A Load of Firewood
for John Walsh
Was it me, then, or was it you,
who came backshifting the weighty trailer
through the open gates and tipped it there,
when the scrape and topple
of a few loose blocks quickened
to a thunderclatter over half the yard,
and the all-of-a-sudden presence
of so much timber at the ready
made me feel at home,
like a mite or a burrower in the bole?
Did it open your eyes
as much as it opened mine,
the way a woodpile drying
in the right conditions
has the fat worked off it by the years,
to a tightening of material,
the way less volume means more heat?
Something like birch
to get the whole thing started right;
the slow release of oak and ash
to keep it going through the night.
What is a log cut from a tree
if not a cross-section of living?
— the good years and the bad years
set down in pressed layers of xylem
and phloem, and every now
and then some vexed heart’s eccentricity.
Later, on quiet nights in,
going over all of this with a warm
gun is a thing that some of us will do,
like cutting a tree through and through.
North-westerly course out of Tripoli.
(Re)Provision of foodstuffs and water
to the offshore rig Zagreb 1,
fifty miles (nautical, mind) off the coast
of Libya. When one of my officers
spyglassed what looked to be an agitation
of gulls over a small craft, I gave orders
to tack and when we closed and saw
it was of course men hailing us with their shirts,
yelling in the unintelligible,
sent my second in command, an Egyptian,
to sound out the crew in Arabic.
……….Well I saw ants once, when I was a child,
eclipse a slice of apple let fall
on the front stoop of our building,
and that’s what it is:
one hundred and fifty souls overcrowding
the deck of a fifty-foot wooden vessel,
and as many again squatting below
between the boards, you learn subsequently.
That they badly lack water and food
is relayed, that they’re about parched for petrol,
or adrift under a big midday sun,
and never a rudiment of navigation
or a lifejacket amongst them.
……….Now, international regulation
on sea rescue prescribes such persons
be repatriated to the nearest port,
which means a U-turn to Tripoli,
but some demand you tow them
to Italy, and the whole boatload boil over
to a frenzy when you have to refuse,
threatening to fling themselves into the sea.
Considering women and small children
are in the hold, the middle ground
is to bid them board, the orchestration
of which veers perilously close to mayhem,
but it’s a mayhem you just get used to.
Water, chocolate bars and first aid
can thus be duly administered.
……….Some of those we treated for pussed-up
bullet wounds and knife cuts just blushed
like men and women showing their private parts;
the more mouthy there raged at paying
thousands of American dollars for passage
to Europe and being abandoned
in the middle of the Med like a pail
of kittens. Evidently there’s money
to be made in promising a man
some crackpot impracticality
he has fantasized,
or that was once engraved somewhere in his head.
Tonight it was on every channel.
A mile-long line of lorries blocked
at the jetty checkpoint, that big sign
flashing Calais 5, Calais 5.
The length of this safeguarded pass,
geared up police inspect the cabs
under chassis, flashlight the dark
places behind engines and wheels
before any gesticulated all clear,
and iron bucks on iron when
a rig’s motor lows up the gangway.
So did you know the hot space
between that one’s back tyres?
Did you bearhug the crud
of its underbelly or cling
to its rattling hindquarters
with all your remaining strength,
get drenched in the scent
of its diesel musk, its oil drool?
And how many times
did you do this to yourself
only to be discovered
and discouraged through punishment?
Seeing each lorry get its all-out
going over, why am I struck
again by those television
images from years ago
of men in white boiler suits
on the Louth-Armagh border,
face-masked, gloved and goggled,
tight-circling every vehicle
on the road from Meigh to Proleek,
who bleached and power hosed
any outbreak of foot and mouth
out of our country?
When I imagined your drowned body
in the harbour, all I could see
was the sea-girt bloat
of your trafficked arms and legs,
your dough-pale, freighted head
missing its eyes, lips and ears.
Before you were dredged you were downdragged
and caught in the undercurrents’
cold for a whole month,
bottom feed in death as in life
and, only for the tattoos,
unidentifiable, dead twice.
The newspapers’ black and white
said there was a watertight
plastic bag tied to your waist,
keeping a family photo safe.
To me, the way you surfaced fast
to that bubble of a past
your own country made unworkable,
was the once-and-for-all unsaying
of all our front-page-story speak
and brass-necked eldorado talk
that must have been raging hurt for you,
insult to your original restlessness.
From the rain and mire months
(those oilskins his only hope of shelter)
to the hardhat’s dust and sweat
summer softening on the sweatband,
he slogs it out in all weathers
to work off a penance.
Straddling steel in house foundations
or down laying shit pipe
in the soup of trenches,
he’s a ground worker with a dirt wish.
All week you may suffer his dirt
and silence, but he has been sentenced
slowly to the rest of his life.
Nights out, he’ll extinguish
the flicker of a conversation
like he grinds out each butt
in the smoking ashtray,
drown the drought of good company
in as many cold pint bottles
as loved ones who left on the Big C.
Not the ones he left behind;
as they shoulder up underneath
and steady into step, bell-slow
toward the waiting hearse,
I must be reminded of an evening
a month ago at most, drizzle
trickling down the last glints of day
on every single thing, and seeing him
alone at low tide,
struggling in oilskins,
unrooting scrap from the soft Slob Bank,
shouldering it away to a trailer.
Before I can think of the ones he left behind,
I must keep going back
to him going back
for every keel piece and rust-bitten half barrel,
for every pennyworth of copper,
stooped under his own weight in old iron
so that the full load he’d have to tow
might equal the dead weight of his worry.