This is a far-off place in the North of Ireland called Desertmartin.
At noon, in the dead centre of a faith,
Between Draperstown and Magherafelt,
This bitter village shows the flag
in a baked absolute September light.
Here the Word has withered to a few
Parched certainties, and the charred stubble
Tightens like a black belt, a crop of Bibles.
Because this is the territory of the Law
I drive across it with a powerless knowledge –
The owl of Minerva in a hired car.
A Jock squaddy glances down the street
And grins, happy and expendable,
Like a brass cartridge. He is a useful thing,
Almost at home, and yet not quite, not quite.
It’s a limed nest, this place, I see a plain
Presbyterian grace sour, then harden,
As a free strenuous spirit changes
To a servile defiance that whines and shrieks
For the bondage of the letter: it shouts
For the Big Man to lead his wee people
To a clean white prison, their scorched tomorrow.
Masculine Islam, the rule of the Just,
Egyptian sand dunes and geometry,
A theology of rifle-butts and executions:
These are the places where the spirit dies.
And now, in Desertmartin’s sandy light,
I see a culture of twigs and bird-shit
Waving a gaudy flag it loves and curses.
from Selected Poems 1972-1990 (Faber & Faber, 1993), copyright © Tom Paulin 1993, used by permission of the author and the publishers.