Issue 22: Conor Carville

from BLESS

The Head of Oliver Plunkett.

‘Listen to me. Let me tell you a story. I drifted

over here as a youngster, a lifetime

before your kind did, the runt of a big litter,

falling in with a crowd on night-shift

in the Mentals. That was me for forty

years, man and boy. Wiping people’s arses

for a living. Electric shock? Of course

we did. Nobody suffers. It works, doesn't it?

But I do mind sitting in the annexe

once, long past midnight, the dead TV,

the green-on-greener walls slick and shiny,

when up steams the old dumb-waiter and in it

a head. “Here. You’re an educated man”,

it said (although I am not.) “What says you

to the way they gathered the hames of my bones

from Downside, Drogheda and Hildesheim,

gathered and raised them up, sursum corda

and not to the Lord, no, but carried inside

a shuddersome buzzing yoke, a hellish reliquary

in the shape of a fly, whose head was a black orb,

tool-smooth like a conjuror’s, an obsidian crystal

ball, all filled with lights and clockwork things,

with a scorpion's jagged tail, and long black wings

like swords that whirled above it in a circle

and hoisted it up the way a mighty body

might pull a bucket up a scaffolding, so it sways

with its load from side to side but yet holds steady,

up and up, hand over fist, into the motley sky”.

It was Oliver Plunkett, the last of the English Martyrs

as some have it, his head rotating, the gibbous skin

all mustard and ash, about to explode, like a TV dinner

that's been bubbling in a microwave for all eternity.

This was the head before it had cooled to the boked-

up coconut you see in Drogheda, as it must have been

when snatched by its glib from the fire in Tyburn

and bunged in a sack like a rooster, the way it looked

when moved out from the city in a gallon can, strapped

to the chassis of an artic, banging off the sides, its crowing

lost in the grind of the engine, out through the gates of the city

and on into Surrey where the airbrakes finally hiss and lapse

into the peace of a cobbled courtyard, where fountain

and pear tree water and scent the air, lute and viol

and the head still screeching, carried into cool purple

murmuring shadow, its raging skin balmed and anointed.

That hissing, Tango’ed, torn and shrunken dermis

was speaking to me now from its mossy box in a curious

high-faluting accent, a mixture of the North and South, East

and West of Ireland, one minute all spiky consonants and the next

a wheedling, querulous sing-song, one minute a rapid forensic mutter

and the next the toothless sough of syllables in rushes and all the while

its eyes straying about, bright green and unblinking, lidless eyes,

earless ears, a mouthless mouth that had never ceased to utter:

“At last the helicopter stopped, making no headway,

but turning very slowly, whether deasil or widdershins

I cannot remember, for it seemed to me that the land

itself was rotating and the fly was the still point,

and at that precise moment my bones all called out

to each other, a strange sound, an insect chirrup and chitter

that cut through the pummel and clatter of the rotors,

calling out, begging to be assembled, to be joined at the root

of the brain-stem and the tip of the spinal cord, to be tied

together again at talus and tibia, for my clavicle and scapula

to touch and attach and all of my numbered bones to be wrapped

tightly in a winding sheet and, like a burial at sea, eased

over the gunwale of that infernal engine, so that I might

rise or fall myself, or better remain, a mute white

fixture in the evening sky, bobbin or spool that cannot

unbind, chrysalis pinned to the velvet board of night”.

Much else it told me, how the pilot sat impassively

against the sky, a painted effigy, as the bones began

to descend, London brooding below them, an early sun

striking fire off dome and steeple, the intricate city

stretching to the horizon, and running through it the Thames

shining and transparent, a snail’s evaporating glister, the loop

around the Dog’s peninsula dangling like the cabled noose

that hangs from the gibbet’s blanched and lichened arm.

And as they had thronged to see him suffer at Tyburn Cross,

so now a crowd was waiting on the Common, their faces

upturned, though when the chopper settled and the blades ceased

in their din, becoming visible again, we heard not the raucous

jeers and blather of the mob, but rather a great shared

sigh, the kind that exhales itself in the silence back of

a ding-dong, a post-everything whisper, the kind that occurs

when the gallows speech packs in, the breathless gap after death-

rattle, drum batter, thunder-storm, the aftermath of the dum-

dum that was not a dummy, of the blast inside the citadel,

it’s in that vested weight, that pressure-drop, that tumult

you hear voices disinter themselves, the dead voices are the sum

of that change, you get me, that sudden feinted buckle

is where they hail from, not some gross throat 

fleshing quickly along neck bones, not the woven,

sleeving cordage, but the waft of the wind thrapple,

pure sound brought out of itself, a mouthless whistle,

not some vegetal glottis flexing at its centre of its pentacle,

not the uvula’s carnal bleb, but a sine wave, imperceptible

tremble of the middle air, as the water table

in a tumbler on a table trembles long after the column

of armour passes, as the Geiger counter garrolously ticks

in the middle of the rainy swaying pine plantation, as

the lanyard taps on occasion against the logged flagpole’s absence.



It feels like it’s about to snow, that foreboding

sense of weight and silence, a signal from the sky-

docked cloud. At the tower. I slip my phone

from my breast to snap her in her clamber

up the rigging, bless, but it’s frozen in selfie mode,

the image magnified fish-eye style so I find

myself peering deep into my own left nostril,

where something is shining out, a crystalline

structure sinking slowly down, projected upon it

a long but bulbous face, snout more than face,

conk more than snout, hippo-like, very white,

all parched and scrotal, no mouth at all. The gull-blue

eyes are deeply scored with infinite lines,

there are lines across the staring brow, lines piled

high to the pointed ears and between them

a quartz anemone that tinkles, chimes.

                                                                                 Then a low voice:


‘Nothing moves

in my veins out here

and nothing ever will,

crystal and stone

and coral and bone

are all that is real,

all that is cold

is all that abides

let silica stone

crystal and bone

shine out of your soul

let your soul be content

with cloud and stone

so the polar light

shines out of your eye

your heart become home

to the spirit-bone

the seal

the Groke

the scop

the skua

the thing

that inhabits

the wintery zone

in the lee

of a ruined dome

or rotunda

scrolling light

now black

now white

eternal diurnal

hyperborean temple no

entrance no exit

its roof cut away

at an angle revealing

a humanoid form

all succour and calm

beside him his bones

disassembled replenished

exposed to the sky

they sing they chirp

they bless they hiccup

totally smooth

totally clean

scoured and bourne

by solar winds

or carried in a solar boat

above remote primordial oceans.


The stars above

and the rock below

the dome holds steady

in the snow

the drifts of snow

that cloud the rock

the wind of grit

that sands the bones

beside the creature

incredibly old

cryogenically frozen

lying in profile

the muzzle set

the brow unlined

shining out


the delicate ear

its plug of fur

the wattled neck

its jugular

one visible eye

cast up to heaven

blue inhumed


the question

what place is this

what zone what region?


The fur on his flank

is rising subsiding

each easeful breath

an aeon

an instant

in synch with


light and cold

sudden strobe

or slow oscillation

the landscape goes

from white to grey

the dome

the snow

the rock the bones

from white to grey

then grey to black

the sky

the cloud

the eye

the brow

from freezing point

to fifty below

the chest

the arms

ensleeved in sheets

then back again

but rarely higher

certainly never

exceeding zero.


You pick up each sigh

such is the silence

a scatter of molars

a pattern of knuckles

the sky tonight is

inside out

scene cordoned off

ceremonial site


of bone and snow

of stars arrayed

beneath the dome

that’s broken open

to a sun

of silicon

a coral eye

the snow is rising

to the sky

your dad is dead

in negative

is constellate

of star and bone

is tantamount

to light in eye

of eye and light

a concentrate

a bone-bright crystal

on your lash

weighed assayed

and not found wanting.

Bone Song

Look. A Chinook, hammock slung between two grey derricks, very low,

hanging fire, then angling heavily down and away, as if the tower at the tail

had been pinched between a fastidious thumb and forefinger, escorted out

of this summer day like the pesky mouse in yestermorning’s Tom and Jerry.

Silence. Now look. Two furls of smoke from our barbecue pit weave up

in a helix, an impermanent spiralling twister, a couple of copulating serpents,

each bound about the other, bless, rasping and slithery, wriggly and sibilant,

a snookered caduceus thrashing inside the voice box of the Common, the voice

box, the black box, the glory and priest-hole. Echo-socket. Yokey-buzzer.

An empty set, a clearing house, a vernal emission, combined and uneven.

A wildflower’s calyx humming with hexes and pesters, coos and prustens,

woofs, tweets and geckers. A bee-mouth-grille. A little pink or blue kazoo.

A semi-conducting portal for pant-hoots, bless, like the bouncy pontoon

crossing Beverley Brook, where the martyred voices blow in colloquy

and counterpoint, Fisher and More, coughing in bole and leaf-blower, ingle-

nook and keyhole, chanting in tongue and groove, cobweb and cooling tower.

Their gobbledygook is grafted onto particle and polymer, root and radial.

It spreads by contagion, by capillary suasion, a legion, a lurgy, the legbone

connected to the collarbone, the collarbone connected to the nose-flute.

Pepsi & Shirley, Kelso Cochrane, Chief Long Wolf, Cannon & Ball.

Starting to seethe now, bubbling down in the lees of the whale like a full English

breakfast, crooning from the zeros, the binary codes, the whale bone connected to

the genome, the genome connected to the Overton window, Sarah Namala, Robert Emmett.

Billing and cooing from the dry, tidemarked throats of porcelain cisterns in padlocked

municipal lavs, bless, keening through the twin little colons in Bazalgette’s

manholes, Richard Gwyn, David Lewis, the backbone connected to the cash flow,

the cash flow connected to the drop zone, the neurone connected to the ink stone.

Stirring in the lift-shafts and the windlasses of the tower blocks, stained white cliffs where

 the gannets preen, smooth breasts bedabbled with ketchup, Cuthbert Howlett,

Alice Samuel, calling through the star-crossed panes of benefit hostels

etch-a-sketched with forgotten initials, Kevin Gately, Agnes Waterhouse,

breathing from the toothless gobs of postboxes, from the kissers of vape sticks.

Hissing from the unshackled earbud of a drowsy boy on an otherwise empty

nightbus, bless, or trickling from the narrow neck of a defrocked sugar sachet

in the tea room of HMP Wandsworth, the tea room that was once the gallows:

the Stratton Brothers, William Joyce, Little & Large, the hip bone

connected to the peep-hole, the allophone connected to the yongy-bongy-bo,

Sapphire & Steel, bless, Naomi Hersi, bless, Hammett and Brine, bless,

Hinge & Bracket, gah, the mouth-hole connected to the asshole, the asshole

that’s grassing to a footpatrol, the footpatrol that’s searching for the old mole.

Bland and Frankesh, bless, Bodie & Doyle, ach, Larkin and O’Brien, bless.

Mewling in the grim flues of kebab shops, in the cindery exhaust pipes

of delivery mopeds, the trombone connected to the wig-wam, the ding-dong

connected to the bunga-bunga. Altab Ali. Blair Peach. Edward Jakubowsky.

And all those you couldn’t put a name to, never ever put a name to:

Janet & John, let’s say; Meg & Mog, let’s say; Bill & Ben, let’s say.

Sooty & Sweep, let’s say; Pinky & Perky, let’s say; Crystal Tips & Alastair.

Uncle Bulgaria, let’s say. Mistah Kurtz, let’s say. John Maguire, let’s say.


             Whispering from the gaps between the dry, dusty lips of two large bags

of sawdust, Sacha Murphy, Joe Meek, two full-bellied torsos dragged to the jail

in Horsemongers Street in 1802, Edward Despard, Robert Drury, Cherry Groce,

bless, lugged to the jail and into its courtyard, Ball and Tyler, Tyler and Straw,

the frayed chapped lips around their mouths, the dust bone connected to the blood

bone, the blood bone connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected

to the axe bone, bless, brought into the smoggy courtyard and set beside the block,

Dips and LaLa, the Demdikes and the Chattoxes, the daddy bone and the

mummy bone, the daughter bone, Joan, Margaret and Phillipa Flowers, bless,

faint breath in the crumbling mouths, the dry mouths of a couple of sacks

of sawdust, bless, breathless, bless, Alan Turing, Mark Fisher, a blue cloud

in the fasting holes, Oliver Plunkett, Roger Casement, the faintest of whispers

stirring the dust, the sawdust and the bone dust, the smoke dust and the coal

breath, the lip bone and the dirt song, the song dust and the heart bone, the ash

bone and Boney M, a fish bone, a foul bone, the heart’s mouth, the bone dream,

the spirit bone, the occult zone, the throat bone, the dust breath, a bone song.

Conor Carville was born in Armagh, N. Ireland. He is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Reading University. His first collection of poems Harm’s Way was published by Dedalus Press in 2013. A new book, English Martyrs will appear in late 2019 from Two Rivers Press. Other publications include Samuel Beckett and the Visual, from Cambridge University Press, 2018 and a book on Irish cultural theory The Ends of Ireland: Criticism, History, Subjectivity, published by Manchester University Press in 2012. He lives in London with his wife and daughter. Email:

Copyright © 2019 by Conor Carville, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.