'Sleep Thinking'

'The Flight of the Neurones'

The Story of 800

Out of the blankness of nothing came four zeros.

Eyes in flying saucers of bewilderment.

And they looked 'round, but couldn't see, until two

became spectacled and two monocled.

And they adjusted their view. But after a while

became accustomed and no longer saw anything new.

And so zeros became telescopes. And the sun

and the moon and shooting stars enveloped them.

And as the far drew near they became accustomed

and no longer saw anything new.

So they turned then to eyes of a microscope

and the near changed; into a most curious stranger.

And they saw cells and the nucleus of cells and all

the circles we are made of. With eyes refreshed, zeros

were everywhere. In straggles of hair and sticks of chalk.

In transverse section, bronchioles, for air to talk.

In rolls of papyrus, neurones and old bones. In oak

trees, battered coins, bath-pipes and tins of peas.

And the zeros glimpsed their arc of possibility.

And two tried seeing themselves new. One balanced on top

of the other, to become an infinity.

A figure of eight.

The dance of perpetual quest.

And the other two grew, in the knowledge of infinite

possibility. And this is how the story of 800 began.

The Story of 800 was awarded 2nd prize in the Haddon Library of Archaeology and Anthropology poetry competition to commemorate Cambridge University's 800th anniversary.

I was Born

(as told by Mary Reidy, née McMahon)

I was born the 6th of June 1923, in the heart of Clouncuneen.

And my mother gave birth to triplets, two boys and a girl.

Me and Pat were born this evening at 4 o'clock

and my other brother was born the following day, at 4 o' clock.

And Dr Hickey that delivered us at the birth said,

“Well Mrs McMahon”, he said, “I'll be down tomorrow at 4 o' clock

and the third child will be born”.

And my father was out in the road, and he see'd the car coming down the heighth.

And my mother says to him, “Well doctor, she says. “A miracle,

she says to him, that I should have triplets, three babies”.

“Well, Mrs McMahon, he said, God's will is no miracle.

”And when we were born, my grandmother was there in the house,

my mother's mother. And there was two or three women

in the kitchen waiting for the good news, that everything was alright.

And she brought me and Pat out in her two hands - and showed us

to the women in the kitchen and she said, “O' thiarna tŕocaire. God keep us”.

And Dr Hickey put the three afterbirths up on the table and they examined them.

And we were very hard to manage, we were so tiny.

We had to be wrapped in baize, each one of us, for three months.

We couldn't be dressed. And we had a cradle. And the three of us was in the one cradle.

And I was in the middle and the two boys were one side of me.

And my mother cut up a sheet, a flannelette sheet, and made squares of it.

And she'd hem 'em and put them under our arses.

There was no powder to be got that time, no baby powder.

She'd put a saucer of flour down on the griddle and brown it.

Keep turning it. And she'd take it up, bring it to a box. Leave it cool.

And my mother had a set of triplets

and she had two sets of twins

and she had seven children in four years and a half

and she had four singles after that.

Mary, centre back, with some of her siblings outside her birthplace and family farm in Clouncuneen, Co.Clare

The Art of Compromise

For the art of artful compromise, take note

of the aristocrats who put compromise in stone.

With equal wills and equally opposite tastes

they would not agree on the style of their home.

Arms crossed, neither would budge - and in their

equal and opposite force a balance was struck.

The architect bowed to the force of their wallets

and the force of their will. And gave in. Cooked

up a plan never seen before in any book north or

south of Strawberry Hill. He designed a two-faced

mansion joined by dotted lines along the scalp.

The join visible only by parting the hair. Taste

for two sorted in a carnival of artful compromise.

She got her way facing the back. The pinnacles

and windows making their most triangular point.

The roof in the style of a castle. (So fanatical

was she about the gothic look). He got his way

facing out. With columns in classical proportions

and bays and the roof on his side (the front) in the

style of a roman villa. The verdict? A distortion.

An ugly monstrosity. A waste of good money.

Viscount Bangor and Lady Blithe agreed to differ

with public opinion. The house was perfect for their

conditions. (But what would they have for dinner?).


I mean how can you tiptoe round that one

introduce it slyly, shyly into conversation

Oh by the way whilst I think of it

would you mind

waiting whilst we tiptoe round his bed full of

efficiency keeping his blood pressure primed

to the level that his vital organs remain vital

would you mind

awfully thinking of someone else at this time

perhaps several who are tiptoeing round death

who could benefit from the end of this suspense

would you mind

awfully donating the organs of your loved one

whose stem has just died or should I say your

loved one who is tiptoeing between death and life

would you mind


“Infatuation, a faulty adviser, the first link of sorrow.”

Aeschylus: Agamemnon

Infatuation bathed and sprayed with Lynx.

Sprayed in the underpants and underpits in

a haze 'round the house, his aura a non-stop

monologue, raising to the highest altar of the

highest praise, her laughter, hair, her eyes and

everything she says and doesn't say, the music

she plays. Everything. About her everything

amazed. And he waxes his hair and rubs off

a spot and tries himself out at different angles,

brushes and gargles again, puffs his chest and

checks and checks again the watch that has

slowed way past the pace of his heart. Five

minutes. Five more minutes and he can call

for her. And he'll offer her his trinket, warm

in his hands. Not a sliver, his whole heart,

pulsing the chain: the second link.

Feeling Trapped

Jonathan Trappe had a dream, sitting in his office swivel chair,

gazing vacantly out of the window. He imagined taking to the air.

Just taking off; buying fifty-five huge helium balloons;

a fantasia of reds, whites, greens, yellows and blues.

And he saw himself in slow motion frames, inflating each one,

tying each with string, hefting a huge clod of a stone to put on

the swivel seat, so that the balloons wouldn't lift it away,

not yet, at any rate; not until all fifty-five were tied in place.

A cacophony on the arms of his chair, a bored filing cabinet grey.

And then he imagined easing the stone off, right down to the date.

He could see it now. Raleigh, North Carolina, June 7th, 2008.

Early morning, commute time to work, half past eight.

And that was it. He decided this dream could not be late.

And so he left for a coffee break and walked at brisk pace

to a shop in the town centre, staring at his reflection facing

him in the window, beyond to the bright glare of party games;

striding in, he picked fifty-five huge helium balloons; matter of factly

paying for them, with no fuss, like it was an everyday activity.

The next day, he left work, and took to the air, in his office chair.

Patriotic for the Past

It's going the way of the collar and chain for the insane,

asylums, beehives, ash-middens to crap in, the handicapped

idiots, gluttons, imbeciles, fat people. Paper hats for nurses

and kitchen table grit in your nails surgery.

It's going the way of those long lists you never get round to.

Mr Sawbones doing it quick on a ship, chicken in the basket, giblets, geriatrics. The workhouse screeching curses on you. Dunnock. Fusty luggs, creepers crackish!

It's going the way of the never seen and the did they reallys.

The way of the the quirkies. Curiosities. The way of the yo-yo

and dodo. The kakapo, cocoa and toast on a tray for two weeks post-confinement. Convalescence. Never heard of it.

It's going the way of the rest. Nostalgia. Into the looking-glass

of crusty sleep. The museum piece. Somewhere to drowse on

a listless afternoon. Like The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar

Tongue – something to flick through. Dead as a parched page.

But what if David Attenborough was persuaded to make a documentary for posterity. Recording the bass notes, tremolos

thunder, high whistles and wheezes; the long wild trumps and farting snores of the night jungle. A record of the raucous

Last song of the lost choir of the Nightingale Ward. And saved it.

There are Days

There are days when the world seems to work

in your favour. When things seem to fall into

place, land on your lap, without contrivance.

When you feel flush with accidental happenings,

with the just rightness of things being all in the

right place at the right time.

Wearing the right raiment for the occasion. Your

turn to unwrap the newspaper in pass-the-parcel.

Everything so effortlessly aligned.

And it's such a good feeling, this intersection

of elements, that is coincidence, and it happens

so hardly enough,

that it feels like a rainbow sent, a smile in the

dark. The intersection of lines crossed,

a kiss from the universe. x


And how can I speak my love for you?

How can I say more than a thousand

Words, more than a thousand diamonds

More than the most exquisite fabrics ever

Divined can say? How can I speak my

Love for you, when all the words

that were ever said, all the sonnets ever

Made, all the metaphors ever mined,

Are not mine? How can I speak my

love for you, when words can't do?  

I will cook for you with tenderness

And time. I will make more than

A promise. I will wrap fish in a melt

of coriander, a mortar of spices and

Watering spells. I will speak my love

in food, I will speak my love in verbs.


If each of us sees within a frame

of reference, with gold coloured spectacles,

with milky eyes, with our own skew of bendy

light - and if what we see is framed so fully

by this perceptual governance, then

imagine what might happen,

if the mirror itself could see

with milky human eyes

and what if the image

grown from the reflection, threw back

and distorted the distorted image

of the object, into a mighty confusion

of observer and observed

image and alter-image

object and alter-object

object-image, conjecture-mirage

into what always was

or what always might be, what is,

the bending shift, the white noise

of molecular shuffle, changing

chairs, never settled.

The Healing Handbag of Witchery

This bag – and inside this bag, are the seven.

The seven objects of the healing tirade.

Latex rubber gloves - for the protection

from blood, phlegm, bile, pus, bad humours,

ill winds, floods, biblical bugs and the plagues

of chaos in all living lives.

Tentacle of the stethoscope - for the detection

of crepitations, wheezes, hints of murmurs,

unspoken. Communication with the underbelly

of the underself. The words of the underworld.

Half-moon glasses - for the correction

of a beration. The delivery of consequences.

You know the consequences. The gravitas

of ticks and crosses.

Brer rabbit carrots - for the delectation

of seeing beyond the dark, the infra-red glow

of knowing encouragement at least five times

a day. The resurrection. Go out and play.

A bottomless box of spells - for the magician

of fact and fiction. A memory stick to synapses

of the universe; invisible ink to dish out money,

holidays, new husbands. Forgiveness for wishes.

And The Crystal Ball - of course - for the apparition

of longings and loss foretold. The certain cold

feel of palms on the material exterior, coaxing

the mystic ether to hopeful knowing.


The Story of  800

The Old Gull and Gullet

I Was Born

The Art of Compromise



Feeling Trapped

Patriotic for the Past

There are Days



The Healing Handbag of Witchery

Awards for Poetry

Awards for Poetry

The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, April 2010.

Two poems by Mary which received double commendations in Warwick University’s first international medical poetry prize:  "Patriotic for the Past" and "Tiptoe". Published in a book of 46 poems with the other winning entries.

Commended Winner of the National Poetry Competition, 2008, for 'Feeling Trapped (A True Story)

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The catch between

Sleep thinking

And flight of the neurones



Mary Courtney

Artist - Poet