Handful of Earth
‘Handful of Earth’ is a poem by Róisín Kelly commissioned in response to Supplicants, Ursula Burke’s exhibition at VISUAL. A growing unease around the loss of social and community structures underpins Ursula Burke’s socially-aware sculptural practice, which opens up fraught conversations around power, alienation and political disenfranchisement in the contemporary era. Róisín Kelly looked towards Burke’s work to reflect further on ideas of community and survival. Evoking palpable memories of watching live music just before the onset of Coronavirus, the poem looks at the effects of the pandemic on our social structures and sense of community, the loss of the liberatory power of sharing collective emotion and the growing threat to Irish nightlife spaces. Just as Burke adopts sumptuous and tactile materials with rich histories, Kelly’s language is evocative and sensuous as it recreates lost moments of intimacy and perhaps finds some solace through a reconnection with landscape, nature, earth, and the remote light of the stars.
Handful of Earth
A black forest stretches before me
like a fortress wall that runs from west to east,
feathered tops of pines against the stars.
The stars are lilac, peach, pale gold.
And I say: I’ll walk into the woods so,
find a dim place to lie down and die.
But first I close my eyes and think back to the night
before everything locked down til this day.
It rained and rained, we had to run to the gig through the rain.
We knew that everything was about to end.
And also that the time to leave had come and gone,
following our acceptance of—year after year—
the unacceptable: the tents, the cranes,
the riverbanks covered with concrete.
At that point the virus was sweeping towards us,
hungry for its marriage with our cells,
frantic to create itself in our image again and again.
At least we still had nights when we could stand
side-by-side with both strangers and friends.
A petri dish of wet coats, damp hair, warm breath.
On the stage were the silhouettes of men with guitars
against a gilt curtain turned green by a spotlight.
When we emerged on the street the air was fresh,
the rain over, and the next part about to begin.
The river flowed high with a staticky hiss of white noise.
A phone box glowed with a cold minty light,
its receiver hanging plastic and broken.
Love what is mortal, that’s what they say
but everything that’s mortal goes away.
I want to delete the grief in my genes,
to decay in a bed of wet leaves.
In the wind the pine trees stir and stir.
The earth in my footprints turns itself over
to reveal yet another earth-layer.
It reminds me of someone making tea for her lover
when I watched her stir the milk in drop by drop,
so that she made a golden paleness bloom with care.
Sometimes things take patience, time, and love
in the years before all turns to dust.
A green curtain, the mirror ball’s shoal of light particles,
the silhouettes of hands that knew their way
back and forth along the necks of guitars even in darkness.
The kind of skill that follows decades of practise.
The stars darken slightly to plum, to violet.
As the virus yearns to make itself in our image
so do we desire the unmaking of ourselves:
to walk into the woods and expire
by the faint light of our earliest origins.
In the disused phone box, the receiver nestles close to its cradle.
Oh, to pick you up and put you to my ear
and hear the dial tone sounding after rain.
I would tell you about the crowd pressing close,
as if our atoms were stardust again.
In the years since, have any of the others known this place?
Have they also approached the black wall of forest
and the last moment paused to look over their shoulder
at the town where the rest of us live?
It’s them I think of as I bend to sieve
a loose handful of earth, this inherited dirt.
Róisín Kelly is a writer from Ireland. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Mercy, was published by Bloodaxe Books in March 2020
Ursula Burke, Supplicants, is at VISUAL Carlow from 15 November 2021 – 30 January 2022