“Labysheedy The Silken Bed)” is a translation by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill from her own Irish-language poem “Leaba Shíoda.” The title refers to a small town (also identified by the spelling Labasheeda) in County Clare on the north bank of the river Shannon. The poem uses the features of the landscape as a living entity in an address to a lover, creating a mood of deep feeling and pulsing sensuality that is striking in its openness and moving in its tenderness.
The first stanza begins as a declaration of devotion, the poet speaking directly from a core of passion, describing a place of intimacy:
I’d make a bed for youin Labysheedyin the tall grassunder the wrestling treeswhere your skinwould be silk upon silkin the darknesswhen the moths are coming down.
The physical presence of the person to whom the poem is addressed is emphasized by the focus on the body in the second stanza, which continues the tactile image of skin (metaphorically presented initially as silk), here compared to “milk being poured” so that its liquid qualities complement the sensuous textures of fine cloth. Then, in the latter part of the second stanza and the first half of the third, other attributes (hair, lips) are depicted with luscious, extravagant comparisons to the natural surroundings. In the third stanza, without pausing, the descriptive passage shifts with no change in tone to a flowing narrative of a couple walking on the banks of the river Shannon, “with honeyed breezes blowing.”
The poet’s adoration is exemplified in the latter part of the third stanza and the start of the fourth by a worshipful image of “fuchsias bowing down to you/ one by one” in a display of singular devotion. Then the poet returns to a direct, first-person perspective, continuing the traditional catalog of tasks that the lover would perform for the beloved:
I would pick a pair of flowersas pendant earringsto adorn youlike a bride in shining clothes.
The speaker then reaffirms the sentiment of the first line by repeating it with the evocative exclamation “O” preceding and the variant “in the twilight hour/ with evening falling slow” closing a quatrain with the first tight rhyme of the poem. The last stanza, another quatrain which extends and then concludes the thought of the poem’s close, summarizes the spirit of the lyric; the poet anticipates the pleasure of entwined limbs wrestling “while the moths are coming down.” The body consciousness of the last lines joins the couple to the physical presence of what has been described as a supportive natural setting, linking the desire of the pair to the forces that seem to govern the flow of growth and change in the world around them.
Emphasizing the importance of the Irish landscape in her work, Ní Dhomhnaill has recounted a family visit to the eastern end of the Dingle peninsula in Kerry, where her brother said “he had something special to show us.” The highlight of this “special” place was a bile, “a sacred tree, dear to the Celts. A fairy tree. A magic tree.” Ní Dhomhnaill celebrated the occasion in a poem that concludes with the query: “What will we do now without wood/ Now that the woods are laid low?”
Her personal response has been to place the features of a sacred landscape in many poems, and in “Labysheedy” the place where two lovers meet at twilight is both a figure for and a reflection of their emotions. The parenthetical title “The Silken Bed,” which she added to the place name when translating the Irish into English, sets...
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the pattern for the extended metaphor comparing feeling and geographical feature that controls the imagery in the poem. Although it is not apparent in the English version, the Irish title “Leaba Shíoda” is both a place name and a description, since the word “shíoda” means “silk.” This additional meaning conveys the poet’s wish to see and shape the setting so that it becomes an expression of her desires, both an inviting physical prospect and an affirmation of her admiration for the person she addresses.
The descriptive imagery that brings the place of “the silken bed” into vivid life continually connects human elements to the terrain. Skin is like silk; skin glistens like milk “poured from jugs”; the trees wrestle like human lovers; hair is likened to a “herd of goats/ moving over rolling hills” (the hills resembling the curves of the human body); lips are like “honeyed breezes.” In addition, the natural world is like a chorus resonating with rhythms that parallel the emotions of the couple. The moths at darkness suggest the creatures that produce silk, and their descent echoes the lovers settling into the silken bed.
The flowers that seem to be bowing in respect to human beauty become the adornments of a bridal decoration. The gradual arrival of darkness, “the twilight hour/ with evening falling slow,” suggests the building intensity of passion, and the riverside location aligns the couple with the procession of the Shannon, a traditional device to situate a human pair in concert within a poetic or symbolic life flow. The entire image pattern is augmented by the form of address, since the poet is speaking directly to the person for whom the silk bed is being prepared. The use of “I,” “you,” “your,” then “we,” and eventually “our” implies a recurring intimacy, while the attitude of reverence for the person, the place, and ultimately their joining gives the poem its mood of celebration.