Truth told I got the first one for the lawn—
to keep the haggards shorn. An idyllic
notion—nature taking care of nature,
naturally—a daft Arcadian’s
nature-ignorance. Still, it’s a farming townland.
Grass is fodder here. The yearlong traffic
is in pasturage—round bales, heaps and silage—
feed is everything. ‘Where there’s dung there’s money,‘
P.J. Roche once said, mucking out the cabins
where he kept his cows all winter, before
he built that massive slatted house
that lets the slurry ooze through spaces in the floor
into a tank that’s emptied twice a year.
‘There is fierce growth and greening in it.‘ So,
it wouldn’t do to have a little mower.
This patch of West Clare’s not a city lot,
or subdivision parcel. Not at all!
This cottage is my people’s first freehold,
a shelter fashioned out of thatch and stone,
against the rising damp, god-awful elements.
That’s the ocean noising over those high fields.
The pike’s Mouth of the Shannon’s just a walk.
On this peninsula we are surrounded.
Grass and ground are holy. Thus, the donkey.
Of course, I called it ‘Charles’ from the start,
after the prince. I couldn’t help myself.
I love a little dagger of contempt
tucked in the warm cloak of celebration,
in every deference an intimation
of darker purposes or metaphor.
In Charlie’s case it was the ears, of course,
the piebald prepossession, its upright bearing,
that bonnie, if at times buffoonish look
as if it knew how ridiculous it is—
the planet, the humans, the other animals—
we’re all pretending, always falling short,
always aspiring to something that we’re not:
I felt a kinship with him, like a brother,
driven by selfsame hungers and desires,
creatures of the parable and paradox,
agreeable at times, at times contrarians,
our own worst enemies, our only friends.
I’d watch him at his duties in the yard
gobbling the greensward and geography,
shitting, sleeping, staring at a wall,
content by all appearances, serene,
bearing his crosses, keeping his own counsel,
much as I figured I myself was doing.
It took awhile before he’d let me touch him.
The bucket of oats, the sup of water,
the dumbly standing by while he was at it—
these were the tools by which I gained his trust.
In his own time he’d let me brush him
and take the nipper to his growth of hooves.
One day for sport P.J. Roche was up and on him,
grabbing on his mane, his legs tucked round him,
racing down the field. He was so fast!
We knew we’d chance him in the local derbies
and made his racing name ‘The Moveen Lad.‘
He ran in Cross and Doonbeg and Kilkee
and finished in the money every time
although the first place cup eluded him.
In Carrigaholt, we thought he took the prize,
but the Garde, Charlie Killeen, said John Mc Mahon’s
breedy Spanish ass won by a nose.
It was more than he could manage, I suppose:
To have his donkey namesake win the day.
‘I call them as I see them,‘ is what he said.
‘Same as ourselves,‘ I nodded, smiling.
Then into Morrisey’s for pints around,
figuring and refiguring accounts—
we make out Charlie got it either way.
It was the braying, that unholy yawp—
it would wake the sleeping neighbors and the dead—
so full of primal vocatives. I thought
some vexation’s left him crazed and overwrought
and wondered what it was until I spied
that length of mighty throbbing member. ‘Holy Christ!‘
I said to myself. ‘I see now. Yes, of course,‘
and promised that I’d find some consort for him.
I watched the want ads in the Champion,
The Farmers Journal and the Buy & Sell.
I went to fairs in Ennis and Kilrush,
I asked around, I made a couple calls.
‘Surely by Christmas,’ I told him. But no such luck.
All winter that mad-anxious roaring rose
out of the old cow-cabins P.J. turned
into three fine stable stalls and stable yard,
we built a huge corral for training horses—
a syndicate we called ‘Roche’s Stables,‘
because P.J. had that gift bred in the bone,
and I—a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow Yank—
wanted shelter for himself when I was gone.
That April in the Champion we saw:
‘Fine piebald donkey, filly, two years old.‘
We quibbled at the cost but brought her home.
And when I first clapped eyes on her I saw
what Michael Morgan meant when he said ‘fine‘
because she was—so fetching, a small, lithe
fish among thick animals—well worth her price.
And to see them, Charles and Camilla,
as, you will forgive, I could not help but call her,
because those nuptials were in the news,
that and the pontiff’s death and funeral,
but to see them, together in the yard,
the gratitude and rapture in his eyes,
her reticence at first and then the signs
by which she signaled she would not refuse him.
‘Mighty nature‘ P.J. Roche once called it—
the mystery by which two separate things
become one thing to make, somehow, another.
And there it was, not quite the full year later,
one morning there in miniature, a creature
out in the haggard, shining and piebald,
with its mother’s ears, the body of a hare,
shivering, suckling, standing upright there,
as if the lesser beasts made up its retinue.
It had this oafish, over-eager look,
a little swagger and a boyish grin,
and so I called him George, George W.
Word got round about my stallion Charles,
‘The Moveen Lad‘ was whispered in the pubs:
a rocket racer, a willing sire, a blood
line certain to be the stuff of legends.
We got a call from Sinon Flanagan
who’d four mare asses and no able jack.
Might I consider sending Charlie back
to spend a month in service to his harem?
What male thing wouldn’t rise to such occasions?
I’d often fantasized the very thing.
What harm, I thought, the more the merrier.
But I was wrong. Poor Charles came back wrecked.
His kindly gratitude turned brutish lust.
The former tenderness gone bollocks mad,
he’d hunt all other male things from the shed
and chase the ponies round the stable yard
biting at their fetlocks, manes and private parts
and could not be trusted round the calves and cows.
We locked him up in solitary hold,
like shuffling captives at Guantanamo,
thinking the confinement would restore his calm.
But when he worsened, with regrets, we settled on
castration as the only way to go.
Where more’s the pity, less is sometimes more.
Before that remedy old Charles spent
one late midsummer evening with Camilla
a last hurrah, a second honeymoon,
their old romance rekindled in the dark—
whatever happened, something surely sparked
because before the solstice, that following June,
behold, a snow white she-ass foal appeared
beneath the hedgerow where Camilla sheltered.
By which time Charles, lately gelded, was
no less the head case than he’d been before—
more daft than ever and a little sore—
so, for his own sake, re-incarcerated.
We bring him oats and nuts, a sup of hay;
and pray he has forgiven what’s been done,
and let him out to roam between good gates.
Sometimes we race him and sometimes he wins.
Whereas for George, George W., what an ass!
Feckless and unrepentant, as if he knew
his kind bore saviors through Jerusalem
or gravid virgin-girls to Bethlehem.
Witless as a tin of tuna, craven, crass,
donkey stubborn, donkey stupid, dull as soap,
for all his epic bloodline, little hope.
We’ve put him up for sale but no one calls.
We call the little she-ass Hillary,
though truth be told we had some choices.
When it comes to names and asses, there’s no shortage.
With foals-at-foot the future’s up for grabs.
So, fools-at-heart or honest brokers,
much the same as with our sons and daughters,
good naming doesn’t shape the outcomes, still
we nurse our little dreams and leave the rest
to whomever is in charge here: who’s to know?
Fate? Chance? God in His heaven? I don’t know.
All we can hope for is for time to tell—
another day, another season, donkeys’ years
to undo some the mess we’ve made of it,
to make amends, to make some small repairs,
reset the table, rearrange the chairs,
to let the ones we love know that we love them
and let the others know we bear them no
especial malice, then leave well enough alone.
And sometimes when I am out among them
in the evening, when all the work is done,
I think I hear the voices of those gone
before, who stood this ground in their own times,
and bore their burdens—great and small alike—
and all they ever say is carry on.