Noel Duffy studied Experimental Physics at Trinity College Dublin, before turning his hand to writing. His debut collection In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 Strong Award for Best First Collection by an Irish Poet. His second collection, On Light & Carbon, is forthcoming, again from Ward Wood.
Our small sun was born out of the embers
of another giant one, the heavy elements
abundant on our planet manufactured as
the old star collapsed in supernova, then scattered
its starlight and dust out into the emptiness
of space. And one element among them, carbon,
found the conditions of our planet perfectly
suited to its many purposes as it fashioned itself
into multiple structures. Yet one such structure eluded us
for decades, till the night a chemist dreamt
of a serpent biting its own tail and realised on waking
this was the missing clue, that carbon can form
in linked, circular rings onto which other molecules
clung, this the very building block needed for all
organic matter. He hurriedly scribbled it down
on a slip of paper and felt as he did a quickening
in the metaphysical dark of the brain, knowing
that the world would be forever changed,
Nature’s secret revealed as a hexagonal chain
from which all sentient things somehow came.
The Faith Healer
I remember the room clearly. It was small
and modest in a house not much different
than our own, a patterned wallpaper
on the wall and patterned carpet
on the floor. The Sacred Heart hung
above the mantelpiece, a red light-bulb
flickering beneath it like a promise.
I sat with my father, the clock ticking
as we waited until the man entered. He was
tall and graceful with a long black beard,
issuing a brief and quiet welcome.
He asked me to take off my jumper
and t-shirt as he sat me on an upright chair.
He laid his hands on me without speaking,
a warm sensation to my back and chest.
I felt as if I had been touched by the hand
of Christ and with that touch I would be able
to breathe more easily again.
My father thanked him as I put on my tops,
then gave the tall man with a beard
an envelope in gratitude for what he had done.
He took it, saying, ‘God bless you and your son.
By Christ’s grace he will feel better soon.’
My father thanked him again before the man’s wife
entered, leading us into the hallway and to the door
and out again into the October downpour.
Things had gone wrong. I was a young man
lost, my mind struggling with impossible
questions. I travelled alone by train to a place
by the sea where tall houses lined the seafront,
tall windows taking in the prospect.
I knocked on the door and was led in
by a woman, uncertain if she was
the same one I remembered. I sat
in a large room at the back of the house
and waited. There was an orchard and sunlight.
Finally, the man came in to meet me,
his beard trimmed and greying,
he not seeming so graceful any longer.
He asked brief questions as though
from a list, then laid his hands down
upon my forehead and neck. I felt nothing
beyond the heat of another’s touch, the Sacred Heart
looking down giving no solace. He said as I left,
‘May God’s Love be with you’ and told me
that I would soon feel recovered. I paid him
in cash and I left that place with a heart of sorrow
for the man who promised miracles for money.
The Older Artist
I found myself in the house
of an older artist and his wife,
his chest wheezing as we drank
strong tea and he lit another cigarette,
she fussing about him as we spoke.
Later, he brought me to his attic studio,
a huge skylight making the room
seem bigger than it was. I looked about
the walls and saw some paintings
hanging there, others stacked in corners,
the work both organic and precise,
his choice of squares of dark red against
peat-brown backgrounds muted
and earthen, yet all drawn together
by bright lines of ochre, the effect
like that of a circuit board fashioned
by a Navajo tribesman with intricate
patterns of connections made – as though
these objects so joined were at once
one thing alone and everything together.
As I looked at the piece he came
and stood beside me in silence for a time,
then turned to me and gripped my arm fiercely,
saying ‘Somehow it all matters. It has to.
It fucking has to, doesn’t it?’,
then left the room without another word.
The 2nd Law
‘Classical thermodynamics is the only physical theory of
universal content which I am convinced… will never be
overthrown.’ – Albert Einstein, 1948
The law is simple and profound:
the hot cools down.
Take for example this cup of tea I hold.
Forgetting it for a time while
I spoke on the phone I return
to find it already cold, the heat
drained from it into this small room.
The same is true of everything.
The churning furnace of the sun
up there in the August sky
will do the same in time
in a dramatic final gesture
of sudden collapse and slow
What is borrowed for a time
must be given back.
It is very democratic.
Yet, how brutal its simplicity
when I think of the one I spoke to
moments before, struggling for breath
in his small bare-walled room,
the desperate daily demands to keep
the blood warm in his veins,
to borrow one more day or a few hours.
How quickly we too grow cold
when the last breath is expelled
from our parting lips, the heat
of our lives fading by this covenant
and its strict and inescapable requirement.
I remember those evenings
when it was all action in the kitchen,
my Mam and aunt Angela
clearing away everything
then laying out a stretch of cloth
on the clean, wiped surface of the table.
Then they placed a piece of pattern
across the fabric, which looked like
grease-proof paper only covered in lines
(and to my child’s eye like some kind of
schematic for a rocket or aeroplane)
as my Mam followed the contours
with a white waxy chalk making marks
on the cloth before cutting carefully
along the dashed outline, each piece
in turn laid out across a chair, the shape
of a dress beginning to take form for
some neighbour or relative or friend.
I could never bear to watch though, when
all the parts had been gathered up
and my Mam took to the sewing machine,
the needle hammering down so close
to her fingers that it scared me senseless,
she passing the fabric casually beneath it
without missing a stitch until
the dress was complete and a fitting
was finally arranged – my Mam
with pins in her mouth as she adjusted
the bust-line or hem, her work nearly done…
Tonight, I sit at another machine
and try weave a pattern for you, mother,
these lines like those pieces of cloth laid out
and marked, then brought together
with the same patience and care (I hope)
as the dresses you made in this house,
to make a gown for you of words
that you may wear some cold winter
evening when your work is done
and the sewing machine stilled – that
we may understand each other
through such patterns made, the lines
of our lives connected like fine thread
and cloth, brought together finally
after years grown apart and the shared
understanding of our chosen crafts.