Anonymous (8th century) translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me.
“Poetry is about the grief”
I wrote poetry as a child and then became too self-conscious to write until 1988, when I was twenty-seven, and the madness induced by my father’s death allowed me to throw off the shackles of what might be considered appropriate, to express the wildness I was feeling. As one would expect, most of what I wrote initially was thrown away, but the sluice gates were opened and I never let them close again.
I believed and still do that poetry saved my life, and it began on the day I read Lady Gregory’s translation of Donal Óg. I felt Emily Dickinson’s test for poetry was working 100%, and not only was the top of my head ‘taken off’, but every time I read the poem I had a bandage clamped to my wound. I read Donal Óg incessantly and dramatically, like I was calling out to my father, and myself, too.
What was the connection? I had lost a father who was fifty-nine years older than me, whereas Donal Óg is a litany of reproaches from a young girl to her faithless lover. Perhaps it was because that kind of death brings back all the old painful family betrayals, but I feel it was more than that. A grief is a grief and nothing can express this universal human condition better than poetry.
Donal Óg was the touchstone for everything that I would look for in poetry after that, both my own and others. The strong dramatic voice running the fine line between song and speech that gives the reader that feeling of intimacy: “you promised me and you said a lie to me.” The incantatory list of images. The specificity: “I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you.” Narrative, but not too much telling: “My mother said not to be talking to you tomorrow or the Sunday, it was bad time she took for telling me that.” There is the lovely shock of the unexpected surrealism: “shoes of a skin of a bird.” But above all the sheer authenticity of that voice coming across centuries, through a different language, satisfying Mandelstam’s request for poetry to be addressed to some
reader in posterity…unknown but definite. Speaking to someone well known we can only say what is
well known,…but to exchange signals with Mars,… there is a worthy task for a lyric poet.