Mary O’Donnell

What They Took

all they wanted who they wanted when they wanted how they wanted where they wanted fields in thousands of acres lakes wide and thin and swans and mallards and all the birds belonged to them and people in cottages crofts bothies left because they now owned everything including the ones who stayed in bog-black mud of cottage with one window because they took the other windows and the light took the numbers of beasts the cattle the horses the pigs all belonged to them now

they drove the people like beasts and often beasts lived better and happier as the skull-dug emperors of soil drove their want for space and more space roughshod through the basic innocence of belonging to one place you thought was yours and for yours and had come from yours in the spill of generations not wealthy but not starving either then they took so much of the soil the food the wealth that there was only potato and phytophtora infestans found its way like the emperors of soil had done and spores on the lovely lonely wind danced themselves on from leaf to leaf from field to field working down into the plant red-brown or white leaf-edges then down and down into the tubers red-brown and stinking with rot and so the people were fed on rot lived on rot dreamed rot their bellies were rot and Indian wheat was no use because who had heard of such and what to do with it and starving was the thing men whose bellies caved and rotted with the acids of starvation children whose bellies swelled and rotted with the acids of starvation women who no longer menstruated and whose breasts fell like flat paste on their chests tongues dry teeth loosening legs bowing with rickets and the others still owned the land tracts lord this and lord that his wife and mistress who built hunting lodges used the bothies for picnics during the shooting season their ladies laughing as picnic baskets were opened and game pie and sliced spiced venison and egg and cress sandwiches and port filled their bellies and the gentlemen laughed and toasted a good morning’s work the great estates spread like freely-flung fabric heathery purples dense greens the ground they now owned tilled by the ones who once owned it now sifting the earth with frozen fingers to fill their own bellies, trifles of rabbit poached and for nine mouths and the spuds daily and buttermilk and on the others went galloping across their lands their hedges clearing what they wanted getting rid of obstruction so that a folly might be built sometimes for the sake of the poor they had made poor they’d employ them and a folly went up useless to anyone its odd twisting shape and external steps perhaps a pepper-pot of kinds or an obelisk for the sake of an obelisk to assuage what might be a thread of guilt but predatory all the same giving them work so that they would not quite die on a landlord’s land and he could continue to admire a dawn or sunset on the taut and pert new acres beneath the Galtees or in Monaghan or Wicklow then to London for the season they took the dawns and sunsets from the people too because who can admire the world if you are barefoot and hungry who cares enough about the tilt of purple heather on the side of a mountain in a certain light or the way the year rises and sinks in its steady patterning of birth growth decline green yellow pink ochre flame then thin to branch bare to bole all of it lovely if you had the time to look and by Christmas they returned to their estates for feasting and partying hunting keeping watch on all now theirs and across the land and other lands they came and kept coming and they took what they believed was theirs by right they took the beasts cattle horses pigs hens they took the young women took the rivers marched up the city streets of Rangoon charged down Sackville Place on horses entered to batter the cities into submission and took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took took from Greece to Benin marbles and bronzes then to Egypt and Sudan India Burma Mexico Peru Brazil nowhere safe from the greed the expansion and Kenya gigantic swathe an amplitude they took the land the fields the animals the horns of animals the hooves of animals the tusks the skin elephants’ feet rounded thick toenails became a stool and wooden cutouts of serving black figures red lips to adorn their walls and slaves in silken attire bowing low kneeling to serve at tiffin and men fanning the luxurious women up swish up swish down swish up again cool a sultry afternoon south India and other men being flayed with bamboo sticks across arses and cruelty expanded the more they took

that became a history known as history respected as history undenied as history as their presence drove a wedge between the people and to this day some still gallop freely across once-stolen acres in the tally-ho season no shame no giving back instead a warped adjustment and the first people their gentle rage now restores what was theirs by dint of time change they have relinquished some and thanks to their expansion many have drugged themselves or their children out of existence out of louche indifference away from entitlement making room and all that’s left are cartoon royalties sprinkled like parsley on a united communal pie of Europe not so important now more a flavouring particle for seasonal parties behind stolen doors and windows on on islands bought pilfered redeveloped but yielding yielding gradually giving up what they once grasped for we are near a final movement musical of them their like at the finishing line where the emperors of soil stand naked—

gold became a thing they took from Minas Gerais in tons took took took took took gold and silver and spices and plants the thunder of the great take filling hours and ears exploding bodies wretched bodies barely fed bodies where the people lived in those hollowed out bodies bodies bodies the gold of exploitation and what was left was their architecture Portuguese, British, French, filling the continents they took from as they filled territories in small places adorning each place they entered territories like wombs stuffed with ornamentation random clumps from their ejaculated home cultures regardless of teak mahogany palm or acacia the white man’s spume reflecting what they loved most to see mirrored in other places those home buildings brought to bear on new lodgements forcibly entered and took took took took took from owning everything

no bearing on Palladio or José Luis Monteiro or Inigo Jones or Hanoi’s Notre Dame and Opera House filling filling filling the mirror of themselves a home credo setting it down in brick stone mortar concrete and the sweat of thin-backed native people how wretched the whole thing of taking without asking taking because you could take with no theft for this was theft theft of land theft of family theft of infants theft of the sweat of men and women who kow-towed to the great whiteness in their midst who tilled watered harvested fields no longer theirs who bound up the bales bagged the rice sent the rubber the gold the gold seeds the pearlescent white of a million tons of rice east west mostly west to Europe like rivers of desire

but they had no desire desire was forbidden desire a white essence as white as white soul only white people had souls and could pray to the right god wrinkling hairy noses sitting on stiff balls and cunts at the rites in huts in open fields beneath the sun or moon laughing when the Laotians did not know what an eclipse was took simple guns to shoot at the great frog in the sky bang-bang they shot it down it passed and that was that

yet many’s the white man’s desire found its way thickly to the thighs of one of theirs many’s the white woman found desire filled by a black skin black to die for such crime black to suffer for defilement of lily-white European rose cunt except no one called it that but yes, cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt c u n t
take it or leave it take it as you will from the Old Dutch for wedge etymologically sound and non-aggressive but today pejorative of such an organ so even the body became a land to colonise even the body sold like a cheap field or a field cheapened even the body became an estate for someone to thieve and own and replant his own desires of how things should be

And once they left the fields belonged to them again in thousands of acres lakes wide and thin and swans and mallards and all the birds belonged to once more to the air of its own land the breaths of its own people and people in cottages crofts restored bothies now fashionable back with them because they now owned everything again including bog-black mud of cottage also restored limned granited and roofed with several windows the mullioned light being theirs now and any number of beasts the cattle the horses the pigs all belonged to them at last

leaving them in a state of questioning how to fill so the spaces they owned once again and how to re-root because traces remained of stolen places the high stone walls high tracts of high trees for the new high—them—who could now settle within the old estates and in Greece and Nigeria in Argentina and Algeria many questions rose like a modern apparition about things robbed and sequestered in pretty buildings strong fortresses for others to look at how to retrieve the barefaced robbed golds and bronzes the marbles the broken mosques the desecrated cemeteries raped women and children so the gaps remain in the looser airs of repossession the question remains of how to fill this space how to recalibrate and not repeat and not repeat and not repeat the crimes I dare you to say you would not do the same I dare you to say we are different I dare you to dare you to dare you dare

some feel contrite Australia’s sorry day each May the national healing 24-hours to those whose lands were stripped whose people defiled diminished because once landed they ignored the sound of warra warra GO AWAY GO AWAY but many have gone many take themselves home remove their snooping noses and go home go home go home at last now the first people in each place are left to fill the space to build to shake away the vestiges or keep what they want if it is pertinent the question still remains how to occupy your own space when at last you have it how to inhabit the fields hedges the house the office the street and council the arts centre the county town the country village the remote cottage on an Atlantic promontory how to occupy how to be with so many others who want to share driven from their own stolen territories let’s say welcome let’s say come join us let’s say remake the world with us be one of us join us

            PLAY WITH US

                        DANCE WITH US

                                    SING WITH US

work with us in reclaiming the lone acres of what was once stolen of what became bedraggled and shameful even our languages let us keep all our languages they are not shameful let us cling to the words through which our pain is expressed let us sing in many languages together let us touch skin in different colours but together let be let be let be remember how they never imagined us as one remember how they owned us how they thought us miserable and ugly with an ugly tongue in our mouths that our tongue shaped only ugliness and our brows were low remember they despised our skins too pale too freckly too brown too black we can do it different seal the wound with the spirits of the defiled who now feel no pain or loss but walk with us in the night and the day tall behind us as we move —

Mary O’Donnell’s work includes poetry, four novels, three short story collections, essays and journalism. Her 2020 collection Massacre of the Birds (Salmon) is translated and recently published in Brazilian Portuguese with Arte y Lettras. Other work is available in Hungarian and in Spanish. She is a member of Ireland’s affiliation of artists, Aosdána.