Prelude: On the Shared Traits of Mermaids
Breasts: exposed or scallop-shelled. Below the navel, skin turns tail. Long hair (often fair). Pale.
Always an enchanted cap/cape/cochaillín – even when stolen, this object remains her belonging, never his. Mirror. Comb. Manacle. Wedding ring. On occasion, a clutch purse may be seen, or even a pocket-watch (concealed).
Chronic gloom. Mute. Silence aside – sporadic gasps, sometimes heard to laugh in the bath. Erratic when trapped. Given to long sighs. Elevated risk of suicide. Characteristic long gaze; captivated by water, by falling, by rain.
Modern cases are rare. One condition, known as Sirenomelia, manifests as fused fibulae, with multiple co-morbidities, and low life expectancy.
Whether taken for myth, saint, or human being, in time, she will always turns back to water. No happy ever after. Never.
For you, a comb is a silver loom, a mirror a moon,
a man’s hand, a harpoon. In truth, these heirlooms
were left to you by women who knew how to find such
tools and put them to use, no matter how blunt or crude.
They knew that once he steals your cochaillín,
you will never leave. Soon, you’ll see how nails
print five moons in the skin under a sleeve. Soundless,
the bevelled edge, where his mirror always held
a prism captive, slant spectrum of gold, violet,
crimson split: an omen, this. Only now do you see it –
but hush, girl, hush – you are not the first to touch
your skin against such implements and call it love.
Desire finds every woman among us, the way
a rear-view mirror unwinds a day in grey glare.
You may swerve away, but you’ll still feel it there,
for free is a fairy-tale, a lie told by the road behind.
What really propels your life, if not this sight,
revealed in the mirror as you drive? It grows late,
and you turn home again, driven through the dark
by the weight of a silver tail: muscular, silent, scaled.
Another Orgasm against a Wall
Hold my throat and my silence sings
a wordless hymn – to belt buckle click,
to fingers and spit, to skin and brick –
and though it is too dark to see,
I feel my breath move inside
the wall, away from me.
Each sigh of mine turns firm
in there, beyond layers
of plaster and horsehair;
each gasp turns
gold, wedged tight
between old stones.
In Fermoy, an English boy
met a bullet in the street.
His last breath bled into gravel,
setting soldiers roaring up from his garrison,
smashing every merchant’s glass,
swearing over armfuls of wares.
Each object floated for one thrown moment,
then slipped in to the river's swift skin –
stockings, rings, cufflinks, all swept away –
all except the clockmaker’s display.
His soft velvet tray spent a second
held between belly and bridge,
where the sun’s rays lit each pocket-chain
and case, warming every patient face.
Sudden, the plummet into the river’s
thrust and shove, the rough tug
through that tumbling suck, to become
wedged tight in stones and dirt.
Stuck. No chime from murk,
no tick in silt; between those stones,
their hours stilled.
A trout’s belly pays no heed
to intricacies of hairsprings
or escapement wheels;
the river’s silver flow cannot
know the convolutions of anchor
or arbour, bezel or bow.
No soul walking home from the pub
alone would go to check the hour
in the Blackwater’s tremble-throat. No,
no-one remembered them, not their hands
or faces, not the slender apertures
that once moved to the phases of the moon.
I do. I think of them
when my breast is pressed
against a wall again.
I, too, sing nocturnes
of silence, of moon and skin,
and in that hymn,
my breath spills
gold between old stones
Rondelet for a Mermaid in her Third Decade
She stares at rain,
how it falls, fails, then falls away.
She stares at rain,
and her gaze strains the window pane,
all the falling drops of her days.
Pale castaway – she sways, she sways,
she stares at rain.
A Man’s Hand, A Harpoon
Skull of a young seagull,
gift of sea to sand, lifted
to us in ripple and dulse
to fetch up in my lover’s hand –
and that hand, it always was a map,
steady, lined, calm, it steered me
from days of lull and lapse,
and set me gasping in his land.
It led me to bed, it held, it grasped,
all week, I worked for that hand,
so Sundays, it led me along a dune path
and all the way down to the strand.
It showed me the ocean, let me walk
the sand, but never enter that salted fizz.
So gentle the grasp of his hand,
so light, the restraint from such whims.
Under sugar kelp and barnacles
it lay, the skull he glimpsed –
gift of Atlantic, toothpick-thin,
it seemed a pretty ornament to him.
To me, it sang loud of soar and sound,
of screech, sky-spin, storm-tilt,
of heights over ocean and ground,
of catapult, plummet and spill.
That hand lifted the skull as an offering,
if it was his to give – a gift, a present,
akin to a wedding ring. I grimaced
the quiet sting of sea-wind.
On his shelf, it will sit, brittle relic
of a gull who soared high and swam,
stretched to me with a kiss,
meekly lifted from his palm –
but first, drench her, drench her,
feather and flesh her, fly her
back into the sky, let her breathe
a last moment of pleasure,
for in living with him,
her flight dies. Someday,
when the ash of his hand
has left mine, I’ll lift
this small skull and sing:
O map, o bone, o future
alone, o waves, o me, o him,
and maybe I’ll carry her
back to the ocean, return
her to ripple and dulse,
maybe I’ll swim in myself
to set her floating,
and hear gulls’ shrieks
The Saint of Peacock Lane
How quick she slipped from the womb, this little one lifted into our universe of sisters. Cold, the room, blessed by silverish moon. Unbroken, the bubble, for she came borne on her own ocean. Unspoken, her name. Unspoken, her tail. In the caul, I saw her swim, little castaway. Her mother turned her face away; pity her grimace in silence, thin slip of a thing, skinny-hipped, brazen-lipped. Not once did she meet our gaze, not when her hair was clipped, not even when Mother gripped her by the chin. The baby’s eyes opened, I swear, I saw her squirm, swimming in there, but once that sac was slit, she turned. Still. No cry. Into silence, the child that was her mother howled instead; oh, she wept and bled. I laid clean towels and held her head. I lied: God's mercy that a baby like that be born dead. She gripped my wrist, she hissed: take her away take her away take her away away away. I did. Alone, I touched her tail, I saw the haloes in her irises spooling blue. So blue – when I saw them, I knew. She was Truth. I found her a hollow borrowed from earth, laid her in a pillowslip, light as a bird, I threw her fistfuls of night bluebells and honeysuckle, dark dirt, and a whisper: Miracle. Three weeks later, an uncle gripped her mother by the elbow, led her away, away. I wanted to say: Wait. Every day of my life I will stay at this laundry to watch over her. Even if I didn’t say it aloud, it’s true, I knew I’d mind her, and I do. Every day, I scoop the palest pebbles from gravel greys, so on Sundays I can spill them on her grave. I’ll make her blessed shape shine brightly through this place. When I’m gone, brambles will tremble here, lifting blackberries over her small face, and still, on the dark earth, the mark I make will remain. Shape of a salmon tail. Sacred. Pale.
A Split Second of Her Eighth Decade
- after ‘Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)’ by Louise Bourgeois
In the kitchen, a sink of dishes
and in it, her fingers seem so different
submerged, scalding pink, the cross-crissed
mesh of suds and self – how sharp, its sting.
Again, nightfall, night fell, and every night,
the same ritual again, the same assortment
of dreadful vessels. In the draining day, no, no,
I mean to say, on the draining tray, her own
gaze gleams, see? See the twin dark marbles
of her eyes captivated, capsized,
reflected in each spoon and knife. And night,
o moonless, steadfast night, now, it arrives,
and casts its spell in the garden outside,
turning the window into a dark mirror
and from its innards, her face is floating up
again, o, omen. O woman who looms back
from vast black once more, older though,
and flinching, sore, with arthritic fingers,
and distorted toes. She aches, and night makes
of the kitchen window a lake, where she is
watching her shape lifted from darkness
again, hoodless, still, lips pinched, mute,
alone, reflecting on all that may never be
saved from steel and stone.
delphinedelphinedelphine on steamed-up mirrors,
always in joined-up ﬁnger-writing.
- Amy Key
Conceived in sea, of brine and seed,
she chose me, my Deilfín.
Her birth was tear, bleed, bent,
creep and crept and forceps
wrench. Men shook their heads:
Sirenomelia, they said, extremely rare.
Precious, then, I say.
Embryonic, antique, the genetic
script written before her fingers
first twitched. I chose a name
carefully for my little dolphin,
I conjure her new, now,
gurgling clues, pram-flat, rapt
in the blankets I clickclacked
while she swam my belly-blue.
Deilfín, Deilfín, I crooned
for you, and again
the kittens lost their mittens,
and again I caught a fish alive,
and all the while, your infant fists
were opening, opening to show
the shapes on your palms,
almost waves. Almost waves.
I saved your file, fastened still
in eight slack elastics. How it followed
us though surgical lists and hospitals,
gathering scribbles – Congenital –
Kidneys – Surgeries – Morphine –
Transplant – Autism – Mutism – and –
and – and they say mute, but you could
laugh; I heard you often in the bath, though
throwing open the door turned you brazen,
all eyes back. Mute? I knew your scream.
Don't ask. I’m no saint.
Too often, I blazed cantankerous, I raged.
Everywhere you went, you left a stream
of stickers, sheaves of queens and fairies,
each pressed, left to set, then spit and split
with such gentleness until only ghost
shapes remained, fixed on the TV, on windows,
on walls, fuzzy, grey, all along the hall
and up the stairs, and when I carried you
to bed, you stroked them, your scales.
How I prayed: Sticker. Stick her. Fix her.
Keep her stuck here with me, my Deilfín,
my little one in her gold pin curls, tiger-stripe
smock, little cap of silver polka-dots.
No. She’s gone. I failed. She went back
to water, her ash lost. Now, she speaks
only when I breathe her name to the
mirror. Deilfín, Deilfín. Where her fingers
once swirled through steam on glass,
now a chorus of voices echoes back.
Escape: A Chorus in Capes
we are leaving our babies
fed and warm in their cots,
we are leaving dark kitchens,
untying apron knots
we are stumbling in nightdresses
through doors left unlocked
we are grasping towards water
past badger and fox
no moon, no, no star
when we wrench off our socks
only darkness so sharp
it fills pockets with rocks
if cloth held us captive
it may free us as well
so we don our dark hoods
leave red footsteps in gravel
we walk into rivers we walk into seas
we walk into lakes we will never speak
icy, the waters
over toe, heel and ankle
numb, the swerve backward
legs and lungs turn untangled
we are swallowed by water
we will never rise
we return through dark borders
leaving dry lives capsized
“What were her wishes?”
– Unknown –
All I ask
is that you scatter that ash fast,
don't hold it close, don't let your teeth gnash,
don't weep, don’t keen. Let go of me.
Please. When the sea swallows me, turn
your back. Let me go, let me fall back,
back, back to the past.
That's all I ask.
he is birthing her from stone,
alone. He coaxes her
as though lifting a body
from slate-grey seas, slow,
o slow, this birthing. He sees her
grow; he sees her grow cold:
the face, the breast, the waist.
He gives her a tail, and a manacle,
raised, then pauses to imagine
the rest. Gifting her a mirror,
he sets a comb in her fingers,
then tilts her gaze over, just a little.
O cold birth, o shiver, he wonders
how long she will linger,
for soon, he knows, he must
leave her, so he lifts her
two fish as grinning
companions, then coaxes
her lips from cold stone,
in silence. He steps aside,
andsmiles. She is finished.
The Fishmonger, The Falling
In the queue, the air was hectic
with the thick stench of fish,
and I always paused for a minute,
stretching a long yawn to mock
the octopus, the crab claws, all
these heaped faces of an ordinary
slaughter. Stupid fish;
they are killed. I live.
I sensed something electric
that morning, in how the new
fishmonger lifted his corpses.
I liked his knife, how it slit
their sides, freeing them
of redness, slime, and tangled
intestine. I thought
of his ribs, how my tongue
might swim those shallows,
and if he was young, younger
than the others, what of it?
I hungered for his breath,
how air from his chest might
live in my mouth a moment.
I watched his hands flip plastic
handles, I watched his dimpled grin.
Yes, I thought, I will take him.
He never saw me approach
(they never did), there,
where fish-guts and blood
slid from apron to gutter,
from culvert to sea churn –
but other eyes saw it all.
Wide, the wakeful gaze
of shark, mackerel, and hake,
every dead eye that knew
my kind as I moved through
that queue, close, closer,
my cold pulses quickening.
I won’t ruin the ending
by saying what became of him,
but I’ll tell you this: it was good,
back then, to learn to ignore
the stench of death, it was
a useful cleverness to carry
into war, the knack of standing
haughty when surrounded
by corpses, to smile despite
the tender slip of organ from knife.
But as I said, this was all before.
Yes, this was before the war.
Female Silence: 9 Types
1. In the eyes of another: Stern. Taciturn. Bitter. Firm.
2. Beyond a window, a face, sink-blurred. Every day, she rubs the same spoons underwater, mouth downturned.
3. A teenager grits her teeth when a stranger sneers: Cheer up love, give us a grin.
4. Tongueless, the laundress draws silence from steam, hauling the wordless heft of scald, scrape, deformity.
5. Examined by soldiers, she won’t speak. Interrogated by more, her curls twist in a stranger’s fist. White, white, her lips clench so tight, until shears give her hair flight.
6. A century of silence, in which little changes. Her granddaughter’s words will be swallowed, still, unspilled.
7. Inheritance: each female syllable is bitten, held imprisoned. Until it isn’t.
8. Silence in brine: saline. The sight of fish tails set for pickling, five in a line.
9. Intersection of time and desire: the sunken clock will swallow its tock-tick only if the river spills its captive. Sacrament.
10. The silence of knives. The kitchen, so quiet. Slice. Slice. Slice. Slice.
Notes on the Poetry
As a girl growing up in rural Clare, I was very aware of the mermaids in our local folklore. Thanks to seanchaí Eddie Lenihan, I had a strong sense of the Newhall Mermaid in particular. This mermaid was constructed as a female presence both monstrous and powerful, a being who routinely stole from a wealthy landlord, eventually turning a lake red with her blood. In more recent years, I have also admired Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s casting of her murúcha in all their post-colonial, existential, and linguistic crises.
On a cold afternoon in Tipperary, a pair of swans flew over the car as Alice and I drove to Kilcooley Abbey. There, a mermaid carved into stone rose under Alice’s hand, a slow birth into paper and charcoal. I carried a rubbing of that mermaid home, and wrote these poems under her silent gaze. The poems gathered here seek to articulate some of the many shades of silence embodied by mermaids, how this myth can allow us a chance to listen closely to other silences, those that make themselves manifest within the female body, and within female consciousness.