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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Poem of the Week: “Alteration” by David Wheatley

“Alteration,” a poem from David Wheatley’s collection Child Ballad, begins with a meditation on the transience of the self and of time, “the clock hands… / the self-subtracting hours they gave and took.” Written in memory of the poet Derek Mahon (1941–2020), the poem imagines an osprey flying over a “snow-fringed field” as a metaphor for Mahon’s poetry and influence. Finding himself “made less for flight,” the poet watches the osprey dive toward its prey with a ruthless and remarkable precision. The poem concludes with a call to change “all forms” that have been exhausted and neither solve problems nor soothe the spirit.

i.m. Derek Mahon

Sunt aliquid manes. You’ll know the line—
polite fiction the dead and living talk.
O clock hands ticking out your time and mine,
the self-subtracting hours they gave and took:
words inch youwards but still want to know
which version of you they are talking to.

Come in from or accept again the cold.
I struck out for the nearest snow-fringed field,
following where a high, lone osprey called.
I tried to try your shadow on and failed.
My down, not feathers, was made less for flight
than an earthbound vertigo that’s all my fault.

Your dandy’s arcs and feints on high insist
there are places still the suave marauder
makes his cozy own. But Kinsale is lost;
the routed earl has crossed the silvered water,
the lone grey tidal breach that marks your passage
and no reflux can seal up or assuage.

The infinite changes and what stays the same
is that one point where options all run out.
I see the osprey, claws first, spin, take aim,
dive remorseless and first time get it right.
The trick is less to alter than dissolve
all forms now dead that do not salve or solve.


—David Wheatley, from Child Ballad (2024)

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