The Saturday Poem: To the Castle, by Rory Brennan


We used to walk up to a castle on a hill,
Down a long city road, then twists and turns.
I could draw a rough sketch-map of it still.
Past stern terraces and miniscule front lawns
As streets lost their grip and slopes spilt down,
Elbowing between the cliff, the edge of town,
With the castle up above an ogre-merchant’s lair,
All turrets and balconies and granite-grey.
We were not orphans who had lost their way
But we went hand in hand as if we were.

Below lay a shadowy black lough, deep as a fiord,
Its shores lined with stranded wrecks of industry.
Ships wrought there once went all around the world
And at the time I talk of some still tramped by
And out into the soiled lace-curtain gloom.
In our hearts we knew we’d follow them
Far from the tiny gardens and the terraces,
But in the meantime we would hug and kiss,
Knowing nothing could be better than just this,
While knowing too that there were better places.

Off the sweeping drive strayed forest tracks
Overarched by boughs that filtered a pale sun.
Leaving the harassed, ailing city at our backs,
Our arms as ever round the other one,
We found a way through the branch-strewn maze.
I see now that we have done this always,
Delved into far deeper woods and made the best
When there were ditches, dikes and traps,
Even if we were foolhardy and ignored the maps.
The cliff-top hung like a hatchet at the crest.

I knew clever, courageous men had met up there
To proclaim a new and treasonable equality.
I admired them then. So much I still revere:
Their bond with each other, a frank readiness to die.
Perhaps our intense love of just one other one
Is possible because we know two people alone
Will perish in the gilded mirror of their gaze
And we need to cherish the whole universe.
Or perhaps the truth is simply the reverse,
That your beauty just continued to amaze.

The castle was a stage-set where we played.
You climbed up flights of steps to pose as Juliet
While I implored below the balustrade.
But the populace were Montague and Capulet,
Grudge-hoarding to exact revenge and kill,
Years of bloodletting welling up to spill.
We climbed back down, the castle perched above.
So we criss-crossed the world, like travellers in a tale,
Far from the maimed city and its neo-Gothic pile,
A strange place to discover and unravel love.

Rory Brennan’s collections include The Sea on Fire (Dolmen Press ) and The Old at Raphallo ( Dedalus Press ). Today’s poem was the winner of the Yeats Prize 2017.