'Cousin Coat' is about an invisible coat which I eventually discovered I'd been wearing all my life and was not allowed to remove. It's an historical coat and perhaps is best imagined as having at some time spent about fifty or a hundred years lying at the bottom of the Aire Navigation Canal soaking up mud, chemicals, and other bits and pieces.
You are my secret coat. You’re never dry.
You wear the weight and stink of black canals.
Malodorous companion, we know why
It’s taken me so long to see we’re pals,
To learn why my acquaintance never sniff
Or send me notes to say I stink of stiff.
But you don’t talk, historical bespoke.
You must be worn, be intimate as skin.
And though I never lived what you invoke,
At birth I was already buttoned in.
Your clammy itch became my atmosphere,
An air made half of anger, half of fear.
And what you are is what I tried to shed
In libraries with Donne and Henry James.
You’re here to bear a message from the dead
Whose history’s dishonoured with their names.
You mean the North, the poor, and troopers sent
To shoot down those who showed their discontent.
No comfort there for comfy meliorists
Grown weepy over Jarrow photographs.
No comfort when the poor the state enlists
Parade before their fathers’ cenotaphs.
No comfort when the strikers all go back
To see which twenty thousand get the sack.
Be with me when they cauterise the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat.
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.
from Cousin Coat (Picador, 2002), copyright Sean O'Brien 2002, used by permission of the author and the publisher