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World Poetry Portfolio #62: Mary Dorcey

62photoWorld Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine

Mary Dorcey, an award winning poet, short story writer and novelist, was born in County Dublin, Ireland. In 1990 she won the Rooney Prize for Literature for her short story collection: A Noise from the Woodshed. Her bestselling novel Biography of Desire (Poolbeg) was published in 1997 to critical acclaim and has been reprinted three times. She has published five volumes of poetry: Kindling (Onlywomen Press, 1982), Moving into the Space Cleared by Our Mothers (Salmon Poetry, 1991), The River That Carries Me (Salmon Poetry, 1995), Like Joy In Season, Like Sorrow (Salmon, 2001) and Perhaps the Heart is Constant after All (Salmon, 2012). In 1990 she published a novella, Scarlet O’Hara (1990), contained in the anthology In and Out of Time (Onlywomen Press). Five of her eights book have been awarded major Literature Bursaries by the Irish Arts Council, in 1990 and 1995 and 1999, 2005 and most recently, in 2008.





Blood Relations

she bends to kiss you
slowly on each cheek,
drawing close to let slip
a few last words
in your foreign tongue
and I, discreet,
embarrassed to be chosen
the one who stays,
lower my eyes and pretend indifference
granting her once last intimacy.

Can you blame me then
if I forget,
that it is only your mother
saying goodbye after morning coffee
whose eyes as they acknowledge mine
are brilliant with shamed jealousy?



And you my daughter
who I will not know –
I feel in mine
your small, hot hand.
I see your green eyes
lighting already
with my mother’s far away look,
and the kisses
that might have made you
from my lover’s warm, dark lips
smiling from yours –
made for kisses.

My little daughter
what times we shall have –
what talks.
I would hold up the stars
to keep from burning you
quiet the sea
to keep from waling you.
I would eat you for breakfast
all your fat, buttery flesh
thighs and arms
toast and honey.

My little daughter
you will not have the chance
to jail me with your tenderness
grow high and lovely
from my shrinking hide.

We will not now
confront each other
barter, threaten, promise
we will not curse each other
win or lose
my darling
we have no time for that.
I will bequeath you
little –
some words
angry, loving, careful
set down to make a space for you.

I will leave you
flowers and flame
scorched earth, black water
blue skies, laughter
hungry children
women working, loving
fire and ice
bombs and books.

I will leave you
my daughter
this whole wide world
that was not yet
wide enough for me
to bear you into.


Trying on for Size

Capsized on the bed
you roll
cane white legs
tapping the air.
You are pulling on your stockings –
easier now this way
than to stand upright and bend.
You are laughing
because I’ve caught you at it
one of your secret stratagems.

On the beach in summer
years ago,
a birth mark on your calf
shamed you –
when you were young in summer
your limbs long and full
your shoulders broad.
You swam with mighty strokes
out so far
I watched in awe
until your beauty
was a bird or buoy
dancing between waves.

With each new day behind you
you ask
do you remember when…?
and I do –
almost all of it
and more.
You were not always good.
You threatened with a wooden spoon,
cursed me when there was no one else to curse.
At sea in your kitchen
you did not counsel or console,
you turned your eyes from trouble
having known too much of it
uncomforted yourself.

Going down the stairs now
behind your anxious, baby steps
I want to pick you up and carry you
or launch you down the bannister
as you did me
in this house
when we were children together.

But you must take every step first
along this passage
we daughters follow after
each one of us
moving into the space
cleared by our mothers.

And with what fine nerve,
what unthanked grace,
you confront this last world
you will discover before me.
I see your shy, jaunty smile
at the mirror –
see you say
what do you think?
As if death
were a foolish, extravagant hat
you were trying on for size.


It Has Rained All Night While We Slept

Women have given birth
in fields
while we slept.
While we slept
women have given birth.

The mountains are huge.
A wall of iron around my heart.
The lakes, bitter black pools.
Women have drowned
in water, shallow as a basin.
Women have drowned their babies
in water no deeper
than a pool or basin
while we slept.

It has rained all night.
We wake to find it
heavy as snowfall on the window
the fields drenched with it
the earth, the stones, the leaves.
It has gouged streams
along the mountain side.

And while we slept
somewhere else –
a child has died.
Somewhere else
while we sleep
some woman’s child dies
every hour
that we sleep.

Somewhere else
the split, yellow earth
littered with their bodies
dark skin, white bones
that lie quiet
as snow lies in the ruined fields.
Every hour dying
while we sleep
the rain falling.
We have grown used to it.
We do not hear
the rain falling.

We know them well –
these women and their children
– or the faces.
We have grown used to them.
They follow us about
from billboards
and dentists’ waiting rooms –
framed in magazines
and television sets.
Eyes beautiful and blank.
Bellies – oh, bellies
big and taut
as a cow’s udder.
Their hands reaching
open mouthed
to no one in particular.

All night
the rain has fallen
covering our sleep like snow.
And somewhere –
oh, somewhere out of camera –
the eyes that would not
turn from us
have closed at last.
The sweet
pitiless eyes
have shut,
for a moment –
while we slept –

the blow flies.


I Cannot Love You as You Want to be Loved

I cannot love you
as you want to be loved –
without wanting.
I cannot love you
without loving your black startled eyes –
without wanting them to look at me.
Without wanting to see them
catch fire
as they look at me.

I cannot love you
without loving your thighs –
the long lovely line of your thighs.
Without wanting to run my hand along the length of them.
I cannot love you
without loving your hands –
so strong, so talkative.
Without wanting them to touch me,
to touch my hand,
my thigh.
I cannot love you as you want to be loved –
without wanting.

You are a blade
I have lifted from my own hand
to put a stop to wounding.
Who made you so sharp?
so dangerous?

I miss your laughter
and your flights of fancy.
Your foolishness,
your wild untameable ways.
I miss your passion for things –
your refusal to take life quietly.

You are a blade
I have lifted from my own hand
to put a stop to wounding.
Who made you so sharp?
so dangerous?
You whose love words
were like a bounty;
a burst of grace,
oiled and perfumed –
each one a healing,
a benediction.
You whose eyes were pools
stars could bathe in.

You are a knife
I have lifted from my own hand
to put a stop to wounding.
You should be the earth I lie down upon,
the river that carries me,
the bright sky that covers me,
the wind that sings through the lilac.
Who made you a blade
I cannot dare to handle?


The Gaelic Poets Warned Me

The gaelic poets warned me.
They knew you of old –
your eyes like green stones
on a river bed,
the milk white skin,
the hair raven black
and its sheen.
For centuries they sang
your praise,

but I had paid no attention
or had forgotten.
Until I saw you walking naked.
By then it was too late –
my past had caught up with me.
Snared by atavistic beauty,
I fell into history.
All the poems in the English language
will not save me.


The Breath of History

I am not an ordinary woman.
I wake in the morning.
I have food to eat.
No one has come in the night
to steal my child, my lover.
I am not an ordinary woman.

A plum tree
blossoms outside my window,
the roses are heavy with dew.
A blackbird sits on a branch
and sings out her heart.
I am not an ordinary woman.

I live where I want.
I sleep when I’m tired.
I write the words I think.
I can watch the sky
and hear the sea.
I am not an ordinary woman.
No one has offered me life
in exchange for another’s.

No one has beaten me until I fall down.
No one has burnt my skin
nor poisoned my lungs.
I am not an ordinary woman.
I know where my friends live.
I have books to read,

I was taught to read.
I have clean water to drink.
I know where my lover sleeps;
she lies beside me,
I hear her breathing.
My life is not commonplace.

At night the air
is as sweet as honeysuckle
that grows along the river bank.
The curlew cries
from the marshes
far out,

high and plaintive.
I am no ordinary woman.
Everything I touch and see
is astonishing and rare –
Come celebrate each
privileged, exceptional thing:
water, food, sleep –
the absence of pain –
a night without fear –
a morning without
the return of the torturer.

A child safe,
a mother,
a lover, a sister.
Chosen work.
Our lives are not commonplace –
any of us who read this.

But who knows –
tomorrow or the day after…
I feel all about me
the breath of history –
and ordinary.


My Grandmother’s Voice

when my mother speaks to me
I hear her mother’s voice:
my grandmother’s
with its trace of Belfast accent
which carried with it
something from every town
the Normans passed through.
My grandmother,
mother of seven,
who will not be quiet yet
twenty years after her death.

Sometimes when I look at my mother
it is her mother I see –
the far sighted gaze,
the way of sitting
bolt upright in a chair –
holding forth, the quick wit,
the fold her hands take in her lap.
The sweep of her hair.

And listening closely
or caught unaware,
I hear my great grandmother
echo between them:
A glance – a tone.
My grandmother’s
who died giving birth
to her only child.
Whose words and stories
pent up in her daughter
flowed on
into the talk of my mother.
I catch them now in my own.
My head sings with their conversation.

And hearing them –
this fertile
and ghostly orchestration –
I am sorry to have brought them
to the end of their line.
Stopped them in their track
across millennia.
From what primeval starting point
to here?
A relay race
through centuries
from mother to daughter –
an expression passed on
a gesture,
a profile.

Their voices reverberate in my head.
They will die with me.
I have put an end to inheritance –
drawn a stroke across the page.
Their grace,
their humour,
their way of walking in a room.

The stoicism
that carried them all this way
has stopped with me;
the first of their kind
who will not bear their gift
and burden.

I lift my pen
quickly, wanting
to set down all the stories
spoken by these busy, garrulous,
long lived women
who never had a moment
to sit down
or lift a pen.

I begin.
A young woman, a protestant
from Belfast,
married a sea captain,
a catholic
who drowned at sea …


Each Day Our First Night

What a beautiful mother
I had –
Forty years ago,
When I was young
And in need of a mother.
Tall and graceful,

Dark haired,
What a fine mother, I had
When I was young.
Now I climb the steps
To a cold house

And call out a word
That used to summon her.
An old woman
Comes to the door:
Gaunt eyes, grey haired,
Feeble. An old woman

Who might be
Anybody’s mother. She
Fumbles with the locks,
And smiles a greeting
As if the name spoken
Belonged to her.

We go inside
And I make tea.
The routine questions
Used to prompt her
Fall idle.
She cannot remember

The day of the week,
The hour, nor
The time of year.
Look at the grass,
I say,
Look at the leaves –

You tell me!

Autumn, she answers
At last. Her hands
Wind in her lap,
Her eyes like a child’s,
Full of shame.

Each day,
A little more
Is lost of her.
Captured for an instant,
Then gone.
Everything that

Made her particular,
Withering, like leaf
From the tree.
Her love of stories
And song, her wit,
The flesh on her bones.

What a beautiful mother
I had, forty years ago
When I was young
And in need of a mother.
Proud, dark haired

Now I descend the path
From a cold house,
An old woman
Follows to the window,
An old woman
Who might be

Anybody’s mother.
She stands patiently
To wave me off –
The stage directions,
Of lifted hand

And longing gaze.
In this
Experimental piece –
Each day,
Our first night –
She plays her part

With such command –
Watching her
Take a last bow
From the curtain –
You could swear she
Was born for it!


These Days of Languor

These days of languor –
loosed of everything
but pleasure
and time.

Enthral to sense,
we put on clothes
only at late evening.
One moment

leading to the next
and back again.
At last,
light fading

on the balcony,
we spread a cloth
and eat –

new strawberries.
In candle flame, as
you lift your glass

I see love’s stain –
wine red
under your


Keeping Vigil

It is not that the world
Is safer –
Wars ravage as usual. Children
Die unnoticed, in our sleep.
Along the same fragrant roads,
Between the olive groves
And the gilded sea –
Where we first embraced –
Women are herded to slaughter.

It is not that the sky
Shelters us,
From loss or betrayal
Or prophecies of storm.
It is not that the days
Are longer, or that the
Stars can pierce
The sulphurous city nights.

It is not that or lives
Are easy –
Our best work thwarted
Our language scarred –
It is not that comforts
Make comfortable,
That love endures,
Or that any of us
Will escape our fate –
These tracks of iron
Laid on sleepers, run
In one direction only.

It is not the moments
Of epiphany – the unlooked
For transfigurations
Of the earthly – such as,
On a frozen field
Where we stopped to kiss –
Emerging from a snow-bound
Wood, a herd of deer –
Suddenly –
Their antlers blown like
Driftwood on a white lake.

It is not that the world
Is better – (beyond the
Perimeter wire, you too,
Hear the cries that fret
The edge of silence.)
It is only that you kept
Vigil, with me, here,
On this station platform,
Waiting for change,
Of for light. That hour
After hour you stared
Into the blizzard mouth –
Watching for a sign of thaw.

It is not that the world
Is safer –
Yet, in darkness, you fall
Asleep at my side, and when
You wake, the day opens with
You; startled, mercurial –
Like a first morning,
Making breakfast or love.
Quick to laughter,
To argument and surprise.
It is not that the world
Is safer. Only this –
That I love your laughter.



I want to be walking down an avenue in summer, my arm
about my beloved. I want the avenue tree-lined, my hand
along your waist, the boughs above our heads arched, the
filigree of leaves reflected, the brindled light throwing open
the path before us. The lake will be misted in the still torpor

Of late afternoon. I want the birds to be singing – so many
we cannot count or name them. I want to lean against you,
as you do in summer, walking down an avenue. I want to
whisper in your ear: I want you, as you do in such weather,
nonchalant, not needing an answer, my arm about your waist

As you lean into me, the warm flesh of your back beneath
its fine cotton, damp under my hand as we walk down a treelined
avenue; careless, in summer heat of love, careless with
youthful negligence of happiness. I want it to be summer again.
I want my senses to be blithe and greedy, as in youth before

Everything happened. I want to be walking down a tree-lined
avenue, the branches casting their slumberous shadow, the air
dense with the scent of evening languor as we saunter: my arm
around your waist, through the corridor of dark leaf, sunlight
beckoning at its mouth – as we walk from winter into summer.


The Grace of the Given

If you should wake one morning to find it come again –
languishing at your doorstep naked, seductive, do not
seek to know its genesis, its cause or destination. Do
not ask if the arrival is timely or fitting. If you should
wake from dream to find it come again – startled and
sensuous at your table, forsake all thought of purpose,

Of benefit or cost – especially, do not repent the
days consumed by arduous sloth waiting for the word,
nor yet the profligate nights spent feasting your gaze
on the one chosen form. In these two, the journey is
all. In poetry as in love – this imperative alone to heed:
surrender to the grace of the given: toil for it, praise it.


Perhaps the Heart is Constant after All

Perhaps the heart is constant after all. Perhaps it
makes no difference who we love, what voice lures
us, what name we call. It’s always the same love is
it not? Drawn from the one spring, coursing the same

Track. It’s always the same thirst we slake, the
same image in the pool; the same blood dimmed gaze.
Perhaps it makes no difference who we lust for –
isn’t it always the same veil we cast over each new

Form; the finest gossamer illusion can buy, spun
from the sheerest silks of faith, hope and deceit?
What can it signify at the end of it whose gaze
ensnares? Isn’t it always the same sirenian song,

The same wine on the tongue, the same salt in the
wound? If the heart is faithful in the least, is it to
the elemental, the universal theme? Is it only in
particulars that love betrays – the setting and the

Costumes: a certain sky, a certain street, oleander
at an open gate, a spiral stairs, a white coverlet –
the weather and the houses, the language and the
streets: surface things, easily exchanged, forgotten

Shed like leaves or skin, like memory itself. Like
the imprint of sight and touch: breath on glass, a
particular face. Perhaps, this too at last will wane,
and with it the afterglow: a certain night, a scented

road, the scarred river, the lamp-lit bridge: a lover
crossing over; crossing back – a stranger. Even this,
too at last will fade, erased like time itself. Like the
memory of her face. Like the memory of that lie.


Writer at Work

Beginning once more after long absence, you have
forgotten all of it; even the common rituals of
evocation. How to listen, how to idle, how in
darkness to strike a bargain with the dead. So
you rehearse in order, ancient rites of passage
to still sense, make welcome. First light the lamp,

Set a fire for heat. As in an old, disused house, to
air the soul; throw all the windows wide. Then,
silence laid, and white page, words in vigil, sit and
let the ghosts come in. Gingerly at first, fleeting,
from the corner of an eye, a glimpse is caught or
scent, a sudden breeze, casts a footstep on the

Stairs, a tremor or a sigh. Flame drifts on glass.
Slowly they gain force, the shadows murmurous.
Every voice is known to you, each breath resonant.
Only you have altered after all. They take their places
one by one, the last to leave is the first returned.
Each draws another under the lintel, a necklace of

Pearl, strung in the order of their loss. Do not question,
nor reproach as they congregate. Accept the only
consolation they can offer; their memories of you,
invulnerable to time. Take what you can see and hear,
abandon touch, breath on skin. No power of longing
can restore this earthly gift. Do not be afraid then –

Stay; let them cluster at the hearth, about your table.
Grave or whimsical, out of their element, do not ask of
them what they did not ask to lose: weight, coherence.
Sit hear them out. They have come all this way only to
render an account. As the light grows cold, stay. Do not
turn your back on their entreaty; their clamorous hunger.


* * *



The poems have been selected from the following volumes: Kindling (London, Onlywomen Press, 1989): ‘Blood Relations’ | Moving into the Space Cleared by Our Mothers (Salmon Poetry, 1991): ‘Daughter’, ‘Trying on for Size’, ‘It has Rained all Night while we Slept’ | The River That Carries Me (Salmon Poetry, 1995); : ‘I Cannot Love you as You Want to be Loved’, ‘The Gaelic Poets Warned Me’, ‘The Breath of History’ | Like Joy in Season, Like Sorrow (Salmon Poetry, 2001): ‘Each day our First Night’, ‘These Days of Langour’, ‘Keeping Vigil’ | Perhaps The Heart is Constant After All (Salmon Poetry, 2012): ‘Summer’, ‘The Grace of the Given’, ‘Perhaps the Heart is Constant after All’, ‘Writer at Work’. All reprinted with the permission of the author.

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