The holy grail, distilled wisdom
of all the world, slips sideways
through the fingers of authority.
Never mind the years of waiting,
the great fish caught and gutted,
the dragon trapped in the pit,
the long simmered broth of herbs,
it always goes astray. The poet
is always that chance apprentice
sucking his clumsy thumb,
scarred, accidental, listening.
The burned thumb is a motif in many folk traditions – the stories of Taliessin, Siggurd, and most famously Finn MacCumhaill, by which a young apprentice inadvertently becomes able to understand the languages of all the creatures he shares the world with – something that resonates very powerfully with how I write. You can find a version of the story of the burned thumb here.
I write poems based in landscape and community, exploring the many different dimensions of the dialogue we hold with whatever environment supports us – biological, social, spiritual – how we live on the earth and with each other, how we react to the passage of time, what beauty we find in living, and the ways we deal with grief and loss and hard times. I’m influenced by my study of geopoetics, permaculture, the folklore and the mythological traditions of northern and western Europe, and the mystical traditions of Christian monasticism. Currently I’m working on poems inspired directly by the burnedthumb legend, wisdom from the wild edges of settled lands and human communities, and the sense of who we are as ‘speaking beings’ – which also means ‘listening beings’. I have just finished writing my fourth collection, The Well of the Moon – poems considering the kinds of knowledge it takes to make up our sense of ourselves as ‘a person’. They deal with connections to place and family, different ways of perceiving the world and creative expressions, loss, aging and renewal. It will come out in June 2021, published by Red Squirrel Press.
I sometimes post poems on the blog, and you can also see them at And Other Poems, Atrium and Ink Sweat and Tears. You can see the Filmpoem Alastair Cook made of Visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship here.
From The Well of the Moon
Knowing My Place
If I stood still, I would take root
in this greasy silty clay, with its stiff
orange ribbons of subsoil, although
the rabbits have eaten the green
shoots of broccoli, and eelworm cysts
infest the spuds. It feels like war
with blight and rain, and things
that bite and gnaw and suck
the sap from root and stem, but also
a bright festival of leaf and flower
and fruit, of taste and colour, lavish
harvests – courgette plants pumping
balloons of juicy green, potatoes
big enough for mice to nest in,
beans in twining clusters of more
and more and more until the frost.
This bright May morning is full
of hawthorn bloom, curse-words
from Paddy’s plot, and harsh thin shrieks
of baby kestrels in their nest.
I smell of mud and woodsmoke,
and there’s dirt beneath my nails.
I am dishevelled as a haggard,
and I am here, in my own place.
(first published on The Night Heron Barks site, March 2020)
The combination of ancient wisdom and modern activism in Haggards is a remarkable contemporary expression of what the word ‘womanly’ can mean. James McGonigal
These are the places in between,
between the field and the mountain,
between the cattle and the sheep,
between the orchard and the road,
between the heather and the sea,
places where growth is curbed
by salt, or drought or altitude,
by rocks beneath, by standing water,
by wind, by fire, by lawlessness,
places for forgotten things, and things
no longer valued, the weeds and black bees,
the wrens and thrawn roots of Latin
the boys were taught in secret.
These are the places in between,
too small for the rich to care for,
where things grow stronger for neglect,
where questions thrive, and dreams, cut down
to the roots, grow hardy, come back strong.
From Wherever We Live Now
‘This is musical and often startling writing, geopoetry at its best.’ Mandy Haggith
Bury me at Glendalough,
where the water falls like a white knife
between the black rocks,
and the huddled grey tombstones sleep
at the foot of Kevin’s tower.
I want to be by the lough’s wide blue sheet,
where kneeling Kevin
heard blackbirds and red squirrels
sing lauds and vespers
from his lonely stony bed.
I want to hear children come
to the new centre of pale wood and glass
to learn how books were cherished,
and monks sang in praise of a God in whom
their parents say they have no faith.
I’ll rest within the sound
from the bright red van selling hot dogs,
and the hawkers making money
from shamrock, and green stone rosaries
and whiskey-flavoured toffee.
Bury me at Glendalough
because my people know themselves there.
There, not at Tara, nor O’Connell Street
is where they know their origin,
and where they want to end.
Here are poems that reflect an acute observation of the natural world; poems written with an authority derived from being immersed in the subject. Stuart B Campbell
Blanket bog clothes the land
like a black melancholy, shrouding
the slopes in the weight of its slo-mo layers.
Grudges and peat break down slowly.
Bones of old loves and hates
are kept intact for ever.
Sphagnum can absorb
twice its own weight in tears.
Crazy insectivorous plants
thrive on trapped flies and imagined slights,
and lost birds wail, raking through pools
and stirring the endless mud.
Keep it safe, keep it undisturbed.
Under these tons of peat and apathy
enough carbon is sequestered
to melt the last chips of polar ice
and burn up every one of us
on the whole raging earth.