Ciarán O’Rourke lives in Galway.

His first collection, The Buried Breath, was highly commended by the Forward Foundation in 2019.

His second collection, Phantom Gang, is due for publication from The Irish Pages Press. American Epic: On Paterson is available as a pamphlet from Beir Bua Press.

The Natural History of Selborne

After Gilbert White, 1720-1793

Mid-February, a frosty spell, I found alive,
in my tall hedges, a bird, a little bird

that raised my sights, and caught
my curiosity. It was, I think, the most

yellow-green, bright-shaded thing
I’ve seen in years:

a soft-billed, quickest bird.
No bluetit, too long and large.

Likewise too flushed,
desultory, to be

the total, whirring hurtle
of the golden-crested wren.

It seemed instead
most like the willow-wren.

I saw it sing – such vim!
Head raised, a glint

of crystal falling: a willing
whistler’s song. It dangled

from the hedge, a moving diagram
I scanned to sketch

and never could. But pinned it
from a distance, fired once

to make it drop – alas,
I missed my aim.

Then wandered back, still filled
by the particulars, the bird im-

printed like an image
on my mind, as I passed

the spreading fell of timber,
a thousand tumbled oaks: lopped

and piled, cut down for good –
one fifth of which, it’s said,

is claimed
by the eminent Lord Stawel.

In vain: for the squalling poor,
illiterate and fierce, have raised

their common cry. Assembling
in a riotous manner,

they have taken all the wood.

Views on the Southern Question

After Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

By labour, risk, and sacrifice – by never-narrowed toil! – we win,
and only then. The cause of universal liberty, through all
of human time, has ever gained by action: roiling, unafraid!
The equivocating juries, philosophers of freedom (idle, eloquent,
and lame) who deprecate the angers of the mob, our ceaseless
agitation, want – and would believe in – crops without the ploughing
of the ground; in sodden autumn rains without the storm;
in the pelagic painter’s crystal shore… without the roar
of rising waters in the spring! We win by agitation: arm
in arm, opposing every blow. So step to danger, battle on,
not only now, as here, in fractious words, but like the ranks
of Sepoy musketmen, in sudden flood against the Crown –
the earth itself regained, and free, at last, from mastery
on high. The limits of our tyrants are prescribed
by the endurance of the many more, the human mass,
beneath their boot. Power self-surrenders
in the face of force alone. I grew to know it
even as a boy, but silently, by thought and observation –
alert to how the slaves who ventured weekly
to the Great House Farm, while on their way, sang out
for God’s deliverance. They made the densely
thicketed old woods, for miles around, reverberate
in prayer, as if the hidden roots themselves
had touched, deep down, the under-running brook,
the ecstacy and sadness, flowing in their songs. They
went along, consulting neither time nor tune, com-
posing as they walked, each chorus, to the listener
(still a child) somehow both rapturous and clear.
I was, myself, within their circle more than once:
a people beaten down to mud, winnowing the hours,
up-risen into song! Their music left me dumb, a rock
of sorrow lodging in my throat. Merely hearing
such a sound – I declare it once again – would clarify
the nature of the beast, a-prowl inside our nation’s
iron maze, do more, indeed, to lucidate the burdens
of our kin than libraries of learned speculation
on the subject could achieve; to register, in heart
and mind, the anguish of the age. The slaves sing
most when nothing else is left them, only grief.
And song, of course – beyond all doubt – is no relief,
but as an ache within the life that wants to die:
an ebbing without ease. Tears of joy
were never common when I lived among
the slaves. Such was my experience. I felt
the foreman laughing as I winced beneath the lash.