The Fields of Nineveh

Finding a poem for me is about finding the language of poetry, or the language of the poem in question. That language exists in a tension and tension is the engine of the poem. I wrote a poem recently about the beginnings of the city—partly as a response to a poem by Borges about Buenos Aires. I was interested in origins, the human interventions made on a landscape, the kind of decisions that end up being a city. That all sounds very abstract but the poem worked for me at the level of specific information and the specific weight of language used to convey it—the idea that a city is amongst other things a linguistic enterprise.

First comes the idea, someone’s dream
of a winding street, of streetlamps.
Then sticks, wattle, ships flaring in the sunset,
serious heads on the coinage. Flagons
of small beer, ginshops, a tax on windows, doors.

Once I had those lines I knew that I would finish the poem, that there was some kind of impulse that would be carried through. Very often you write lines, and they end up as isolate islands, doomed never to be joined on to anything else. Not that we should fool ourselves about the finished article; there’s nothing absolute about a poem’s finish, it’s simply a decision like any other and as liable as any other to be ignored or disprized. Many poems, after all, will survive as lines, or even phrases. The boy stood on the burning deck…

So I had my initial impetus. What next? A change of grammar for a start. A proper sentence with a subject and a verb.

Light dapples the civic water, a gallows
ghosts the green. Somehow the cathedral
makes it, somehow the wolf tax is revoked.

It sometimes seems that the first item on the agenda is where to put the gallows, how big the prison should be, which will be the preferred instruments of torture. This may be a perverse view of history, but I doubt it. There actually was a wolf tax in Dublin.

The centuries relax, flare up, relax.
The pubs are heaving,
stags and hens, bright buses bear
the sleepless to the suburbs, the conspirators
go over the details of the plan again.
It looks good. Silken Thomas, Isolde’s eyelids.

How can you write about a city? Past and present collide, the place fills up with the noise of history and myth. Generation upon generation of lives. Streetscapes appear, buildings real and imagined. Linear time is all very well but when you actually imagine anything it’s the first thing to break down. Or it’s the barrier you have to break though to imagine anything.

Where is the other side of the street?
Any minute now the bubble-wrapped
department stores, electoral wards, silent armies
of statues. Oh protect us. Someone is singing
The Foggy Dew, someone is looking out to sea.

Think about the land a city gets built on, the fields of Nineveh, Ur, Átha Cliath. When do land and city finally merge? Does the wind gusting across the land stir up dreams of settlement, does the meadow have an inkling of the marketplace? Can the city remember the unsettled land? Was there ever really a time when the city wasn’t somehow implicated in the ditches, the grasses, the wide empty plains?

No, it must always have been there,
eternal as water, endless as air, the mudflats
singing, the rivers on fire, the districts
ringing out their numbers and their names.