Great War Triptych
(Knocklyon House, Dublin, 1917 & 2007)
Telegram boys were harbingers,
Carriers of despair,
Bearing news of local boys barely
Older than they were,
Down lanes in Ballyboden, Ballyroan,
Whitechurch and Old Bawn:
Mothers in windows, transfixed to stone,
Begging them to cycle on
Past their homes with the envelope
Whose formulaic words
Extinguished the compulsive hope
That was like an addiction,
As they beseeched God that the telegram
Was about someone else’s son.
These are the gates where the telegram boy stopped,
The window beneath which he crossed the gravel.
No sniper’s bullet could be as loud as his knock.
Grief drifted in, shapeless as mustard gas, to linger
Along every muted corridor in Knocklyon House,
Sleet drummed against the slates like skeletal fingers.
The Great War spread from France and the Dardanalles
To requisition cottages in Tallaght and Rathfarnham,
Conscripting mothers once addicted to novenas
But now trapped in a No Man’s Land of mourning.
A clock ticking off the infinity of empty afternoons,
A war against despair to be fought every morning
When it felt so easy to simply cave in and surrender.
The battlefront changes, yet a great war continues in rooms
Once filled with longing for a son missing in Flanders.
People wonder how they survived, having lost such friends,
How they will endure another night of ceaseless combat
Against desires that gnaw at arteries and nerve ends,
Against dark angels incessantly whispering in their minds,
That one drink, one hit, one bet, one click will do no harm,
How they will endure the void of leaving their fix behind.
Addicted people learn to cope, pacing corridors
Where a dead boy’s parents grieved:
Wounds raw, nerve ends jangling, desperate for
Something that cannot be retrieved.
People who endured delirium tremors, endured detox,
Suffered such symptoms of withdrawal
That they think they only imagine the elderly couple
Quietly observing them in the hall,
Ghosts who survived, who came through anguish,
Even if the yearning never retreated.
Knocklyon House in Knocklyon, Dublin, was the family home of a First World War soldier who died in the Ypres Salient in 1917 and whose body was never recovered. Today the house is used as the Rutland Centre for Addiction.