Sweeney Confounded by Derek Coyle

‘It is what’s inside you
you have to fear the most
not what’s outside.’

So Sweeney said to me
as he got stuck into
a bunch of fresh watercress,
tasty as a rasher
and not a drop
of balsamic vinegar in sight.

‘The thing I miss most
from the past is the trees.
Now it’s all motorways,
shopping malls, houses.
Although the chimney,
that’s a fine invention.
It never sways no matter
the weather – in hail,
storm, snow or rain.’

‘What I’ll say for modern living,
people’s awful good lookin’
for longer.
I lay it down
to the central heating.
I’m envious of radiators.
Nights I sit in the alders
dripping wet, perished
with the cold.
And I think of all
the featherless bipeds
tucked up in their houses,
tidy as a banker’s wallet.’

‘When I saw you coming,
I thought to myself,
sure enough now we’ll see snow,
even if it’s June.
A white blackbird
is only ever an omen
of poor weather. Even if
Aristotle himself
put the white blackbird
in Arcadia singing
luxurious tunes in the moonlight,
the people of Mayo know better.
They only ever bring snow.
And very wet snow at that!’

‘I thought after all my time
I’d come to the end
of generations, but you guys,
yez are as relentless
as the rain of Connemara.
As if I hadn’t
seen me fair share
of misery and hardship,
now I find myself in Oak Park
listening to you. Go on,
what is it bothers ya?’

‘For all the rich store of words
in our lexicon – Latin, Greek,
French, even Old Germanic,
there’s ne’er one of them at all
truly captures how totally
rotten it is to lose love.
Like the Divil himself
is conducting some fiendish orchestra
in the brain – and the virtuoso
soloist on piano is pouncing off
those keys like a carpenter
hammering nails.’

‘There are no soft corners
to hide in, in oak, ash or beech,
where the moonlight is your standard lamp,
the clouds your curtains.
As much as I’ve been drenched
by snow, hail, fog,
from Lughnaquilla
to the lakes of Killarney,
its nothing compared to the way
the world drenched me
in misery and loss. Still,
the one thing you can say
about living in the trees
is that the air is always fresh,
the leaves refreshed by dew,
wind and rain.

No need for Odour Eaters here,
or air fresheners
called Autumn Breeze.
Isn’t it just like the Autumn
to knock some sense
into you, its hints of decay
and ruin, a stark reminder
seasons move forward,
never backwards?’

‘You have to greet it all
with a welcome,
as if you are the next tenant
who has to rent out misery
from the landlord that is existence.
You must live in it,
as if it were your own home.’

‘I could tell you my story,
the tale of mad Sweeney
who took to the trees,
flapping wildly, ignored
by Eorann his wife.
She understood no longer
my language, my whinging,
a bird-man speaking in tongues.
It is strange
when you speak to others
in this new form.
They recognise the voice
as who you once were,
exiled now from yourself
as you appeared to be,
and as you once knew yourself.
There is much about you
you have yet to discover,
even as you don’t really want to know.’

‘Ah Sweeney, we should not be
competitors amongst leaf and bush.
After all, we share a common fate.
We knew what it was
to be human, once.
I know what you feel,
what it means to keep company
with wild stags in Killarney,
Cooley, the Burren.
To see him in every linnet,
red butterfly, green nettle
—a king of dark ditches,
empty roads, how he ignores
my cries.’

‘Watercress is not too bad
once you get used to it,
even if there is no
balsamic dressing.
You know what I miss the most?
I sit on windowsills now,
listening to violin and cello,
banjo or uilleann pipes.
Music, one of the things
I miss most. The skill
to express yourself
at the mere touch of your fingers.
The thrush and the blackbird
united in the dawn chorus
are not quite the same
as a bit of Mahler
or Beethoven.’

‘Some nights,
listening to the rustle
of forests of ash,
beech and oak,
I think I hear an overture
of a great symphony
stuttering into existence,
the music of nature.
Leaf, bole and branch,
becoming notes.’

At this point
we were interrupted
by the vicious squawking
and biting of two nearby jackdaws.

‘Don’t mind them, every night
at this hour they start. They’re
the avian equivalent of Nietzsche
and Heidegger. They constantly
fight over
which is more primal, poetry
or music. Each
tries to outwit the other,
just as they scramble
for wild garlic and black sloes.’

‘Tell me something beautiful
about being in love. Remind me,
ah yes, remind me of that.’

‘At nearly forty
you’d think I’d have known
all there is to know
about kissing. Yet,
he managed to teach new things.
His habit of biting my lower lip,
pulling it to him, stretched between his teeth.
I never said anything. It hurt.
Like when he bit my nipple,
delicate as he tried to be.
I was the first person he did this with
and it amazed me how this instinct
found itself in him; wild, unfettered,
him. I’d have either back,
his teeth on my lower lip, my left nipple
—I’d swop both for the vertigo I felt
the minute I knew it was over. Then,
I staggered and lurched, convulsed,
one minute a man, the next
some wild bird, squawking
startled across the sky.’

‘O dear, yes, o dear,’
said Sweeney. ‘This world
can never be pressed
into forgiveness. The purple
crocus will keep sprouting
from the earth, persistent.
All it aims to do
is keep living. You have to
learn to live like that crocus,
silent in the darkness,
slowly inching towards the light.’

‘Give me another poem.’

‘His skin was not white,
a sallow smooth
svelte silk, bristled
by soft beard,
clothing angular cheeks,
a jaw line
worthy of a sultan,
some sage caliph. I remember
the day we stopped
in the corner shop
for tobacco, and the lady,
hurried and impatient,
stalled before this dark skin,
chestnut eyes,
haughtily clipping out
the price of tobacco,
and he handed her coins
precisely totted up,
every cent accounted for.
Regal, unruffled, silent,
his bearing spoke
as he handed over
what had been asked.
His eyes gleamed
like studded silver,
his teeth gemstones
set in gold, a horseman
worthy to ride out
with Congal, Süleyman,
even yourself Sweeney.’

‘Ah yes, I enjoy the company of horses,
such elegant, beautiful creatures.
They never lie. You’ve had it hard.
Indeed, it is hard you’ve had it.’

‘I have no idea
what sins led to my new shape.
I fluttered from ivy
to beech, shivered
under rain and hail.
The wintry skies of October
drew in,
and I crouched under leaves
while Heaven thundered.
I searched high
and low for my Lynchseachan,
someone to bring me back
from the brink of madness.’

‘I grew tired of the trees,
those marvellous cities, alder,
ash and oak, lonely
for my own kind.
I left behind damp leaves,
spiders’ webs, branch
and bole, hunted
and haunted by his five faces
over fields, rivers, towns;
bearded, beardless,
smiling, quizzical, sad,
his eyebrow arching
and un-arching in the rain.

I fled before this vision
terrified—him lolling
and baying, snapping
and yelping, ‘our love
is over, over, gone.’
I could dive through water,
I could swim through air,
still I’d see him there.

I flew up the Liffey
to the city centre,
landed on a cupola
in Parnell Square
where the dull gossip
of blackbirds bored me.
I flew on down to Larkin,
his extended hand a perch,
the street full of people,
busy and ignorant, shopping.
I stared Larkin in the eye—
if I could have used beak and claw
to carve his image from bone,
wood, clay, I would have.

I flew up to O’Connell,
landed on his shoulder
and looked down
and spotted him,
looking up and down
a glass-fronted
office-block, Heineken
emblazoned down its length.
Looking left, then right,
he stepped onto the road.

I flew high and up and after.
It’s him, him,
wearing the purple top
I loved him in. How often
I’d turned from the washed purple
of dying suns in Killarney,
Glencoe, Glendalough.
That purple sun a livid wound,
a blind, twisted eye,
my head under my feathers.
Now, my eye was steadfast,
his curly black hair my beacon,
his ears plugged in
to Arab poetry or music.
I flew high and up and after.

Swept up by a gust,
I was tossed backwards,
forwards. I hovered
and soared, tried hard
not to lose sight of him.
I turned and returned
in mid-air, swooping,
diving, stalled.
I struggled for breath.
I battled, but lost sight of him
heading to Trinity College,
St Stephen’s Green.
I was blown downriver
and landed, blasted,
on the docks.
I became
the opposite of all
I was meant to be,
a feathered version
of hopelessness.

‘Ah Musha, God help you,
come here, come here.
Warm your head
under my wing. Tomorrow,
we’ll fly south
to St Mullins,
we’ll find better shelter there.
Here, here, child.’


Derek Coyle has published poems in Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, Cuadrivio, Wordlegs, The SHOp, Burning Bush 2, Glitterwolf, Skylight 47, Assaracus, Chelsea Station, RFD, and fathers and what needs to be said. He has been shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award (2010, 2014, 2015), the Bradshaw Prize (2011), and in 2012 he was a chosen poet for the Poetry Ireland ‘Introductions Series.’ In 2013 he was runner up in the Bradshaw Prize. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative.