‘The Year of Slaughter’, 1740-41
Around the earth, a warring, wooden sea of brigs
was bristling, a-flame; volcanic ash
descending on the vacillating map. The weathered world
began to shift – a tiny alteration
sowing ice across the land. The shining-bellied geese
no longer wintered by the lough. The turf-blue river
waters died. An iron frost persisted, all the spring,
without a rain, the blooming yearly crop undone –
in every rill and valley, sick. The factious common people
roared in protestation; then dwindled down, masticating
slowly, like a herd, on sour, curdled soup and sallow greens:
a meal of nettle stems and charlock – the lush,
green-leafed, light-golden-flowered thing that grows
among the grass. The lark-lit summer moors
were blank; the meadow-birds aghast. No longer
having feed to give, the grieving poor death-rattled
in the fields, as the little cows they tended fell.
Like rotten sheep themselves, after supping
dead potatoes in distress, whole parishes surrendered,
passing out, in fever-thin delirium, to waste
and bloody flux: a plague of desperation, day by day.
Town and city quickly filled with remnants of the living.
The census-takers floundered; swelling ditches overflowed.
To put an end to expiration, the famous bishop
brewed a broth: a medicine made up of milk
and boiling water, with a sprinkling of chalk –
to be dispensed among the stricken, till the ague settled down.