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Image by Nick Wood


with the martello journal

A Tweed Spinner Watches the Water Churn

by oisín breen

My mother, and my father, too, they used to tell me stories you now know.
They told of the shattered hulls that decorated my childhood in Donegal.
And I remember, as I climbed one boat’s unsteady beams, as water-rot swallowed ship-wood,
I remember how softly my mother called to me. But I remember most the ken of watching
The sense of water near fill my flesh, and how it blurred my feel for time, like their stories did.
I remember, too, how I used to clamber down, my hands kneading sodden whorls of teak and oak,
Of cedar and mahogany, how I used to clamber down to race to the lapping water frame
Beneath the clouds, which sometimes then still carried the drenching gulping sound
Of fish lips pressing, pleased, round the drifting bodies of shrimp, and plankton, too.
Of fish lips harvesting skin-flakes, crustaceans, red algae, and the spirits of the dead we left behind.

And when I was young, my parents also told me how they were the last to know
What happened before the boats that decorate the coast lost their will to swim.
My aunt and uncle, my brother and sister, too, were all too young, they told me.
They were too young to remember travel – back and forth – to the other kingdom,
In the praití trade. They were too young to ken how families sent ambassadors of dirt
To yield a crop, and income, and spare the ageing organs of a lineage of shared blood
The harrowing of another mouth to feed, as years waned. And they remembered more,
My family, but most of all how it was a heart-sore thing to send children, often young as ten,
Fathers and lovers, too, on months-long sea-sorry schleps to the fields of Fife just to dig crops
For a man whose sole gift was threat-stolen, grief-stolen, paper-stolen, fear-stolen land.
And my mother, and my father, they knew how hard not knowing was,
They knew how hard it was not to know, of either party in a coin-split net, what might have come
To all those now and past, what might have come to those we all must call ‘dear to me’.

But the end came swiftly, just as theirs did. The boatmen dwindled, and few could carry kin
Those long 300 miles that resolve in hardened hearts in the firth of Forth, splitting Edinburgh
And land that once belonged to painted men. So by 1940 the sea-flung diggers were done,
Done in Donegal, where my father, and my mother, some sixty years thereafter, also died,
Like the boats they loved, their motion stopped – as mine soon will – in a hospice by the sea.

Yet the memories that sustain us, they survive us still, even if their echo now erodes.
They once outpaced time with brilliance, riding on the common tongue, but today they make do
With the thinking flesh of men long known to me: Molloys, tweed-spinners all, and Gallaghers, too, They
who loaded mackerel, pollock and wrasse onto long sloops for years in hundreds counted,
They who gathered conger and dogfish, too, to fill their decks with a breathless flood of cavorting Bodies
drunk on airlessness, a flood of the life-sick, loose among the serried ranks of shredded gills,
For the plated flap that guards their swimmer’s lungs gave no protection from hook or wire.
And our memories still pass – and did before – even through the Ó Dochartaigh,
Even they, whose line bent its knee to a bigamist king, whose fat mouth flapped with hip-hunger,
Even they hold the cold memory poverty sinks into human skin, the memory it leaves on jawlines
Time-heavy drooping, a memory become an age-baked tattoo no lathe can remove: a reminder
Of lifetimes of mud, of lifetimes spent washing in the mud to teach British thieves good manners.

Yet now I stand here, an old man on the beach, knuckle-kneading his cane, a watchful nurse nearby,
And when I stand here, near the boat we called Báid Eddy, its ship-wood half weed and water-wine,
It is a landmark to everything that will pass with me: Memories of love and memories of flesh,
Memories of the people we once were, and the memory of all we lose when the water churns.

Irish poet, academic, and journalist, Oisín Breen’s debut, ‘Flowers, all sorts in blossom ...’ was released Mar., 2020. Breen is published in 89 journals in 19 countries, including in About Place, Door is a Jar, Northern Gravy, North Dakota Quarterly, Books Ireland, The Tahoma Literary Review, La Piccioletta Barca, Decomp, New Critique, and Reservoir Road. Breen’s second collection 4² by 5 is due out later this summer through Dreich. His third, the experimental Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín will be published by Beir Bua Press, January 2023.

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