Gréagóir Ó Dúill’s second collection in English, Outward and Return, was published by Doghouse, 2012, his selected in Irish, Annála by Comhar, 2011 and a subsequent collection, Balla an Chuain, by Coiscéim, 2014. He won the Oireachtas prize for best collection in 2010 and the Strokestown prize, Duais Cholmcille, for best individual poem in 2013. He divides his time between Dublin and the Donegal Gaeltacht and has taught poetry and creative writing in the University of Ulster and at the Poets’ House.
All at Swim
All sports are like this – even making poems – competing
against myself, pushing the environment
so heart thuds fast, mind screams
stop, limbs cramp refusal , then overcome.
Swimming perhaps the most. A mouth not upturned
enough gulps not air but brine, a waterboard sensation,
or a perfect jacknife hits the board on downturn. Mind
knows the legs aren’t making it against the waves, the current.
We go on doing this, it’s what we’ve always done,
and the doctors are in favour , within limits.
But all afternoon my nostrils stream as water admits a temporary defeat,
loosens it grip on my brain, on those eyes marked out for pearls, flows.
The candle holder is still hot
from the last which burnt,
the last whose run wax, whose black wick remnants
I have removed.
I push the new candle hard down
into the snug glass holder;
heat assists the pressure so it stands tall.
Again I light the wick, check its upright flame.
The draught under the door will do damage
but not too much, not yet. There is space still
and time to read, to write, to talk,
to watch the candle in your eyes.
My daughter gives me a sapling
My daughter gives me a sapling from her suburban garden.
To give it space, I bring it north
to the freedom of disputed land where it may grow,
release it by smashing the pot in glazed sharp-edged shards,
find its constricted potbound roots a brain too tight contained.
I plant it to become a mark in one of those hard-read lines,
short phrase in the postcolonial poetry of boundaries,
stressmark exclaiming above the height of hawthorn.
It will root deep, add clarity, increase some shared goodwill
which may give those lines meaning, create mutual language:
or, in its lack, fades to babble so all meaning’s lost,
disputes arise, shadows spread, bitterness wells and fails to drain.
On government’s big map the same thin black line on white field
is stream and hedge, field boundary, road and path,
ditch and dike and path and nothing. Interrogating
this landscape in its mute maps is impossible, shapes
change so fast, reality lacks permanence.
Peat, thinskinned on rock, slides downhill, turf banks collapse,
rainswollen streams sculpt the landscape, drown fords, sweep
coarse granite gravel banks downstream, scour the roots of trees,
collapse them. Access bridges choke, flood and rot,
potholes conspire to pool their axle-breaking,
bog roads become impassable, the booley-line a concept
cartographers do not know, townland a word
not in their Shorter Oxford.
The land was commonage and ownership is alien.
This is Pilate’s country, his question
what is truth? unanswerable; but one response can be
to plant a daughter’s birch and, perhaps, watch it as it grows awhile,
a tree, no boundary, no signifier nor proof of man’s possession,
not mapped, but earthed and skied,
its leaves moving with the wind.
White mist sheets the hillsides’ curves.
A lone star is high in wide evening sky.
Heavy heron wings slow the river’s meanders to a darkening lake.
Those parts of the bed I do not lie in are empty, cold.
In the morning, rake out the ash, gather turf coals for the doubtful gleed,
measure last evening by the glass, by the empty bottle,
red wine stains, books around the armchair,
a single image scrawled upon an A4 page.
Time spreads to my engineer’s command,
A reservoir drowning a valley; I take a chance,
extinguish townlands, amalgamate wellsprings,
lip and cover graves, overtop roofs and steeples.
Barrage and pipe, watched levels, chemical additives
enable me to reach the city, the city reach to me.
My neighbour aged
As my neighbour aged, I watched him try to learn the crutches,
saw a new car, fit for wheelchair access,
learned bright faces of young Filipinas, urgency of overworked district nurses,
the rapid dissipation in air of steam, of odour,
from aluminium foil meals on wheels.
The authorities gave him special parking at his house, no time limit,
a luminous yellow outline, a schematic wheelchair
with a silhouette seated, waiting. Residents respected
his parking rights, his slow clumsy movements, for he was different
and deserved our patience.
He died some months ago.
The paint is fading, lifting from the tarmac. Black shows through.
We no longer hesitate to park – to jostle and shoulder for a space
in the place he used to earn, but now
no longer uses.
Sports day, wet flags flapped, strained
Busy on their bending poles. White lines
Blurred in the rain, bled on sparse grass.
I ran and hopped and skipped and jumped,
Heard my friend’s sister call my name but lost
When my outstretched foot felled another hurdle,
Confused welter of legs, I fell
In a grease of rain, of sweat, blood, frustration,
A fusion of pain and shame exploded my lungs
As the crowd blurred, roaring.
Little was achieved,
I did not gain the three step podium, flashbulb medal
Or congratulatory handshake from the reverend president.
The girl fled the rain, as I heaved, hands to knees,
The tannoy evacuated the sodden marquee,
Guyropes too taut, canvas roundbellied with trapped masses of water.
Sportsday ended in a sudden thunderstorm.
My mother’s and my father’s shade together came
With my coat and talk of going home to tea,
The car warm as a womb.