The Hardening Ground cover

From The Hardening Ground


Consider the thrush how it learns to sing,
and then the song that has brought it fame,
remember that this is no ordinary thing,
but something learned in beauty’s name.
Consider the child, how it learns to talk,
before it has gained a foothold in speech,
will turn in its bed and try all the sounds
that would seem to bring words a bit nearer its reach.
Consider the mother of each feather-less bird,
how she warms every egg ’til she hears the first cheep,
and think of a mother’s delight in the word
of a child that can sing as soon as it speaks.
Then consider the poet and fill up his cup,
for the bird it has flown and the child grown up,
the child and the thrush you will find in his head,
consider the poet before he is dead.


Too many young men now wish they were old
and spend their days walking like old men,
looking for wisdom in cold, drafty corners
from the wives of men who are dead and cold.
Too many old men still think they are young
and spend their days walking like young men,
barking out laughter they still think is brave,
but is bitter and brittle and cold like their hearts.
Too many young girls now wish they were famous,
would live in a palace made out of men’s dreams,
they leave all the young men to sleep with the old men,
to sleep with old legends on pillows of jade.
Too many old women still think they are young,
they look to a mirror in broken men’s eyes,
they ask all the young men to dress up as old men
and dance to a sad tune that once was a kiss.
For here in Fitzrovia, your world does turn slowly,
like wise men you huddle to talk of a star;
there are still songs a-falling from your white, frightened faces,
but none of you see how perfect you are.


Part One

For my mother I would build a monument,
if I were skilled in masonry;
a tower of Carrick stone
to guard her from the raven’s flight.
A lace-maker, she could stitch
pictures of innocence
out of this night’s drunkenness, protected
from the call of madmen dressed in madmen’s masks
battering on the wall.
But being poor, and having only words,
rough words at that, the word of farmers,
can I make a thing so fine
that she would hang it on her wall?
can I hope from truth to fall
into the heart of beauty?
A word, that’s all,
the unscabbard word,
a word to end all words – my father shouts
“To end it all! A war
to end all words!” The raven’s call;
have done with dreaming.

Part two

My father, when he was
a proud and handsome man –
his hands could easily encircle
my mother’s waist when they were dancing –
gave me land,
six counties that he said I owned.
“This land” he said, “Is our heart’s land;
your uncle fought for it in Germany,
your cousin died for it in Egypt.
Everywhere the word, the promised flesh
was Ulster’s. It is your birthright and the wing
that will protect you always.
For over there is neighbour’s land
and mother’s uncle is a rector in Fermanagh,
a man I went to school with
owns the heart of Antrim.
It is our heart’s land
and it was given
by an Act of Parliament.

Part three

Heath and Maudling break their word,
to promised flesh they break a pledge
and battlefields in Europe vomit up their groaning dead
to witness this fresh sacrilege.
A myth becomes reality
and so a song begins:
Eight hundred men brought  Stormont down,
now Proddie is Confusion’s clown …
the masks go on; the dance begins.
All now are gathered in that black myth’s wing -
as if a word from me could have changed anything.

Part four

My mother
in the weeping room
of our small house in Belfast,
stitches out a final landscape;
of how we lived, how once we lived,
long walks at dusk, the harvest bells,
church on Sunday and the country school,
tales to tell
of sailors and the grey sea;
of saints and servants,
stories in the hall.
At last she looks upon our final landscape,
but now sees blood where she had stitched the sky;
she cries out once, “Have done with dreaming,
all my pictures tell a lie.”
The rebels come,
they burn her pictures, break her loom
and soldiers, turning, find her
in her weeping room.

© Shaun Traynor 1974