Torn Stem

Each branchlet
the parent plant,

each leaf dictates
the lime green shade
of its subordinates

whose edges are inlaid
in carmine,
as if human blood

flows through its veins,
the weeding hand
might feel Herb Robert’s pain


Woman of the Atlantic Seaboard

You might meet her anywhere on the coast:
at Moher she is Rosmari, she walks the high cliffs
away from the busses and tour guides,
her face turned towards the west, sea in her hair;
or at Renvyle where a white carved stone
remembers the unbaptised, as Maighdean Mara,
she keeps vigil where the sea stole
their bones from the shore.

Call her Atlantia, she who waits in the lee
of the sea wall at Vigo for the boats to come in.
She looks deep into fishermen’s eyes,
as if eyes can give back what they’ve seen,
a waterlogged husband, brother’s shin bone,
a son’s lobster-trap ribcage to carry home
in a pocket of her yellow oilskin.
Enough for a burial.

She is Marinella on Cabo Espichel, Morwenna
in Wales. Among wild women who comb
blueberry barrens in Maine she is Maris,
her fingers long as the sea’s ninth wave,
stained from plucking sharp fruit in sea fog.
Find her on shore where Connemara ponies
ride out the surf. Take her home,
give her the stranger’s place at the hearth:

she won’t stay. Inland, she adds salt to her bath,
boils potatoes in seawater down to a salt crust.
Feed her dilisk and Carrigeen moss; she can’t help
but return to the waves, to kelp and ozone.
She is Muirghein, born of the sea, the sea
salts her blood. Or call her Thalassa, mother
of Kelpies, Selkies, fin-flippered sea-mammals,
neoprene-skinned fish-hunters, creatures of the tide.

All lost to her. Oceania the seafarer’s daughter,
sister, mother, wife; on a widow’s walk in Boston,
scanning the horizon for a floater or a boat.
Meet her on the brink of the ocean, alone, winter
seas in her eyes. Call her by any of her names:
she will turn from you, to the blue nor’wester,
shake brined beads from her hair. She will wait
for her drownlings forever, standing in the salt rain.


The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife

(Katsushika Hokusai. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, woodcut c.1820.)

In the dark my fisherman shapes
me, his girl-diver, to his wants,
tastes his dream-geisha,
inked teeth in her reddened moue,
face nightingale-shit bright,

hair a lacquered bowl, camellia-oiled.
I slip from his shingle-hard grip,
sink in the dark undersea with octopi.
I dream Hokusai dreaming me,
a frisson as his paper-thin blade pares

deep into woodblock, each of us
picturing jet hair undone,
strands fish-oil glazed root to tip,
a reef-knotted waist-long cascade.
Two days have passed since I bathed;

my breasts are sweat-pearled,
ripe with aromas of fruit de mer,
My tentacled one unfurls, his touch
exquisite as the brush of electric eels,
his glossy fingerings on my nape

supple as young pine shoots.
The artist’s chisel probes
again and again, sliver by fine sliver
till at last I am dreamed
heartwood, printed in India ink.

He hand-tints my skin
while I dream his mouth-filling tongue,
my dream of a thousand years
in colours fleet as this floating world
no fisherman comes near.

The Room

When you came back with the swallows
for summer, our mother was gone.

Our children swung in the beech,
swallows quartered the sky,
their squeals pierced her room.

I heard you ease open her door
as I used to after the burial.

You stood quite still, inhaled
faded scents: detergent, dust,
Palmolive soap, our mother’s skin.

Crocheted daisies printed your cheek,
memory hurting the gap in your heart.

Springs creaked, you got to your feet,
tugged sheets into hospital corners,
tried to restore what was broken.

It stayed awry. You finger-tipped
her nightgown, rosary, Kalil Gibran,

Birds of the British Isles.
Bureau drawers slid out and in,
doors groaned. I heard you find

what I found months before:
she got rid of every stitch before the end,

except her Sunday skirt, good winter coat,
lambskin gloves, and— so out of character—
that pretty satin slip.

Surely she had left a message
for her favourite with your quarter-century

of letters gaudy with African stamps?
Her writing box clattered, shocked
the silence with its emptiness.

All that summer’s still afternoons
you searched mattress, hems, page margins

until swallows gathered
in coded sequences on telephone wires
and Africa called you home.

Before you left I swore
she left no message. I was wrong;

she left her emptied room.


A million crawling things run spiderwise
inside her skin, her skeleton is glass,
she needs another hit, and fast,

her skin is needle-tracked, she works
the street for heroin to stop the spiderlings,
she does a punter in a dash against a fence

and scores a thirty-second rush,
glass splinters in her veins fuse
into a waterfall of raindrops,

magic light spills from her fingertips,
she’s blissed out, dreaming weightless while
the good brown horse outruns her dream,

she’s goofing now, slumped outside a church,
between her knees a paper cup she holds out
like a sacred heart to passers-by,

small change spills through her fingertips
but not enough, another stranger in a car
earns her more dreams, she sucks her tongue

for spit to swallow fear, swears
on the Sacred Heart that she’ll get clean,
then mugs the punter with a syringe,

again the spiderlings criss-cross her skin
and crawl inside her arm-tracks,
two blow-jobs on her knees to get a high,

she cooks the gear, a bag of china white,
loads up a syringe, smacks a vein, ties off
and hits; her hopes are answered with amen,

the dragon’s knocked brown sugar girl
off her horse, the fall has sucked out
all her breath, her eyes are pinned,

she feels no crawly things, she has no skin,
her bones are glass, her heartbeats trickle
from her fingertips like raindrops when

the rain’s about to stop…

If what is, is other

(After Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions
Is it true that sadness is thick /and melancholy thin?)

Is it the taint of cracked milk on marble?
A cat’s mangy caress on an ankle?
I have tasted the clean rustle of barley straw
where the crow’s fetor soaks
the fertile earth.

Unless it’s a slip of velvet lining a pocket?
A beach pebble set in a 24 carat platinum ring?
I have felt a cello’s strings move air in my brain,
tasted in half-light its fumes like single malt,
the last drops.

Could it be that first formless shriek of a newborn?
The trembling of wind in a cave of singing ice?
I have touched the sea’s breath among mountain pine,
heard clover dying in the silence
of wild bees.

Perhaps it is the thud of a frozen goldcrest striking the ground?
A pilot whale’s vertebrae on a cottage lawn?
I have tasted spring rain in a fistful of ripe corn,
felt a nocturne in a dark wood,
the deepest shade.

Or is it the fizz between the idea and its orbit?
A nerve’s flash like lightning splitting a bone?
I have breathed enigmas, seen cryptic echoes leap
the steep cliffs of the skull.
I understand nothing.



Crossing a bog, do not measure progress
in pitfalls, let your eye be your compass,
needle fixed on a floating point lined up
with some heather clump or blasted tree.
Pace the journey to the heart’s tempo,
its metered beat steadies the quaking terrain,
your claggy footfalls damp its vibrations.

Take this much on trust: behind you,
the slow curve of foot-shaped depressions,
insects treading a boghole’s teeming skin.
As the path becomes memory, the history
of the future is woven in peat.
Above you always, a lark; its trembling note
pours down like raindrops.

— Breda Wall Ryan