The Finest Specimen
When I was a child my father wrote the twelve fair days
of Roscommon on the back of a Players pack
and taught me to recite them as farmers used to do.
He showed me where the blacksmith had inscribed
1865 on a gate – the year Yeats was born, he’d say.
There’s one date you have to remember, your great
great great grandfather, the one with the whiskers,
was born the year of the rebellion, 1798,
any family history before that is just imagination.
He showed me a bible with miniature print
on gossamer paper which he touched as if it were
pure gold. This was your great-grandmother’s,
published the year of the Act of Union. He told me
old stories as if he’d lived through them.
When the turlough froze in 1816,
three neighbours walked the ice with sacks of oats
on a short-cut home from the mill; one fell into a gap,
the other two drowned trying to save him. Some stories
he seldom told, how as a boarder in Blackhall Place
he slept with his feet pointing west or how he
and my mother returned early from honeymoon
because he was lonely for the fields. Yesterday
he took out old letters, bound together with knotted string;
my brother’s first letter home, another from a neighbour
thanking my grandfather for a loan and the letter
from his grandmother to her sister on the morning
of his birth, the second last day of March, 1929.
He came unexpectedly, the finest specimen yet,
good looking and the most formed little thing
with Dad’s nose and Georgie’s chin.
(previously published in the Fish Anthology 2015)
My mother said she knew, just knew
I was going to be a girl,
two boys before and two boys after –
fodder for a hungry farm,
but I was hers.
She taught me her tricks of the trade;
it’ll look like dinner is nearly ready
if the table is set when he comes in,
bread and butter will fill them up,
add three drops of vinegar to water
so your mirrors and windows will gleam,
cool your fingers before rubbing lard into flour
for pastry, a handful of ground almonds
will keep your fruit cake moist,
darn a few socks every night
and never leave the ironing for more than a week,
don’t cut off rhubarb stalks with a knife,
just twist them clean from the crown,
and always hold onto the children’s allowance;
a woman must have something of her own.
(broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, 4th October, 2015)
Jane Clarke’s debut collection, The River, is published by Bloodaxe Books. Originally from a farm in the west of Ireland, she now lives in Wicklow. Her work is published widely, including The Irish Times, Irish Independent, The Rialto, The North, Ambit, Acumen, Mslexia, Agenda, Poetry Wales. Her awards include the Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Prize (2014) and the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition (2014).