Time period: 1966-1972

Poet: Paul Muldoon

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

Sources: Michael Longley papers, 1960-2000 ; Paul Muldoon papers, 1939-2016

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You were first.

The ewe lapped ochre and lake

But you would not move.

Weighted with stones yet

Dead your dead head floats.

Better dead than sheep,

The thin worm slurred in your gut,

The rot in your feet,

The red dog creeping at dawn.

Better than dipped in the hard white water,

Your stomach furred,

Your head hardboiled.

Better dead than dyed

In a bowl of pale, whin petals.

Better than rolling down the hill,

Pale skull flaking.

First to break.

First for the scream of the clean bite.

Better dead with your delph head floating.

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I guessed the letter must be yours.

I recognised the cuttle ink,

The serif on the P.

I read the postmark and the date.

I would not open it just yet,

Impatience clamped beneath a paperweight.

I took your letter at eleven

To the garden with my tea.

And suddenly the yellow gum

Excreted halfway up a damson bush

Had grown a shell.

I let the folded pages fall

And took at stick to break its hold.

I turned it over through the grass

To watch your mucous lips withdraw.

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Snow sticks to the ribs

Of a broken barrel.

Your womb appeared

An openandshut affair.

Our child had signed itself

In the plush foyer

Of an exclusive hotel.

Then as if running a pen through itself

It assumed an alias.

At a loss for the motive,

(It could not be running

Away from its past),

We have traced its subsequent movements

As far as the underworld.

The month of comings

And goings. In Norway

The lemmings like molten snow

Stream from the mountainsides.

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The bed defined me,

Eight hours each day

For eighteen years. I stretched

To shrink, the drumhead where

My parents beat their message out.

I had been twelve years on the rack

When scalp and soles touched wood.

These past six years as if to winter

I would withdraw my head,

Retract my feet,

Wakening when the laser sun

Would aim too close.

Now I have left

My parents for the town.

Another drum insists.

On widening territories, stumbles from my chest.

Across another reservation full of sames.

Time too is limited,

Floats from my dandelion lungs.

No spoil can be reclaimed.

At 3 a.m. the ceiling seems

A capsized porcupine,

Sinking towards the floor,

Towards our bodies where they dream.

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This hawk has always been dressed

To kill. It would hold

Up its claws before the sun and cast

A shadow on a field.

This was no makebelieve,

No nursery game. For here

The shadow was alive,

Hardening to a rabbit. Free wheel-

Ing, the hawk waited. It has never

Been wrong about when best to kill.

It has already proved itself expert

At keeping alive. Throughout

The winters that distort

Wellknownfacts, argue blackbirds white.

It has outlived the crow,

The tin lid thrown up as a target,

Sliding down the sky

Like a beanbag coming apart at the seams.

Grain spilling from the craw.

Until today, that is, when I got

This wounded hawk fluttering in the corn. I threw

My coat at its hunched shoulders, but it screamed,

Levered itself, by one good wing into a tree.

I wonder will it be dead

Tomorrow. Or pulling through,

Live to cast the shadow of my head.

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The snail moves

Like a hovercraft,

Held up by a rubber

Cushion of itself, sharing its secret

With the hedgehog. The hedgehog

Shares its secret with noone.

We say 'Hedgehog, come out

Of yourself and we will love you.

We mean no harm. We want

Only to listen to what

You have to say. We want

Your answers to our questions.'

The hedgehog gives nothing

Away, keeping itself to itself.

We wonder what a hedgehog

Has to hide, why it so distrusts.

We forget the god

Under this crown of thorns.

We forget that never again

Will a god trust in the world.

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Coming here, we were like that mountain whose base

We kept sidestepping. Thinking ourselves superior.

Having, we thought, our final attitude and bias.

Really, wanting a new slant. For the past hour

We heard the seancha relearn

What he has always known,

Region of heroes, gentle maidens,

Giants that war and landgrab.

Each phrase opening like a fern.

Till some make fists of themselves, like the stones

In a landslide, a cadence

That comes in his way. He can adlib

No other route. If we play back the tape

He may take up where he left off.

Nothing. And no heroes people this landscape

Through which he sees us off.

The faces of his sheep

Are nimbuses, each belly

Like a cumulus. But having shape,

Separate and memorable.

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It has become a part

Of me. I might try to abort

The poem. Noone would know

But myself. God I should have known

Never again to start

A poem. Now that the start

Is made, I have no right

To say the end. No right.

I am pregnant a day

And must not call it a day.

I know its birth

But not its date of birth.

Then the poem will live, will live

Outside my life.

I will wrap

It in paper. Leave it on your step.

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'No moon can exert

Its pull. The water level

Barely fluctuates.

Your hemline rises,

And I am at sea.

The Japanese are expert

With that form, the tauka.

A year ago, and with another girl,

I thought, I had their skill,

Enough to dwarf that place

Into so many syllables. A year

That taught me nothing about God.

Only that by wettings

And dryings He shrank that island

To a summary of itself.


I watch the mainland,

(It includes your head),

And I try to shrink your head

As the mainland gets big.

'In your family,

You say, letting one's hair grow

Is a religion.

Yours is a homily

That never bores, though it is long.'

A year that taught me nothing

About verse, only that these poems,

Composed on that island, are guesses

At the truth, summaries of themselves

Like the miniature trees

In an oriental garden.

Lough Derg 1969.
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