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I came across ‘Swineherd’ in quick succession via friends, workshops, anthologies and even newspaper columns, towards the end of the Nineties. As one of a series of poem-posters produced by the Poetry Society, and thanks to the generosity of Siân Hughes, it now sits on the wall of my office at work.

Being aware of a poem’s popularity or ubiquity has never been a good reason, in my book at least, to suddenly disown it. In the case of ‘Swineherd’, though I look at it most days, I am no nearer to guessing the veracity of story it tells, nor uncovering its every layer of meaning. Long before I read Ruth Padel’s consummate reading of the poem in The Independent, I felt the poem nagging away at me with its combination of slushy consonants chiming off each other (‘special’/’polish’), and the curtness of its ‘c’ sounds (‘skills’, ‘coffee’, ‘fox’, ‘cream’, ‘crawling’).

This push-and-pull sense of being teased was present all the way through the poem: What are the ‘skills’ which are so ‘special’? Who is the ‘Portuguese lay-sister’? What breed of ‘yellow’ fox are we talking about? Where (and why) does it get dark early in the summer? After a thousand readings, I still don’t know.

The joy of it is that I don’t need to, either. I have decided to savour the poem instead, to let it work on me as pure imagination. I allow it to create a space in which those possibly endangering ‘special skills’ (informer? torturer? bomber?), albeit retired, have come to rest in a place of order (‘straight lines’) which is itself threatened with the unexpected and the exotic (‘yellow fox’, ‘navy- blue trunks’). The poem could be the all-time great riddling poem of The Troubles. Or it might be an answer to the dogmatic need, in all of us, for an ‘answer’ in the first place. It might be an argument for the primary function of art to create and then exist on a plane of its own logic and making. It might be all three.

Swineherd

When all this is over, said the swineherd,

I mean to retire, where

Nobody will have heard about my special skills

And conversation is mainly about the weather.

 

I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well

As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen

And polish the brass fenders every day.

I want to lie awake at night

Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug

And the water lying soft in the cistern.

 

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines

And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,

Where it gets dark early in summer

And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Lifesaving Poems