The shovels stood in a sticky underbelly of earth
as we stepped from the sidelines for him,
peeling our jackets, the boys loosening their ties.
Soon there was clay on our church-going gear
and his voice coming out of our childhood
coaching us to put our backs into it.
Flowers and fine words had never touched the man
like work, grunts behind a shovel’s bite,
the clean sound of clods as we heaved them in. Digging,
we bowed in memory of his stooped solid shape.
The dark damp weight of earth,
a provision, a very last word.

Rhian Gallagher was born in Timaru in 1961. She attended the Original Composition course at Victoria University of Wellington. After moving to London, she completed a BA at London University, and Post-Graduate Diploma in Printing and Publishing at the London School of Printing. Gallagher, who is gay, has lived in London for the past 14 years. Her first collection, Salt Water Creek, published by Enitharmon in June 2003 (London), was short-listed for the Forward Prize for First Collection.

Gallagher comments: ‘My father was, as they say, a man of few words. He came out from Ireland in his twenties, worked on building the hydro dams down south and then in the freezing works, hard manual labour. The physical act of burying him was my brothers’ and my eulogy to him. The poem comes from these real events. There is a nod in the poem to something of the ritual involved in a Catholic ceremony while at the same time wanting to break through the potential veneer when ritual turns into an empty vehicle. I am no longer a practising Catholic but it is impossible to escape such an inheritance. In Ireland it is often the men of the family who do the burial, so my joining in pushed a little at the traditional male-only role.

The physicality of the poem is important. I attempted to integrate this physicality into the writing moving with and against the line breaks; the use of sound clusters; and the energy of verbs. It took me years to fully realise that part of my relationship to language has to do with physicality and how it can be created in a poem. The poem also touches on a theme that echoes elsewhere in my work, and is about crossing boundaries, crossing lines.’

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Enitharmon Press