Ard na Mara
Catherine and John said it meant beside the sea.
I thought it meant above,
because the house was above a pasture swooping down
to the tide, a thirty-foot drop.
You'd step through layers of grass and manure-smell
to the red, leathery weed splashed
across the rocks, and then looking up, you'd feel dwarfed
by the one wall left standing—
a fragment of Sweeney's castle—just a stone wing-blade,
but you got the idea: fortress,
and the fear of raids. Later when I first read the opening
of the Agamemnon, I thought
the Greek signal fires must have been lit on points like this,
the war won but not over,
the flames a signal to begin learning the next thing to dread.
The Dobbyns long ago had turned
the hayloft into a room to let. There was a shred of linoleum,
a cot with spring, and a low sink,
the kind to bathe a baby in. Knives, forks, butane,
and windows on three walls.
A red door with a latch opened onto cement stairs leading
down to a toilet in the barn.
Me pissing with the cows, those enormous, contented breathers.
I spread a sleeping bag
on the cot and slept at an angle so I could look out to the point.
I had a Hermes Rocket to type on.
The war in Viet Nam still ongoing, but I was well out of it,
as far as I could get. I went in
to Donegal once a week for newspapers and wine gums.
For rent I helped John milk the cows
and tend to the hay all through the summer. In return
I got the earliest hours of the day,
and during storms, the whole afternoon free. I stayed put,
tried not to leave the farm.
I never saw the ruins of a chapel in the next pasture over,
and only now have I learned
that a sixth-century monk named Aedh had made his cell
in the crawlspace there.
Now there are metal roadside markers, and a guidebook
to his gravestone, an upright bolt
of granite, as tall as I am, rough-hewn, rounded, mossy,
and chiseled smooth in front.
At the top, like a halo, an incised, long-armed Maltese cross
in a wide circling rim, a sign,
the book says, of an art in transition, the pagan monolith
crowned with Christian radiance.
To the right and below the wheel is a three-sided Celtic knot—
symbol of the Trinity—a weave
that makes me imagine Aedh's bones, the arms and legs
folded neatly over one another.
I stand above him in the mid-day quiet and remember
how deeply I resented the cars
that sometimes sped by on their way west. I stirred as little
as I could, sought out no one.
I loved the sweet silence of hay as it cured, and the labor too,
the mowing and tossing,
letting grass breathe itself dry. Even the raucous, oily baler,
an old engine with flying ropes,
and compacting magic, dropping bales behind for me
to pick up and bring in
on the back of a tractor cart. I would heave them to the loft,
then climb bale upon bale
to wedge them into dusty corners, the weight of each
locking the other down.
I worked with single-minded intent, the way a calf
might plunge its nose into a milk pail.
I felt a little like the cows too, the way they knew exactly
where they belonged. They walked
themselves in from the field, did nothing but chew and stare
while I fiddled with the milking tubes.
Each summer night was a long prelude and a short darkness.
I would eat late and alone in my room—
scrambled eggs, rice. I could hear the pub in the village
warming up as I went to bed between
nine and ten. Sunlight would angle low into the room sometimes,
and I would feel vaguely visited,
though I could hardly say by what. My knuckles would ache,
and my breath would quicken,
as if I were late, or had to get somewhere in a hurry,
though I didn't know where.
I would lie in bed, eyes open, fingers behind my head.
Though I had nothing to worry about,
I worried. I would watch that light as it passed through
the window as if it had a mind of its own.
It would reach across my room out to the field and trees
that stood between me and Aedh
and his grave. In the morning I woke before the cows.
Sometimes I could see the bay,
but mostly it was a mist or a fog or a shifting cloud cover.
I would heat water for tea,
and sit at my table and lamp while the sunlight, wherever
it was, nibbled at the dark.
I wrote in a lined spiral notebook as much as I could.
I wanted to tell why I joined
and how I came to quit the war. The feeling the words
gave me was as the light did the night before.