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
I 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. II 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. . . III 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. IV 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; or 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
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
to my Mother
everblack blacker than black and down the steps covered in moss everblack 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. Finally add other words at the end, write anything you want, it is entirely up to you now. 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 reversed 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.
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
their own way.