Letters to the Dead

Eavan Boland

In the Old Kingdom scholars found pottery
written round and around with signs and marks.

Written in silt ware. On the rims of bowls.
Laid at the entrance of tombs.
Red with the iron of one world.
Set at the threshold of another.
They called them letters to the dead.

They did not mourn or grieve these signs or marks.
They were intimate, imploring, local, desperate.

Here at the threshold of an Irish spring
you can no longer see,
hawthorn bushes with their small ivory flowers
will soon come alive in every wind. Soon,
every hillside will be a distant bride.

If I could write it differently,
the secret history of a place,
as if it were a story of hidden water, known only
through the strange acoustic of a stream underfoot
in shallow grass
it would be this—
this story.

I wanted to bring you the gifts of the island,
the hawthorn in the last week of April,
the sight of the Liffey above Leixlip.
The willows there could be girls,
their hair still wet after a swim.
Instead, I have brought you a question.

How many daughters stood alone at a grave,
and thought this of their mothers’ lives?
That they were young in a country that hated a woman’s body.
That they grew old in a country that hated a woman’s body.

They asked for the counsel of the dead.
They asked for the power of the dead.
These are my letters to the dead.

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