The Last Jewel
From under the willows a startle of blue.
I lift my paddle from black water,
let the current take the kayak and watch
the kingfisher jink down the river
pulsing turquoise luminescence,
flashes of your Lapis Lazuli ring
as you lift your hand to a flare
of sunlight through the kitchen window.
My thoughts linger on this morning’s churchyard,
the hollowness of earth on coffin,
and how we’d sit by the water’s edge
on those faded cane chairs,
their bindings unwinding,
me watching damsel flies fizzle among bulrushes,
you staring into bended reeds
on the distant bank.
Together we used to walk through the park,
you in your battered mink coat,
gaze fixed ahead as hoodied boys
scooted past on skate boards,
telling me I should be proud of my blood,
that I’m better than the people here.
I’d stare at the ground, scuff my shoes:
your words corroded me.
The last time, you told me again
of the house with its avenues of oak,
the lake where your brothers fished for pike,
and the rain-sodden day
in that jittery time before the war
when your soon-to-be lover
slid a blue-stoned ring
on your wedding finger.
I take up my paddle, slice black water,
follow the kingfisher downstream.
The black bamboo I planted is thrashing about
as though trying to uproot itself, return
to its native land, or get warm
in this cold damp country.
Perhaps it has bamboo-memory,
a form of collective consciousness.
Phyllostachys Nigra from subtropical China
rooted beside my pond in slow growth,
difficult to dislodge now, so keenly settled,
though not invasive, not spreading unwanted
as others have, but acting with discretion
as an outsider must
when seeking to assimilate.
I tried to root myself as fast as the bamboo,
but everything was too shallow,
it was hard to get a grip in a place
where family history defines who you are.
I was thrashing about, afraid to speak,
a foreigner without the forgiveness of exotic.
It wasn’t the land that didn’t forgive:
the rules of growth were the same as before,
chaffinches sang the same songs, trees
sprang the same leaves. Silently
I planted a garden in the hungry earth
but it was thirteen years before I found my voice
in the patterns of a poem,
named myself through acceptance
East Clare Musicians
Attuned to each other, like the strings of a harp,
They are making mesmerising music,
Each one bowed at his dried bony profile, as at a harp.
Singers of a lost kingdom. Crown Point Pensioners, Ted Hughes
They sit on benches in the neon-lit corner,
crevaced faces, false-teeth smiles,
eyes hooded as though in prayer,
facing inwards to gather notes
eased from calloused crooked fingers
that an hour ago delivered a calf
or mended breaks in the barbed wire fence.
One lifts an eyebrow and they change
to a different reel in a different key, wordless,
attuned to each other, like the strings of a harp.
Cigarette smoke drifts in wraiths round
collective memories that pull their talk
to house dances battering on til dawn,
the fiddler with only one reel
who played the night through
and the years-old feud between flute-playing cousins.
They take up their bows, start into a jig,
wild melody stirs dust in the rafters.
Bent to each other like fingers arched on strings
they are making mesmerising music,
jigs their mothers played at the hearth
taken by uncles to tenements in Boston
where lonesome notes filled narrow back streets,
floated scents of the bog into stuffy dark rooms
before travelling home on seventy-eight records cut
in New York to be listened to in Galway and Clare
extending the repertoire before rock and roll
made traditional tunes into music
for old men playing in kitchens on dying-out farms
each one bowed at his dried bony profile, as at a harp
plucked by death’s bony fingers beside the grave.
Resurrected, the last of their breed,
they play in the old style –
no frills nor fancies, no new compositions.
A hush of tourists listens in awe
to this pure rough drop of sound
from men who weave yarns between the tunes
that unfurl from the fields and stone-walled houses
of a past become distant, musicians passed on,
the singers of a lost kingdom.
The canopy of dark stars
stretches low across the rooftops,
half a million
We watch from the bay window,
my father and I,
as church bells ring
and darkness closes.
fold into clouds,
shapes of smoke
convulse and change
as though a magician,
to the tail of the flock,
has flicked her wrist.
Across the road
birds break rank,
funnel into trees,
a diving platoon
of black handkerchiefs.
This time the sparrowhawk’s aim is good
or the goldfinch too brave, alone at the feeder
taking no heed of warning calls,
scarlet and black bullseye face
drawing the hawk to snatch
with purpose-built claws.
Any lonely finch that dares poke
its head above the parapet
to un-secret a hawk’s cache of confidentials
becomes the target for reptilian claws
that prey upon the powerless,
snatch and tear them bone from bone.
Whistleblower and other poems is © Nicki Griffin