"there's no through trail" —Han-Shan, translated by Gary Snyder

The Farmleigh Tree Alphabet by Theo Dorgan

Issue: Fall 2016
 

The Irish Gaelic alphabet has 18 letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U

By ancient tradition, each letter of the alphabet is associated with a particular tree, A for Ailm (Pine), B for Beith (Birch), and so on.

This sequence of poems assigns a quatrain to each tree of the 18 in the alphabet, drawing on botany, direct observation, customary use, folklore and mythology.

The sequence was commissioned by the Office of Public Works when the author was Writer in Residence at Farmleigh House from winter 2014 to spring 2015.

A

Ailm            Pine

Good for hull-plank, mast. It burns with
a bright, comforting flame. A harp
for the wind to play with. Comes back
from fire in forest, reborn staunch.

B

Beith            Birch

Elegant, close grained. On its white
bark, with charcoal, mark directions,
write lines of poems, a lover’s name.
It shivers to breezes, dances.

C

Coll            Hazel

Carry a wand at night against
evil spirits. Gathered in nines
around wells it midwifes wisdom.
A fork jigs, dips to find water.

D

Dair            Oak

The bark for tanning and for dyes,
the wood for kingpost in palace,
the grove for Druid mysteries,
the magic for naming places.

E

Eadha            Aspen (White Poplar)

Trembler, slightest whisper of wind
shakes it. No good for burning, it
senses the oncoming of death,
it sighs with the sound of the sea.

F

Fearn            Alder

Never pass one on a journey.
Good for charcoal, for shields in war;
when cut its white flesh turns to red,
its purple buds are hearts of blood.

G

Giolcach            Broom

Hilltop torch, herald of summer,
lover of steep barren banks, seed
hunkers down after fire, biding
its time. Good shelter for game birds.

H

Huath            Hawthorn (Whitethorn)

Brilliant in Maytime, the white crowns
of blossom so merry and bright,
never bring branch into the house,
never cut a lone bush. Beware.

I

Iubhar            Yew

Tree of sanctuary and spear,
graveyard haunter, its leaves poison.
No tree gives darker shade. Silence
beneath it is green and black, dense.

L

Luis            Rowan

Bouldery stream sustains it, rock
cleft roots it, black bud bravado
makes a neat show on bare branches.
Its leaves are shy, and few, and small.

M

Muin            Buckthorn

Purgative berries, bitter, cold,
when dried yield fugitive colour —
stain for paper, favoured for maps.
Horses graze it, unfazed by thorns.

N

Nuin            Ash

The last to put out leaves in spring,
it draws down lightning, burns clean, clear.
Supple for boat ribs, straight for spears,
hurlers prize it, and loom builders.

O

Oir            Furze

The blossom for yellow dye, young
shoots for green; never out of bloom,
a gold haze on the land. Thorny,
it shelters birds. Quick to grow back.

P

Pín            Gooseberry

Borne on a wave from overseas,
sweetest of berries when ripe, tart
and cool plucked young from among thorns.
Rampant in overgrown gardens.

R

Ruis            Elder

Found rooted among nettles; rank,
fire-choker, never fall asleep
under its sour leaves. Its berries
useful against rash, skin sickness.

S

Sail            Willow

The bark for health, the branch for
compassion, fish trap, basket,
sweat lodge, wall lath. Rain drapes it.
Streams lave it, smoothing its pale roots.

T

Teitne            Holly

Champion, protector, at year end
glossy green, berries of scarlet
in fog and frost brighten winter.
Plant by a house to repel harm.

U

Uillenn            Juniper

Stalwart friend by sea and by land,
sovereign against house fire but
burned with care purifies, cleanses
the air. Burn berries with the branch.


Theo Dorgan

Theo Dorgan is a poet and also a novelist, non-fiction prose writer, editor, translator, essayist, broadcaster, librettist, and documentary scriptwriter. He has published five books of poetry. His most recent publications are Nine Bright Shiners, (Dedalus Press), the libretto. Jason and the Argonauts (Wave Train Press)  and Barefoot Souls, translations from the French of  Syrian poet Maram al-Masri (ARC publications). His two prose accounts of crossing the Atlantic under sail, Sailing for Home and Time on the Ocean; A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town, won wide acclaim, as did his recently published first novel, Making Way (New Island Books, 2013). He has been editor of, among other titles, Foundation Stone, Notes Towards a Constitution for a 21st Century Republic, Irish Poetry Since Kavanagh, A Book of Common Prayer, What We Found There, Watching the River Flow and, with Gene Lambert, LEABHAR MÓR na hÉIREANN/The Great Book of Ireland, an unique manuscript volume on vellum. Awarded the O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry (USA) in 2010, he was the 2015 winner of the Irish Times Poetry Now Award for the best collection of poetry published in 2014. He is a member of Aosdána.