Imelda May [poem by John O’Brien, 1954]

[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]

Imelda May

Your wedding appears in the press today —
May you never repent it, Imelda May.

They brought you here when your life began,
And I thought you smiled as the waters ran
To cleanse the stain of your mother Eve,
And your wee hand closed on my surplice sleeve;
’Tis a score of years, but it seems a day,
And now you are wed, Imelda May.

’Twas a cosy cot where you saw the light
And the future smiled by your cradle white
With the threaded hopes that the strong hands spin;
But the shadow of death soon entered in
Yea, they tell it yet round the countryside
That tragic tale how your father died.
“The coming man,” so the people said,
But the oil was dry whence the wick was fed;
And the wilgas wailed in the sobbing wind
For the mother and babe he had left behind.
Yes, the wilgas wailed and the skies were grey
For a mother and babe, Imelda May.

Then your small first to her tresses clung
As her widow song to the dusk she sung,
And she watched the pale pink dawning rise
In the wondering light of your baby eyes,
And she saw your toddling steps prepare
For the hard rough road through the future, where
The thorn shall pierce and the feet shall bleed
And the poor bruised heart shall ache indeed.
Ah, well for you had it been her lot
To lead you on from your tiny cot
With the hand of love through the years to be
And the same sure touch as when you were three —
Your sweet safe guide for the stony way;
But God knoweth best, Imelda May.

I was called in haste at the midnight hour
When her young life drooped like a trampled flower.
All her life’s regrets from her lips I heard,
And her soul stood cleansed at my whispered word;
But her spirit paused ere the homeward flight
Like a trembling dove when the hateful kite
With the keen barbed claw and the searching eye
And the cleaving wing is hovering nigh.
Then she gripped my hand and her words were wild,
“Oh, Father, care for my orphan child.”
I gave my word and the rest was clay.
Have I failed in my trust, Imelda May?

They bore her slow down the winding track
Where the grim grey signposts point not back,
Where the shadows creep and the moonlight flings
A dappled pall o’er all human things.
I saw you stand at the graveside there
With a big black bow in your flaxen hair.
Oh, you could not see with those eyes of blue
What that raw cold mound had robbed from you;
A poor dazed child, and the word I gave
Was steeled to a vow by your mother’s grave.
’Twas steeled to a vow, and I sit today
With a chastened heart, Imelda May.

Then oft as I made my rounds I’d seek
Your grandma’s home by the tree-lined creek,
Where your days went by like the dimpling stream
With your lisping song and your heart a-dream,
And you led me back, so long exiled,
To the poet world of a tiny child.
The earth once more was a fairyland
As we two wandered hand in hand,
So strangely twined in the lap of grief,
A rare spring bud and an autumn leaf.
Or betimes you’d return the call to me
Around at the quiet old presbytery;
With your tousled curls and your wind-kissed face
And your voice so sweetly out of place
You would prattle away in your baby speech
The soft pure things that the angels teach,
And the rose-tipped dreams of the years to be
Culled fresh in a world that was drab to me.
Your young eyes peered down a flower-lined track
While mine bedimmed gazed sadly back
On a tired tramp’s path o’er the sombre sand
That leads from the gates of fairyland,
Where at every step dreams melt away
With their rose and gold, Imelda May.

Still my sere old heart oft turned to bless
The sunbeam shot through its loneliness,
Like a sad man stirred to a lilting tune
By a warm bright day in the chill of June.
And it watched again with a quickening beat
The onward march of your toddling feet,
The same old hard rough road upon
Where millions of toddling feet have gone.
The first schooldays and the first new book,
And the jumbled words and the pains you took
To explain to me how the stories went,
And your joy at my feigned astonishment.
Then the dear old hymns that you’d come and sing,
Which still bridge the gulf of years and bring
A hundred sweet scenes back to me
In the soft moonlight of memory.
A hundred scenes, and I see once more
The children file through the old church door
Like seraph troops to the dull earth borne,
As they came on that First Communion morn:
Their young hearts pure as the mountain air
Their young minds wrapped in the hush of prayer.
Oh, the Great God bends when the children pray
With their unstained lips, Imelda May.

And you seemed to me on that morning there
The fairest bloom where all were fair.
Came a gentle hope with an angel’s smile
Which stirred and thrilled in my soul the while,
And I saw a bride at the altar kneel,
And I heard the roll of an organ peal
As it flung its joy to the heavens afar
And crashed from answering star to star,
While virgin saints came forth to greet
A virgin heart at the Bridegroom’s feet.
Then I saw a nun from the ground arise,
A light divine in her thoughtful eyes;
I saw her pass like the smile of God
And flowerets bloomed where her feet had trod.
With a taper pure I saw her trim
The lamp of Faith that was flickering dim.
With a grand ideal that the footlight shuns
I saw her care for His little ones —
A guide for their minds and souls alike,
For they cross themselves when the school clocks strike.
Yes, I saw her bless where a shame defiled
And the foundling babe looked up and smiled.
I saw her stand in a mother’s place
And the bloom came back to the orphan’s face.
I saw her pass with a noiseless tread,
A. woman and nun, by the dying bed;
And the aged poor and the halt and blind
Wept tears of love in their woe resigned.
But many’s the hope that has gone astray
In this strange old world, Imelda May.

They took you off to the city side
To your father’s folk when your grandma died,
So the old life closed and the new began
And the heart forgot as the swift years ran,
In the mad wild rush and the dazzling glare
That had robbed the child of my feeble care.
In its stead came ease and wealth untold,
And pleasure waited the hand of gold.
So the swift years ran and the heart forgot
The pure bush ways and the tiny cot,
And the rose-tipped dreams, and the life that brings
A heaven-sent joy in its simple things.
Then a rumour came of your plighted troth
And of sunshine splashed on the path of both:
His rank was high and his wealth was great,
With his shares and his scrip and immense estate;

But a sullen cloud o’er your skies was spread
By a whispered doubt, so the rumour said.
Then I thought you’d come as you came of old
When your baby hopes and fears you told;
I thought you’d come ere the die was cast,
But your voice was dumb and the days went past;
I thought you’d come with your troubling doubt
From your garish world whence they shut me out.
For they made a jest in the social glee
At the old man back at the presbytery:
He was out of date and his thoughts were odd,
And dull and damp were the paths he trod;
Still I thought you’d come that the word I gave
Would not charge me false from your mother’s grave.

But there it is in the news today,
God grant you did right, Imelda May.

Published in:
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

Editor’s notes:
flowerets = florets, small flowers
sere = dried up or withered

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