new zealand electronic poetry centre

Fiona Farrell


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The Way of the Dishes

 
Today I followed the
Way of the Dishes.
From Kinvara to Keelhilla
along the greasy road.

The dishes flew before me.
Cups, plates and bottles of
red wine, a joint of beef,
stewed leeks and white
bread, sliced for eating.

I could see them floating
just ahead, set upon a white
cloth. I could see the flap of
it, rising to cross a hedge
like a flat fish swimming
through clear water and
me beneath like a small
sprat following.

To follow was not easy. The
dishes rode across country,
taking hedges and ditches on
their white wings, while I was
trapped by my car and the
narrow ways of men. I had
to turn corners and guess at
my final destination.

I saw the dishes fly to a
cliff face and drop behind
bare branches, hazel and ash.

I parked the car and found the
cloth come to ground,
embroidered hem fluttering
by the saint’s bed. A heap
of fallen stone.

The saint was a lean man.
He picked at the beef and
poured salt over the leeks,
lest he be tempted.
He tossed his bread to the
sparrows and foreswore
the red wine, preferring
water from his blessed spring.

But his servant gnawed the bones
bare and spread good butter on his
bread. He drank his wine, thanking
whatever power it was that had
sent cloth and dishes, whatever
white hand it was that cooked
this food, and the kindly air that
carried it.

I watched from behind a tree as he
feasted while his master picked and
prayed. I watched his belly swell. I
heard him groan as his starved guts
cramped.

Within the hour he will be dead and
buried under a heap of stone.
While the saint will live,
revered by all for his restraint.

And the feast will grow mould,
the white cloth will rot and the
wine will turn to vinegar in
a tarnished cup.

 

The Burren is a landscape in western Ireland composed of striated limestone, stripped by glaciers to form smoothly contoured hills, bare and grey white – pavlova hills – or expanses of flat stone pavement, cracked in orderly rectangles like huge tiles. I visited it over four days in late winter when the bare bones of the place were particularly compelling. The topographical map marked ‘St Mac Duach’s Bed’, the ‘Servant’s Grave’ and something called ‘The Way of the Dishes’.

I drove along little twisting roads through fog to a gate at the foot of a hill. There were no signs or maps or general interpretative fiddle faddle, just a faint track across the flags that looked like the marks left by the narrow wheels of small carts. There were cattle in the fields but the ground was not pocked by their hooves: the land looks too bare and rocky for farming but the sharp drainage makes it ideal for cattle, especially over winter, and the grass that grows between the pavements is especially rich in nutrients so they fatten well. Between the stones in the deep regular cracks called ‘scailps’ or ‘grykes’, grow a great variety of plants (600 species have been recorded – the greatest concentration in Ireland) in a unique mix of tundra and Mediterranean varieties. Gentians grow here at sea level alongside orchids and maidenhair fern. I followed the grooves in the limestone to the piles of stone that were the grave of the servant and the saint’s bed at the foot of a cliff: bare branches, wet rock and that stillness you get when the fog is down.

The legend is as it is told in the poem: of a feast that flew from King Guaire’s castle to feed the saint at Easter. On the way home I passed the monastery the king built for the saint near Gort: a ruined complex of church, chapels, living quarters and a high tower, needle-sharp amid a cluster of gravestones with their loving arrangements of brilliantly coloured plastic carnations and ribbons

 

From The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (AUP, 2007)


Fiona Farrell
 



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Last updated 26 July, 2007