Patricia McCarthy: Hand in Hand, the Legend of Tristan and Isolde


Patricia McCarthy is the editor of Agenda ( ) and, in 2013, was the winner of the National Poetry Competition with her poem Clothes that escaped the Great War’. Among her previous collections are Rodin’s Shadow, Horses Between Our Legs (a Book of the Year in the Independent on Sunday), and Letters to Akhmatova. Trodden Before (The High Window) and Rockabye (Worple Press) were published towards the end of 2018. Her next collection Hand in Hand (publication date TBA) is inspired by the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Before reading some of the poems,  here is Patricia talking about what inspired her to write them:


‘The poems in Hand in Hand are inspired by the story of Tristan and Isolde and were begun more than three decades ago. Some ingredients of the story particularly caught me at the time, such as impossible forbidden love (tinged by an experience of mine), and my nostalgia for Ireland where I had been brought up but where I hadn’t lived for quite a few years. Many of the poems were published in Irish newspapers and journals, and also in Agenda when its editor was William Cookson. However, I left the manuscript in a drawer in a desk and hardly glanced at it over the years. Then with a house move and a great clear-out, I came across it, yellowed with age and faded from being typed on an old manual Olympia clickety click typewriter.

Having been the sole editor of Agenda for over sixteen years, since its founding editor, Cookson, died,  I found I could now look at the manuscript as if it was someone else’s, with a critical eye. Surprisingly, I found many of the poems had been gifted like ‘breath-tokens’ , others I touched up or added a bit more music to , when I felt the lines faltering in rhythm.Most had their own forms, including free verse, but I added some sonnets to contain difficult emotions or situations. In this way, I became immersed once again in the theme and started to write new work that I threaded through the old, highlighting aspects of the story not covered before, such as the plight of the forgiving old king, Marc, his resentment of old age; the plight, too, of Iseult of the White Hands whom Tristan married in Britanny when in exile, partly because she had the same name as the other Iseult, and believing (wrongly) that Isolde of Ireland wanted him no more.

He never made love to this second Iseult, so I explore the way she might have felt with enforced chastity, even though she desired him. I also pick up on her jealousy and envy of the original Isolde, plus the Irish Isolde’s envy and resentment of Isolde of the White Hands, thinking mistakenly that the latter was usurping her place in Tristan’s heart, and imagining them making love. I think I made them more credible and more psychologically interesting.  I also brought them together at the end when they had to deal with Tristan’s death; therefore the study of bereavement is involved too. In other places, at times, I just imagined the situation in greater detail and added a poem or two.

The research had been done quite extensively the first time round. I had read Gottfried von Strassburg, Beroul and other books pertaining to old customs in Ireland, Wales, England and Britanny. One extraordinary, kind of psychic happening was that I made up a rhyming couplet, ending with ‘Tristan, Iseult, Iseult, Tristan/ Man to woman, woman to man’ in one poem. Then, to my surprise, I found those exact lines in Gottfried von Strassburg’s version. This gave me shivers down my spine. In the newer poems I brought this couplet in again near the end of the sequence to give it a haunting unity, and a kind of circular motion.

I deliberately didn’t update the story physically, though I did psychologically, I think.  The human emotions there have always prevailed, and will always do so. However, perhaps there is some updating in bringing out the problems of old age, and of an unconsummated marriage, for example. I don’t think this has been focused upon before. I also added the James Joyce link to the beginning and end of the sequence which seemed to give it a resonant symmetry.  For example, the very first line of the first poem ‘From swerve of shore to bend of bay’ which is also the first line of the last poem is part of the first sentence in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, inspired by Tristan and Iseult.

A great friend and mentor for many years, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, told me to hang onto and to preserve my voice, and that, within many different voices, the found voice of the poet can often be distinguished over a lifetime’s body of work. I hope this is true of my poems. For better or for worse, I don’t consider now that my voice has changed much at alI.

I hope I have done the theme justice.’


Patricia McCarthy: Five Poems from Hand in Hand


Touch me – if touching can inspire
strings of nerves and growing hair
to tighten their tension away from Babel
and the Fall – on new pegs of air.

Pluck me regularly, but not like game
or brows, denying existences because
you do not feel. Insulted, I would
retire from ceilings to warp on floors.

Dip into me secretely even in public,
your arms surfacing with lays stolen
off round tables never made, wrists
thin as swan-necks of Lir’s children.

Hold me on the tips of their wings,
with fingers of frosts, suns and moons –
with all of you, not just extremities.
tapping out the first day of creation.

Sing, stroke, disturb and reject me –
your nails drawing blood though blunted..
Like you I require pain for my ecstasies,
to welsh, french and latin no longer wed.

Touch me – in order to be lost in
the angelic silences Brendan preferred
after the white bird’s singing, restoring
apocalypses of the untranslatable word.


My hands say I’ve known you always
so follow them tentatively at first
then boldly through the torchlight
that defines rebels by imprecision,

Beyond the barons in timber halls –
night turns on its side, away from
such scowlings, and bees collect
rain water on their frizzy backs

so I cannot wash you off. My hands
heal hawthorns, lepers and princes
dying from wounds far deeper than
those of any sword. They dust sand

from shores where nothing goes right
so the sea can feel itself like you
and I on rock edges as a new invention –
before its anchorage to bollards

by a pirate who coils the horizon
into a rope. My hands understand
the first and last on earth to whom,
having met, all else seems a bonus.

They give you gold serpents twisted
into a ring with idylls and agonies,
training wolves from blood and fire,
from every orifice, not just doors.

Wringing their own lines cut open
on a love that means more than platters
of deer and boar, they don’t expect
a man to change his life because of it.


Your hands wide as my world,
a philanthropist’s extremities
tied together by a hobble.

In the knots, veins and hairs
the words of a theme fight
one another before umpires

who cannot tell butchering
from seduction and seduction
from love. Your palms shape

guilts and deceptions into
gnomes who jiggle around
the beasts’ heads brandished

as trophies. Coddling suns,
they break through tanglewoods
in frosted countries, following

their own hunches. Having
measured the swiftest withers
against all risks, they come

to me to please, shaving beards
off bodyguards for us to lie on.
As bells toll in the flowers

of comfrey tended in ditches,
they draw on my hands the lines
a tide leaves on sand to explain

timely advances and retreats
from crowns and comedowns.
There I read of challenges

valued as much as any woman,
of desire’s potion which fills
while emptying: an ocean.

Fate is fate, they say –
but we embark in your harp,
your hands its sails dyed

with dark and day: man’s
oldest contradictions
unfurling from your heart.


Bowled over as much by dangers
of secrecy as by each other, they
act out swindlings like professionals
in a dream – to protect rather than
blind her husband, his foster-king.

What obstructs the way makes them
travel along it, briars and logs
intensifying urges for re-allocation.
They try to see straight, aware of
quirks in mirrors and securities –

preferring honesties of carrion
to nobilities that would pose in
ponds perfect as nesting swans.
His spurs kick into precipices
the land rutted by inaction and –

throwing his armour into gullies,
the gallant in him admits at last
to the warrior at whose expense
he exists, that the truth he seeks
like most is love; its burdens

and servilities challenging him
still with feats of rope, dart and
blade to outrun buck and hare,
salmon-leaping the fords beyond
known pales into affirmative keeps.


In immaculate gloves of white skin
her hands minister to his compromise.

Intuitively they knead him in order
that, malleable, he might forget one

who, ambidextrous, sends herself to
him nightly in dreams, despite scandals

fuming from cob flues, now as long ago.
All thumbs, her fingers could dance too –

reddening to frenzy, did not the days
allowing her him remain sly with enmity.

Fasting from grace like any ready woman –
unheld, unlined, pinched with death

in his – her nails are manicured by fate
down to their quicks. Grasping nothing,

they lie crossed on her breast, swollen
to a char’s by stings of ghost dynasties.

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