|Odysseus rested on his oar, and saw
The ruffled foreheads of the waves
Crocodiling and mincing past; he rammed
The oar between their jaws, and looked down
In the simmering sea, where scribbles of weeds defined
Uncertain depth, and the slim fishes progressed
In fatal formation, and thought If there was a single
Streak of decency in those waves now, they’d be ridged,
Pocked and dented with the battering they’d had
And we could name them as Adam named the beasts
Saluting a fresh one with dismay, or a notorious one
With admiration; they’d notice us passing
And rejoice at our destruction, but these
Have less Character than sheep and need more patience.
I know what I’ll do he said,
I’ll park my ship in the crook of a long pier
(And I’ll take you with me, he said to the oar)
I’ll face the rising ground, and climb away
From tidal waters, up river-beds
Where herons parcel out the miles of stream,
Over the gaps in the hills, through warm
Silent valleys, and when I meet a farmer
Bold enough to look me in the eye
With ‘Where are you off to with that long
Winnowing fan over your shoulder?’
There I will stand still,
And I’ll plant you as a gatepost or a hitching-post
And leave you for a tidemark. I can go back
And organise my house then.
But the profound
Unfenced valleys of the ocean still held him;
he had only the oar to make them keep their distance;
The sea was still frying under the ship’s side.
He considered the water-lilies, and thought about fountains
Spraying as wide as willows in empty squares;
The sugarstick of water clattering into the kettle;
The flat lakes bisecting the rushes. He remembered spiders and frogs
Housekeeping at the wayside in brown trickles floored with mud,
Horsetroughs, the black canal with pale swans at dark;
His face grew damp with tears that tasted
Like his own sweat or the insults of the sea.
by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
This poem is culled from The Penguin Book of Irish Verse. It was edited by Poet Brendan Kennelly and published in 1970. Both poets have collections, translations and ongoing works.