Seals at High Island

The calamity of seals begins with jaws.Born in caverns that reverberateWith endless malice of the sea’s tongueClacking on shingle, they learn to bark backIn fear and sadness and celebration.The ocean’s mouth opens forty feet wideAnd closes on a morsel of their rock.Swayed by the thrust and backfall of the tide,A dappled grey bull and a brindled cowCopulate in the green water of a cove.I watch from a cliff-top, trying not to move.Sometimes they sink and merge into black shoals;Then rise for air, his muzzle on her neck,Their winged feet intertwined as a fishtail.She opens her fierce mouth like a scarlet flowerFull of white seeds; she holds it open longAt the sunburst in the music of their loving;And cries a little. But I must rememberHow far their feelings are from mine marooned.If there are tears at this holy ceremonyTheirs are caused by brine and mine by breeze.When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glowsLike a carnelian candle set in jade.The cow ripples ashore to feed her calf;While an old rival, eyeing the deed with hate,Swims to attack the tired triumphant god.They rear their heads above the boiling surf,Their terrible jaws open, jetting blood.At nightfall they haul out, and mourn the drowned, Playing to the sea sadly their last quartet, An improvised requiem that ravishesReason, while ripping scale up like a net:Brings pity trembling down the rocky spineOf headlands, till the bitter ocean’s tongueSwells in their cove, and smothers their sweet song.

from The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 (Bloodaxe, 2013), © Richard Murphy 2013, used by permission of the author and publisher. Recording made at the Louis MacNeice Centenary Celebrations and Conference at Queen's University Belfast, September 2007, © Richard Murphy and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Belfast

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