Gráinne Tobin

The Uses of Silk & Shrub Aptitudes

Gráinne Tobin

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The Uses of Silk

The most effective combat underwear

is made of silk

in Fivemiletown, County Tyrone.


Among the petticoats of hill-farm women

silkworm pupae rode through centuries

of ice and snow in the southern alps

on the stride of a warm thigh,

until picked off into boiling water,

their corpses unwound from bandages

for bolts of rich cloth sold in the valleys.


A Chinese waistcoat of yellow spider silk

was five years’ labour for eighty people,

in glasshouses littered

with the sucked-out husks of bluebottles,

each spinner high-five to a man’s palm,

generations of golden orb spiders

spooling draglines of finery

stronger than the fiercest filament

dreamt of in modern war’s laboratories.


And now in khaki dustthe captain’s shouting 

        your front man is a blind man -

        keep to the safe lane -

        someone’s watching

        through a murder hole

        so I want every fucker

        thinking what they’re doing!


Young men with our English in their mouths,

dressed up by armour scientists

in military underwear,

privates cocooned

in a shrapnel-catching net of silk,

the soft answer that turns away wrath.


Shrub Aptitudes

What I meant, what he, she, we, you and they meant,

comes out skew-ways like sentences

bricked up one word at a time by beginners 

dodging plagiarism with dictionary Lego,

in essays co-authored with Dada and Webster,

where equity is onerous and surmised, and bush craft

turns into shrub aptitudes (vital for survival).


Straight from the womb to a world of words and faces,

pulled towards a tone of voice, a look, a chosen phrase,

still we don’t quite translate into each other,

though we live until we die in the attempt, 

putting it one way, then another, until aptitude 

meets craft, and shrubs re-wild to aboriginal bush.


Gráinne Tobin


Gráinne Tobin grew up in Armagh and lives in Newcastle, Co Down. Her books are Banjaxed and The Nervous Flyer’s Companion (Summer Palace Press). A third collection is to be published soon. She has contributed to many magazines and several anthologies including Word of Mouth (Blackstaff) When the Neva Rushes Backwards (Lagan Press) On the Grass When I Arrive (Liberties Press) Washing Windows (Arlen House) and Something About Home (Geographies Publications). Her work is included in Poetry Ireland’s archive and ACNI’s online Troubles Archive and Learning to Whistle is on display as a sculpture in Down Arts Centre.