Agatha by Michael Schmidt

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AGATHA

What is it like in heaven, Agatha?
I see you in those tight scuffed shoes, now dangling
Not over the playground wall (and your sharp knees
And the frayed serge skirt of your school uniform)
But off a black cloud hard against the blue.
They swing to and fro, to and fro, what can you see
So high above my head, and the tree and the hill?

Am I down here, is your house, is your lame cat Dorcas
With whiskers on the left side of her face
And a broken tail? Can you see us, do you want to now,
Recalled by the school alarm, the smell of asphalt
Softening in the sun, and the effulgent haze,
Or is all this fading, faded out? If so, if your eyes
Have been able to uproot themselves from us,
Do they feed on the entire firmament, is it blue,
And is this as though it never had been at all,
Where I stand, where you used to sit on the wall?

What is it like, dear skinny Agatha
With your sharp ribs under a stained singlet, your flat
Chest with nipples stuck on like round plasters,
Like valves, like coppers on smooth sand?
(We walked on the level shore at Capistrano
Gathering dark sand dollars and coolie-hat shells;
First we were five and six, then six and seven.)
What is it like, your straight lips pursed, your grey eyes, Agatha,
Gazing at a sky you’re new in and new to?

And what’s it like, dear Agatha, without me?
What colour is your hair now, how do you wear it?
Still in braids, or piled up high, in a bun or pony tail?
I stand beneath your cloud and ask and ask.
I look up at your swinging soles and still I love you.
I want to tie your right shoe lace, touch your shin.

Mrs Quasimodo by Carol Ann Duffy

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Mrs Quasimodo

I’d loved them fervently since childhood.
Their generous bronze throats
gargling, or chanting slowly, calming me–
the village runt, name-called, stunted, lame, hare-lipped:
but bearing up, despite it all, sweet-tempered, good at 
needlework;
an ugly cliché in a field
pressing dock leaves to her fat, stung calves
and listening to the five cool bells of evensong.
I believed that they could even make it rain. 
The city suited me; my lumpy shadow
lurching on its jagged alley walls;
my small eyes black
as rained-on cobblestones.
I frightened cats.
I lived alone up seven flights,
boiled potatoes on a ring 
and fried a single silver fish;
then stared across the grey lead roofs
as dusk’s blue rubber rubbed them out,
and then the bells began.
I climbed the belltower steps,
out of breath and sweating anxiously, puce-faced
and found the campanologists beneath their ropes.
They made a space for me,
telling their names,
and when it came to him
I felt a thump of confidence,
A recognition like a struck match in my head.
It was Christmas time.
When the others left,
He fucked me underneath the gaping, stricken bells
Until I wept
Something had changed,
Or never been.
We wed.
He swung an epithalamium for me,
embossed it on the fragrant air.
Long, sexy chimes,
Exuberant peals,
Slow scales trailing up and down the smaller bells,
An angelus.
We had no honeymoon
But spent the week in bed.
And did I kiss
Each part of him –
That horseshoe mouth,
That tetrahedron nose,
That squint left eye,
That right eye with its pirate wart,
The salty leather of that pig’s hide throat,
And give his cock
A private name–
Or not?
So more fool me.
We lived in the cathedral grounds.
The bellringer.
The hunchbacks wife.
(The Quasimodo’s. Have you met them. Gross.)
And got a life.
Our neighbours – sullen gargoyles, fallen angels, cowled
Saints
Who raised their marble hands in greeting
As I passed along the gravel paths,
My husband’s supper on a tray beneath a cloth.
But once,
One evening in the lady chapel on my own,
Throughout his ringing of the seventh hour,
I kissed the cold lips of a Queen next to her king.
Soon enough
He started to find fault.
Why did I this?
How could I that?
Look at myself.
And in that summer’s dregs,
I’d see him
Watch the pin-up gypsy
Posing with the tourists in the square;
Then turn his discontented, mulish eye on me
With no more love than a stone.
I should have known.
Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.
Better to be slim, be slight,
Your slender neck quoted between two thumbs;
And beautiful, with creamy skin,
And tumbling auburn hair,
Those devastating eyes;
And have each lovely foot
Held in a bigger hand
And kissed;
Then be watched till morning as you sleep,
So perfect, vulnerable and young
You hurt his blood.
And given sanctuary.
But not betrayed. Not driven to an ecstasy of loathing of yourself;
Banging your ugly head against a wall,
Gaping in the mirror at your heavy dugs,
Your thighs of lard,
Your mottled upper arms;
Thumping your belly –
Look at it –
Your wobbling gut.
You pig. You stupid cow. You fucking buffalo.
Abortion. Cripple. Spastic. Mongol. Ape
Where did it end?
A ladder. Heavy tools. A steady hand.
And me, alone all night up there,
Bent on revenge.
He had pet names for them.
Marie.
The belfry trembled when she spoke for him,
I climbed inside her with the claw-hammer,
My pliers, my saw, my clamp;
And, though it took an agonizing hour,
Ripped out her brazen tongue
And let it fall.
Then Josephine,
His second favourite bell,
Kept open her astonished golden lips
And let me in.
The bells. The bells.
I made them mute.
No more arpeggios or scales, no stretti, trills
For christenings, weddings, great occasions, happy days
No more practising
For bellringers
On smudgy autumn nights.
O clarity of sound, divine, articulate,
To purify the air
And bow the heads of drinkers in the city bars.
No single
Solemn
Funeral note
To answer
Grief.
I sawed and pulled and hacked.
I wanted silence back.
Get this:
When I was done,
and bloody to the wrist
I squatted down among the murdered music of the bells
And pissed.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

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The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

A Latvian Poet Climbs Killiney Hill by Michael O’Loughlin

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A Latvian Poet Climbs Killiney Hill

 

This city has dyed her hair blonde

And had her breasts remodelled

To look like the whore
In the hotel foyer

Anywhere in the world

I want to know what she looked like before

So I climb Queen Victoria’s Hill

To look at the famine obelisk

Because I know that hunger

Is the true God of the Irish.

It came down from the mountain

And gave them two commandments:

Thou shalt devour and thou shalt hate

And laugh and dance and sing to fool

The angel of death into thinking you’re alive.

Looking down the hill at the muddy path

I think I see her looking up, half-crawling

Yellow maize porridge cakes her lips

Her breasts hang slack and luscious

As dying fruit on her ribcage

Which trembles like a songbird’s throat.

Her skin is white as the mushrooms

In the cold ground of the Latvian forest

But her eyes and hair are black

Black as the wind in the thorn bush

Black as potatoes rotting forever

Deep in the black earth.

 

Michael O’Loughlin

 

My Mother’s Tango by Ilya Kaminsky

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My Mother’s Tango

 

I see her windows open in the rain, laundry in the windows –

she rides a wild pony for my birthday,

a white pony on the seventh floor.

 

‘And where will we keep it?’ ‘On the balcony!’

the pony neighing on the balcony for nine weeks.

At the center of my life: my mother dances,

 

yes here, as in childhood, my mother

asks to describe the stages of my happiness –

she speaks of soups, she is of their telling:

 

between the regiments of saucers and towels,

she moves so fast – she is motionless,

opening and closing doors.

 

But what was happiness? A pony on the balcony!

My mother’s past, a cloak she wore on her shoulder.

I draw an axis through the afternoon

 

to see her, sixty, courting a foreign language –

young, not young– my mother

gallops a pony on the seventh floor.

 

She becomes a stranger and acts herself, opens

what is shut, shuts what is open.

 

Ilya Kaminsky

Saturday in the Pool by Leontia Flynn

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Saturday in the Pool

 

The boy pauses at the end of the diving-board

then dives: a broad sword

cleaving the water – there is parting! And rejoining!

This is reflected back upon the ceiling

where, flippered, supine

– swimming in the cells

and water-pathways of ourselves –

we watch the gases breed: a fog of chlorine.

 

The boy pauses at the end of the diving-board

then dives: on board

the liberator, big-eyed airmen watch

as the cargo leaves the hatch:

the missile stabs the air

then impacts – megavolts

and gigawatts, primodial lightning bolts –

in whirlpool ripples: clouds of dust and vapour.

 

Saturday at the pool. A dozen forms

push. Kick. Breathe. Push. Kick. Breathe. Turn

and bring themselves along the tepid length

and breadth of the translucent element

like frogmen. Bone

and blood. Four dozen limbs

– nurses, teachers, wives, civilians

push. Kick. Breathe. Push. Kick. Breathe. Turn.

 

Outside our youth is laid about the park.

Planes thread the sky like needles. No attack

presents itself. No dogfight

twists above the level of the trees. A kite

is moored in the sky. It peers,

like th boy on the diving-board, down upon the world

where we have crawled: we are raw-gilled

and live. The blood is banging in my ears.

 

Leontia Flynn

 

(in the last line, ‘live’ is the adjective, rhyming with ‘five’)

 

Daddy by Sylvia Plath

NPG P1679; Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna

Daddy

 

You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

 

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time–

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal

 

And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

 

In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend

 

Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

 

It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene

 

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

 

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

 

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–

 

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.

 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

 

But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

 

And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,

The voices just can’t worm through.

 

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

 

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

 

Sylvia Plath

The Red Poppy by Louise Glück

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The Red Poppy

 

The great thing

is not having

a mind. Feelings:

oh, I have those; they

govern me. I have

a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open

for him, showing him

the fire of my own heart, fire

like his presence.

What could such glory be

if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,

were you like me once, long ago,

before you were human? Did you

permit yourselves

to open once, who would never

open again? Because in truth

I am speaking now

the way you do. I speak

because I am shattered.

 

Louise Glück

 

 

The Flitting by Medbh McGuckian

Medbh McGuckian

The Flitting

 

You wouldn’t believe all this house has cost me-

In body language  terms, it has turned me upside down.

I’ve been carried from one structure to the other

On a chair of human arms, and liked the feel

Of being weightless, that fraternity of clothes

Now my own life hits me in the throat, the bumps

And cuts of the walls as telling

As the poreholes in strawberries, tomato seeds:

I cover them for safety with these Dutch girls

Making lace, or leaning their almond faces

On their fingers with a mandolin,  a dreamy

Chapelled ease abreast this other turquoise-turbanned,

Glancing over her shoulder with parted mouth.

 

She seems a garden escape in her unconscious

Solidarity with darkness, clove-scented

As an orchid taking fifteen years to bloom,

And turning clockwise as the honeysuckle-

Who knows what importance

She attaches to the hours?

Her narrative secretes its own values, as mine might

If I painted the half of me that welcomes death

In a faggotted dress, in a peacock chair,

No falser biography than our casual talk

Of losing a virginity, or taking a life, and

No less poignant if dying

Should consist in more than waiting.

 

I postpone my immortality for my children,

Little rock-roses, cushioned

In long-flowering sea-thrift and metrics,

Lacking elemental memories:

I am well-earthed here as the digital clock,

Its numbers flicking into place like overgrown farthings

On a bank where once a train

Ploughed like an emperor living out a myth

Through the cambered flesh of clover and wild carrot

 

Medbh McGuckian