The sign of the cross

“He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.” James Joyce, Dubliners

I make the sign of the cross, today,
the last Saturday in August,
for Jack who died today,
and before the Easter Rising,
Breathed the air of Ireland,
knew its stories and grew great in heart.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
in the last year of this millennium,
for Jack who knew the pain of exile,
separation and loss,
who knew what it was to be a Celt amongst Saxons,
and remembered alway.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
for all those legions of the dead,
over whose bodies no prayers are said;
those whose memories fade quicker than their grave
decays, I make the sign of the cross, today.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
for those whose vision cannot stretch
beyond the reach of minutes, hours, days;
for those, too, whose gaze is fixed
so firmly on the grave, that their grasp on life
just crumbles, fades.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
for those whose laughter is the day’s clear light,
but who, during the watches of the night,
when fleeting hands sink soft from sight,
and opacity parades the avenue of days,
lie silently appalled, as silent as the grave.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
for all those myriads of human hearts,
clogged with the fearsome need to appease
expectations; those for whom, desire has become
a hydra-headed beast, and death, a stranger at the feast.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
for cussedness
for bloody-minded perseverance
for refusing to bow to shibboleths,
to false gods and icons
to all this empty world of fact.

I make the sign of the cross, today,
and bow my head. To be alive entails
a knowledge of the dead. Opposites attract,
or, to put it another way,
a mystery invades this sturdy world of fact,
and leaves it, lying on its back.

August 1999


◄ Charlie

Shard ►


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Ursula O'Reilly

Sat 29th Jan 2022 03:30

Powerful and heartfelt poem. Wonderful eulogy to your father in law, John.

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John Marks

Fri 28th Jan 2022 22:48

Thank you Keith, John and Stephen. The poem (ballad?) was originally written, in the previous century, as a eulogy for my father-in-law. It has been revised many times over the intervening 23 years into a requiem for all the living and all the the dead.

“He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James Joyce, The Dead

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keith jeffries

Fri 28th Jan 2022 11:47

A bold statement, almost a declaration which I also hold in my heart.
Thank you for this

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Stephen Atkinson

Thu 27th Jan 2022 22:06

A bit of a masterclass in poetry, John

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