Colette Bryce Poems

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Great North

Although we may have bolted from that sad cliff
of our imminent decline, we are not Paula Radcliffe.

And though we may have startled
at the starting pistol,

Don't speak to the Brits, just pretend they don't exist

Two rubber bullets stand on the shelf,
from Bloody Sunday - mounted in silver,
space rockets docked and ready to go off;
like the Sky Ray Lolly that crimsons your lips
when the orange Quencher your brother gets
attracts a wasp that stings him on the tongue.
‘Tongue' is what they call the Irish language,
‘native tongue' you're learning at school.
Kathleen is sent home from the Gaeltacht
for speaking English, and it's there
at the Gaeltacht, ambling back
along country roads in pure darkness
that a boy from Dublin
talks his tongue right into your mouth,
holds you closely in the dark and calls it
French kissing (he says this in English).


I stepped from my skis and stumbled in, like childhood,
knee deep, waist deep, chest deep, falling
for the sake of being caught
in its grip.
It was crisp and strangely dry and I thought: I could drop
here and sleep in my own shape, happily,
as the hare fits
to its form.
I could lie undiscovered like a fossil in a rock
until a hammer's gentle knock might
split it open; warm
and safe
in a wordless place (the snowfall's ample increase),
and finally drift into the dream of white
from which there is no
way back.
I placed myself in that cold case like an instrument into velvet
and slept.

Car Wash

This business of driving
reminds us of our fathers.
The low purr of fifth gear,
the sharp fumes, the biscuity
interior - has brought them,
ever-absent, nearer.
And has brought us, two
women in our thirties,
to this strange pass,
a car wash in Belfast;
where we've puzzled
and opted for ‘Executive
Service' (meaning
detergent) and have minded
the instructions to wind up
our windows and sit
tight when the red light
shows, and find ourselves
delighted by a wholly
unexpected privacy
of soap suds pouring, no,
cascading in velvety waves.
And when spinning blue brushes
of implausible dimensions
are approaching the vehicle
from all directions,
what can we do
but engage in a kiss
in a world where to do so
can still stop the traffic.
And then to the rinse,
and in view once again
of incurious motorists
idling on the forecourt,
we are polished and finished
and (following instructions)
start the ignition (which
reminds us of our fathers)
and get into gear
and we're off
at the green light.

A Spider

I trapped a spider in a glass,
a fine-blown wineglass.
It shut around him, silently.
He stood still, a small wheel
of intricate suspension, cap
at the hub of his eight spokes,
inked eyes on stalks; alert,
sensing a difference.
I meant to let him go
but still he taps against the glass
all Marcel Marceau
in the wall that is there but not there,
a circumstance I know.

The Full Indian Rope Trick

There was no secret
murmured down through a long line
of elect; no dark fakir, no flutter
of notes from a pipe,
no proof, no footage of it -
but I did it,
Guildhall Square, noon,
in front of everyone.
There were walls, bells, passers-by;
a rope, thrown, caught by the sky
and me, young, up and away,
Goodbye, goodbye.
Thin air. First try.
A crowd hushed, squinting eyes
at a full sun. There
on the stones
the slack weight of a rope
coiled in a crate, a braid
eighteen summers long,
and me -
I'm long gone,
my one-off trick
unique, unequalled since.
And what would I tell them
given the chance?
It was painful; it took years.
I'm my own witness,
guardian of the fact
that I'm still here.

Pillar Talk

That magician
who stationed himself on a pillar

over Manhattan
for thirty-five hours

knows nothing whatever
of loneliness,

or how it is
for people like us

who have no soft acre
of cardboard boxes

not even the eggshell
flashbulbs of the press

or the well-meant antics
of neighbours with a mattress

to temper the thought
of the hard, hard earth

to break the fall

nothing at all.


I needed a drink before handling it,
the clammy skin, thin and raw.
I remembered touching a dead bishop once;
Sign of the Cross, shivers.

Its feet, ditched in the sink, reached
like withered hands appealing.
The crack of its bones chilled my own.
I sank another, severed the neck.

The membranous eyes were unsettling,
the shrunken head bereft on the block,
the clutch and the squelch as innards slopped out -
gizzard, heart, lungs.

I finished the bottle to see it through
and caught the scene in the night behind glass,
a corpse like a glove to my wrist.
I am sick to the stomach of Christmas.

It's hazy then until Boxing Day,
a shock of light across the room.
I wake to blood trapped under my nails,
to the delicate snap of a wishbone.

When I land in Northern Ireland

When I land in Northern Ireland I long for cigarettes,
for the blue plume of smoke hitting the lung with a thud and, God,
the quickening blood as the stream administers the nicotine.
Stratus shadows darkening the crops
when coming in to land,
coming in to land.

What's your poison?
A question in a bar
draws me down through a tunnel of years
to a time preserved in a cube of fumes, the seventies-yellowing
walls of remembrance; everyone smokes and talks about the land,
the talk about the land, our spoiled inheritance.


On the walk to school you have stopped
at the one significant lamppost, just to be sure
(if you're late where's the harm?),
and are tracing the cut of the maker's name in raised print
and yes, you are certain it is still ticking,
softly ticking where it stands on the corner

opposite McCaul's corner-
shop. Not that you had expected it to stop.
At worst, all you'll get from the teacher is a good ticking
off. When it goes off, and you are sure
it will be soon, this metal panel with its neat square print
will buckle like the lid of Pandora's tin and harm

will blow from the mechanical heart, harm
in a wild cacophony of colour. A car takes the corner
as you start to cross and the driver's face imprints
itself on your mind forever, a whitened mask, as he stops
a hair's breadth from the sure
and quickened ticking

of your child's heart - a little clock or timer ticking.
"For God's sake stay on the pavement out of harm's
way!" the woman who grabs you says. "Sure
haven't you been told how to cross a road? This corner
has already seen the death of my daughter. Stop
and look, and look both ways!" She prints

her grip on your thin bare arm, the sour imprint
of alcohol on her too-close breath. Then the ticking
of a wheel, as a man on a bicycle slows to a stop,
dismounts, and tells her "It's okay Mary, there's no harm
done." He leads her from the corner,
talking in her ear, "It's alright Mary. Yes, yes, I am sure."

He motions with his eyes for you to leave but, unsure,
you wait, frozen by the lamppost, the lettering print-
ing ridges in your palm, until you run at last to the opposite corner
and walk to the school, the woman's words still ticking
in your head, her notion of harm
and the thought of her daughter, unable to stop

missing school. You are sure, as sure as the ticking
lamppost is a bomb, its timer on, of harm, printed
forever on the corner where the woman's world has stopped.

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