Read an Excerpt
By Mary O'Malley
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 Mary O'Malley
All rights reserved.
Those who go on voyages seldom come back holy. Thomas à Kempis
Poem on a Leaf
Be life veined
Be strong as winter.
Be the sun's dance
On every water.
Out now, the years gone up in smoke
the firebird in ashes. It's time.
The sun is rolling up the slope,
a thousand people rang the fire brigade last night.
A five year old was shot, children are burning.
I could write many verses to stop this flight
the packed red suitcase, the light's pewter slant
on the water. And have. But back to leaving. I am.
The ice blue nights, the carapace of wit
hidden like some mermaid's cap.
Leaving the jewelled women, the men like cattle
heavy, smug. No plans, just a cheap
flight to some mythic city called Hotel
or Airport. There are no countries left
only the deep territories, the blackened hills.
At night we miss our countries and whisper secretly
how we loved their fragile borders,
their lakes, their fields too green for mercy.
You'll go to the interior, and choose your mountain.
I'll take the coast.
How strange setting out in the world again.
I hear the earth is not reliable, the poles
not where they ought to be. I never thought they would,
but wanted stamps, and rest among the pilgrim souls
all maps discarded, just the studded way of paintings
signposted in shells, the hope of travellers' courtesy
and all our road unravelling before us.
At Jardin des Plantes
The sea begins where the story has broken
and it is richer than heaven
especially in mid-ocean
where creatures like pearls hang
dead spheres, eggs without shells.
They are preyed on by few
in their spectral world. Once a globe
of blue pulsed down faster than war
rare as a monk shinning down a rope.
Inside the diving bell a man
who might have saved or loved them
saw nothing. His blindness became wisdom
and they were left alone for years
until curious Frenchmen turned
their journeying minds
to the pelagic, the profound
region and saw that those milky creatures
shy as spectres in the diver's arc
have one talent, which is repulsing light
to save themselves
from notice and from death.
Decades before, whole schools
on rue St Jacques and in the Marais
became empty plaques
because pearl children failed
to escape detection when Picasso
and all France closed their eyes to avoid
the light that shone on Max Jacob
and Irène Némirovsky and found them luminous
in those penumbric times. Discovered
what the twilight creatures knew until
they too were investigated and turned
into exhibits to make us flinch or marvel
at what we manage not to notice
until it is presented tagged and dead
a story on a glued vase, in jagged pieces.
He hung over the side a cigarette discarded
a chain with its crucified Christ
flashing in the sun, and blessed himself.
His breath opened O and again O
took in the whole element and time
and all the sub-atomic particles,
took them into his chest and dived.
He found the old half-rotted star clock
all bronze and green and verdigris, then
he saw the women coming at him like ghosts
falling towards him out of the wreck
with their strange virginity, and dropped it.
By the time he reached the surface
he was gabbling, they said, about bodies
said it with their kind's terror of superstition.
Flattened like an old watch dumped
its secret stayed buried in a lost codex
long after the pearl diver found it,
teeth at an angle, grinning at the moon.
Then they got it all wrong and squabbled
like bankers over their interpretations.
They say its clock was set at Libra
which may mean nothing
though blind chance did not design the cogs,
chance, or some rival fleet, sank the ship.
Scientists computed, disputed its purpose
but it was into the sponge diver's arms
the beautiful dead women fell.
It was he found the treasure
because he was down there among the old irons,
old bottles, poking around where it all starts
with the sea-crazed star-hungry sea-crossed.
The sea is a language scientists parse
sentences of current and wave.
Fishermen speak it, sing it, curse
its dynamics when it raves.
Dido, Gráinne, Bríd
Some believe you do not choose the myth
it fastens to you at birth and come the day,
you recognise it, own or deny
as here in a room in the Fifth
where priests were made
and unmade she enters, Dido
from the river, to help.
of getting territory not through marriage,
but with bull's hide and mathematical brilliance
reminds me of Bríd, our spring saint,
our virgin politician and that Gráinne
who saddled power and broke it,
had the man, the child, the grief and did not,
that we know of, complain.
Ban teabags. Grow your own
oranges and chocolate. Divine
the limestone for the best wine.
Take up knitting and learn to stitch. Good luck.
It's deadly dull, though you could knit
yourself a new man or assemble one quick
enough from Chinese barbecue instructions
with missing bits, a leg sticking out like an elbow
and wonky logic, just like the old malediction.
He would fix the roof, protect you from storms
and in an ideal world, while you knit a garden
with a tree in blossom, unblock the drains.
Then forgetting the heartache, the dropped stitches
you'd eat the apple out of his hand again
and spin gold from the serpent's promises.
Wars and worse. Mantillas, headscarves
male and female bicycles.
Add churching, sex
mortal, venial and reserved
and you have our miserable childhood
in a soundbite
though not four angels round my head
not the rose on the pillow
not the old dried blood on the wall.
Is it different in India? At night
Ghandi had two virgins to test his purity.
He was old then, dear old skin and bones.
Two virgins just like St Scrotius. For God's sake
why not whiskey and cake?
In each new city you pray to fling down your crutches.
It never happens, even here with the Eiffel Tower
sparkling like a panther's necklace and the Dior police
with their eager truncheons. You think you can still riot?
You, hobbling along on your understated crutches
under the protection of lipstick and Sainte Chapelle – such blue!
– and your ruined foot in your green iguana shoes?
In the Seminary
I sleep fitfully. Last night I dreamed myself
in the arms of one man, woke to the care
of a cold lover, old friend. This comfort, so rare
in my convent state, makes me rash. What if?
Faith. Why not? Buy a blue silk skirt on Rue Princesse
put it on and head out along the drunken river
to meet destiny or death, a trace of cognac on his lips.
How do you like your green-eyed girl now, Mister?
It's been half a lifetime but I've tried.
I called, I phoned, I e-mailed
and besides the odd sign and one
ten-fingered miracle, no word from you.
I'm fine. If you're there you'll know
that lies like this are venial so
how about yourself? Things fall apart.
I might be talking to myself but faith
unfashionably dies hard as hope
so I thought this telegram might work
being urgent and old-fashioned
and you so out of favour, Lord.
The Lost Boys
Like old action men, their limbs askew
from too much bashing, their knotted faces
stare at the sky when they are put out
on the city dump for recycling
the lost boys.
They are plastic, indestructible.
When their world breaks into splinters, each
piece reflects jaggedly. At best this mosaic hurts the
eye and the soul snags on it. (The soul is not plastic.)
This is what they long for, the lost boys:
the sun to fall
into the lake and, silvered, become moon
mirror, whole again in which the other's face
eyes, heart are seen as in a game of divination
at Hallowe'en. The heart with their name.
Instead a hand
holds a cup, china, delicate, walking across a minefield.
On her finger a jade ring. Her warm smell is missing.
One hand, one cup, tea gleaming like honey
in the mirror's shattered eye.
Two Heads on a Landscape
They have no cities here and starve for want of
one whose swan castigates God, one black exiled
angel beating for his dead love, as the spinster sister
wheels towards France like a lost plane, her brothers flown
from Lough Derravaragh, with women of their
own. We choose our fate in those double-ended stories.
Out of the rubble, the rows of tinpot houses,
the new ghettos, from the bottom of endless potholes,
the moon laughs at them, cityless.
Only the scrap tower, honest coinage, gleams.
The changing heart is a two-dimensioned house
and they lie silently in its thin shelter, pitiless
as a kicked dog howls and whimpers. They
wake to the tin carousel of the next morning and the
next, which we call lucky. They wanted more,
that sin, original, and still the best. Love, of sorts.
Instress in Ireland
on the publication of the Ryan Report
From ibi to illic the road up down one is paved
with muons, pions, men in cassocks,
seeds of blight in a child's iris deflected
distorted, trodden down when all the soul
requires is a champagne glass
brimming with claritas
and sweet neutrinos passing through
leaving such faint traces
driving through our teeming nights. All this time
they were passing through us like ghosts
about their own purposes
silent as grace, the glorious mysteries.
O Plato, Scottus, Ignatius with your rotted stalks
we should have turfed you out years before this.
We got our Christianity from Egypt, not Rome
But the Pope won
So all the convent girls sing oh oh oh
De Bello, Bello Gallico.
The White City
i.m. John O'Donoghue
is the one we carry with us. Its walls shield
us from the salt wind. In the discalced lanes,
people with occupied faces stream along
about their business and do not regard you
with suspicion. Perhaps they recognise you
as one returned after a lifetime away in places
where orderly crowds flow only towards graves.
A man your age is being buried today.
A million hands are raised to strike
at children, or worse. A million fingers
move along their lovers' cheeks,
stretching away to infinity like powers of ten.
There are millions left for mopping up
and to click keyboards by the blue light
of absolute stupidity. There are perhaps
twenty generals brilliant with ambition
and sex waiting in the wings.
The white city pulses in the sun,
wanton as May, ordered as the moon.
There are cafés, a rented room, the comfort
of strangers. Bright scarves trail like adjectives
along the waterfront. The man I summon
speaks of the Tao and a Jesuit education.
Nothing really happens there or here he says, but time passes. It passes through us and tells me
he wants to live to be old, to know how it feels.
The Lisbon Bride
It floats in on an imaginary horizon seeping light,
its slender bridge, and the old rose streets
restored every few hundred years.
After the great fire, lilies and carnations – snow white
rose red – explode in recompense. There is safety
in cities built on earthquake lines.
You know where you stand, if not exactly
when it will all explode and the surprising thing is
mostly it doesn't, underpinned as it is by lament,
so much less brittle than joy. Peacocks scream
like political prisoners, their cries shivering out
over the walls in hot daylight. They are rare, white.
A girl newly arrived in Seteais calls for tea
imperious as all brides. The marriage will not work.
When she enters the city this time she will pity
their love, the cracks already spreading, the aftershocks.
Excerpted from Valparaiso by Mary O'Malley. Copyright © 2012 Mary O'Malley. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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