‘Landmarks’ – a poem by Ted Mc Carthy

Landmarks

There is first a calm, yet a sense too
of the glacier only lately having moved,
of being somehow at lake’s edge
instead of the edge of wood and mountain.
Lovely, yes; green, pastoral, the very frailty
of wooden churches stronger
than an act of faith. A calm of having
stepped forever out of the primeval,
looking across and down
into the richness of tilth and history.

How this land yields up its stories!
One by one, like the dreams of a child
leaving him until there remains
no more than a handful, worn, distorted,
one grown like the fact of a shadow –

a two-roomed school, grim as the wire
that sets it apart; it admits no light,
neither through glass nor in the mind
of one who would lead, ambition
shrivelled to a paper grid –
words, more words! A figure sick,
frightened, calling for a taper, believing only
in her image on a wall,
grasping the substance of delusion,
young minds scattering like mice
from corner to corner of a box

and the church it faces: barn-shaped,
it gathers in what little harvest
encroaching age provides.

Nowhere here is far from Jung’s country
and the breadth of green is the measure
of snow-skies past and to come.

II

Skirting the woods, the paths move in and out of shadow
and no view is true to memory,
even the signposts are a suggestion – something
may have happened here, an intake of breath,
a line of pollen along the body
and a longing then – for, sure, now –
for the unconsciousness of trees, stock-still,
their leaf and spread outliving names,
the change of language swirling about them like the wind
or the noise of far-off battle:

to be a cell in that great animal, the forest,
and not an ant crawling through the maze of our absences.
An hour’s trek to a well that isn’t here,
on no map now. You feel again
under your outstretched hand, cool air
rising from its depths – but where?
and you fight with the certainty that it wasn’t
a dream last time, and envy the wide-winged bird
circling its distant field. The Roman Well:

always some word will trigger a search,
pick at a scab of loss deep in the psyche
where no art can truly heal; years alone
may soothe it to a pilgrim’s itch, storied, timeless,
and never wholly futile.
The rows of corn, so improbably green
in the baked clay, seem to converge on a point
hidden in a dip. What chance has the mind,
torn between wilderness and order –
and the sky’s relentless, level blue?

III

The air is full of its own strangeness, loaded
with the power to startle – like that ringing
of a bell across a meadow where there is no bell,
where the small yellow flowers have no secret
stretching as they do as far as the neatness of a long road.
Midday, so bright the eyelids fill with a red-gold darkness
and it seems that this breadth, green, yellow, blue, is its own closed room,
and that sound in the air is a knocking on the wall
to be let in or out: or a summoning,
for the snake to slough back into its cast-off skin
and trees to spear their way through the miles of fields
like soldiers, like fathers. Three thousand years
of clearances are a holding at bay; those scattered
houses are small boats ready at any moment to sink.
The  grasses, fattened on water, rustle nonetheless
like paper. The sun passing from shadow to shadow
is taking all to itself. Only the forest is spared,
deep-rooted, grown beyond the gift of light.

IV

The stream is a trickle in summer,
last year’s flotsam beginning to bleach,
branches becoming bones.
Flowers like pale blue stars
are forming among the shingle
and a lizard warms its belly on another stone.

A step across and into the flat hectares
where drainage keeps the ground
as it should be, and cars, hidden,
are a steady hum.

Over the meadow missionaries rest.
What would they make of this
enormous neatness: no bears, no wolves,
an element of held breath in our coming and going?
Dizzy on stomach-churning waters,
navigating by breaks in the cloud
and then by mosses and the call of birds
their clearances were an act of acceptance,
that they worked, ate and healed
at the sufferance of the wilderness:
that there was no holding together,
only a holding back, a planting
between one harvest and another,
a prayer between peace and tumult.

Against great pagan fires they pitted their damp bones,
against dawn they tested the entranced mind,
the body in the cell of its own cold.
Some slept in stone; others the bears had
or roots claimed, their tendrils like a child’s fingers
and round their traces boxes grew,
walls, fences, advance and retreat.
But how triangulate the mind?
Only in the clearing haze of chaos
when truth settles like a chill, and fields
yield sustenance and unexpected bone.

V

Bones in the dry bed of dreams,
pinned to a page, sucked dry of life
as air sucks the curve of ink
and no letter illuminated, the room
silent but for the clock chanting
the running down of its own wheels
and the pennants outside, still, breathless,
the train a gliding, yellow dot, its carriages
a pencil-line drawn along foothills.
White is the only colour; the knight
the scholar, fade into it as memory
bleeds into the necessities of day.
Down the corridor, mobile phones
are held like scapulars before an altar,

they range along windows like birds
greedy for flies; the snapped to be buried
in piles, world wide: rubble without matter,
the triumph of the immaterial world.
But is it any different from the firing
of a monk’s imagination, his desire
for an unearthly city on a hill?

VI

Evening and an empty platform. The sun
is a haze on the tips of the hills,
the hills themselves like a blanket
ready to be unrolled. And distant, a lake, bottlenecked,
feeding a river, funnelling last winter’s snow
toward the ocean. The last pleasure-steamer
has put in, and that urban sound, quieter than silence,
a settling, a hundred thousand sighs,
falls like a landing of dust.
And more than silence, the emptiness
of waiting for a train, the knowledge of being a dot
on that unending rectangle, the railway cutting,
that time itself is invalid, will only resume
with the first sound, faint, almost beyond hearing,
of an approaching engine. Others come out,
shrouded now; their speech, low, unintelligible,
is all of the setting off, a hope that nothing
has been left undone. One pair of soft hands flutter
too soon, too soon! Too late, and like a bird,
they settle. Then the light, always stronger than daylight,
that is power an inevitability, glides
over the heat of the tracks. The engine
comes into shape behind it. When the doors
slide open, all this will be over; again
no more than names. But since the names
themselves – stations, churches, wells – were given
in turn to a story, when did it all start, this dash
along a strip of light between two shades?

And yet not done; moving backwards, across
a cleft in the hills, the sun’s rim
a mere gold wire now, picks like a lighthouse beam
an abandoned shepherd’s hut, squalid, ramshackle,
suspended in a clearing. Its fall will be gentle,
its stones will tell no hurt.

 

Ted Mc Carthy lives and teaches in Clones, Ireland. His work has appeared in magazines in Ireland, UK, USA, Canada Austraia and Germany. He has had two collections published,’November Wedding’, and ‘Beverly Downs’. He is currently working on a third collection, as well as a series of translations.

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