Workshop Date: 1966-1972
Poet: Paul Muldoon
You were first.
The ewe lapped ochre and lake
But you would not move.
Weighted with stones yet
Dead your dead head floats.
Better dead than sheep,
The thin worm slurred in your gut,
The rot in your feet,
The red dog creeping at dawn.
Better than dipped in the hard white water,
Your stomach furred,
Your head hardboiled.
Better dead than dyed
In a bowl of pale, whin petals.
Better than rolling down the hill,
Pale skull flaking.
First to break.
First for the scream of the clean bite.
Better dead with your delph head floating.
I guessed the letter must be yours.
I recognised the cuttle ink,
The serif on the P.
I read the postmark and the date.
I would not open it just yet,
Impatience clamped beneath a paperweight.
I took your letter at eleven
To the garden with my tea.
And suddenly the yellow gum
Excreted halfway up a damson bush
Had grown a shell.
I let the folded pages fall
And took at stick to break its hold.
I turned it over through the grass
To watch your mucous lips withdraw.
Snow sticks to the ribs
Of a broken barrel.
Your womb appeared
An openandshut affair.
Our child had signed itself
In the plush foyer
Of an exclusive hotel.
Then as if running a pen through itself
It assumed an alias.
At a loss for the motive,
(It could not be running
Away from its past),
We have traced its subsequent movements
As far as the underworld.
The month of comings
And goings. In Norway
The lemmings like molten snow
Stream from the mountainsides.
The bed defined me,
Eight hours each day
For eighteen years. I stretched
To shrink, the drumhead where
My parents beat their message out.
I had been twelve years on the rack
When scalp and soles touched wood.
These past six years as if to winter
I would withdraw my head,
Retract my feet,
Wakening when the laser sun
Would aim too close.
Now I have left
My parents for the town.
Another drum insists.
On widening territories, stumbles from my chest.
Across another reservation full of sames.
Time too is limited,
Floats from my dandelion lungs.
No spoil can be reclaimed.
At 3 a.m. the ceiling seems
A capsized porcupine,
Sinking towards the floor,
Towards our bodies where they dream.
This hawk has always been dressed
To kill. It would hold
Up its claws before the sun and cast
A shadow on a field.
This was no makebelieve,
No nursery game. For here
The shadow was alive,
Hardening to a rabbit. Free wheel-
Ing, the hawk waited. It has never
Been wrong about when best to kill.
It has already proved itself expert
At keeping alive. Throughout
The winters that distort
Wellknownfacts, argue blackbirds white.
It has outlived the crow,
The tin lid thrown up as a target,
Sliding down the sky
Like a beanbag coming apart at the seams.
Grain spilling from the craw.
Until today, that is, when I got
This wounded hawk fluttering in the corn. I threw
My coat at its hunched shoulders, but it screamed,
Levered itself, by one good wing into a tree.
I wonder will it be dead
Tomorrow. Or pulling through,
Live to cast the shadow of my head.
The snail moves
Like a hovercraft,
Held up by a rubber
Cushion of itself, sharing its secret
With the hedgehog. The hedgehog
Shares its secret with noone.
We say 'Hedgehog, come out
Of yourself and we will love you.
We mean no harm. We want
Only to listen to what
You have to say. We want
Your answers to our questions.'
The hedgehog gives nothing
Away, keeping itself to itself.
We wonder what a hedgehog
Has to hide, why it so distrusts.
We forget the god
Under this crown of thorns.
We forget that never again
Will a god trust in the world.
Coming here, we were like that mountain whose base
We kept sidestepping. Thinking ourselves superior.
Having, we thought, our final attitude and bias.
Really, wanting a new slant. For the past hour
We heard the seancha relearn
What he has always known,
Region of heroes, gentle maidens,
Giants that war and landgrab.
Each phrase opening like a fern.
Till some make fists of themselves, like the stones
In a landslide, a cadence
That comes in his way. He can adlib
No other route. If we play back the tape
He may take up where he left off.
Nothing. And no heroes people this landscape
Through which he sees us off.
The faces of his sheep
Are nimbuses, each belly
Like a cumulus. But having shape,
Separate and memorable.
It has become a part
Of me. I might try to abort
The poem. Noone would know
But myself. God I should have known
Never again to start
A poem. Now that the start
Is made, I have no right
To say the end. No right.
I am pregnant a day
And must not call it a day.
I know its birth
But not its date of birth.
Then the poem will live, will live
Outside my life.
I will wrap
It in paper. Leave it on your step.
'No moon can exert
Its pull. The water level
Your hemline rises,
And I am at sea.
The Japanese are expert
With that form, the tauka.
A year ago, and with another girl,
I thought, I had their skill,
Enough to dwarf that place
Into so many syllables. A year
That taught me nothing about God.
Only that by wettings
And dryings He shrank that island
To a summary of itself.
I watch the mainland,
(It includes your head),
And I try to shrink your head
As the mainland gets big.
'In your family,
You say, letting one's hair grow
Is a religion.
Yours is a homily
That never bores, though it is long.'
A year that taught me nothing
About verse, only that these poems,
Composed on that island, are guesses
At the truth, summaries of themselves
Like the miniature trees
In an oriental garden.