The night soil man
When all this is over, said the night soil man.
I’ll have a fire, sift ashes, boil up lye and scour
the cart, holystone it white as bone. Then burn
my working clothes, my boots, my spade and rake.
I’ll currycomb the old horse, I’ll braid his mane
and oil his hoofs. The cart I’ll paint with roses,
like a varda or a barge, and we’ll ride out
past Beeston, past the forcing sheds,
find a quiet place where he can graze, and I’ll imagine
I can smell the grass. Scent is a language
I shall relearn, said the night soil man:
lavender, sage and cedar; woodsmoke, lemons.
I shall shed this skin, I shall whiten, soften,
sleep light in clean linen, with an ear for the grind
of iron-shod wheels on cobbles in the lane,
the scrape of pails, the snuffling of the horse.
Some afternoons, I’ll take the cart and ride
up ginnels, the backs of decent terraces.
I’ll look down into yards where men grow leeks,
pink-stemmed rhubarb, scarlet-flowered beans.
And I shall learn the scents of the world again.
The elusive ones: clean sweat, petrichor.
Air before snow, like tin. The essence of a baby,
the blue pulse in her skull I’ll be allowed to kiss.
[The wild card poet]
You don’t dump Euterpe, she dumps you
When this is all over, said the organist –
people say that, don’t they?
Like you can get up and leave,
not look back. Push your chair into the sun,
forget. Take up golf, or gardening.
But they don’t have the music in them.
When this is all over – we don’t say that here,
don’t tempt fate. The day you wake up
to a shaking hand, a foot that won’t sit
on the pedals, can’t hear the bass note,
or the treble. Death.
Slow, silent imprisonment in the ordinary.
When this is all over –
every musician knows that music never ends:
sound just fades into silence,
silence is just a different kind of sound.
Listen – the birds, the tick of that clock.
See how the trees are swaying like singers.
When all this is over, said the phrenologist,
I shall spend my days at Walden Pond
where white rocks line the far shore
like so many discarded skulls.
I will hoe the yellow loam and plant rows of beans,
walk to Concord in my own company
to buy a bag of rye or Indian meal, forget
the rag-stoppered bottle of yeast
spilling in my pocket.
I intend to live on pine nuts huckleberries,
test my constitution
in the daily chopping of firewood,
wield my borrowed axe with tenderness,
free from the troubling cartographies
of other people’s minds.
As for neighbours, I shall visit only the Irishman
in his turf hut, stand for want of a chair
listening to the fishhawk’s cry,
the distant laughter of the loon.
Come winter, I will lift the largest rock
and hurl it to break the lake’s glassy surface,
gather ice and retreat to my cabin,
wet my razor in thawed water,
find my face in the broken mirror.
When this is all over, I’m not answering any more questions.
I’m not going to choose between the six wives of Henry VIII
or explain the meaning of onomatopoeia.
I won’t care which is the longest river or the highest mountain.
Famous footballers can dribble through my fingers, and
celebrities and pop stars can f-fade away.
I won’t recall who signed the Magna Carta or who
discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.
As for Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo, they’ll be
dates for others to fight over.
Wembley Finals, Wimbledon Finals, Olympic Finals,
will finally have no hold on me. Mozart and da Vinci needn’t
darken my door again, and there’ll be no capital in knowing
how to spell Reykjavik. I no longer want to be
the one people turn to for all the answers,
but grant me instead the bliss of ignorance. I will fill it
with thoughts and meanings of my own.
Who was it said the pen is mightier than
the sword? I will not know and would not tell you if I did.
no more crimes
to the original
stripping or rendering walls
encouraging or blocking air flow
removing internal spine
using short-life materials
weakening with excessive cutting and runs
such as weatherstruck pointing
When this is all over, said the sexton,
I will miss the nightjars. I will recall
the many doorways to the earth,
edged with the work of beetles,
praise the toil of smaller lives.
All this time, I have been solitary
among the many. I have borne
witness to the grass as shadows
lengthened. I have persevered
in my beliefs. One day,
at the end
of this, I will plant myself
in a warm tilth. My feet will root,
my fingers furl to leaf.
I shall have spring throughout
myself. I have been loved
and loving in the half-light.
I will raise my face to the sun.
I’ve been making a list, said the flying trapeze.
When my house is paid for, when my car is paid for,
when I’ve got that orthopedic surgeon off my back,
when there’s money enough in my IRA
to chance that it’ll see us through,
and enough in the bank for Sarah’s care,
that day my feet will touch the ground.
Never again I’ll fly these giddying wires.
Never again I’ll please these gasping crowds.
That day my feet will do their real job.
They’ll know the soil, they’ll feel the damp,
they’ll push my toes in deep.
That day my feet will wrap in boots.
They’ll stride the solid streets and break into a run.
They’ll cover miles on roads built by machines.
That day I’ll know I’m not a bird.
That day I’ll know again that I’m a man.
I haven’t seen you in my 40s but by the end of my fourth decade, I thought about how busy you’d become, how you’d struggle with social distancing being an in your face type dude, how inappropriate you’d be, trying to say the right thing but failing, like you did with me back in 2001: “It looks like him, dunt it?’ And it did. A bit. I didn’t have the heart to tell you how you’d got his lips all wrong. Too straight. He was your postman. You really wanted to get this one right. I’m glad I knew that without you having to tell me. It said a lot about you, much more than you could say on purpose. You try too hard to be normal. You’re not. It’s not your profession, how you grew up around dead bodies, high on embalming fluid. Lots of undertakers have wives and friends but you were always the kid at school who tried too hard because you had to. It took a lot of work and no one ever warmed to you.
I’m sure you’re still trying to say the right thing in the chapel of rest, getting it wrong, making people smile by accident when they really need to. And when all this is over, don’t become too self aware. Stop trying to be a better man. You’ll always be the unlikeliest of heroes given your propensity to get too familiar: say hello in supermarkets, wave at us from your hearse, make us feel we should wave back. But we are not bus drivers who’ve known each other for years. You’ll always remind us of loss. You’ll always be the sum of all our fears.
i.m. Andrew Weatherall
When this is over you’ll find me at the peat bog
with my cutter and spade and a gallon of beer.
I’ll have made short work of flaying the turf
and raising a stack of slabs to be gathered.
You’ll want to hang back for the good stuff,
which means digging deeper into the moor
than has been dug before, but on my word,
though my back be breaking, I’ll not slacken
till I’ve extracted the richest, darkest nugget
you can imagine, and when it’s dried enough
I’ll tease out the fibres, pack them in my pipe,
pour us each a draught of sun-warmed beer
and you and I will partake of the mòine dhubh.
mòine dhubh – heavier and darker peats
which lie deeper into the moor
When this is all over, she told me,
I mean to tear off
this tortuous bustier with its stiff gold shield
that squeezes my belly button inside-out.
I intend to stop the fortnightly bikini waxing
and grow a body beard
to rival Jason Momoa. Catch him wearing
my starry high-rise blue trunks,
which by the way, I will shred and burn.
I want to wake up in the morning
in a winceyette nighty, buttoned up to my chin.
And when I can go out and not be recognised.
I will find a forge to mend my God-killer sword,
roll up my lasso of truth, hang them side-by-side
over the stove in my eco-home by the Black sea
to remind me not to try to bring
peace to bellicose men who say one thing
and mean another.
A Xylophonist reflects
When this is all over
and the C# Minor strains of the requiem’s
final movement dissolve and fade,
when the world is open for business again
and I’m free to go anywhere I choose
I’ll choose to sit on the banks of the Congo
in the shade of a great mninga tree
eat nyembwe with saka saka
and let my instrument speak
to its ancestors, rediscover the peace
of connection, hear the music of a warm
breath of wind over its wingfruit,
its coral wood. When this is all over,
I want to discover a new normal
away from the accelerando and allegro
away from the march and symphony,
in the quiet hymnal of the forest,
find the largo I fear I’ve lost.
Yachtswoman in the Doldrums
When this is all over I’ll ride
waves, hold the helm light
enough to steer a course,
let this boat sheer her keel,
keen to the winds of chance.
I’ll chart my route to any
port in a storm – bring on
that storm, blot out those
sharp stars – break mirrors.
Snatched by sea bird squalls,
wondering about the fuss
of sitting here stock still
bound by flat seas on all sides.
I’ll be flying – hoist! Hoist!
Seven years on, I’ll be laughing.
The Zinc Plater
When this is all over
I will never clean again.
Dust will gather on the surfaces
in balls and motes the size of mice.
I’ll run my fingers through it;
let the breeze release it like pollen.
I will pickle only food: rough-skinned gherkins,
slick aubergines, the hard whites of onions.
There will be no baths, no bathing.
I will wash at the Belfast sink with water
from my own well, water I heaved
from the dank earth, water that stinks
of moss and peat. I will swim
in silt-clouded rivers and nothing
will be rinsed away.
I will live by the light of gas lamps
or candles; the honeyed scent
of bee’s wax. There will be
no electricity, for me.
My skin will be tanned mahogany
by red flakes falling from my corrugated roof,
my boots will crust with it, my white linen
will blush with it.
When this is all over, nothing
will be smoothed to a mirror-shine
and no surface will be untrue to itself.
And there it is. I’ve realised with mild surprise that it really is over.
Apart from the published book.
Apart from any virtual book launch events.
Apart from…Oh…not all over at all then.
Thank you all the poets, thank you Kim Moore for selecting the final twenty six poems, thank you Bob Horne for deciding to make a pamphlet of it all. Above all thanks and ever thanks to the wonderful Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin for the gift of the Swineherd, and all he dreams of.