Workshop Date: 1963-1966
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Kellys kept an unlicensed bull, well away
From the road: one risked a fine, but had to pay
The normal fee if cows were serviced there.
Once I dragged a nervous Friesian on a tether
Down a lane of alder, shaggy with catkin,
Down to the shed the bull was kept in.
I gave Old Kelly the clammy silver, though why
I could not guess. He grunted a curt "Go by.
Get up on that gate." and from my lofty station
I watched the businesslike conception.
The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward unexpected jump, and
His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.
After a prosecution Kelly's service stopped,
Although by then his clientele was dropping,
And last weekend at home I lent a hand -
Again the farmyard Pandarus - when a man
Whitecoated, rubbergloved, carried his gear
Into the byre. He paused only to enquire
Which cow it was; and as I scratched the Ayrshire's rump
He chose the labelled seed for his glass pump.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying -
He had always taken funerals in his stride -
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble".
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless signs.
At ten o'clock an ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
MacKenna, his dungarees
Stiff and stinking of sour pigmeal,
Husks up warm phlegm and spits; sees
His cows graze the long field
And is not dissatisfied.
Thinks of that bloody twister
Of a milk inspector who replied
To all his lies with "Mr
MacKenna." Reminds himself
To relate that in the pub;
Show them how a bit of wealth
Numbs even the official snub.
Crude, Lewd, necessary
As a herd bull, he repels
The age's neat civility.
He scratches, belches, smells.
Do we, pale ones, who lament
Our loss of real roots in the soil
Celebrate MacKenna. He has bent
His back, his soul, with honest toil.
Mouth loose like an open waistband
On a porter belly, to-night
He argues loud, sleep pint in hand.
Stout loosens the limbs for a fight
And hate, sparked long ago from the cold
Flint of farming jealousies, scorches
The bar and flames into the yard.
From the drunk dark a crowd watches
Frothing mouths, bloody fists, the hard
Final trip on the clubbing stones.
MacKenna returns to his drink;
Hate has fathered a new feud.
He gets drunk; in a sharp Guinness stink
Reels home as a good husband should.
One observes them, one expects them,
Blue breasted in their indifferent mortuary,
Beached end bare on the cold marble slabs
In immodest underwear frills of feather.
The red sides of beef retain
Some of the smelly majesty of living:
A half-cow slung from a hood maintains
That blood and flesh are not ignored.
But a turkey cowers in death.
Pull his neck, pluck him, and look -
He is just another poor forked thing,
An ink-blotch,y slump of putty.
He once complained extravagantly
In an overture of gobbles;
He lorded it on the claw-flecked mud
With a grey flick of his cConfucian eye.
Now, in my winter woolens and turned up collar,
I pass the butcher's bleak December dazzle
And casually note the importance
Of plumage and perpindicularity.
Slept (with a boast) on the parquet floor beneath
A liquor-lurched couch at a Hampstead Heath
Party. Conformed to the blarney-bloated
Image, blasphemed against bishops, quoted
The Proclamation. Court cases never disturbed
And critics were answered when porter burped.
Reduced rebellion to slapstick and slip cracks,
Played to full houses, came out in paperbacks.
Henry MacWilliams, childless widower
Of seventy three, lingered and died lonely
In a house with mud floor and no ceiling.
A rosary that looped the brass bedhead
Jiggled and clicked when he elbowed himself
Restlessly across the fistling bags of straw.
He lay staring at a worn sickle:
It stuck in the roof of black-oak and bog-sod,
Glowering down at him like the frosty eyebrow
Of a harvest moon.
For five draughty weeks
He doted angrily: 'Why in Christ's name
Was that horse not shod? . . . That riverbank field
Is surely dry enough for ploughing.'
His savage ankles, knotty as black thorn,
Poked out beyond the patchwork quilt; toe-nails,
Slugs petrified to pebbles.
Money for a coffin; he was buried
Without the dubious mead of duteous tears,
Sunk in the dirt, 'gone to rest at last.'
Then cattle bedded on his mattress straw
And the bedhead made a gate for our back garden.
Still, one does not lament; One just observes
Clay, conscripted and identified, now
Demobbed. Epitaphs are irrelevant
To a grassy grave that boasts no headstone.