Gerry Loose

from 'The Great Book of the Woods': 'Palimpsests & Riddles' (after the Ogham)

Cover of 'The Great Book of the Woods.'
Cover of 'The Great Book of the Woods.'

[From the edition newly published by Xylem Books, an imprint of Corbel Stone Press, 2020. See the author’s note below for more on Loose’s engagement with the ancient Ogham runes.]


Knockshanawee souterrain



a trick of the neck

is yew to pine


a trick of lungs

is pine to alder


a ruse of the voice track

is alder to yew


a trick of love

is brother to brother


a trick of darklight divine

is twin to twin



Knockshanawee souterrain riddle


it is cold

is there frost


there are thorns

are they pricking


there is a resolution

is it legion


there is clamour

is there silence


the wood is ancient

is it withered


there are crypts

is it an effort



Ballyknock short discourse


right to the marrow

flame & steel


elegant & forthright

oldest & coldest


felloe & tang

vanguard & bevy


pine & groan

swaddle & mass grave



Ballyknock riddle


sing us thorn

cleave us friend


not complaint

not rebuttal


soothe us horse

smooth us work


not effort

in soil


shelter us hind

sing us strength


flesh & grass




Ballyknock letters swimming


hazel & pine then oak

start with these


their twists & torques

sisters to birch


they are the red boast

of sibling women


calling & scolding

sparks from speckled fire



Ballyknock from the lungs



the ash field

the oldest energy


the path of the voice

iron rod of breath


the driving of slaves

a proverb of slaughter


one third wheel

one third weapon


begin your answer, pine

call your nut-marrow, hazel



Ballyknock riddle


what thorn

& who’s a friend of lesion


what work is smooth

& who helps geldings


what guards

& who spills


what is simplicity

& who delights in kine


what lives cold

& who cultivates plants


what pain

& who replies



Cloghane Carhane


was she a friend

women fight

here among the ivy

now I begin to see    lust

in the ivy

women fighting

bees swarming


now we’re all angry

should be

taking stock

minding cattle

was she a friend

thief of the grove of silence


drains blood

boils my blood

was she a friend



Cloghane Carhane

underneath his name


carpenter’s work


it starts to make sense


it starts to make sense


the most withered wood


the job in hand





the highest of bushes



the most decayed wood


it answers muster

the elm

the apple

forest & orchard

& the hazel





coltsfoot the apple that suckles

sun hoof the vine that strangles

sun horse the yew that sickens





    quick        gentle



    so hard to quell






the hind   the hunt








Church of the 3 Holy Brethren



little saint of whitethorn

little douser of wolf spark

welcome to the burial mounds


dear confessor of blood-red berries

sweet dweller of beehive cell

oaks make good gallow-trees


my heart




Church of the 3 Holy Brethren



bees have their own pollen auguries


there are thirteen


of blanching night


of swarming death


of chilling earth



of propagating plants


of lustrous herb


of the infirmity of tone


& six contained


in the thicket of letters



AUTHORS NOTE. Ogham is a rune-like script of the early Irish language found on standing stones made between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. It comprises strokes across or to either side of a central stem line. Each stroke now represents a letter of the Gaelic Beith-luis-nin “alphabet.” It is found on monoliths mainly in Ireland, with some in Scotland, and some dual-text ogham/Latin stones in Wales. There are also inscriptions other than the monolithic — on tools or in caves — but these are rare.


There are numerous myths concerning the script’s origins: that it was invented to keep secrets from the Roman conquerors of nearby Britain; that it was similarly invented to keep secrets from the lands that Ireland was later to annexe as Dal Riada (the islands and mainland of western Scotland); that it was invented by an obscure fourth-century CE Christian sect. It is also said in some quarters that it was handed down by, or named for, Ogmos, the Celtic god of eloquence.


There are many methods of interpreting ogham. The script itself is steeped in the secrecy of the literate over the nonliterate. It is therefore always regarded as the property of the high poets, the early medieval fili of Ireland, who would spend many years memorizing up to fifty ways of reading or deciphering it. The poetic possibilities are therefore manifold.

. . . . . . .

The poems here are therefore versions, creative reinventions and cocreations, made with other poets and translators who lived from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries CE.


[N.B. Much more of this commentary is included in Loose’s very useful introduction to his book, and additional excerpts can be found elsewhere on Poems and Poetics. (j.r.)]