Courtyards in Delft

By Derek Mahon

— Pieter de Hooch, 1659

for Gordon Woods

Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile —
immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
water tap, that broom and wooden pail
to keep it so. House-proud, the wives
of artisans pursue their thrifty lives
among scrubbed yards, modest but adequate.
Foliage is sparse, and clings; no breeze
ruffles the trim composure of those trees.

No spinet-playing emblematic of
the harmonies and disharmonies of love,
no lewd fish, no fruit, no wide-eyed bird
about to fly its cage while a virgin
listens to her seducer, mars the chaste
perfection of the thing and the thing made.
Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste.
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.

That girl with her back to us who waits
for her man to come home for his tea
will wait till the paint disintegrates
and ruined dykes admit the esurient sea;
yet this is life too, and the cracked
outhouse door a verifiable fact
as vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
railings that front the houses opposite.

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
lambency informing the deal table,
the ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
a strange child with a taste for verse,
while my hard-nosed companions dream of war
on parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse.


By kind permission of the Estate of Derek Mahon and The Gallery Press, Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath, Ireland from The Poems: 1961-2020 (2021).