The country house poem is sub-genre of topographical poetry popular in the seventeenth century. Famous examples exist by Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, and Andrew Marvell. In this form the poet would praise a wealthy patron by offering elaborate and often intricately symbolic descriptions of the house and grounds often drawing on their history and political or religious associations. This week we’re pleased to be publishing a new country house poem by Karl O’Hanlon, but one with a contemporary, self-reflexive twist.

 

PURDYSBURN HOUSE

 

i.

‘I limned this night-piece’

ooo – John Webster

 

Narcissus Batt:

 

Where broken hedge reveals a biting snow

in first settle a badger roots, its slow

brusque eradicating head earthward bent.

The formless, roomless sky pent

with thunder silhouettes my masterpiece,

her body resurrected

in sullen brick, perfected

in line and form (a voice in the aster trees…)

 

In countless drafts the movement never tires,

a necromancer’s dark reactive fires

kindling her conformable will.

I’m after a plain high style

demanding architectural constraint:

to render her massed electric,

all her vanished eccentric

lines in clean and classic restraint

 

And yet mark how these leathern sow-faced bats

flit in stone on the escutcheon – if that’s

not a compromise of classic and absurd,

mock-Tudor piece of tact. The surd

mansion flesh quickens, my January bride;

the masons, the brittle glazier,

the sunken gardens of pleasure

bristling in tune. In the end, she too will bridle.

 

 

 

 

ii.

‘I do hope it’s MY dream, and not the Red King’s’

ooo – Lewis Carroll

 

Margaret Batt (née Greg), d. 1840

 

Summer, glorious variegator,

sways sycamore stormcladding treetop

sea-music, drunk

-lusty. In the gloom of my father’s house

my lace ministry of dolls

precisely gather under a draped table,

hacking up fealty.

Behold the linen and the china Queen.

 

‘Come, Miss, into the pollen-sweating fields,

Miss, come you out

to promenade Donegall Square; lampboys

will flit ahead to measure your footsteps

with oil roses.’

‘A mill, Miss Peg – ’ ‘A shipping company…’

‘These veins silted

with de Courcy blood!’ I spurned all

for bats to roost among my auburn hair.

 

The house sighs, the house grins;

thick bars of light

lock the gold dust in pert quadrilles.

I learn the new courtesies, his tenderness

close to cruelty.

He builds his love in hunched study

late (I am an unfinished blueprint).

He will beat my soul into shape.

I will not go –

 

the bed that winter went like snakes

and it coloured.

Robert Narcissus yawled, a blue shoat,

giving my pierced mind a kind of hope

that milked my blood.

Flesh of my burning flesh,

disinherited by finials, spandrels!

Unexpected thing:

at twenty-two I died, happy.

 

 

What can be built

can be destroyed:

 

I will not be laid

brick on brick:

 

no stark passion

so far obsessed:

 

listen to the voice

in the aster trees.

 

 

 

 

Note: the daughters of Narcissus and Margaret Batt declined inheritance of Purdysburn estate, and Batt handed it over to the Hospital Commissioners. Purdysburn House became ‘an asylum for the lunatic poor.’ The building was demolished in 1965. Today, the site is a mental health hospital.

 

Purdysburn Gardens

 

 

Karl O’Hanlon was born in Belfast and grew up near Purdysburn. His poems have appeared in Stand, Agenda, and Blackbox Manifold.