The Aeneid has ten occasions when people with their living bodies encounter the shades of their dead relatives and friends. Most famously, Aeneas meets Anchises' father and Creoso his wife, and of course, Dido, who cuts him. Virgil repeats the lines beginning, Ter Conatus, verbatim in books two and six, to describe the tragedy of trying three times, in vain, frustra, to embrace the loved soul, and finding the living arms passing through him, taking shadows for real things, in Dante's phrase. I'm applying it here to the case of siblings on farms, who live their chaste, dignified lives together, before one dies, and the survivor is left alone.

Ter Conatus

Sister and brother, nearly sixty years
They'd farmed together, never touching once.
Of late she had been coping with a pain
In her back, realization dawning slowly
That it grew differently from the warm ache
That resulted periodically
From heaving churns on to the milking-stand.

She wondered about the doctor. When,
Finally, she went, it was too late,
Even for chemotherapy. All the same,
She wouldn't have got round to telling him,
Except that one night, watching television,
It got so bad she gasped, and struggled up,
Holding her waist, "D'you want a hand?" he asked,

Taking a step towards her. "I can manage,"
She answered, feeling for the stairs.
Three times, like that, he tried to reach her.
But, being so little practised in such gestures,
Three times the hand fell back, and took its place,
Unmoving at his side. After the burial,
He let things take their course. The neighbours watched

In pity the rolled-up bales, standing
Silent in the fields, with the aftergrass
Growing into them, and wondered what he could
Be thinking of: which was that evening when,
Almost breaking with a lifetime of
Taking real things for shadows,
He might have embraced her with a brother's arms.

from Here Nor There (Chatto & Windus 1999), ? Bernard O?Donoghue 1999, used by permission of the author.

Bernard O’Donoghue in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

Close