Patricia Horn O'Brien

The Vehicle and the Tenor

April 1, 2018


When it comes at me in the mirror with its meaning
ramping up until it passes and lowers in pitch, I’m on
the bit of the M1 where it bisects the Ring of Gullion


and I switch lanes, and let my right foot alleviate
its weight on the accelerator of the Focus,
and the ambulance is faster, and the shift in its report


an effect of the change in the wave’s frequency
and length on the observer, who is, in this case, me,
heading up to Newry hospice off the redeye, and I


lag and have to have the window down for brisk air.
If the grief moves in towards me at high speed,
the wavelengths I observe are decreased as the frequency


increases. I don’t know what this means though
I can tell you how it feels: in the cryptic centre
of my head a voice recites a rhyme I read somewhere


or heard once or otherwise made up:
Let us go to the woods, one little pig cries.
But why would we do that? his brother replies.


To look for my mother, the little pig cries.
But why would we do that? his sister replies.
For to kiss her to death, the little pig whispers.


What is driving along this but a guided dream
since the road feeds itself in as the planed length
time feeds to the mind’s lathe to get it trimmed


correctly to size: heavy clouds; the waterlogged
fields; a rainbow arcing faintly out to the west
and I keep that with everything I keep to myself.


I am either in the midst of it or on my own or both
things are true at the same time. I kill the radio.
Were the universe to finish, music would endure


though I have no memories left for the moment before
so when I think of you I think of you sat slumping
on the edge of the mattress, zonked on Zopiclone,


small and bald as a wee scaldy fallen out the nest
and found there hours after you were meant
to have gone on to bed. At my coming in


you barely raise your head, your eyes are half-shut
and you cannot find the holes for the buttons
on your nightie, because you have it on you inside out.


I know every journey to a source is homecoming,
and I am bombing along the District of Songs
along the Great Road of the Fews, towards you,


through a depression left by the caldera’s collapse.
This is the District of Poets, the district of The Dorsey:
Doirse meaning doors or gates, the solitary pass


to the old kingdom through the earthworks’ long
involvement, a pair of abrupt Iron Age banks
running parallel for a mile or so. An entrenchment.


An entrance. All manner and slant of analogy etcetera
but when, in the end, we had kissed you to death,
we sat and held your cold hands for a half hour more


and wiped with tissues all the black stuff bubbling up
from your lungs away from your lips, and wept
a good bit, and got up then and folded your clothes

and stacked your cards and binned the flowers,
and I sat out there in my rental car in the car park
as you kept on lying in here, past all metaphor, 


left by yourself on the cleared stage like a real corpse.


Audio Link


About This Poem


“The poem’s an elegy of sorts for my mother, who died last year. She wasn’t old really, only sixty-seven, and fought a long battle against cancer. I’d done that trip numerous times over the years, flying from New York City into Dublin and driving up to Tyrone, and latterly, to Armagh, to the Newry hospice, to see her. I found I was writing about how even metaphors—ways of thinking—break down when it comes to death. Formally, the poem fell into triplets, with two of the line endings bearing some relation to each other.”
—Nick Laird



Nick Laird is a poet, novelist, screenwriter, and critic from Northern Ireland. He is the author of the poetry collection Go Giants (W. W. Norton, 2013). A new collection,Feel Free, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton. He is a writer-in-residence at New York University.



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