Friday, October 2, 2015


       for Brian Friel


Green hills rear up to the sky
like an animal untamed
hills where hope and fancy lie
buried like a maiden name 

catalogued and pigeonholed
with a definite position
like the eddy and the shoal
like the devious tradition 

hills with native poetry
paved and garbled by translation
ancient earthy masonry
hidden by the renovation 

till the myth, like extra weight,
is abandoned on the march
to the street sign and the gate
to the label on the larch 

to a country where the breathless
and the breathing live apart
where the tale that once was deathless
is a legend on a chart

So the map becomes the town
and the hand that used to play
marks the shape and distance down
scaling all the land away 

grinding down the mother tongue
separating blood from kin
till the songs that now are sung
smell of drink and might have been 

till each river, pond and pebble,
stream and pasture, land and field
lie imprisoned like a rebel
underneath the tyrant's heel 


I sit in an Irish bar with a dark drink
surrounded by extras and understudies, friends,
and the one girl in the cast who cannot speak, 

all of them politely thinking to themselves
what I think, wondering why the actors with the names
and reputations did not bring my words alive. 

When did they give up, the words beyond them,
and simply move their mouths, making a loud
accented noise, not looking at each other ever? 

When was it when they first turned off their hearts
and all the rest became the vengeance of
the rote mechanical, connect-the-dots?   

When did the life end, and the motion start?
Like God, I offered life and they refused it,
preferring like Frankenstein to make their own. 

Now I sit here sipping a dark bitter drink
and wonder who really makes the monster failure,
is it the fault of life or those alive 

that breeds a death from rows of breathing words?
Is it the lack in us that halts the tongue
or something in the tongue that cannot speak, 

something that plays with us, like a hunting dog
tracking the thing we aim at, shoot at, kill,
only to run away, and leave us fogged  

repeating the heart of a rote speech or a song
till the words escape us, and we end the hard day
as I end this day, sitting and drinking, 

wondering what went wrong. 

                                          And then I think,
well, things go wrong--that is the way of things.
There are no other words.  Not tonight, at least. 

So I drain my drink, and stand in a cloud of smoke,
and a girl with clear tight skin falls at my feet
and gushes while I nod and laugh politely. 

Such a young thing, to be in awe of me,
whose promise hangs behind me like my shadow.
This young thing should find some words of her own, 

not borrow mine, words that she alone will taste
forever like perfection in her ear,
and never be spoken anywhere close to that 

by even the best of speakers, actors, friends,
because they will be her own kissing gifts,
heavily lying on a stranger's lip, 

heavier than the desire for bed behind
two traded tongues, heavier even than love
whose burden is to listen--or pretend to. 

And I shake this girl's hand and watch her leave,
and stumble into the tiny room where drink
is translated; and I think to myself 

that there is a kind of blessing in bad actors.
Because of them, the lines that they deliver,
the things they say that never come alive,  

are never blamed for being less than real.
The actor gets that blame; the fault is his.
Well, I'm all for that.  I'm for anything that makes 

the play look good, the words, the thought, the work.
They all survive, even when translation fails.
And though the heart, the language of the pulse 

which cries a thing unsayable in words,
seems dead, still there is life at the hard end
of this long day's work, because my words 

tonight were seeded into rows, tossed negligently
like hopeful planting in the teeth of famine
on eager fertile ground, on hopeful girls 

with clear clean skin and shining eyes, by those
like me who write and never speak their fears,
but plant a harvest in a field of ears.

Speaking in tongues that are and are not theirs
making their chatter kisses in the dark
dancing apart, two strangers on display
a blood red coat against a dirt brown shawl 

everything else will not be spoken of--
the hatred and the hatred in return
rote jealousy, betrayal, drunken pride--
because the unvoiced is the unbegotten 

because love is the synonym of souls
a man and woman trading pretty names
in bold misunderstood defiance of
a blood red coat against a dirt brown shawl 


Copyright 1995, 2015 Matthew J Wells

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