The Confession of Queen Gormlai

Dawn, fielding on the mountains,
Had found that hovel
And in the dark she lay there,
Whom kings had loved,
Sharp on a shoulder-blade
Turning in straw and rags;
While, crossed from that clay threshold,
Her flesh became a dagger.

Monk, do not lift the hood
From black to hearing white;
The shadows of the schoolmen
That drift from fire to ice
Stoop, and my mind is stirred,
Remembering the books
I closed, for I am Gormlai
And she was beautiful.

With jewels and enamel
Men hammer in black gold,
In halls where feast was trampled
And camps the battle-axe
Had lit, I wore the crimson
My women worked in pattern;
And heard such flattering words,
That I bit to the kernel.

When companies came south,
I was in too much pride,
Counting the royal housework,
Vats of red-purple dye.
I had the light of linen,
Blue windows in the sun
To look from: I had thinness
Of white bread and Greek honey.

Starred airs were beaten fine
As silver when the craftsmen
Came; clergy graced the wine-cup
And scholars played at draughts.
But I laughed with grave Cormac
Above the candle-rows
And heard the string leap back
To men and women dancing.

His dogs had dashed a white stag,
The day that Cormac bared
Himself upon the flagstone
And was alone in prayer.
All night he turned to God
Because the body dies;
But had it been immodest
For him to rest beside me?

I had not read in book
That goodness can insult
The mind, that meeting looks
Are bright adultery.
Though I have lain in three beds
And many have blamed me,
No man has seen me naked,
Partaken in my shame.

O monk, when head is shaven—
Can grave be any less?
I count what Cormac gave me
No more than little blessing.
Our marriage was annulled,
The Mass bell rung by force,
The flesh that was made one,
Divided and divorced.

Flann, my own father, bargained
With Carrol, king of Leinster,
And joined our lands in marriage.
Black bridegroom of a sin,
He banished my musicians
And careful scribe. I feared
When Cormac was made bishop.
Could I stop war by tears?

He drank at posted fires
Where armies had been glutted
And he shrank bars of iron
Whenever his hand shut.
At night was it not lust,
Though I were fast in prayers,
For Carroll with his muscle
To thrust me in black hair?

He cropped the greener land
To Cashel top. He took
The bishop in his chapel
And wrung the holy mass-book.
But Cormac, in the fury,
Stumbled from crook to handbell—
And by the axe-red tonsure,
At his own font, he fell.

Unfooted light and rain
Were staked at Bealamoon;
The clergy fought in mail
Till Carrol had been wounded
And carried on a branch.
With my own hands I nursed
That big man in the blanket:
His wife took sweat and purge.

I have known politics
And tongue is tripped to blame.
The night I called him wicked,
Was I not quickly shamed?
Turning upon his sick-bed,
He kicked me with foul words
And my pale household fled—
O man within the cowl!

Fair Nial of the north,
The clerks may hold it sinful
To love the wife of Cormac,
For she was of your kin.
Good tent between the hostings
To bed me! O white Branch
Of Care—they sin the most
Who never broke commandment.

Two husbands had not fasted
With me—and they were slain.
One turned my soul at Cashel:
His powerful foe had shamed
The bed. All blame a widow
That rids herself of grief.
But, Nial, the day you rode back
I came with oils and mead.

Breaking in rain, the dayshine
Was driven against the glen
Where swineherds skulked in clay,
The sudden hail was fencing
Barley with oats and oakwood;
But you spoke, as we galloped,
Of farmers in housed smoke
As heavy as their crops.

For drizzling miles we kissed,
We clung to the glistening saddle
On roads that rang and misted
Below us, promised madly
To pray, but in cold heather
We broke the marriage ring,
Under your leathern cloak,
By thoughts that were a sin.

Smithied in gloom the low day
Had glowed upon the axle,
Southward along the causeways
The hilly clouds were backing:
We saw the drummers ride
The sands beside our kingdom,
And—as in sky—the tide stand
Amid a clan of wings.

But, husband, we repented
With penance on bare feet,
Received the sacraments
Within the holy week.
Happy in house and glen,
I turned the strap and silver,
Reading my books in Lent
Before I was a mother.

I lie in dock and fennel
Because my days were filled
With ease. I cast the linen
Upon my skin for silk.
I sent the babe to suck,
And with white pens I wrote.
But Cormac wore the shirt
Of fire, the shoes of stone.

At dark the doorkeepers
Are ragged in the draught:
Can they bar dreams from sleep
When spirits are unclad
And pitted in the air?
O Nial, that state of grace
Deceived us. Yearly parents,
Your pleasures are unchaste.

Tall ships have wharfed a town
Beside the south where Nial
Fell with the strange blue crowds
That cry in driven sleet.
Souls, dripping from the bulwark
That whistles sand through water,
Have drawn, where no suns dip,
Eel, otter and black swan.

Monk, if in matrimony
The pair that has been blessed
May please the lower limbs—
My third bed was not less.
I grieve our vessels shake
The soul and though I grovel
As Cormac in true shame,
I am impure with love.

At sun, she lay forsaken
And in red hair, she dragged
Her arms, around the stake
Of that wild bed, from rags
That cut the gleam of chin
And hip men had desired:
Murmuring of the sins
Whose hunger is the mind.
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