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World Poetry Portfolio #48: Colm Breathnach

Colm Breathnach was born in Cork in 1961. He obtained a Master’s Degree in Modern Irish in University College Cork. He worked as a terminologist and as secretary to the Irish Language Terminology Committee in the Department of Education in Ireland and is now Assistant Chief Translator in the Translation Section of Oireachtas na hÉireann (the Parliament of Ireland). He has published six collections of poetry, Cantaic an Bhalbháin (Coiscéim, 1991), An Fearann Breac (Coiscéim, 1992), Scáthach (Coiscéim, 1994), Croí agus Carraig(Coiscéim, 1995), An Fear Marbh (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1998) and Chiaroscuro (Coiscéim, 2006). A selected edition of his poetry, Rogha Dánta 1991—2006 was published in 2008. In conjunction with Dr Andrea Nic Thaidhg he produced a translation of the novel Katz und Maus by Günther Grass under the title Cat agus Luch (Coiscéim, 2000). He also translated the Nobel lecture of Günther Grass for the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association and it was published in a trilingual edition under the title Fortsetzung Folgt / To Be Continued / Leanfar de (2002). He has won the principal poetry prize in the annual Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) Oireachtas competitions four times. In 1999 the Irish-American Cultural Institute presented Colm with the Butler award in recognition of his work in poetry. Most recently, he received an international residency fellowship from the Shanghai Writers Association. Colm’s work received critical recognition from the time of the publication of his first collection and poems of his have been included in all the major anthologies of Irish language poetry that have appeared in recent years and poems of his have been translated into Scottish Gaelic, English, German, Italian, Slovenian, Chinese and a Romanian version of the collection An Fear Marbh had been published under the title Bărbatul fără viaţă (Ars Longa, Iasi, 1999). His first novel, Con Trick “An Bhalla Bháin” (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2009) is a metafictional defence of the role of the author in creative fiction.

All poems translated from the Irish by the poet

Good Night, Ya Bastard

to my Father

In Ballyferriter on holidays
we stayed above Seáinín na mBánach’s shop
and some nights
a crowd of locals
and summer visitors
would return after closing time
in Daniel Keane’s pub.

We, the children, lying in suspense
feigning sleep in our beds
waiting for the soft murmur of the company
making its way up the stairs.

Things would start with a bit of a chat,
stories being told, fun being poked,
you acting as shy host
’til the Beamish gave you voice
and you called for a song.

Everyone joining in the chorus,
the hiss as another bottle is opened.

And when the revelling was over
we’d hear the people going,
down on the road in the early morning
someone shouts, “Good night, ya bastard.”
in the full of his voice on the village street.

My sorest wish
to have grown up in time,
before you died,
so I could come
to a night you organised
over Seáinín’s shop
in Ballyferriter.

And when the night was over
and the company were going
I would head for my own lodgings too
in Baile Eaglaise or the Gorta Dubha.
Before I left I would turn to you
and say “Good night, ya bastard,”
fondly, tipsily.

If You Could See Her After Drinking Wine…

to Micheál agus Michelle

If you could see her after drinking wine,
Wine from Chile of the berry-red kind
Prancing ahead of me in the middle of the night
Through the business district with her face alight
Having left the pub late and a little tight.
Ah, if you could see her after drinking wine.

If you could see her after drinking wine.
Wine called Hoch from Germany’s Rhine
Her hands like birds fluttering in flight
In a sugawn café when the day is high
Her voice louder than the crowd’s by just a mite.
Oh, if you could see her after drinking wine.

If you could see her after drinking wine,
Beaujolais Nouveau, strawberries and cream
At a garden party under autumn’s gleam
Her bike by the gate lost in a dream
Of the road home as the sun goes to sleep.
Ah, if you could see her after drinking wine.

If you could see her after drinking wine.
Wine from California’s grape-fields fresh and new
Hopping through the Stack-of-Barley a bit askew
In her oh so new blue suede shoes.
If you could see her, as I see her,
			              after drinking wine.

Through the Speckled Land


She won’t speak to me anymore, this place
my tongue is received with poor grace.

My roots penetrated only so far
and they wither for lack of water.

Salt was spread on the upper scraw
and ploughed through to the lower layer.

She can no longer nourish her brood,
In my own land as a stranger viewed.


On the road between two cities
each of which has two names,
I read the words on the signs.

I am travelling through the speckled land
and every town here has two names.

Claonadh              —	           Clane
Cill Dara             —	         Kildare
Baile Dháith          —	       Littleton
Cúil an tSúdaire      —	 Portarlington

the native name
in italic script
a biased telling of the lore of place
the native name
in the lesser script
a muted telling, in slow fade. . .


As I travel through the speckled land
I move from white to black
my journey is taken aslant
the way I follow is zig-zagged.
I am the knight going the long way round
to attack from behind, to try to confound
but there are castles I can’t assault
and clerics before me, proud and preening,
I can’t protect my own queen even
my road is blocked by lowly pawns.


Between two hues
between two names
between two views
between two words
between two tongues
between two worlds
I live my life
between two lives.

Poem “300” (and Seven)

The poet builds

		a Boat,
		the reader
		provides the crew
		and sets it sailing;

		a Chapel,
		and it’s the reader
		puts the choir in it
		and fills it with music;

		a Space,
		that gets fitted out with furniture
		and becomes a room.

The poet
takes a black page
and with his pen
absorbs the ink
and discovers the poem
in its centre.

		  The reader builds
		  a Poem.

The poet
is wont
to be unavailable.


We drove west across country
farther west than Ireland even
as we crossed a bridge on to an island,
and we kept on ’til we came to a strand.
Once there we got out of the car
to walk into the sea up to our knees.

We are islanders who, once in a while,
require that reaffirmation
the great ocean provides.

We stayed in the water watching the horizon
still there, still as far away as ever.


I get your scent on the wind
perfume from the heather

see your side outlined in the hills

the golden sun rising above them
is the brightness of your eyes

you are more than a woman
you are all women

your arms about my body
on the bed at night

your breath on the back of my neck
the wind rustling sleeping foliage

the swell of your white breasts
rising beneath blue silk

at a gathering you are adamant
attracting glances from every man

a shadow moving as you please
through the demented dreams of a thousand men

who saw you once
and see you every day since
at sunrise and sunset

your profile defined
as a shadow in the hills

your perfume carried
from the heather on the wind

The Eye

Varadero, Cuba, 1992

the sky is too blue here
the grass, as well, too green

hear the bright blue murmuring of the main
enticing the eye far away

the white of the walls in the town
the bright dizziness of noon under the sun

brightness rising from the marble pavements
and encircling the palm trees in the distance

a donkey’s patience in the extreme heat
a brown glistening on its forehead

a spider is parcelling up
a fly that fell into its web

the fly sees the adobe walls of the stable
and through a hole in the roof the sky, the infinite

The Heart

to my Mother

blacker than black

and down the steps
covered in moss

darker than dark

and to the door
covered in verdigris

towards the black
don’t go

black eternity
longer than forever

don’t knock
turn back

everblack than black blacker
don’t go there
but keep your heart beating
still a while
don’t leave me in the everblack
darker than dark
without you


You’d raise your hand and a choir would sing on the Leeside
you’d raise your hand once more
and a choir would sing out in Carrignavar,
or at another time in Shandon under the spire.

And the torrents and currents of Cork,
the air all around the city would be filled
with the voices of throats you controlled.

At Easter mass in Farrinferris
music spread over the sides of the mountain
and down to the Glen,
making the people below raise their heads
that white-bright Sunday morning.
You raised your hand and the whole world sang for you.

On the sickly pale hospital sheet
I watched your right hand in its weakness,
I heard the noisy torrents of the river outside
and I understood why
voices need a master of choirs.

On the “Beheading of John the Baptist” by Caravaggio

I remember, in particular, the darkness
in that frightful scene —

the space behind the prisoners’ shaved pates
as they stretch their necks, practically
through the bars in the window,
the darkness in the courtyard itself
where the terror takes place
the walls hardly visible
in the alldark deepening
about the four principals —

of this hermit fellow in from the wastes
to condemn Herod’s carry-on with Herodias
before the whole of Jerusalem
put to death at the behest of Salomé with her veils.

The brightness of the salver the nobleman indicates
in the hands of the servant girl who is so taken
with its beaten gold filigreed rim
that she’s oblivious to the task at hand.

I think especially of the darkness
thickening on the canvass
and how that prophet, if he wished,
could escape this end.

But he lies on the ground, meek,
beneath the executioner’s feet,
a lamb on the floor of the shambles
and the blood is flowing now anyway.

My eyes move from blood
to salver and back again.

The breath of a word,
even one half-said prayer
would, I’m sure, be enough
for that jealous God he heralded
so passionately to save him.

My eyes shift continuously from light to dark
picturing this John from the wasteland
released with one flourished stroke.

I remember the darkness in particular.


Love is a town
you go by on your journey.

On a mountain pass
you see it below you
by a sea lough —

the green pump
at the crossroads above it 

the fields and gardens around it
clasped in the embrace of stone walls,

the post office where the locals
do business and gossip

the two pubs 
almost opposite each other
there’s music on Saturday nights in the one 
and in the other most Sundays.

Love is a place
that’s not on tourist maps,

a place you go by on your journey
and that leaves the smell of seaweed in your nostrils.

The Ancient Book

Take this ancient book
with its leather cover becoming mouldy
and the crumbling edges of its pages
and the ink on them becoming faint.
Take this ancient book and read it.

Read as much as you want or as you can.
Take a pen and go over any letters there that are fading.
Delete any words that are indistinct
and insert words of your own.

add other words
at the end,
write anything you want,
it is entirely up to you

Do all this step by step
and you will see by degrees
the mould on the cover
the crumbling of the margins
and the fading of the ink
you will see the usual miracle taking place,
the ancient book become a fresh treatise.


And those other days
— all that held us together
was fear and need —
that we spent in dire straits
between a moor and a beach.

I used to come to you with a bag
full of stories down from the hill;
furze and heather and a race
the stag hunted down without stinting
rushing against the slope
the hounds hard on his heels
till two wings grew on the stag
and he flew from us, a white swan,
an empty bag
full to the mouth
of high-flown tales.

That time I saw the birds
flying from your eyes
heading for a land beyond your shoulder.

Up from the inlet
you’d come with your bag
full of the sea’s fury and the brine smell,
eels writhing in the chords of the net
boats wrecked on stripping rocks,
and seaweed combing drowned men’s locks
the water snatching the Arabian silk
the tide carrying off barrels of Spanish wine.

With each word you spoke
I saw the birds again that time
flying out of range of your eyes.

Here on the wide plain
there’s a cold I never felt on my hill
nor you ever felt in the inlet I’d say.
There’s food aplenty here for the taking
but I see again in your eyes
birds flying toward other skies.

New Shoes

The day was all rain.
So heavy you could fold
it around you like a cloak
or swim through it to school
down Patrick Street.
I set my new neat shoes
sailing in the puddles,
the water lapping at my white socks,
Magellan on his way to Asia.

When I came home
you weren’t too cross with me
you said that shoes
were for travelling
and as I was still young
I needed to practice
for the road.


without seeking directions:

as the sky shapes
its own day,

as the clear tide
fills its own bay,

as each breeze
carves its own trace

feet make
their own way.

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