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Image by Luke van Zyl


with the martello journal

Six Months Bought With Dirt: The Bothy Crop of Arranmore

by oisín breen

They knelt in the dirt, joining a movement gigaannum long,
A continuum shifted in increments by ancestral kin,
And time transformed their role to architect, where once,
Like so many others of their wide-eyed and lust-hungry frame,
They served as co-conspirator among the heavy legged,
Who pound dirt and stone as they run for warmth and nourished bone.

They knelt in the dirt, above the worms, and seedlings dampened off,
Pressing their hands beneath the earth, seeking a grip, with fingertip traces,
A hold on life, to pull the tubers from the soil in April and in June,
In late August and October, too. And their fingernails were a hue of purple brown,
Those islanders, who knew the chopped yawl sail from Burtonport
To Arranmore and back. Some dug, others gathered: a bothy crop.

They knelt in the dirt, whole families, who moved each year,
For like the swallow, whimbrel, and sandwich tern, they lived
To a steady pattern that spread its seed back-and-forth, a kindling
For change rippling out in knots of life clustered among the north-west
Islands and the lowland fiefs of Dál Riata. Their children kept the beat
On water and lowland, too, singing the Baidín Fheilim, the boat broke off Tory.

They knelt in the dirt, and moved from farm to farm, gathering the crop –
Yetholm gypsies, Kepplestone kidneys, and Highland Burgandies –
All the while singing of the little boat that went away to Gola and then to Tory.
They knelt in the dirt, gathering their crop in baskets wicker weaved --
A chain-link from mud to young man's belly. They slept in stone huts, too,
Hoarding silver in purses, their father’s before, to take to their kin in Arranmore.

They knelt in the dirt through summer and autumn, tattie hokers most,
Though some worked to furnish the others with spun cloth, sharp knives,
And with the few ministries of love that wind-whetted hearts could spare,
Before the morning’s walk, miles of land stalked in service, dually done
For barely known scions of the long-dug soil with marble blemishes
On alabaster skin, and for old mothers who sang to keep the heat in.

They knelt in the dirt, often singing, too, of Fheilimí beag, his little boat,
With the fish on board, and Fheilimí in it, and the sea onboard beside Fheilimí.
They knelt in the dirt, stopping only to chew on soda bread, its crusts wet
With last night’s treat of dillisk soup, a welcome weed, and water wine,
Kept dried in bags beside their sleeping mats, having gathered it by moonlight,
Having gathered it as children too on the storm-swept rocks of home.

And they sailed, at last, after months away, to briefly return to that resting place
Of tenderness, known best in winter. And the sight of the yawl, holding steady
Above the waves that washed the stone-guarded coasts, it was enough to still –
For a season, at least – that seed of melancholy for the surely lost and dead,
Brothers, sisters, all. And in its place came laughter, and a ritual of held hips
And clasped hands, of sweat and drink, all bought with fistfuls of dirt,
Six months toil for a kiss, for a baby’s grasping hand, six months bought with dirt.

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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