What did the river say?
Ordeal by bats is beginning.
How cold this dew is!
So it is really true then
That I neither inhabit this world, nor any other?
These walls infect the air
With pale Nostalgia.
See, through the garden comes
That languished Lady under whose black thumbs
Our past grows waxen fruit
Our present cannot eat,
And fades, and dies.
Listen, (and argue). She never says but sighs:
'Stone upon stone well and truly laid
In a noble manner now forgotten –'
(The stones themselves are rotten.)
'Tops of the trees ruffle like sleeping birds
A bitter generation has no words
To consecrate the meaning of this garden.'
Well then, let us on this meaningful,
Catalogue some things She misses out.
Rusted iron chains and poles
Her tattered Lears, Her bird-cage lime-trees up ...
Under their branches, up and down
The beat now sacrosanct to dog with don
Once patrolled the Ladies of the Town ...
As you carefully lean on the pox of the parapet
Think of the poet Collins taken for debt,
Exactly, historically, there, just under it,
Drunk in the afternoon ...
Where Her false-gentle memory glides
Kissing smooth corners (which are not),
Is roughly four yards from the spot
Where poor Colonel Windebanke,
For giving way to undue funk
At the sight of Ironsides,
One paint-fresh morning such as this
By some outraged friends of his
Was brought and shot ...
No need to go on.
The Lady's gone.
A cow in the Meadows blows her horn
Across the liquid green.
Were it not for milking-time
No cow no grass no water-colour scene.
One meaning of our catalogue is that.
Lady, agreed this silence
Is solace. But You must confess the violence
Blending us together,
Past, present, future,
Calm beauty, rough weather.
Not one without the other.
Beggar at the Villa d'Este
No legs. I must sit still.
People pass who are,
More or less, amused at falling water,
Treasures of this hill.
He was rich. I'm poor,
But share his pleasures.
I shan't risk my virtue for Perhaps,
When here expensive fancies are secure.
'It's obsessive – the fountains – the
That posh-faced tourist says.
I have to laugh
At fear afraid of fear.
'Then you love water you mean?
The more fool you' I say.
(He's much too tall to hear.)
I was born near Lake Trasimene.
Nearly every evening that expanse
Turns to grey, to green,
Flamingo to bloody carmine.
There's no sense
In frightening one like that!
In all those colours, reeds like dead men's fingers
Break silences and mirrors ...
I tell you there's no laughing on those banks,
On any beach or shore or not for long.
You get to think. Say prayers even.
Ugh! It cares a lot for you! No thanks!
But here's a prince, a cardinal, fly as they come,
By tricks and cheats puts water in his purse,
Makes something you can drown in, something cruel,
Dance in front of him like a hired fool.
Then you forget you have no legs ... That's Art.
Made him, they say, forget he had no heart.
And yet his house is damp ... And yet it's grand! ...
If I could walk I'd go
As far from water as there is and oh!
If I could fly, as far away from land!
On the Way to the Depot
Cast off in a boat without even a head for companion
You washed up here and I must say they gave you a
Renamed their gulf and their village and every so
often Fire guns at the ground in your honour.
You couldn't have known you'd so noisily float to the
When someone in Pisa repeated
The claims of a dim Jewish mystagogue thirty years
So what made you refuse to deny them
When Nero your master requested and thereby lose your
Those who back the wrong cult have to do without bangs
On their nameday. And it's hard, surely,
To lay down your neck for a long-shot, all alone?
Well, now you've a life-size painted porcelain portrait
Complete with moustache (a chocolate-coloured
A trellis of red paper flowers and, every day, roses.
An unthrifty aureole, even, of high-watt bulbs
Burns all day and night in the dark of your church.
Today the obedient carry your head in procession.
Teach us, Signore, to love a good thing when we see one:
Also the perfect moment to disobey.
16 May 1962
The paper house was empty in the middle of the paddy
So we took it over. The electricians
Fixed up some wiring; we had a crate of
Guinness in the lorry; we'd come a long way
But first we must get settled.
The partitions, the rooms, were small. The locals were
But the owner must have been a man of some
There were plenty of rooms, and the house miles from
Soon there were yellow bulbs swinging from black flex;
All had their quarters; a dry-patch for the lorries ...
Then somebody smelled the burning.
Something wrong with the wiring.
Up to our anklets in mud
We watched it burn down, drinking Guinness.
Nothing for it now but put up tents on the dry-patch.
A man floated face downward in the mud.
There were helmets and webbing equipment we didn't
Inquire under. Now there was kerosene
In the tents, and wooden duck-walks.
In front of the smouldering house,
In the shallow pond where the man lay,
Was a bubble of spring; in the morning
We went there to wash. It was warm.
Out of the earth, dribbling on to the mud
Between two stones, came a spring that was warm.
We used it to shave in; while around,
Women patiently gathered with their washing:
The people whose blessing it was
Waiting for us to go.
August by the River
Hunched-up, muttering along the quais
Of deserted, bus-ticket-blown SW3,
After one too many a table d'hote me7al
Eaten alone with a book, I think of Jules
Laforgue. As I zig-zag along beside
The only river that openly solicits suicide,
I think of St Barnabas, Addison Road,
Only a couple of postal districts away
Where, oddly enough, he married a Miss Leah Lee.
With my pockets stuffed full like confetti with telephone
Numbers I'll never ring up, I stop to stare the moon
Over Battersea full in its diesel-fumed eye,
For I'm terrified stiff of the quiet in my chamber
Why do I think of Jules Laforgue and his bride?
Because by this stretch of the river, whose arms
Offer their piss-yellow, typhus-ridden charms –
Because it's probably wiser and safer in this quartier
To think of them and not of you, or me.
Sky mother-of-pearl. Oyster-colour sun,
A furry lemon,
Silent, full of silences.
Birdless windless trees hold breath;
Stream tinkles to pond to be frozen to death.
Silence: a hand clapped over a mouth;
Violent, with suppressed violences.
Earth is preoccupied, waiting to know
The soft grope of snow.
Muscles of a bough crack, pistol-shot, echo echo ...
On a little mound
Near stream, by pond,
A church: a square of yellow stone,
Some of it ferried over seas from Caen
In boats too light, you would have thought,
To bear the weight,
Ages of faith ago.
Moss on the church-yard gate.
Green grass prickles the hoar-frost sheet.
And then the moment like a film-shot freezes.
Perceived, not seen, almost out of frame –
Joy – a presence,
Transforming all the other presences:
And leaning against a new-cut yellow stone
A splash of carmine
A scatter of frozen
Bokhara roses ...
And then the blur of snow. Time to be gone.
Excerpted from New Selected Poems by P.J. Kavanagh. Copyright © 2014 P.J. Kavanagh. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Derek Mahon,
from One and One (1959),
Intimations of Unreality,
Beggar at the Villa d'Este,
from On the Way to the Depot (1967),
August by the River,
On the Way to the Depot,
Afternoon in Sneem,
The Temperance Billiards Rooms,
In the Rubber Dinghy,
Perfection Isn't Like a Perfect Story,
Not Being a Man of Action,
from About Time (1970),
One: Son and Father,
Seven: from Albert Poems,
Ten: Father and Son,
from Edward Thomas in Heaven (1974),
All I Want,
A Box of Sons,
November the First,
Opened and Fastened,
Picture a Father,
And Light Fading,
The Clapham Elephants,
Edward Thomas in Heaven,
from Life Before Death (1979),
A Hard Setting,
While the Sun Shines,
Where You Watching Are,
A Single Tree,
Don't Forget the Keeper, Sir,
A Great Gale, 1976,
Breakfast in Italy,
The Moon in Charge,
Borris House, Co. Carlow,
from Presences (1987),
Birth of Middle Age,
A Small World,
Ars est celare artem,
Prayer in Middle Age,
from An Enchantment (1991),
A ghost replies,
The old notebook,
No more songs,
Blackbird in Fulham,
They lift their heads,
Minimal prayer suggestion,
In the middle of the wood,
Quieter than Clichy,
from Something About (2004),
Slow as grass,
The new man,
Tug o' war,
A gottle o' Guinness,
Mood indigo, tune Irish,
'Constancy to an ideal object',
Ascension window at Fairford,
What I didn't say to Thomas,
Three score and ten,
Index of Titles,
Index of First Lines,
About the Author,
Also by P.J. Kavanagh from Carcanet Press,