“The Linen Industry”

“The Linen Industry”

Pulling up flax after the blue flowers have fallen
 And laying our handfuls in the peaty water
 To rot those grasses to the bone, or building stooks
 That recall the skirts of an invisible dancer,

We become a part of the linen industry
 And follow its processes to the grubby town
 Where fields are compacted into window-boxes
 And there is little room among the big machines.

But even in our attic under the skylight
 We make love on a bleach green, the whole meadow
 Draped with material turning white in the sun
 As though snow reluctant to melt were our attire.

What's passion but a battering of stubborn stalks,
 Then a gentle combing out of fibres like hair
 And a weaving of these into christening robes,
 Into garments for a marriage or funeral?

Since it's like a bereavement once the labour's done
 To find ourselves last workers in a dying trade,
 Let flax be our matchmaker, our undertaker,
 The provider of sheets for whatever the bed –

And be shy of your breasts in the presence of death,
 Say that you look more beautiful in linen
 Wearing white petticoats, the bow on your bodice
 A butterfly attending the embroidered flowers.

This poem is excerpted with permission from Collected Poems. For more poetry, visit our Poetry Radio Project.

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Michael Longley

has written more than 20 books of poetry, including Collected Poems, Gorse Fires, and his most recent collection, The Stairwell. He was the professor of poetry for Ireland from 2007 to 2010 and is the winner of the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and the Griffen Prize. In 2015 he was honored with the Freedom of the City of Belfast.

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