Poem of the week: The Names of the Rat

A new work by Michael O’Loughlin

Harry Clifton and Michael O’Loughlin photographed at the launch in the GPO of ‘If Ever You Go’ a map of Dublin in Poetry and song. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Harry Clifton and Michael O’Loughlin photographed at the launch in the GPO of ‘If Ever You Go’ a map of Dublin in Poetry and song. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

I’m holed up under Robert Emmet Bridge.
I know who he was – an ancestor lapped his blood
as it ran downhill from the butcher’s block
outside St Catherine’s Church –
a meal to remember.

Then came the years of The Great Feast
when no one ever went hungry.
We acquired a taste for human meat –
strap me to your chest
I’ll eat your heart out.

It’s a rare treat now – my diet is more pedestrian
and amphibious. But in summer,
when hipsters hug the canal bank
I stuff myself with hummus and sushi.
In winter it’s back to worms and slugs

And fighting the swans for scraps of stale bread
sulky cygnets and cranky old gits
a bang of whose wing would break your back.
The cormorant puts himself up on his cross
and poses for photos.

My giant cousin, the otter, passes by
taking the watery metro home
to his river. There’s a one-legged bloke
whose name I don’t know.
I give him a wide berth –

He thinks my name is lunch.
I know the name you give me
when you say the word you bare your teeth
in weird defensive mimicry.
But that’s not who we are.

My true name is whistled down through our cells
a covenant carved in our skull’s catacombs
unspoken, unutterable, but borne before us
like an invisible escutcheon
to shield us from your hatred.

You want us not to be.
You plague us with your poison
it gleams yellow in our children’s eyes
as we watch them die.
But this land was promised us too,

Like you, we come from the boats
to settle in this holy ground.
Now, we live in each other’s shadow.
we breathe the same air, drink the same water
when you cut us, we bleed with your blood.

Michael O’Loughlin’s Poems 1980-2015 was published by New Island in 2017