Leech Medicine

That ancient, alchemical healing beckons

me to reduce it all to blood and bile and phlegm:

balance my crooked humours. Bleed it out.

 

Better to oversimplify the body

than to drag the mind towards recovery.

That ancient alchemical healing beckons,

 

with its mathematical simplicity:

throw on some leeches, let them sap and suckle,

balance those unruly humours. Bleed it out.

 

I will be sanguine. I will not relapse.

I will not be bled to melancholy, though

that ancient alchemical healing beckons,

 

like the beckoning pencil sharpener blade

and that exhilarating, deep red letting.

Let me balance my humours. Let me bleed it out.

 

No. I cannot be scratched and sliced to wellness.

But still that ancient, alchemical healing beckons,

balance your deviant humours. Bleed it out.

ii) the Charmed Snake

I was once promised symbiosis.

Trust met with trust and gain with gain.

He would be a crocodile, yes,

but one that would open it jaws for me,

leave tongue and throat vulnerable to attack,

and me, vulnerable between those teeth:

The bird that would feed from his mouth.

But I got older. Jaws failed to open,

or worse, snapped shut with me inside.

I have learned the truth. Love is predatory.

I am prey – or less, a snake to be charmed;

here for his amusement,

under his command,

as he pressures and forces the conversation

the same way they all do.

I will take or leave this man,

when I muster enough care to decide.

I am not yet so cold in my blood.

That I need another’s body heat to survive.

He postures and performs, gesticulating:

spreading himself wide as I shrink in,

thinking me so oblivious. I wonder,

does he know why a snake dances?

Does he know a snake can hear no music?

The pipe swaying before it

looks to the snake like prey.

It mimics its movements, waiting to strike,

Completely in command. Predatory.

You are not acting upon me, stranger.

I am acting upon you.

i) The Snake Charmer

I play for her: the imploring music

of a pipe that is implied but not seen,

protruding into the space between us.

I will give her something to dance to.

She starts to move as I want her to:

turning, just so, to almost face me,

meeting my eye then glancing away.

She is a snake for me – or less, a rope,

for the best snake charmers can coax

adoration from inanimate rope

with the potency of their song:

charm it to motion, bind it to their bidding.

She is my rope, my snake; mine,

to make dance either way.

Her eyes flicker like a forked tongue,

watching my mouth as I talk.

Her fingertip brushes beads of moisture

from her glass. I bought it for her.

She is not young. She has not yet aged

out of beautiful, but it won’t be long.

She will not say no to me.

Does she know she is being charmed?

Does a snake understand its own trance

when the music bewitches it?

Perhaps it forgets it is a snake at all,

and becomes nothing

but what it is commanded to be.

I like the thought.

I will give her something to dance to.

I will tell her how to move.

 

The Thing With Feathers

 

It’s not a thing that will ever look finished.

Circle body tapers and becomes square

For the chisel’s edge of the tail; circle head

Curving, concave to the prick of the beak.

The pain comes with the feathers. The hand will ache

Forcing the black ink stems and scalloped edges.

And then the finer pen, the scratch, scrape, slice

Of painful detail: feathers within feathers,

Lines within lines becoming a bird,

But never quite becoming what it should be.

I will remember you drawing birds. I will remember

You laughing, starfished on the kitchen linoleum.

I will watch the birds in St Stephen’s Green and remember

How I never much cared for birds before you died.

Sestina: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Snake

The hum and crackle of cassette tape texture

is what brings it back. The breath behind the whisper.

I used to think I felt it breathing on my skin

from within the speaker, murmuring theology

that prickled through the tiny hairs inside my ears:

the devil, the garden and the awful, awful snake.

 

In my mind was a far more terrible snake,

Sickly in cartoon colours and earthworm texture.

It would follow me to bed with its voice in my ear,

and the slithering things I thought I heard it whisper.

In my dreams it took on its own mythology:

every dark, secret thing I feared, writhing in the same skin.

 

The change came when I saw beauty in discarded skin:

opaque like sea glass, the cut and curl of a snake,

but uncanny like some beast from mythology.

Rubbed between my fingers, its frail, subtle texture,

made ghost scales move against themselves and whisper

like sand between fingers when I held it to my ear.

 

So if that biblical serpent would nibble my ear

through haunting, bleak cassette tapes, I’d picture snakeskin:

feel it in my hands again and drown out the damning whisper

with the soothing secularity of the snake;

its vital simplicity and the warm shifts in texture

as it moved, betraying it as a thing of pure biology.

 

But by the laws of that strained theology

that grew more and more troublesome to my ears,

the snake snuck roughness into the soul’s smooth texture,

aided by a lesser serpent in human skin.

I fit the shape of accomplice to the snake.

It was towards my ear that it had leant to whisper.

 

But now the snake and I have better things to whisper.

Between the two of us, we write our own mythology,

a testament to our solidarity: Eve and the snake.

Record it on cassette, play it for the same young ears

that felt the fear of sinful transgress ion prick their skin.

Together, we’ll give bible paper new texture.

 

It isn’t the snake we should be taught to fear,

but the whisper of insidious theology

that creeps under the skin through cassette tape texture.

The Bay

The moment catches you off guard. Threatens to topple you, plunge you off the tower with the full force of the edge-of-the-land wind. It knocks the breath out you. It knocks the poetry out of you. Blows back your hair and stings your eyes, scrunching them tight, shutting out your peripheral vision like blinkers on a horse. Tunnel vision. The slits in an old animation cylinder.

The wind in your eyes has shrunk it down and what you see becomes gigantic, crystallised into the very essence of what it needs to be. And it’s a struggle to keep your eyes open to look, but god it’s worth it: the sea and the cloud and the light shining through the grey to splash blue on the water, it’s all saying, keep them open. Doesn’t matter that your eyes are watering or the wind hurts your face: keep looking. Keep looking into the wind. You might as well.

There no reason to. No deep meaning coming from ragged streaks of grey rock, flecked with flowers and grass further inland, then moss, then seaweed, then nothing. Nothing to be gained the bobbing gulls in the bay, or the shadow of the clouds on the sea.

But keep looking. Take it in because it’s there, because you’re up a tower, because you’re in a country that isn’t quite your own and you’re not sure what it is you’re feeling.

But you’re feeling something. So look. Get battered by the wind and the cold sunshine. Get a little bit upset for reasons you can’t quite explain, and tell yourself it’s just your eyes watering from the cold. It’s telling you to.

A Misreading

The standby light of the tv takes a long time to dim after I’ve turned it off.

 

The Greeks dug dinosaur bones out of the same earth that people pull fragments of their pottery out of today. Found that the puzzle pieces fit together to make monsters. They put the cyclops eyeball in the trunk hole of an elephant’s skull. Fit thigh bones and ribcages together in the shape of hydras and giants.

 

They dug up proof where the Victorians would one day dig up doubt, building faith out of the same bones that would one day disprove the Bible.

 

I wonder if they wanted proof. I wonder if they felt a cold sweat when first laying hands on the remains of such a creature. These arcane unholy things, that they would have secretly known, as rational people, could not really be prowling and crawling on the civilised earth. Like the way we sit smugly in church and hold our tongues.

 

But then they would have held the bones in their hands. Solid manifestations of some unnatural mythical other.

And maybe they could have done without the proof.

 

I sit in the turning-off afterglow of the standby light on the tv,

And in some strange tired synaesthesia, the faint blue bulb illuminates museum smell, dust and preserving liquid, out of some corner of my mind.

The beer in my hand has grown warm, dripping onto the skin of my hand, undrunk.

I don’t look at the clock because I don’t trust what it says any more. In the space of what it would measure as an hour, it has become a thing without meaning.

 

The earth is fiction. The universe is dense and challenging prose. We have no more means to interpret it than the ancient people digging far more ancient things out of the clay.

I sit and wait for the light to turn off completely,

Then to be buried,

dug up

and misread.