Thursday 25 November 2021

Five Sublime Poems by Cáit O'Neill McCullagh




(After Jorge Teillier’s 'End of The World')


The day the world begins

I will gild my lips with ochre

spit my breath onto this rock

sing kin into this earth-womb

and a navel-cut child

will sleep at a breast

a deer’s eye will hold time’s arrow

without stooping, she will fall

and the skein-scream of bone pipes

will mark this gift


only then will our children leave the forest

tangle their song spirals to untravelled ways

they will soon run crying, home-lost

unknowing this, that they can never return

I will stay to stretch this sinew’s span

beat my fingers to the skin-thin of time

and paint my palm to your future eyes


I hear the beginning in the song of stone on hazel

in the fire-clearing of birches where land slips to stream

in the siphoning of life from fossil and forest

from the flow-country peat

your dead will lift from this bog

uncanny hauntings, untethered

and I will say: ‘This world can end

because in the crucible of its birth, the axe and plough

have started their quarrel with all that once sustained’




I was precious, seed-carried

nomad, secret in the folds

of my parent’s hopes

they sailed moons

to blow me to this shore

where I found my feet

letting them step me

into your heart


the songs that I sing are sisters

to your stories of roots and soil

and they are older

made deep in time


before this earth was measured

into pockets of gold 

songs spiralled from the people

who walked it

feeling its seasons move them

from ebb to ebb

they frayed its coasts

close-chased the colours of shoals


I sing to spill longing

into these waves

to push myself hard

to the wind’s resistance

it returns me to you  

to this hold-fast of place

to the between-house

of becoming and belonging

here, to tie the grain-knot

around my migrant’s heart


I hear your song

it is iron on stone

in the bog, it weeps 

your tethered dead

root it there, they bind it

with place and time

with people and blood


I go to hear their whispers

they are memory and now

I go to ask for homecoming

to know that the dead want us to live


we placed them

upon swans’ wings

so that they might fly  

and we put their ashes

to the storm and watched

as they turned the sun for us


the bones you keep in stone 

they are way-markers only

look again to the sky, and

you will see the stars

this canopy of care

it will guide us

and shelter all 




This is the archaeology of my mother

the soft earth we mounded over her

around her bones, also soft

worn with carrying

I would dance with her

with her bones

plunge oxter-deep into this peat

and excavate her from my dreams


at night she becomes again

a kind of devil incarnate

and I cannot turn from her

so, I re-turn like a pilgrim

enter her ferrous-scented shrine

back to that bloody feral meat

where once we shared my birth


when the day wakes me

I know what fills her grave

how seven years have freed her from flesh

how oxides have blistered her hair to ochre

which beasts feasted on her periwinkle eyes 

my mother has leaked, human soup

she has sifted into sediments of soil


I make this archive of her stratigraphy

her breast as she met my hunger

her lips as she kissed our story into my ears

the gape-ache of distance, that absent presence

as I grew to make a whole world without her

taking every place that she had left on this earth


moss lifts from stone

as memory peels from me

and as the old moon is cradled into the new

I sink to put my pilgrim’s palms to her pasts


Before the Rain (Petrichor)

Before the rain and now after it

in the blood-iron earth, honeyed

ochre-sweet and sweat-warm

the auratic aroma of loss filling us, already

sound gentle as we rushed you from the water

unknowing that it would be your last

downpouring, the fall of all of you

earth shifter, your hands splayed

they had spaded fields then till and tar

only the memory of hands now

life-crease cracked

what was left to hold you by

when you lost your own hold?

This is how we buried you

earth-laid as womb-enfolded

your skin softened from yellow to cream

in that musk of the always-near deluge

we spilled you into the rain of our tears.


We spilled you into the rain of our tears

in that musk of the always-near deluge

your skin softened from yellow to cream

earth-laid as womb-enfolded

this is how we buried you

when you lost your own hold.

What was left to hold you by?

Only the memory of hands

life-crease cracked

they had spaded fields then till and tar

earth shifter, your hands splayed

downpouring the fall of all of you

unknowing that it would be your last

sound, gentle as we rushed you from the water

the auratic aroma of loss already filling us

ochre-sweet and sweat-warm

the blood-iron earth, honeyed

before the rain, and now after it.


Petrichor - the smell of rain, from the Greek petra, meaning stone, and ichor, the golden fluid that flows in the veins of the immortals. 




Me six and I’m beside my mother

us in the pew, mass up on the altar

and we’re thinking about our dinner

letting the everyday melt through

I taste it, that delicious un-spoken

us ourselves, our convivial conspiracy


we ‘coo’ my brother, the baby always

sifting dreams between his thumbs

like he was shuffling tiny coins

our chatter-kiss-words fall

gentle-slow as sunlit dust


they loiter at the ears of my granny

revering her shell-coiled pinkness 

she was as secret-soft as whispers

muffling rosary mantras

each beaded prayer decorating

the gnarled percussion of her fingers


this is how the poetry of my family happened

spoken and imagined answered, and unanswered

felt, litanies that made their holdfast into memory

incantations of story telling us how to belong.


When my father was dying

the nurses held an iPad to his ear

he no longer seeing nor speaking

and me whimper-whispering what?

That I loved him and ‘don’t worry’

also, not saying ‘don’t die daddy’


his mouth could no longer hold words

and yet I sensed the poetry of him too

‘It’ll be grand’ just his everyday way

and now his benediction for us always

Cáit O'Neill McCullagh is a straying ethnologist, archaeologist and curator who writes at home in the Highlands of Scotland.  Exploring how people living in fragile environments are using traditional ecological knowledges to assemble more sustaining and sustainable futures, she co-produces films, exhibitions, and new writing with people throughout the Highlands and Islands.  Her research has been published in books and journals.  She also writes articles for print and online journalism.  Starting to write poems in December 2020, some of her early poems have appeared in Northwords Now, Spilling Cocoa over Martin Amis, Bell Caledonia, Drawn to the Light, and The Banyan Review.  Joint winner of the Boyne Writers’ Festival Poetry Day Ireland 2021 competition, she gave her first featured reading at Limerick’s Lime Square Poets.  Her poems have been making exhibits of themselves too, including in North Antrim’s Pub Poetry Network’s ‘This is the World exhibition’ (August 2021) and in Crowvus’ Scottish Book Week event ‘Poetry in the High Street’ (November 2021).



1 comment:

  1. Cait lifts you up and flies you through the unseen with such a power of woven words, to read is to see!!!


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