Workshop Date: 1963-1966
Poet: Michael Longley
The cries of the shipwrecked enter my head.
On wildest nights when the torn sky confides
Its face on the sea's cracked mirror, my bed
- Addressed by the moon and her tutored tides -
Through brainstorm, through nightmare and ocean
Keeps me afloat. Shallows are my coven,
The comfortable margins - in this notion
I stand uncorrected by the sun even.
Out of the night husband after husband
- Eyes wide as oysters, arms full of driftwood -
Wades ashore and puts in at my island.
My necklaces of sea shells and sea weed,
My skirts of spindrift, sandals of flotsam
Catch the eye of the bridegroom for ever.
Quite forgetful of the widowing calm
My sailors wait through bad and good weather.
At first in rock pools I become their wife,
Under the dunes at last they lie with me -
These are the spring and neap tides of their life.
I have helped so many sailors off the sea,
And, counting no man among my losses,
I have made of my arms and my thighs last rooms
For the irretrievable and capsized -
I extend the sea, its idioms.
Birds, such heavenly bric-a-brac
Without their guts, without their fears,
Despite the vital parts they lack
Have here maintained their proper cloth,
Have held their equilibrium
So perfectly, so many years,
Shed nothing but momentum,
Their only weather dust and moth.
Toward what feats and feasts they steer,
Toward what continents migrate,
Or simply why they disappear,
With feathers talons beaks and plumes
Kingfisher destrel dodo swan
In life, in death can illustrate,
For ornithology keep on
Their uniforms, their best costumes.
In this unnatural treasury,
Though held thus by their own decors
And fixed in frozen augury,
Out of the past they dart and wade,
In such different skies to figure,
On so many half-remembered shores,
And are heading for the future,
By some deep need of ours conveyed.
Who quit their gay trajectories
Too suddenly, too long ago,
True to their movements, even these
Across our field of vision spill
And, while winging it through fable,
Fuse all we hope with what we know -
Their fate incontrovertible,
Their vanished bodies flying still.
We, with our histories left to spend,
Would have our actions thus defined
By that repose in which they end,
Would have these birds, these lively dead,
Who hesitate before they go
For ever out of sight and mind,
Whose long delays concern us so,
As our biographers instead.
We come as ornithologists -
As taxidermists we depart,
For here an urge we have persists
To recognize the tattered skins,
The bones come in at last to land
Of birds, entitled from the start,
Who take their places, make their stand
Where science ends and love begins.
The drumlins roll like waves above it all.
Round my feet, like small change for a fare,
First snowdrops scatter, evangelical.
The stag still lifts his antlers through the air.
Winter, her head laid on the world's shoulder,
Will soon be gone. Left to my own devices,
To another spring, I grow even older.
No stream harks back as its water rises.
This reawakening landscape, it turns out,
Is not exactly what I walked towards.
Let sun and moon and stars invigilate
As I put their lives into my own words.
Since you, Mind, think to diagnose
As summer, satin, nightingale or rose,
Of the senses making sense -
Follow my nose,
Attend all other points of contact,
Deserve your berth:
My brain-child, help me find my own way back
To fire, air, water, earth.
I am, in fact,
More than a bag of skin and bone.
My person is
A chamber where the elements postpone
In lively synthesis,
In peace on loan,
Old wars of flood and earthquake, storm
Their attributes most temperately reformed
Of heatwave and of frost,
They take my form,
Learn from my arteries their pace.
They leave alarms
And excursions for my heart and lungs to face.
I hold them in my arms
And keep in place.
To walk, to run, to leap, to stand -
Of the litany
Of movement I the vicar in command,
The prophet in my country,
The priest at hand,
Take steps to make it understood
Assembled here in narrow neighbourhood
Are my constituents
For bad or good.
Body and Mind, I turn to you.
It's me you fit.
Whatever you think, whatever you do,
Include me in on it,
Who house philosophy and force,
Wed well in me
The elements, for fever's their divorce,
Nightmare and ecstasy,
And death of course.
My sponsor, Mind, my satellite,
Keep my balance,
Steer me through my heyday, through my night,
My senses' common sense,
And you who set me in my ways,
In full possession of my faculties -
Till you disintegrate,
Exist to please.
Lest I with fears and hopes capsize,
By your own lights
Sail, Body, cargoless towards surprise.
And come, Mind, raise your sights -
Believe my eyes.
The sergeant, an arrow in his back,
Who crawled, bleeding, up the dusty street,
Who gasped his news of the failed attack,
How on all fours he made his retreat -
He put the idea into our heads.
With such horrors fixed in the mind's eye,
Saying our prayers, fingering our beads
Half awake and half asleep we lie.
Since their secret weapon is the horse
Ten thousand hooves thunder in our ears.
A nightmare! and it is getting worse -
our hopes on foot, galloping our fears.
Hands full of reins and spurs at their feet,
They herd to an awkward river bend
Our squadrons who, certain of defeat,
Are wishing they had never listened.
Into the water our youth is spilled,
We make on the causeways our last stands.
Because of the bridge we did not build
Our whole army fights for balance.
Overcome however hard we fight,
Before us all the horsemen frowning,
And, no opportunities for flight,
On either side a drop to drowning.
Is our way of life pedestrian?
Can these be the customs we defend?
Slow aeon after slower aeon?
But, just as we think THIS IS THE END,
We wake to a world of infantry men.
We wake from nightmare into reason -
Of their reins and bridles not a sign.
We see another sun has risen,
And, our nightmare now a mystery tour,
At ease along the river's edges
Each cavalry man become a centaur,
The causeways growing into bridges.
Sons and daughters, my irreconcilables,
Stay: nephews and nieces, old enemies,
Visit my final tidiness - find
In the house I love (floors, walls, and gables)
Loud amnesty, a celebrated peace.
For this is my last will and testament:-
Bed and board for you in my narrow mind.
I became at last a mother and an aunt.
For twenty years I noticed every chair
Teetering, ready to disintegrate
- Oh infinite their appetite for hurt! -
The carpets growing stains, the creaking stair,
Rain and hail invited in by the grate.
With butlers only, gardeners and maids
My commerce, I erected in my heart
Such lonely dykes, such anxious barricades.
A housewife, wedded to my house, its bride -
Come, death and children, grant me a divorce.
Though dusty shelves await my last breath
Empty each nook and cranny of my pride.
This be my tomb, my epitaph of course
Your names carved on my chairs and apple trees.
Let grass and weeds devour my gravel path,
The moths be glutted on my tapestries.
Your uncle, totem and curator bends
Above your cot. It is you I want to see.
Your cry comes out like an eleison.
Only the name tag round your wrist extends
My surprised compassion to loyalty.
Your mother tells me you are my godson.
The previous room still moulds your shape
Which lies unwashed, out of its element,
Smelling like rain on soil. I stoop to lift
You out of bed and into my landscape,
Last arrival, obvious immigrant
Wearing the fashions of the place you left.
As winds are balanced in a swaying tree,
I cradle your cries. And in my arms reside,
Till you fall asleep, your uncontended
Demands that the world be your nursery.
And I, a spokesman of that world outside,
Creation's sponsor, stand dumbfounded,
Although there is much a story to unfold
- Whether as forecast or reminder -
Of cattle steaming in their byres, and sheep
Beneath a hedge, arranged against the cold,
Our cat at home blinking by the fender,
The wolf treading its circuits towards sleep.