On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land

Simon West

Walking above a bluestone bridge I tilt
against the rails. I watch its trickling stream
trying to conjure sentenced men who built
this crossing and set my stage – mid-nineteenth
century men, hardened by exile till
they shed the burden home set on their dreams.
My ancestors, my house whose memory
is stunted like the broken bole of a tree.
On my mother’s side, out from County Clare
came Ellen Smith – illiterate, eyes: green – 
a widowed dairymaid who stole a cow.
Complexion: pale, one child in charge, R.C.
She wed in Hobart Aaron Hibbard: collier.
Head: small, complexion: swarthy, C. of E.
Whether their lives blazed or were cold as slate
the only records now are those of the state.
I try to kindle names with facts, or chart
a distant origin: from York, Carlisle,
Northumberland and Kent. Places I’d learnt
in Shakespeare’s worlds, swapped for this sceptred isle
where outcasts nursed the wounds an Empire’s blunt
blade dug in a demi-paradise
of postcard pastures with their docile game,
a wound that festered past the change of name.
Death wiped a shipwrecked generation’s slate.
Their children seemed to spring from wind-tossed seed
and grew staked to the mores of English state.
My grandmother denied her convict breed,
kept corgies, never uttered words like Mate.
She found no cause to doubt the proper creeds
or think Fitzgerald’s might be built on sand. 
One never dwelt on tribes who’d lost their land.

The stream below says make your ancestors. 
Choose that wild goose John Boyle O’Reilly, shipped
to a land of Oyster-and-Ale. Take poets who sought
to shape examined lives in song. Their gifts
are prayer and tribute, just as fleeing Troy
Aeneas shouldered father, son and Lares. 
And before your own transport to fog-thick seas
cling to the past and sing its legacies.

Page 18, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 123
Issue 123

Poetry Ireland Review Issue 123:

Edited by Eavan Boland

Among the poets offering new work in the final Poetry Ireland Review of 2017 are Orla Martin, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Harry Clifton,  Erin Halliday, Alan Titley, and Nan Cohen, while the Featured Poet is Belfast sensation Stephen Sexton. The books reviewed in this issue include new titles from Michael O'Loughlin, the late John  Montague, Biddy Jenkinson, Aifric Mac Aodha, Mark Roper, and Colette Bryce's Selected Poems.  Also included is editor Eavan Boland's examination of the life and work of the late John Ashbery, and the reasons for his pre-eminence among American poets of his century; and an evocative tribute to the late Gerard Fanning from his friend Gerard Smyth. The artwork for PIR 123 comes from the SO Fine Art Editions gallery, and the issue concludes with nine intriguing questions for Michael Longley, posed by fellow Belfast poets Stephen Connolly and Stephen Sexton – followed, of course, by nine intriguing answers.