from 23 Poems
A river runs through these two adolescent poems. In “Liffeytown,” a delicate lyric, each of the three stanzas ends with the haunting refrain:
O swan by swan my heart goes down
Through Dublin town, through Dublin town.
In “The Liffey beyond Islandbridge,” the river runs past town into a pastoral scene, with grass in place of iron, with swans preening, white abandoned sea birds, a cat among daffodils, an old man under a tree, all enveloped in “the shaken warmth of early March.” The speaker knows that even further down the river, beyond the river bend,
Are spaces teemed with cities which must
Strike a destiny
but prefers, for time’s being, to flow with the river’s “aimless miles.”
If the sense of literary destiny is strong, so, too, is the sense of the literary tradition. The word “wanders,” which appears in both poems, invokes both Wordsworth of the daffodils, and Yeats of the swans. Yeats’s influence also appears in the diction of ghostly enchantment in the first poem. Though the cat-like poet steps “cautiously” among the daffodils, in the same poem she confidently turns “A tattered coat upon a stick” into “An old man contemplates his shoe.” Though the swan-like poet pays tribute to a mighty predecessor, she also demarcates her own territory: not Coole Park, but Dublin town; not bright lakes, but “the darkening/ Of the river.”
Joining in the conversation of the ages, the poems add fresh observations. They heed their own imperative “Look well.” The river “Clings” to the ovals of the bridge. The old man sees “the water fretted by a cygnet’s thrust.” And beyond Islandbridge, “The river flattens to the land.”
Reading “The Liffey beyond Islandbridge”
The swans, one black, one white,
steer in the man-made lake
the children’s eyes to them,
and hoist the children’s hands.
When the bread is pitched
with childish force and aim,
and the great birds bend their heads
to peck at a crumb,
the children know they’ve won
a prize. They can make swans
come to them. They can break
the waters. They can even fly.