"I am now only a captain but I will, if I live, be at the top of the tree."
Horatio Nelson to Sir William Hamilton
Clouds scud, what else, in the grey sky, and yes,
gulls hang all the way out, to the bay, I guess,
the river neck, and the sky lets loose
bannerfuls of rain, hail, snow, tumbleweeds
of darkness, cold; that old familiar drizzle
emptying the dawn, down all the days,
the yellow city nights; and his head sleek
like a lizard, like a cobra, like a basilisk
inserted in our heavens, in the bells'
clamor, clangor, Nelson, lord of us all.
We were low, no supposing, low-down in our boots,
battering past the pillar's base, clattering into this ravine
or that, clip-clopping up the gulch of North Earl
Street, step after step lapping at the shop-fronts
like a tide coming in, inexorable, not to be baulked.
Dwarfed by the buildings of what was Sackville,
then O'Connell, stranded now, the hug of the crowd
slackened, light-headed, wondering where's me bus and
which side of the road am I on, stunned to find life
in the shape of big lit buses, tattered queues, going on;
ready to plunge at the drop of a hat or a hand into a blue
funk or stock taken, bearings found, Henry Street,
the gorge chock-a-block, rain melting down its windows,
and the women's rough mouths like O's roaring Toblerone or
Get the last of this or that Cheeky Charlies don't you know
the whole street rocking underneath the red and yellow shock
of neon on its bedrock of black and the double bass of feet thudding
all the way down to Mary Street, the smell of wet fur.
So this was dubh le daoine and we were shoulder to shoulder
ag baint dhá thaobh den bóthar, drink or no drink, for sure,
we were íseal, right enough, as íseal as íseal could be
beneath our uasal, casting his long shadow on us, and we
in our stew, in our soup, in our mate and potatoes mess.
Woolworths was a box of light. On the bright side
looking out you could see the streaked street,
plate glass doors like a fresco, Jackson
Pollock maybe on a dark day or better still
the tubes of paint themselves, melting.
On the inside Hopper but all pastels.
Or the Gobi Desert. There was no shade.
Fluorescence had the say-so; boy how it swam
across the insulated ceilings from the steaming
entrance to the back of the store where you got
your picture taken with no front teeth. How it lit
with one blast the whole shebang; it
was horizontal and vertical, spilled
like a sheet down and in and out and on
the downy heads of the assistants
with their warm crests of hair. Or the hoity
toity girls at make-up, maxfactored
or revloned, their perfect fingers tapping,
one mascaraed eye on the clock, or on the mirror
where it tilted on the counter-top,
reflecting glass and chrome glass and chrome
all the way back to where I stood
in my mittens in my knitted bobble-cap
the two pounds ten for presents
in the póca of mo chóta my toggle coat.
Here were bath cubes, dense in their silver jackets,
talcum powder for the nun or a sewing kit
for mama, bubble bath and soap
shaped like swans or seashells, strings of pearls,
garden gnomes and cupids, watchstraps for the dada,
all the bounty of the age of plastic but regulated, oh yeah.
At the sweet counter girls drift
peach cheeks turned clean nails deep
in rayon coveralls. Here were heaps.
Piled in lots of spangles dolly mixtures lemon drops
and the little pewter shovels riding
up the hills of toffee, hunks of broken chocolate.
Here were paper bags and spillages,
the lone sweet escaped or caught in the wrong mix
pressed against the perspex or fallen in the crevices,
and down on the floor, more, maybe two or four,
hanging, where the floor and counter meet,
in their shiny wrappers, red and gold, and your baby fingers curl
and your tongue shifts and your eyes like saucers, eyes like plates,
eyes bigger than your belly, popping from the back of your head
two eyes and one in the middle of your forehead
like Balor, like Medusa, who could turn a man to stone.
He was there when we drove like snakes into all that mess
that gorgeousness. He was there on his pockmarked stone
when we jumped off the bus's tail-end.
He was there when the wind and the hail and the snow
God knows came rattling from the sky and the apple-pie girls
brown thighs pumping and the pipe bands marched by
and the white smiles of John and Jackie flashed
at ten thousand shivering stars and stripes when
the auld triangle went a-jingle-jangle,
he was there, he was there, he was there.
When we were ten or eleven and hobbled with Miss D
up the street past the penny arcades and the fortune-teller
nodding and the woman screeching Hail
Queen of Heaven white hair swept up
in an ice-cream cone. Past Fortés and Worth's
past the Happy Ring House and Clery's
to the Monument Cafe where we ate stale buns
drank tea milked and sugared with all the milk and sugar
on the white formica table so we'd get our money's worth.
And the dreadful smell of city centre churches.
Those were long dry summers coasting mildly
down to queues outside An Gúm or Gills
and the sniff of new school nua-Ghaeilge new hist'ry books.
He was there all that time and before that time.
He was there through Cinerama and Panorama and Senssurround
He was there in all the pantomimes
He was there for Strumpet City
He was there on the Abbey stage before it burnt down
He was there for the Plough and there for the Stars
He was there in the wings when the women ran with prams
when the gun-boat Helga when Ulysses
when the street broke and the poets stumbled
with a white flag and James Connolly from the GPO.
He was there for the Eucharistic Congress
when McCormack sang Panis Angelicus
for the Pope's man at the mass for the masses
in O'Connell Street and my mother's mother
six months a widow there too our new freedom
sure enough. He was there on the Feast every year
when the folks from the country came up
with their parcels of eggs for the city cousins
and their cash he was there when they fumbled
there when they groped there for all the talk
of snails and slime and how far have we gone
and how far to go one hundred thirty four feet
can you bate that look you can see the people through the cracks.
He was there at the top when they stuck
their puckered foreheads out, craned their necks,
laid their giant hands on railings, counted churches,
thought of Eiffel maybe or the Statue of Liberty
how the Phoenix Park was the largest park in Europe,
O'Connell Street the broadest street
Jack Doyle the champion of the world
and wasn't DeValera the right quare name.
For he never went with Phipps to the Arctic Ocean
He never chased the bear nor was the light-haired boy
nor sailed to the East Indies nor saw two hundred floggings
nor blew a cold north wind among the isles of the West Indies
He never routed privateers from Montego to Honduras
nor terrorized Americans as captain of the Boreas
saw Yellow Jack take all but ten of Hichinbrooke's two hundred
nor loved his men was loved by them nor raced his little middleshipmen
nor fought for Hood nor crossed Lord Keith
nor lost an eye at Calvi an arm at Tenerife
in the dog-days in the lion sun nor his heart to Lady Hamilton
nor ran Napoleon to ground at Alexandria
nor saw the boy stand on the burning deck
nor watched the Orient go up nor heard the silence after
nor lynched Caracciolo nor swaggered round as Bronte
nor saw the lazzaroni loose their birds in tribute to his victory
nor ditched his wife nor had a child
nor said that fifty naked virgins would not tempt him
nor money is trash
nor I shall perhaps be hanged. Let them!
nor squashed the Danish fleet at Copenhagen
nor never saw the signal to stop firing
nor held the glass to his blind eye saying
Foley I really cannot see it
Keep mine for closer battle flying! Nail mine to the mast!
Nor prayed for laurel or cypress
nor chased Villeneuve and Gravina to and from the Caribbean
nor met them at Trafalgar and got his pell-mell battle
nor walked and turned on the quarter-deck
walked and turned in the smoke
walked and turned with his gold stars glinting
till the rifleman on the mizentop
broke his back with a ball
nor hid his face and stars nor said
I'm a dead man, Hardy. Kiss me.
For he never lived and died
but stood land-locked on his perch on his plinth on his pillar
in the rain in the sun in the great massy light
till the day he went up up up
spewing rock spewing stone
spitting mugs and jugs and stars and bars
schooners cutters frigates
gee-gaws ribands chunks of his own leaden coffin
and the tatters of the flag the sailors tore
relics of Saint Nelson and the roar of grief
for Baron Nile and Crocodile Viscount Pyramid
Duke of Thunder and Burnham Thorpe
Burnham Westgate Burnham Market Burnham Overy
Burnham Ulph Burnham Norton Burnham Sutton
Burnham Deepdene Burnham St Andrew Burnham Harbour
all the Burnhams and the ships of the line
Carcass Racehorse Seahorse Albemarle Agememnon Elephant Vanguard Victory
holds of gold of plate the gates of Valetta
Cathedral and the twelve apostles in molten silver rained down
with tanners coppers oystershells
and a few plum stones
and the larks were singing straight out of the shocked trees
Our Nel Our Nel Our Nel
The Pillar had shot its wad
and we stood in its spume in its spent seed
knee-deep in rubble wondering
not knowing to take credit or what
we were half-mortified
the stump was still frothing
and there for the taking spilled all around
was granite shiny and sandy
easy to bend down and slide
deep in a pocket a hand or an eye
I knew all the hiding places of our house.
Or most. Or some. The warm bedclothes
where sunshine and myself could lie.
The children's cries outside. I was a child!
The covers of a book. The empty rooms
when all the family was out. Dusk, darkness
lustrous as a wing enveloping the house.
My father's pockets mother's purse
the cubbyhole under the stairs the beds the coats
the hollow base of bookshelves where
we laid flat coppers for someone sometime to find –
the oblong slots beneath the floorboards
big enough to stash a man. The old kitchen
inside the new – I see its lines –
and feel its angles still, not gone
but undisclosed like bones.
And of this town. The pubs inside the pubs
made new to look like old or old made look like new
the pints and pints and pints each daisy-fresh
and sloppy on the bar. The shops inside the shops
or stores and malls and billboards where
I waited on the corner for her daddy son or holy ghost,
jabbed in the ribs by what or who was not, no longer, there.
He ran, that alley, and that window there, blue light was where
you might be born or get it in the back.
Ní bheidh, they say, our leithéid, yet it's thronged,
throat-cluttered with the looks, the blinks, the pulled-back
glance, ahems, the fat cigars or pipes or nervous cigs
of all the winners, losers on these streets, the sorry plaque
on Anna Livia, foot-drift on rude tarmac or pavement ruffle,
cherished space, gulls hang and Nelson soars
and we rise up and kneel, rise up and kneel again.