Issue 19: Michael O'Neill
in ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’
possibly the finest line
and your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul
runs along the nerves like wine
because of the earlier abundance
of allusions to the material
so in the course of my illness
the fact that we love to crack jokes,
to talk nonsense and pass
into a private idiom
may hint there's a hope that lurks
in the disease's very medium
which has the force of a dumb yes,
a wry, destructive, passionate kiss.
Half-worshipping, half-spellbound, here yet again,
I see you, Madonna, as more than human,
and yet certainly as a woman,
even if you're only a vision
in tesserae, blue cubes, golden
cubes, and though not my creation,
and I’m no Pygmalion,
you’re an icon I’ve fallen
in love with since, a young man
touring the islands, seeking shelter from the sun,
I first stood, mouth opening, before the Byzantine
sexiness of your maternal pathos;
as now to stand here, gazing at the line
that defines your drapery, at the pain
your famous tear allows us to imagine
you still feeling even in
your new transcendent condition,
is to glimpse a star whose reflection
steadies the stretch of lagoon
between Torcello and the Logos, between
trauma and benediction.
Earthly Paradise From Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 28
In the way, dancing, a woman
pivots, feet on the ground, close by each other,
neither moving ahead of the other one,
she turned to me upon the red flowers
and on the yellow too, with the air
of a maiden whose eyes are lowered;
and brought appeasement to my prayer,
approaching me so closely her soft voice
was audible, its meanings clear.
Soon as she’d reached the place where grass
starts to be washed by the shining river's tide,
she granted me the gift of her raised eyes.
‘Now since all the air must turn
in a circle driven by the primal motion,
unless the circuit is at all broken,
the motion, striking this mountain
as it dwells freely in the living air,
then touches into music vegetation.
And the struck forest has such power
it diffuses through the air its quality,
essences the spinning air will scatter,
until the earth below, to the degree
its soil is suitable and its climate,
conceives and rears tree-rich diversity.
If this were understood, then it
wouldn't seem strange how, without seed,
a plant will, in that place, take root.
You must have understood that the sacred
fields where you stand are full of every seed,
and yield fruits which, down there, are not picked.’
‘Poets of old times, with their idea
of the golden age and its happy state,
perhaps dreamt in Parnassus of this place here.
Here human innocence took root;
here spring is lasting and each kind of fruit;
this is the nectar of which poets write.’
Then I made a right-round, total
turn to my poets, and saw that with a grin
they’d heard this last proposal;
then turned my face back to that courteous woman.
To the Moon After Leopardi
A year on, I recall how
I came to this hill to gaze at you.
I was full of hurt. You hung,
as now, above that wood,
filling it with light.
But your face was clouded, shaken,
as though you wept – an effect of my tears,
shed for a life that had been miserable
and still is, and, in that respect, won’t change,
my adorable moon. And yet it helps
to record and go over
the period of my anguish.
In youth, when hope has a long trek
ahead and memory’s road is short,
there’s a grace in past events, though they
were unhappy and pain persists.
Michael O'Neill is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which is Return of the Gift (Arc, 2018). Others include The Stripped Bed (Collins Harvill, 1990), Wheel (Arc, 2008), and Gangs of Shadow (Arc, 2014). He is Professor of English at Durham University: his most recent critical book, co-authored with Madeleine Callaghan, is The Romantic Poetry Handbook (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).