Barefoot Ballads

Edmund Hardy

The movement of sense in Rafferty's poetry is shaken out at us in two signatures: the slight grammatical jump and the repetition of a half-phrase. Earlier jumps – often commas disappearing – gave the impression of a poem having already established itself as a song, "worn like a wish", transcribed or scribbled out in haste. Later jumps register one spirit or sentence pushing through another, the most dramatic of these being the move into italics half-way through '1959', daily life interrupting so forcefully that the change is from body to shadow, both of these dissolvable, however, in language – which, in Rafferty's poetry, becomes time refreshed, if sung. The repetitions are more varied: some seem to register the passing of writing days, leaving off, picking up, while others slide one voice out of the way to reveal another. Various choral repetitions point up Rafferty's characteristic antistrophic framework. What emerges is a barefoot wander art, walking's repetition and jump.

This is an optative poetry, multiplying its hopes: life goes out on careless, barefoot roads, and at one point these lead back to retrace themselves. An old man called Alf at the bar with his tales and names, a map; Oedipus as a beggar, blind and banished (Rafferty translates a line from the chorus of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, "Not to be, not to be born is best", more old men); border thieves half-risen to build a shelter in the land that they crossed, the sites where they murdered and robbed, the ballads which re-member them. . . The place returned to is an intertwining of memory and song, a kind of sustenance; sometimes, though, it has ruined and dried into nothing (at the heart of the yew or in an airless attic) and this is terror or at least deleterious over-extension. The antistrophe: by going on, you trace back, doubling your turns and conversions.

The mower late in graveyard grass
sharpened his scythe to cut for me
green roads my barefoot summers pass
like Israel's children through the sea

a meadow's hay; where mowers lie
in hawthorn shade, to brim and bring
their pitcher from the conduit, I
the barefoot servant haycock king.

What is this road that I retrace
why should this water that I spill
rechristen me? He set my face
for home does home lie further still.
Some sabbath sung predestined place
Sharon Siloam under Sion's hill.

The first stanza break is a path through the sea, and away from this leading allegory (but not its promise) and back to the grass. The second, following a stanza pulled back by a semi-colon and then un-aligned by an "I" (a stook; a conduit), is a turning round: now questions collide in a re-mapping of the pathways, the image of a life as an accretion of chosen roads passes through the cybernetics of baptism, from conduit to Siloam's pool, so that spilt water shines in the delta of green paths while it also disperses, sap on the scythe; green and shade.

The stream of language flexes and splits into bright loops, writing the poem, as it does in one of the Celia sonnets by David Murray (1567-1629) – from a period of Scottish poetry which, with a high degree of alliteration and echoes from other poems, seems close to Rafferty – a poem in which the "christal brooke" turns from its duty to the sea back to encircle the beloved, to reflect, multiply and sing her: "In thousand strange meanders made returne". It's a surfeit which scores a pattern, still there in a different sonnet – the centre hollow, the beloved not to be seen, so that, on return, winged reflections, now dark, re-enter the eye's cabins, "Shadowing my face with sable cloudes of griefe". The criss-crossed meanders of these poems create a fortuitous space, time run back through time, but fluctuating like the midsummer fire Rafferty likes to invoke – revealing treasures or some "hartstongue home".

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