Michael J Whelan – Small Copses on the Landscape

Profile Michael J Whelan LE Poetry & Writing September 2018

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Small Copses on the Landscape, poems by Michael J Whelan

Michael J. Whelan is from South Dublin and is a member Irish Defence Forces in 1990, serving on tours of duty as a Peacekeeper in South Lebanon and Kosovo. He is a published historian and keeper/curator of the Irish Air Corps Military Museum Aviation Collection and holds an MA in Modern History from NUI Maynooth. He has lived in Tallaght with his family for more than thirty years. His poems have been published in France, Australia, Mexico, and the UK. Prizes for his writing include 2nd Place and two commendations in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards, 3rd Place in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards. He was selected to read at the Poetry Ireland Introductions series and his debut collection PEACEKEEPER was published by Doire Press in 2016. https://michaeljwhelan.wordpress.com/


Irish UN Peacekeeping troops deployment from Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel

Queuing up along the wall in the dining hall,
an early breakfast before the long haul,
their camouflaged uniforms separated hearts from bodies.
For them the most difficult part was over, they had said their goodbyes,
their families already returned to the car park, preparing for home.
It’s always the same, the wrenching away, the not knowing.

Later on I saw them in daylight, crowding by platoons and companies
on the ramp between the hangars – waiting, the dark bunched up camouflage
resembled small copses on the landscape, a long hedgerow here and there.
There was a delay so they wandered round a bit before the orders came to form up,
the pilot had signalled time to board, and the busses shuttled them out to the taxiway.

Old sweats and red arses, though even the well-seasoned soldier
always has a slight churning in his gut before departure. I’ve been there,
know the feeling well, the twisting anxiety, stomach rotating
that only really leaves you after a couple of days in the AO. I nodded to a few
faces I recognised, shook hands with others and wished them a safe return.

I knew some who never got one, their tours will last forever.
In each of those uniforms was a life, a family, a story.
They were going into the brutality of the world and every one of them was a poem
that would never be written, giving their all when there was always more to give.
I am glad of some things my country did.

AO = area of operations

Asking the dead for directions

It’s 18 years later and I’m strolling down O’ Connell Street.
I notice a rough sleeper in a shop doorway. There is a queue
for the bank machine contouring around his limbs
as he lies face down on the hard ground talking loudly to himself.

I remember how the investigators worked flat out in Kosovo,
almost captive to the corners of fields and the cruelty
of the events they sought to prove, the soil they touched
became a membrane surrounding remote scars.

They lay face down at times in abandoned crops,
measuring tracks, listening for crowded spaces,
recording the gossip of trees.
They reminded me of Indian scouts from the movies,
feeling for the signature of passing armies
in the broken grass beneath their fingers.
They were asking the dead for directions, the way somebody
might search a cemetery, calling long deceased
relatives to whisper if they are close or not.

Soon the world will discover another war crime and the skeletons
of civilisation will once more bear witness to its own murder.
As the Earth opens recent wounds I imagine the rough sleepers
as skeletons of society communicating with scouts,
investigators leaning over precipices,
contemplating what goes into the filling of a trench.

The Aviators

Sean Walsh Park, Tallaght

I was throwing bread and became surrounded at the water’s edge,
engulfed by gaggles and screams, of birds of all kinds,
as if I had entered the wrong place at the wrong time
and my intrusion was being discussed.

A bawldy magpie digging a hole stopped every so often, stared me
up and down, paranoid, tilting its head, listening for bugs.
Its body seemed swollen, the wings raggedy and tired, feathers in tatters,
it seemed confused, limping, beaten upon and outcast by its peers.
Even the ducks and seagulls kept their distance.

I never throw bread into the water; it isn’t good for pond life,
the magpie seemed afraid to approach where I had left a crust
on the ground, I felt sorry for it.  A heron stood watching like something wise.
Some humans passed by, crossing the red bridge on their way
to the children’s playground. The heron turned to study them.

When all the bread was gone some ducks waddled up to my feet, a little non-plussed
at my recent behaviour. I could see their beautiful colours, it felt like communication
having to prove my worthiness by showing empty hands, the aviators left then
and I was alone for a while with the wonder.

Autumn Comes

It happened so fast I almost missed it
the Mountain Ash turned to red,
a magpie stole berries from the Rowan,
each year two trees in the place of one.


My mother had blue woolly socks on her feet
when she waited in the coffin,
told us she didn’t want to be cold
when they placed her in the ground.
Seven years later my father’s socks were orange,
his funeral was in June, hers in November,
same plot.


The carnage of fuchsia flowers
fallen to the pavement
under weight of rain,
like the battlefield remains of the rearguard,
over-run, piled high at their last post,
a bed of blood near the greenest grass.


I imagined
someone’s last breath
caught with little
droplets of moisture
on the spider’s web
in my garden,
a dream catcher
of what might
be carried on a final sigh,
words resembling
a gesture of love
to be heard
if the breeze
passed through
the glistening threads
in the right fashion,
when the web curves
like an instrument
returning the pulse
of someone lost,
who left something
unheard but gifted,
and so I steeled myself
each and every day
with a prayer
and the memory of faces
to protect what might
be there
until it came
to its natural end,
till the silver faded
even though sunlight
always told me
where it was
and then, in my head,
just before a hurricane,
the voice of reason
spoke a poet’s verse
and said
open your notebook
and listen
for words
falling from your pen.

© Michael J Whelan