Sunday, March 15, 1998

TEACHING STONES TO SPEAK, iii



TEACHING STONES TO SPEAK

                            —For Neil O’Neill
Queen Medbh said to Cú Chullain: 
Each one of us will die naked and alone, 
on a battlefield not of our own choosing.


Seeking the end of eloquence,
I climbed the grey tower to lie on the rampart.
Canted back, I was the sinewy curve of a longbow
hemmed by iron bars dripping with dew,
my hips arched to the sky’s sublime mouth—
The dizzying ground and nervous grasses flew
up to greet me, as if afraid of losing contact with birds
and other long-lost kin from across the sea—
Trees and stream murmured to cloud ascendancy
as the world spun topsy-turvy past my crown.
Five hundred years of lips brushing stone and air!
They say the McCarthy, who had his way with words,
wooed the First Elizabeth to keep his castle lands.
She proclaimed his tongue a treasure, and wishing favor,
others made pilgrimage to kiss the stone for luck.
They say his ancestor saved a bean sídhe from drowning.
She cast a spell of the honeyed tongue upon the stone.
They say it was a fragment of the ancient Lía Fáil,
they say it was the very pillow of Jacob’s Dream,
they say it was the Stone of Destiny that roared with ecstasy
when Érin’s true kings were crowned at Hy Tara.
Some say it’s the same Stone of Scone beneath her throne,
but it fell silent, a thousand years in enemy hands.
Like an alterboy at the mass where we kissed Christ’s feet,
the footman wiped the stone as if linen could cleanse
the rock wearied by five centuries of lips’ mute testament.


Ides of March - St. Patrick’s Day, 1998



variant 1

TEACHING STONES TO SPEAK, i
—For Neil O’Neill. 
Queen Medbh said to Cú Chullain: 
Each one of us will die naked and alone, 
on a battlefield not of our own choosing.

Seeking the end of eloquence,
I climbed the grey tower to lie on the rampart.
Canted back, I was the sinewy curve of a longbow 
hemmed by iron bars dripping with dew,
my hips arched to the sky’s sublime mouth—
The dizzying ground and nervous grasses flew 
up to greet me, as if afraid of losing contact with birds
and other long-lost kin from across the sea— 
Trees and stream murmured to cloud ascendancy
as the world spun topsy-turvy past my crown.
Five hundred years of lips brushing stone and air!
They say the McCarthy, who had his way with words,
wooed the First Elizabeth to keep his castle lands. 
She proclaimed his tongue a treasure, and wishing favor, 
others made pilgrimage to kiss the stone for luck.
They say his ancestor saved a bean sídhe from drowning.
She cast a spell of the honeyed tongue upon the stone.
They say it was a fragment of the ancient Lía Fáil, 
they say it was the very pillow of Jacob’s Dream,
they say it was the Stone of Destiny that roared with ecstasy 
when Érin’s true kings were crowned at Hy Tara.
Some say it’s the same Stone of Scone beneath her throne, 
but it fell silent, a thousand years in enemy hands.
Like an alterboy at the mass where we kissed Christ’s feet,
the footman wiped the stone as if linen could cleanse 
the rock wearied by five centuries of lips’ mute testament.

For the chieftain’s son I conceived a cloak of finest silk,
a crest wrought with golden knotwork and rainbow strands:
below three stars, the severed hand of the ancestor
who won a kingdom in a race by throwing his limb to shore. 
Not content with Érin, Niáll’s scion sent the Stone to Alba,
to crown a brother, but his tongue bested him: a cleft truce sworn 
on Patrick’s staff: trapped in a pyre, he drowned in a vat of ale.
Destiny found us on more distant shores west of Tír Eoghain,
in Tír Tairngire, the Promised Land of Brendan the Navigator, 
where the salmon of wisdom swam wild in the Golden Gate,
where I tended the Uí Niáll’s wounds on new battlefields, 
where I fed this son of Ulster champion tales of Cú Chulainn, 
claimed by both sides, who died chained to that dolmen, 
and how it wept when Tír na n-Óg took him in.
Born with a gilded tongue, my chieftain’s son 
had no need of kissing stones. He made a nest in my ear, 
charmed my soul, then flew off with the wild geese—
red-handed fear reigned inside a heart of stone—
leaving a hunger of words to hatch in my mouth.
Like the alien Queen, I prefer silvered-tongued chatter 
to tacit silence: our tongues grow tarnished, no matter 
how far back I bend to kiss that stone, his silence 
drowns more than this battlefield of words. 

Ides of March - St. Patrick’s Day, 1998



different poem, same title—not sure which came first



They say silence is golden but
King Midas and the alchemists
eventually learned it was leaden.

Perhaps seeking the gift of eloquence,
I climbed the grey tower to the rampart,
bent over backwards to kiss a stone
beneath an impossibly blue sky,
became the curve of an unstrung bow,
my lips brushing cold, mossy stone,
above the rusted bars dripping with dew
through which the dizzying ground
and nervous grass rushed up to meet me,
as if afraid of losing contact with the birds
and long-lost kin from across the sea.
Like the priest at mass as we kissed Jesus’s feet,
the keeper wiped the stone with a white kerchief.
Trees murmured and the stream sang of ancestors.

They say Cormac McCarty (a distant relation),
 who had a way with words, persuaded the Queen
to keep his castle lands.
She thought his blarney an Irish treasure.
They say the stone was Jacob’s Dream,
or a fragment of the Lía Fail, that screamed
when the rightful king touched it,
or the Stone of Scone beneath her throne.

For the chieftain’s son I made a cape of finest silk
wrought with rainbow hues and golden knotwork.
The bowstring, an aeolian harp on these distant shores
west of Tír na n-Óg, the land of youth,
where I tended his wounds on the battlefield,
The Golden Gate cradled us, we were rich
but barbed arrows pierced us with sharper words.

Like the Queen, I prefer the chatter of silvered tongues
to that of silence; ours’ grow tarnished with disuse.
But no matter how far I bend to break this impasse
his silence speaks more than words ever could.

Ides of March 1998


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