The Island, A Prospect - a poem by Paula Meehan

Three brown-hued bowls carved out of rock salt
Ruth Lyons, Salarium, 2014. © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

A poem by Paula Meehan, written in response to our 2019 exhibition Shaping Ireland: Landscapes in Irish Art.

You can listen to Meehan discussing her poem and the North Dublin coastline in one of our podcasts here. 


The Island, A Prospect

We learned that Ireland was a temperate island
from our first geography books, the climate mild,
the gulf stream a blessing that saved us from freezing
though we live at the same latitude as Moscow.
And the child I was found that word disappointing,
no earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanoes, floods.
Temperate! A dreary wet city Sunday sound.

I took to astral travel out the school window,
lift-off on the storied wings of myth and legend,
and bitter tales of landlords and emigration,
of plantation, rebellion, famine and ruin.
They offered us a trope of the traumatised nation.
They made us feel the land had failed us. They bludgeoned
us with shame, left us lost, fearing our own shadows.

I grew up. I roved out in blue britches of denim.
I walked the roads. I slept in ditches. I fell in love
with a mountain tarn. Its black eye mirrored the stars.
The island took hold of me: ice-sculpted valleys,
glacial erratics, moraine, esker, bog, karst,
her meadows, her rivers; and beamed down from above
Planet Earth – our grave mother as seen from the moon.

The mitochondrial tug of eternity,
that slow pulse of evolutionary regard
from deep within the ancient reptilian brain,
seat of instinct; from such a critical distance,
my neo-aboriginal imagination
must dream new endings, must fashion prophetic words
fearing they’ll not be heard by our posterity.

Can we trust the visions teeming in the hours of trance,
knowing art is toxic (little arrows of guilt!) –
cadmium, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, lead?
To make paper is to make poison, no hand’s clean.
All our craft work, all our magic, this we trade:
for bee music, music of otter, hare, kite, stoat,
the gold-nebbed blackbird’s blissful song of happenstance.

Last week I walked to Feltrim in the pouring rain,
considered the redundant nature of its name –
Faoldroim, from the Irish, means Ridge of the Wolves.
The wolves are long extinct and half gone is the ridge,
(its requiem the thud and blast of explosive)
limestone lorried away to serve that beast, the boom,
the turbo cycle over and over again.

High on Feltrim Hill Nathaniel Hone loved to sketch
Lambay and Ireland’s Eye, the wild coastal fractals;
and Samuel Beckett’s favourite view was downwards
to Saint Ita’s psychiatric hospital
You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that … our human span
an eyeblink. To save the world is not so simple
as to mine an ocean for each salt tear we’ve wept.

About Paula Meehan

Paula Meehan is a poet and was Ireland Professor of Poetry (2013-16). Her most recent collection is Geomantic.