by Peter McDonald


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Torchlight by Peter McDonald

In this fifth poetry collection, Northern Irish poet Peter McDonald explores the haunting persistence of memories and the acts of remembrance that preserve and shape them. From Belfast in the troubled 1970s to contemporary England, from ancient myth to rock music, and from personal recollections to Sappho’s memory of her youth, this compilation of lyric poetry is both light and vigorous. Those interested in contemporary reworking of ancient texts and myths will especially appreciate a major new translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which highlights the losses, recoveries, and revelations of the shorter poems herein.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847770912
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 02/01/2011
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 1,343,426
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Peter McDonald is a poet and the author of several books, including The House of Clay, Pastorals, and Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill. He is the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award and the University of Oxford’s Newdigate Prize for Poetry.

Read an Excerpt


By Peter McDonald

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Peter McDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-935-9


    The Neighbours

    In the single-bedroom flat I used to cry the night through
    as my mother walked the floor with me, rocked me and fed me
    past the small, insensible hours, not to wake the neighbours;
    though often upstairs there might be half the Group Theatre
    going till daybreak – a tiny, bohemian airpocket:
    Jimmy Ellis (in the Group, before Z Cars), or Mary O'Malley,
    and over from next door, next door but one maybe, George
    McCann, Mercy Hunter, John Boyd and the BBC,
    talking politics or shop, intrigue or gossip the night through.

    But perhaps on this occasion there's only the baby
    cutting in and out of silence in a high spare room
    where the McCanns have just lodged their visiting poet
    who by noon will cross from the Elbow Room to the studios
    in Ormeau Avenue, and deliver his talk, unscripted,
    on 'Childhood Memories'; whose sleep now, if sleep it is,
    remains unbroken through the small, insensible hours
    between the whiskey nightcap and a breakfast of whiskey.

    The Weather

    Weightless to me, the heavy leaves
    on a sumach drag down their long stems
    ready to fall, and spend their lives
    on one inflamed, extravagant
    display, when light like the rain teems
    over and through them; ruined, pendant,
    parading every colour of fire
    on a cold day at the edge of winter.

    They are like the generations of man
    of course, and we knew that; we knew
    everything pretty much in advance
    about this weather, light like the rain,
    the red-gold and the gold tattoo
    that dying things can print on ruin
    (no ruin, in fact, except their own),
    flaring up even as they go down.

    The sunshine makes reds virulent
    and yellows vibrant with decay;
    it's not surprise, more like assent
    when they fall, when I let them fall,
    to what is fated, in its way,
    of which this rain-cleared light makes little,
    meaning the day can gleam, can glow:
    and not a bad day, as days go.


    Unprotected for the most part, out of their paper sleeves,
    and stacked in the sideboard as if it were a jukebox
    with all of their nicks and scratches and sharp scores
    pressed up together in the plastic-smelling dark,

    the singles used to spill out like so many side-plates
    once I got started on their daily inspection;
    tilting the vinyl into sunlight, and closing one eye,
    I squinted across the surface, over a dark

    spectrum of grooves and dust, where the smooth run-out
    ended at a milled ridge, then the label
    in blue or black, with its silver-grey lettering
    that I learned by heart, spelling the titles and names

    slowly to myself, more certainly each time,
    to put together words like Gloria, Anna-Marie,
    and whole runs of language in THE HUCKLE-BUCK,

    as I ferried singles across our quiet sitting-room
    to the Dansette with its open lid, a spindle
    and rubber-plated turntable, ready to play them all
    to destruction, till late in the morning, when

    the patterned carpet was the map of another world
    in some year that's not coming around again,
    like the showbands and Them, the Beatles and Jim Reeves,

    Reversing Around a Corner

    Plato could have handled it: the turns,
    half-turns and quarter-turns, the speed
    and timing are abstract concerns
    to be perfected in your head
    before they enter the world of sense
    and take you on a perfect course
    back and around, intelligence
    working with gentleness or force
    on your hands and feet, your busy eyes
    in that manoeuvre – the very one
    I fluffed (to nobody's surprise)
    in my first test, and now, umpteen
    years later, somehow I get right
    exactly, without thinking, here
    between your house and a building-site
    across the road, in reverse gear
    and barely glancing back, at best,
    as I point myself the other way
    (on what, you tell me, is a testroute)
    easily, with enough play
    in the wheel to give the look of ease
    now it can hardly matter, now
    there's no one but myself to please,
    and rules, and what the rules allow,
    don't figure, now there are times when
    nothing is beautiful, or true,
    with no great difference between
    what I can do and I can't do.

    Rainbow Ribbons 1980

    At the mid-point of a working day
    we are the solitary couple
    in the Botanic's upstairs lounge,
    I with my sweet Martini, sweetened
    with lemonade, where feathers of ice
    make little prisms in the glass,
    she with the same, as indoor lights
    on the thousand and one tight black
    curls and ringlets of her hair
    create their own fair weather,
    tumbling and falling like ribbons.

    When we step into a sun-shower,
    I press her close to kiss
    wet hair that is springy and firm
    and turns to a whole dark spectrum
    as fast clouds hit and miss
    each other over our heads, giving
    a light so clear it never goes
    back exactly as it was.

    The Reeds

    On my own now with the lake, lake-water's
    suck and slap against a wooden jetty
    accompanies the solitary, middle-distance
    heron that my eyes follow in its take-off
    and heavy flight beyond their farthest reach.

    * * *

    I can walk for yards across these narrow planks
    and touch the tips of reeds on either side
    of me, where they come level with my arms:
    the reeds move in the water as they give
    under my hands, then come back to their places.

    * * *

    To see her arms and long wrists in the water,
    her fingers slim and definite as reeds,
    would be too much, and in the building quiet
    admit that now, when nobody can hear,
    it might be a relief to scream aloud.

    * * *

    As I turn towards the interrupted noise
    where reeds are parting for me like a sea,
    my heron circles back from the far shore,
    aloof, but still checking on everything
    in the water, to see what is really there.

    Green Tea

    That morning, when I was half-way
    to all the way lost, the clouds
    seemed to make way
    for more clouds in a busy sky;
    the path I wanted was one towards
    the town, was it? This was country,
    and the more progress I made,
    it was more, and not less, countryside.

    As I confess how I lust after
    fluency, and how I distrust it,
    fluent with light
    our green tea fills the fragile cups
    (I am too early or too late,
    retracing, is it, my own steps),
    cups that are luminous
    with a whole language unknown to us.

    A day when nothing really gets done,
    when sentences break up, and when
    nothing avails
    against the clinches, snares and toils
    of words that want not to be plain,
    is it, or not to be held down,
    not held to what I mean:
    I mean a day much like this one,

    between half-way to utter waste
    and all the way, when bits of the past
    count as pure loss
    against the tea leaves' secret signs,
    visible, not readable – unless
    to my grandmother and her dead friends
    where they sit beyond recall,
    cups in hand, in the parlour still.

    Boiled, but not boiling, water stains
    slowly where now it gives back the
    glow of the sun
    in a cup that's made of porcelain,
    and the leaves settle down exactly
    across each other, one on one,
    each more than half the way
    to all the way askew, awry.

    A Pair of Shoes

    Pencil strokes shine like pewter or gunmetal
    over the flimsy paper where you drew
    these empty sneakers for no reason at all,
    and I look through
    them to your words on the other side
    that say so little, I can't decide
    how to construe

    the precise lines and the shadows you worked out
    across those crumply shoes, as if they fell
    down together, in freakish window-light
    starting to fail
    on a day full of rain, when the whole sky
    comes down with just itself to see by,
    so you can't tell

    colours apart from versions of grey and white
    in the instant that you're taken by surprise –
    a silver flash, wings maybe, with eyesight
    not the right size
    to see whatever's flying; almost
    enough, when in daylight the ghost
    opens its eyes.

    Oxford Poetry

    i.m. M.I.


    You weren't there, but your typescript had arrived
    an hour before the copy went to press:
    one of us took a bus up the Cowley Road
    to get the piece of paper to the printers,
    a sheet where every other line was stiff
    with Tippex, and over the patches your own hand,
    elegant even there, even in biro.
    The finished magazines would be wheeled down
    in a shopping trolley all the way to Magdalen,
    and where they went from there I never knew,
    preoccupied with typos I might find,
    too late to fix, in something on my watch.
    I was the careless one, and still am careless,
    for whom your nickname, which was maybe halfaffectionate,
    of 'Supermac' was apt,
    satirically two decades out of date
    (I'd told you about how I sent the real
    Harold Macmillan gently off to sleep
    by spouting verse in the Sheldonian).

    I missed things, often. It wasn't until
    one afternoon with you, deep in the Chequers,
    at a sunny table, drinking like we meant it,
    when we were joined by an ancient, fugitive
    Glaswegian who talked rubbish for an hour,
    and my accent softened, and your open smile
    broadened and shone, accepting, that I knew
    my stupid blunder in taking you for English.
    We weren't in Oxford, even though we sat
    in High Street – not that Oxford, anyway,
    where power hatches and speaks to itself:
    we were at home in feeling far from home,
    and listening to a voice that wasn't ours,
    while in the sunlight I could see you make
    connections and corrections both at once.
    The blunders of a quarter century
    all felt like nothing once I stood apart,
    a year ago today, watching them wheel
    you out from Magdalen, when you weren't there.

    13 March, 1972

    A typist has got it wrong, and so in pen
    the Foreign Secretary corrects his memo,
    adding the phrase she left out from his last
    sentence of para. 1, in which 'Our own
    parliamentary history is one long story
    of trouble' is missing three vital words:
    he dashes in with the Irish, and now it's clear.

    The rest is all right: he tells the PM
    how they (the Northern Irish) 'are not like
    the Scots or Welsh', he tells him how he doubts
    they ever will be, how the British interest
    is not served best by 'tying them closer
    to the United Kingdom'; he recommends
    pushing them now towards a United Ireland.

    He is himself a Scot: Eton and Oxford
    (3rd Class in Modern History), a life
    given largely to service, and being spent so now,
    adding the weight of his practised signature
    as he sends the paper on to Downing Street
    like a coda to one long story of trouble
    from Alec Douglas-Home (a Christ Church man).


    Trip-switches tripping, rooms and rooms of them;
    all the connections failing one by one;
    power and poetry riddled with each other:
    the information, accurate and mad,
    of a spent lifetime, what does it come to?
    One kind of answer is a bare report,
    its commentary an open smile – yours;
    then a thousand lightbulbs switching themselves off.

        The Interruption

    Somebody almost takes the call
    just when a phone stops, their slow
    story reaching the point, maybe,
    while three or four others vacantly
    wait for the spirit to move: but now
    a story with nobody in it
    barges straight in, in a flash,
    before they can make themselves heard
    or finish, before they can start.

    Nobody says another word
    as all of them hear the silence start;
    they just take stock as if, oh,
    they see now, and their faces fall.

    August, 1998



    He runs cold water into a glass
    where he stands in the Braniel kitchen
    at the sink, just home from work,

    and raises that glass to his stubbled lips
    and drinks, and drinks it down in one;
    a good draught, he says, of Adam's ale.

    * * *

    The kitchen where I can reach the tap
    with a long tumbler that came free
    from the Maxol station at Gilnahirk

    and top up the glass with barley water
    then balance it back to head-height,
    pausing before the first big gulp.

    * * *

    No more than once a week, he takes
    the car down to McGowan's for
    ten shillings' worth of petrol, waits

    as the lad at the pumps goes to fetch
    free cutlery (a knife, a spoon)
    or glassware; Green Shield stamps.

    * * *

    Light from the backyard brings to life
    that pale grey liquid in my glass,
    and shows how little things have settled;

    I watch the turns and twists, like dustmotes,
    of all the sunned-on barleyflecks
    suspended in the water.

    * * *

    When I swallow, sometimes there's a long
    moment when all the drink is cold
    in my chest, when it's a cold hand

    laid on my breastbone, and the odd
    time when the water fills me up
    past any thirst that it can quench.

    Canopic Jars


    When they had done their job
    of making good the air
    I breathed, with a last sob
    these lungs, that couldn't bear
    my weight, gave up on me;
    they had emptied themselves out
    of speech and secrecy,
    of confidence and doubt;
    now they could give no more:
    silence was really death,
    surface really the core;
    the soul was really breath.


    Hidden again from view,
    this organ is at rest
    from the thing it had to do
    unheeded, unaddressed,
    a lifetime long; no more
    to work with blood and bile,
    here it is deep in store
    like an unconsulted file
    padded with lost routine,
    long past the moment now
    when perhaps there might have been
    some use for it, somehow.


    Rewound here, and closed in,
    these yards of underground
    cabling can begin
    to turn themselves around
    one last time, and as if
    they knew what they had done
    digesting all that life
    slowly, but by the ton,
    they must, they can, give up:
    just to support a man
    who took, from plate and cup,
    from jug, oven, or pan
    all he could touch or taste,
    they made from what he tried
    and the small lives that died
    in tens of thousands, waste.


    This jar contains my heart:
    when it had beaten its last,
    they placed it here apart
    from me, or from what passed
    for me, as a special case –
    unlike Egyptians, who
    would keep the heart in place
    beneath linen and glue
    inside a corpse's chest
    to be a quickened seed
    as the body rose again,
    convinced these were the best
    pains to have taken when,
    really, there was no need.


    for Andrew McNeillie

    When the first rockets tore
    in at an angle
    they left behind nothing
    but concrete and steel,

    flowers, and weeds flowering
    over the bitter soil.
    After four years, my
    first flowers of jasmine

    take me by surprise,
    five-petalled, weightless,
    and all but forgotten
    in this dust-heavy garden,

    yet their perfume identical
    to what I remember
    in the marble and worked stones
    slowly persisting

    close to the sea,
    where jasmine curled up
    with weeds and wild roses
    one evening in Tyre.


    I don't know if they ever met in life,
    but today the spirits of two dead poets
    keep us company as we dash through rain
    all the way from the West Strand into town;
    Jimmy is about forty, his wild hair
    fighting the elements; Archie is wearing
    an enormous pullover made for the north,
    conspicuous still as the only black man
    about here: it rains so hard that our scalps
    and our backs ache with it, as Jimmy dodges
    quickly into the Northern Counties Hotel
    (which isn't here any more) to have a last one,
    and Archie heads for that Chinese restaurant
    where he brought me once a lifetime ago.
    But I'm not able to perform introductions
    – Archie I met the once, Jimmy I hadn't
    seen for a dozen years before he died
    (I owed him better, and neglected him) –
    and you and I are shocked by the brutal downpour
    plastering us when we've only stopped for chips,
    for which, now we're here, we don't have the heart.


    But for the time, I would tell you
    about a garden in Gilnahirk
    (above the road, where you drive through
    every morning to get to work),
    a garden not there any more
    around the red-brick council cottage
    kept up by Ruby and James Moore,
    where flowers flowered over the edge
    of a steep path, over the walls
    and into each other's beds; where lines
    of bright, new-planted annuals
    criss-crossed and trespassed from their lanes
    all summer; where the roses flared
    and flaunted along trellises, and where
    a row of vegetables was cleared
    of weeds each morning; a place for sheer
    toil in a builder's few spare hours,
    working the ground for food and show,
    the gable wall a wall of flowers,
    the glen in darkness far below:
    and I would tell you everything
    about that garden, now the land
    has been churned up and cleared, to bring
    a chip shop and a second-hand
    tyre depot, now that it's all gone,
    now James and Ruby are in their grave
    at Comber, tell you every one
    of the flowers I used to pick and save
    from flowerbeds filled up to the brim
    and over it, but for the time.



    A sound from above like ripped material,
    but the bright level clouds are nearly too bright
    for me to see what's moving there, the small
    dagger-stabs and arrows of birds in flight,
    hurling themselves, and pausing, and shooting by:
    a dozen swifts unravelling the sky.

    A Castaway

    When he was washed up naked on the shore
    Odysseus improvised a suit of leaves
    and clothed himself in that: with nothing more
    to lose, with nothing to conceal from thieves,

    in one sense, if no other, he was free:
    the ground was moving still with the waves' sway;
    all his belongings were across the sea
    and unimaginably far away;

    his body, in the glare of early sun,
    was solid, battered, with scars everywhere,
    and his face, where so much salt water had run,
    was creased to the touch, fragile in the air;

    his arms, that lately held a woman close
    and hooped her waist, and pressed her to the bed,
    the hands that touched her where and how he chose,
    that stroked her breasts, and felt her lips, now bled

    where splintered wood and rocks in a great storm
    had torn them; right down to his shoulders hung
    the straggly hair, brittle with salt; his form
    in its sand-shadow was bent, no longer young,

    for he could not see himself as she had seen him,
    although she knew he was a mortal man,
    and he searched for fresh water that would clean him,
    washing the sea from him, and the leathery tan,

    but nothing now could rinse away the years
    that clung to him, or those pains his body kept
    close as its welts and bruises, close as hairs
    on his strong chest, where Penelope had slept.


Excerpted from Torchlight by Peter McDonald. Copyright © 2012 Peter McDonald. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
The Neighbours,
The Weather,
Reversing Around a Corner,
Rainbow Ribbons 1980,
The Reeds,
Green Tea,
A Pair of Shoes,
Oxford Poetry,
The Interruption,
Canopic Jars,
A Castaway,
The Difference,
The Harbour,
The Wait,
Sappho fr. 58,
Childhood Memories,
This Earth,
The Cheetah,
About the Author,
Also by Peter McDonald from Carcanet Press,

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