Irish Wake

Joseph O’Brien

for Patrick Slattery

And with the clashing of their sword-blades make A rapturous music, till the morning break...
--W.B. Yeats

We’re a nation of all talk, recording
The story of our blood, registering
Our complaints against Land, Lord and Love
According to the latest government,
Counting past grudges and future graces 
On our beads and in our pews as from the isles. 
Tonight, though, in celebrating a grief,
We put all that squaring-off aside, 
Gathering for the bequest of Glory’s praise
At the behest of a grace not to be denied.
The house fills quickly with aunties, old maids
And mothers who can peel onions with their tongues . . .
They all speak the strange language of time past,
A different century, though clear and fluent.
And the men take refuge: kitchen-bound for 
Lack of space--always a living plight, never 
The dead’s who have a generous landlord . . .
But sweet poverty makes do--like soda 
In the bread, as it were, to give us rise
In the world. Heaven-bound for gain, we talk
The great talk with life’s water as we race 
To track down years, scores and days, the dogma 
And lore of old heroes, punters and saints. 
We bask beside private puddles of black beer 
That harden into cake-rings on the table
And watch the dying come and give compass 
To the new life of the old dead. Later, 
Late at night, our own compasses lead off
Into a wilderness business of things,
A renewal of things to square off on--
And talk’s gravity is unable to break off
Till long after porter-colored darkness
Fills the sky. So late night becomes early
Morning just as the brakes are applied.
We argue down yet another old point 
As joy will sing down another last pint. 
We dismiss with our laughter, truant tears,
And disabuse our words for the coming 
Parting with the rightness of these words
And the rightness of this hour for words.
--The eastern sky foams yeasty white: Tongues heave 
With a heavy hilarity, knowing 
Another year will bring new subjects to life
By the dying days of many. We hail
At the doorjamb as it fills up with dawn’s light.
Hands fly off from a final bracing hold;
A quick eye, quicker smile and parting ways,
All swallowed in the first speech of morning
(Always so apt to have the final word).
‘Twas a night, you might say later on, 
Worth a blist’ring tongue, mine with talk and--
(You wink)--late as’m coming home--my wife’s.
So relatives and others advocate
And nominate, ruminate and reminisce--
Oh, now there’s the one true memorial
For the dearly departed: sudsy flecks
Of talk in a slow slide down the side
Of empty glasses and generous tongues
Irrigating friendships with gob and gab.
Yes, this rapturous music remembers well,
This clashing blade-work, this--well, our nation’s art.