Time period: 1963-1966

Poet: Seamus Heaney

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17kp1

Sources: Belfast Creative Writing Group 1963-6; James Simmons papers, 1945-1996

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Kellys kept an unlicensed bull, well away

From the road: one risked a fine, but had to pay

The normal fee if cows were serviced there.

Once I dragged a nervous Friesian on a tether

Down a lane of alder, shaggy with catkin,

Down to the shed the bull was kept in.

I gave Old Kelly the clammy silver, though why

I could not guess. He grunted a curt "Go by.

Get up on that gate." and from my lofty station

I watched the businesslike conception.

The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.

The illegal sire fumbled from his stall

Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.

He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,

Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;

Then an awkward unexpected jump, and

His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,

He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.

After a prosecution Kelly's service stopped,

Although by then his clientele was dropping,

And last weekend at home I lent a hand -

Again the farmyard Pandarus - when a man

Whitecoated, rubbergloved, carried his gear

Into the byre. He paused only to enquire

Which cow it was; and as I scratched the Ayrshire's rump

He chose the labelled seed for his glass pump.

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I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying -

He had always taken funerals in his stride -

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble".

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless signs.

At ten o'clock an ambulance arrived

With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops

And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

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MacKenna, his dungarees

Stiff and stinking of sour pigmeal,

Husks up warm phlegm and spits; sees

His cows graze the long field

And is not dissatisfied.

Thinks of that bloody twister

Of a milk inspector who replied

To all his lies with "Mr

MacKenna." Reminds himself

To relate that in the pub;

Show them how a bit of wealth

Numbs even the official snub.

Crude, Lewd, necessary

As a herd bull, he repels

The age's neat civility.

He scratches, belches, smells.

Do we, pale ones, who lament

Our loss of real roots in the soil

Celebrate MacKenna. He has bent

His back, his soul, with honest toil.

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Mouth loose like an open waistband

On a porter belly, to-night

He argues loud, sleep pint in hand.

Stout loosens the limbs for a fight

And hate, sparked long ago from the cold

Flint of farming jealousies, scorches

The bar and flames into the yard.

From the drunk dark a crowd watches

Frothing mouths, bloody fists, the hard

Final trip on the clubbing stones.

MacKenna returns to his drink;

Hate has fathered a new feud.

He gets drunk; in a sharp Guinness stink

Reels home as a good husband should.

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One observes them, one expects them,

Blue breasted in their indifferent mortuary,

Beached end bare on the cold marble slabs

In immodest underwear frills of feather.

The red sides of beef retain

Some of the smelly majesty of living:

A half-cow slung from a hood maintains

That blood and flesh are not ignored.

But a turkey cowers in death.

Pull his neck, pluck him, and look -

He is just another poor forked thing,

An ink-blotch,y slump of putty.

He once complained extravagantly

In an overture of gobbles;

He lorded it on the claw-flecked mud

With a grey flick of his cConfucian eye.

Now, in my winter woolens and turned up collar,

I pass the butcher's bleak December dazzle

And casually note the importance

Of plumage and perpindicularity.

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Slept (with a boast) on the parquet floor beneath

A liquor-lurched couch at a Hampstead Heath

Party. Conformed to the blarney-bloated

Image, blasphemed against bishops, quoted

The Proclamation. Court cases never disturbed

And critics were answered when porter burped.

Reduced rebellion to slapstick and slip cracks,

Played to full houses, came out in paperbacks.

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Henry MacWilliams, childless widower

Of seventy three, lingered and died lonely

In a house with mud floor and no ceiling.

A rosary that looped the brass bedhead

Jiggled and clicked when he elbowed himself

Restlessly across the fistling bags of straw.

He lay staring at a worn sickle:

It stuck in the roof of black-oak and bog-sod,

Glowering down at him like the frosty eyebrow

Of a harvest moon.

For five draughty weeks

He doted angrily: 'Why in Christ's name

Was that horse not shod? . . . That riverbank field

Is surely dry enough for ploughing.'

His savage ankles, knotty as black thorn,

Poked out beyond the patchwork quilt; toe-nails,

Slugs petrified to pebbles.

Neighbours collected

Money for a coffin; he was buried

Without the dubious mead of duteous tears,

Sunk in the dirt, 'gone to rest at last.'

Then cattle bedded on his mattress straw

And the bedhead made a gate for our back garden.

Still, one does not lament; One just observes

Clay, conscripted and identified, now

Demobbed. Epitaphs are irrelevant

To a grassy grave that boasts no headstone.

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