A Celtic Medley: Poems By James Mele

James Mele was born and raised in Bristol by parents of Italian and Irish descent. After receiving a B.A. from St. Lawrence University, he earned an M.A. in Anglo-Irish Studies from University College, Dublin. He has been published widely, and his first volume of poetry, “Dancing in Eurynome’s Shoes,” was published in 2017. In addition to teaching English for four decades, he has spent time working on his brother’s horse farm and also worked on a sheep farm in Ireland. He recently moved back to his hometown, where he now lives in retirement.

- Connecticut Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin

For J. Michael Lynch

I think of you there in the hills above Nice,

Your face bleached pale as the hospital sheets,

Your mind at twilight fraying around the edges,

Body too weak to bear your weight,

Joints and organs wearing out, one by one,

Like the parts of that old clunker car of yours,

That so often seemed to drive itself

As we traveled up from Dublin

Into the Wicklow hills and back again.

There’s no betrayal more bitter to bear, I know,

Than when the flesh turns traitor on us,

But remember, if you can, old friend, those days

How intoxicated we’d be on talk of poetry

And the grace in the blessing of women

As we climbed those narrow, twisting roads,

Just as drunk on words as we’d later be in descent

On pints of porter we drank at Mooney’s

Or that place tucked away from time in Lachan

Where a man could have a quiet drink

And watch over the half-door the ploughman

Lead his horses home in jangling harness

Through the celestial light of an Irish evening.

Take comfort that such passions of the mind

Still burn in you; some souls flame out

Long before the body ever gives them up

And falls into ashes and into dust.

Voice, the voice you always said,

Is what matters most, and forty years on,

The voice that breathes life into your lines

Still casts on me a druidic spell and leads me

Into realms of longing and of dream.

I hear it now in my mind, speaking disembodied

Out of the quiet shadows of that room

Where your son sits beside your sick bed

And writes down the words of poems

You grope for in memory and dictate to him,

Poems, they tell me, you made in your head

In the hospital amid the throes of your collapse,

Like some fili tossing on a stone bed

In the dark cell of an ancient bardic school.

It is so like you, for whom fame and fortune

And the foppery of playing the poet

Were never the spark of your inspiration,

Whose only ambition was to work

The rich soil of your mind, so like you,

Now fearing the end, to keep bending,

As broken as you are, to the task

And hurry to glean before the storm

The last fruits of your imagination.

Seannachie

His craft was the trade of Homer’s masters,

But no one had time for it anymore.

Now his neighbors sat in their separate houses,

Their minds enchanted by a voice on the wireless

As it told them the latest news of a world

A century away from their townland.

It struck their imaginations blind to his tales

Of a wilder magic, of impossible feats

And adventures on the farthest edge of reality.

No one crossed his door on winter nights to hear him,

No one, except now and again, some pale student,

Some serious-minded collector of dying things

Who came to record the last gasp of his art.

Yet he kept to his craft with the same passion

As he clung to the breath in his body,

Rehearsing twists of plots that had travelled

From mouth to mouth in a hundred different tongues

Across the continent, across millennia, to him

On that last wind-carved shore of Europe.

Though a man of flesh and blood and bone,

He was a ruin as sad and wonderful

As all the withering stones of antiquity.

They would see him in the fields or along the roads

Wrestling his dizzy memory to remember

A story he was telling to the sky, to the hedgerows,

Or to the bony rumps of his scraggly herd of cows,

Orchestrating it with broad gestures and wide eyes –

Like a madman raving, a stranger might think –

As he raised his voice into the dark, Atlantic wind

That gnawed his words down to a garbled moan.

Herding Sheep with Bill

There was no contradicting his calendar

Of superstitions – the feast of some saint or other

The sheep had to be herded off the mountain,

Culled and counted, dipped and

Doctored with shots for blackleg.

Wary of the ambitions of the young rams

He’d sired late in life and of their schemes

To get him to sign over the land to them,

He was resolved to give no one reason

To think he’d outlived his use:

He’d oversee it all himself, even if it killed him.

Defying wife and daughters, sons,

And doctor’s orders, he climbed the path

Behind the house in his old suitcoat and his fedora.

A step ahead of most of us,

He shamed us all with his uncanny vigor,

Pushing himself up the slope

With a blackthorn cane, his ice blue eyes

Fierce with the fury of his determination.

He was a quiet, gentle man in his chair

In the corner of the kitchen, sipping his tea

From the saucer or a glass of Smithwick’s,

Or filling his pipe with shavings from a plug

Of Mick McQuaid, but that morning

On the mountaintop he meant to leave no doubt

He was still boss on the place; he shouted

Orders at us and berated us with a coy disdain

For our ineptitude as shepherds. His sons

Bore the brunt of the abuse, the old man

Venting, perhaps, his righteous anger

At the heresy of cows they’d propagated

On the lowlands of the farm against his will.

Half-wild by then with the freedom of

Their summer grazing among the furze and the heather,

The white-faced Cheviots, elusive

As the clouds streaming over the Wicklow peaks,

Ran us and the young dogs ragged

With their anarchic dodging and darting.

He could barely restrain his exasperated delight

At our stupidity as he watched

Bands of rebels, half a dozen or so,

Here and there, strike off in every direction,

But the way we wanted them to go.

When we’d finally got the sheep trooping

In a flock down toward the pens in the valley,

He waved to us to come back up the hill

To where he stood next to a furze-floored gully.

A sheep man all his life in the lonely hills,

He knew the ovine mind better than he knew

The minds of men; he had an almost

Druidic knowledge of their tricks.

Something of a boy’s mischief was still in him,

And he must have thought it’d be good craic

To put on a little show that would give

A playful slap to our ignorance.

He tossed a stone into the bushes, and a leash

Of ewes leapt out of the ditch like doves

Fluttering out of a magician’s hat.

His eyes laughed at our perplexed surprise,

And he smiled to himself to know

He’d trumped our brash youth with his wisdom.

Men Working

The rain cannot be trusted to keep off

Under the moody skies in these hills

And there are still two wagonloads of hay

In the cut fields that need to be brought in

Out of the risks of the weather,

Bales well-cured and dry, sweet stuff.

It’d be a shame to lose them to the wet.

So, after our tea, fueled up for the last push,

We head out to the fields again.

The misty evening light is like a drug.

We’re all drowsy under its spell.

We get back at it with less than zeal,

Hands tender from the twine, muscles

Stiff now and sore from the tons and tons

We’ve stooped and lifted already today,

Loading and unloading the wagon,

Picking the fields clean, one by one,

And filling the hayshed high up into the rafters.

Something in us resists and says

We’ve earned our rest and our leisure,

But duty shouts it down.

Before the embers of the sun’s fire

Burn down to the ash of night

There are still three hours or more of light

In the high curve of these latitudes,

And we have things to do that must be done.

Soon enough, we break a sweat again,

Fall back into the rhythm of the work,

And begin to bear down hard on the task,

Every man eager to keep pace, pull his weight,

And not be thought a sluggard by the others.

Some stride toward the wagon

With a bale in each hand,

In something like an alpha male display.

There’s no horseplay, no banter, no jokes,

As there was in the brighter part of the day.

It’s strictly business now; we work in silence

With a fierce deliberateness.

The thing is just to get it done.

No one says it, but it’s on every man’s mind

We’re all desperate to finish soon enough

To beat the barman’s last call

And the merciless time bell in Mooney’s pub.

The real prize we strive for in this race

Is to steal an hour of freedom for ourselves

Before exhaustion washes over us

And drowns our senses in waves of dreamless sleep.

The rounds of pints will come fast and furious,

Each of us showing the color of his money

To prove he’ll pay his fair share.

We’ll down the drinks fast in big gulps

And out of the corners of ours eyes

We’ll scope the likely girls

Through the fog of the cigarette smoke,

Those few brazen enough to quit the ladies lounge

And drink with the farm boys in the bar.

Haying is thirsty work in more ways than one.

We need that time, we need it

To remind us we’re more than beasts of burden

And to keep up the hope in our hearts

That there is more to living

Than endless rounds of this brutish work.

Hide-and-Seek in the Ruins

of an Irish Abbey

In the gray, morning light,

I climbed worn stone stairs,

Winding in curious turnings

Under vaulted arches

Up from the courtyard of

The cloister to the dormitory.

My eyes lost focus

In the dark cells.

Ghosts of the monks

Who had brooded once

Upon riddles of silence

In those stone wombs,

Blind to all but

The naked word of the world,

Haunted me

With their fierce quest

For holiness.

I pictured them there

With their stark-boned flesh

Scourged and starved

Into dreams of God,

Their hearts giddy

With the mystery of

The light hidden in things.

Later, atop the bell tower,

A peat-smoke scented wind

Searched my face with

Soft messages of rain

That drifted

In a swirling mist

Like strains of harp music

Through the bare trees

And the winter fields,

Orchestrating the silence

With a vague desire

For a life unfettered

By the loneliness of bones.

The solid fact of things

Lost substance.

Brief moments of

Another world

Flickered into brightness

In the shifting

Distances of the mist.

Voices suddenly called

My mind back to itself.

Shouts of children and

Excited laughter shattered

The quiet of the morning

With echoes of

A dizzy game,

A surprise invasion sprung

From where

I could not guess.

Wild-eyed and red-faced,

They scattered

Through the ruins,

Clambering in short pants

Over the broken walls

To escape into secret places,

Hiding and seeking

In the electric darkness

Of the monks’ cells.

I listened to their voices

Slowly lose themselves

Among the abbey’s stones,

Then to turned to watch

A backlit shadow

Of a man

Fishing the river below.

Poems copyright © 2017 by James B. Mele. CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.

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