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The Irish Women
(for Mary O’Callaghan, 1928 – 2010)
by Ed Bennett

Her white hair became
part of the pillow,
her breathing beached
in those shallows
where every minute was a gift,
and the minion of women
formed at the bedside:
two daughters, a nurse,
the oldest friend,
a death tableau
in the subdued light
of intensive care.

The doctors come to pronounce
then fall away as the women
proceed to their rite;
to close tenebrous eyes,
to furl the winding sheet
over trunk and limb,
prepare one more of their own
for the final parturition
before the mourners
and the morning obituary.

They were told in their youth
that ancient Celtic warriors
were buried on their feet
armed and armored
facing into their enemies,
a futile mark of prolix men
ready to fell each stacked stone
until their own cairns mark
the scars inflicted on every bone,
every part of flesh torn
for banners raised
to a blanching sun.

It is the women who inherit
the stilled clay vessels,
the breathless remnants
of mother or lover,
apostate or saint,
washing their mortal touch
in a last baptism
from a graceless world.

The men provide the priest
and a coin provides the keeners
for the spectacle’s final act
but the Irish women stand
arms within each,
as at each birth, as at every passing.

It is their attendance given
to bless the newborn's wail,
their tears and labor at every death
that moves this twilight march
until the morning ever after
when their world will know no sorrow,
and each woman’s labor will
provide the promised peace.


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