From Introduction by the Donegal poet, Frank Harvey
“Place is where all of us are in life, but some of us are more sensitive to its magnetism than others. In his book Preoccupations Seamus Heaney, whose own poetry is as much a monument to locus as a dolmen or a standing stone, has written an illuminating essay on the sense of place and these poems by Sam Burnside are all inspired by the spirit of place which, to quote Seamus Heaney in that same essay, was known and cherished by the poet. The place in question here is Fahan, Co Donegal, a place that for most of us out for a summer drive is a leafy suburban looking scatter of houses on the side of a hill overlooking the Lough as we flash through on the road between Derry and Buncrana. But, of course, Fahan … is far more than just a collection of houses on the edge of Lough Swilly; Sam Burnside responds to its past and present through the medium of a sensibility which is as much attuned to the subtleties of an interior landscape as to an exterior one… Silence is never very far away in Co Donegal: although the road running through Fahan is a busy one, many of these poems seem to harbour silence in their hearts…”
From Fahan Mura:
White plastic bags career on the wind
And the wind brings sounds of Hank Williams’
Voice flirting with Dolly Parton’s.
The kids down there don’t mooch to it,
They are drinking cider,
And the one bottle of cheap sparking wine.
Doubtless, they will leave the empties where they drop.
Poverty is an ominous parent.
In the shelter of a fallen tree trunk
A commonwealth of ants
Deal with the relics of abdicated shells
And claws. Life matters:
People matter; you
Can carve that in flint,
If you like; trite
In the face of this devouring creation.
Men of politics and men of the cloth always
Have used the term love before the battle begins;
Ranked archers, right wrists readied for the straining
Pull, for the sighting, and then the easing release
In collotated faith to that word.
The solitary bowman whose arrow never misses,
Pursues a worthier target; together they choose
What form their drama will take, beginning in doubt
They end with love, but beyond that too, in fleeting peace,
While the arrow sinks home, while the pendulum hangs, taut
Between its rising and its falling.
Love’s an ascending virtue; but cunning; salient,
Not slow, not slave, subject to no edict
Though coveting always slow time’s long itch.
From under the eaves of the pink-washed house
Bats drop through twilight out into this world;
The swifts are making eager, last-minute passes,
Hungry for all things life has on offer,
Like speed, and distance, and height; each generation
Distinct, yet they draft such graceful turns, shaping
Family paths that twine and turn and overrun
And turn again upon themselves, interrogating
Solitude as they go, teasing fragmentation
Into wholeness. They make mischief in the air
Where lone bats have serious business.
And to think, where the bats feed and the swifts sketch
Their desires with such skill, with such verve and disregard
That once there was nothing;
And what was before nothing;
Before even that lonely first yawning sigh.
It is Sunday.
The tide comes in at Fahan.
A big red tractor drones along the blue-tarred road,
Coming from The Bosom at Fahan Upper;
Forty thousand motor cars skirt it, clumsily,
Half going east, half going west.
The tide goes out at Fahan.
A big red tractor drones along the black-tarred road,
Going to The Bosom at Fahan Upper;
Forty thousand motorists skirt it, clumsily,
Half going west, half going east.
Between this house and the high road
I’ll plant willows, shoulder to shoulder,
In two straight rows
The length of one good stride apart.
When well rooted, I’ll lace
Together their embracing arms.
Against the whitewashed long house-wall
Black forms are configured into piety.
Hardly noticed, the wind bends over Mouldy Hill
White-capped waves run for land
Mountain streams are greedy to be torrents
Death is never far away, brothers;
Waiting and watching for it becomes
A folly, and a pleasure.
A bird dresses a naked bough
God is a word, a vowel
And two consonants
Raised between us and the mystery
That the word denies, that the word protects,
Head inclined; yellow beak inclined;
The schooled branch, its bending known,
Is unacknowledged now, claw-gripped
With decorum, he is borne out.
His carriers caressed by the day;
They are nature-bunched and wind-herded,
They are anchored by this soul-light burden.
A fluster of wing-thrusts
Sends a shower of diamonds
Shivering among saplings
Delivered among young shoots,
Sent seeking out deep roots
The words are lifted by the wind;
They are lifted beyond our ear-reach;
Yet we know them, for what they are;
They give a comfort, deemed appropriate.
Pitched and peppered by the weather
He is taken and tossed shockingly by the wind,
A plaything of old bones, black-feathered
As another night falls,
Behind the partially open window
In the half-lighted room
A television kick-starts pictures
That flicker and tickle time’s appetites.
Drawing closer, I see
Images creating a drama,
A dark cast that shivered
Out from under the finger
Of Shakespeare, I judge.
There is Romeo, over-
Acting, on his knees,
Embracing the feet
Of everyone’s Juliet,
Sticking my head in at the window
I am confronted by Cordelia,
And a girl on the sofa, lamenting,
‘Wouldn’t Lear break your heart,
‘The way he was treated
‘And him so decent.!
‘Oh, if only he had seen that
‘One for what she was,
‘While he still yet had time!’.
The Wild Geese
In our kitchen the Raeburn muttered and coughed
On a Sunday morning. A car at the gate
Burst into the ritual of paper reading.
A black poet, brought to say hello,
Sits and tells of how a play of his brought
People onto the streets, of how a government
Minister was prompted to telephone him
In anger, of how he’d hidden to avoid arrest.
His three friends listened and nodded. In confusion
We offered this and that, and somehow
He ended up with a glass of neat whiskey and
A piece of sweetly iced cake: oblivious to that
And what he must have thought of our odd customs He asked how writers here do things. ‘Nobody
Much cares, really’, I said, embarrassed
By his seriousness.
At the door he paused and pointed to the water,
‘What is that?’
‘That is the Swilly’, I replied. ‘That is where
The Wild Geese fled from.’
‘That is good’, he said, looking into the empty sky.
Metaphors in the Garden
Later, a Japanese girl, slight as a blade of young spring grass,
Sat on the edge of one of our chairs, drinking weak black tea.
Later still, we walked in the garden.Mute, smiling,
And touching roses, she took a bloom:
She detached a single leaf of blossom
And from the height of her shoulder
Released it to the elements.
Turned out from cupping palm this
Engine of understanding
Fell, galaxy passes galaxy,
Stars die and are born again
While we wait.
Her friend explained,
‘Time is passing,
‘We must resume our journey’.
On the Beach
The dawn reveals
The great retreat.
Above the tide-line
A bird’s frame, skeletal,
Narrow and white,
Shimmers between frosted rocks.
Across Church Floors
Fat little brown church mice
Chew upon slivers of fallen wafer;
Sharp little white teeth go crunch;
Full of goodness, they are beloved by owls
And the attentive, stiff-legged stalking cat.
Passing Church Gates
Under a skiff of snow
The forged gates
Of men’s handiwork.
Hammered flat, such clay traps the slap of a spade’s back
Contained here, she lies, walled between jig-sawed monuments
Long sanctified beneath these inscribed anvils of stone
Evie Hone’s fine, crafted window filters cunning amalgamations
Of light, some chemistry spell-binds them into pigments
Fit to drape the cool uplift of Evensong.
A tablet nourishes and composes in memory
This companion to the lady of the lamp;
They have walked in aisles between the dead long enough
Furnishing the succour of attendant ministry
Where drafts blew the candle wildly, grown men
Crying out, knowing only the need to be cherished.
They should be resting in a place of lichen and fern,
In a garden of herb-beds, rosemary and thyme
Where the running, frenzied, cloud-blinded moon
Is mere scullion to the rising sun
Where modest gardeners till and sow and reap
And husband all the quickening, reigning things about them.