This blog is a record of a writing journey.
Having lived in three countries (to date) I must have what my mother calls 'itchy feet.' Perhaps that makes me an experienced sojourner, someone who stays temporarily in places. But I am also someone deeply interested in acquainting myself with the soul of that place during my sojourn.
If you were paying attention then you may have noticed that I missed posting a new poem last Tuesday. What with the blistering heat finally abating there was enough energy to actually do some garden harvesting and outdoor work without melting. Lúnasa is the Celtic festival that begins on 31st July. We have had a bank holiday weekend just as we do at Samhain. Lúnasa is the Irish name for the month of August. What with one thing and another my week looked a bit like this…
I recited some Lúnasa poems on my friend John Wilmott’s Nature Folklore Sunday Sessions this past Sunday. You can find him every Sunday on YouTube or Facebook Live. You can ferret through the archive by connecting on his Facebook Page Carrowcrorry Cottage and Labyrinth Gardens. If you peruse his channel you will learn a great deal about the Irish folklore surrounding Bilberry Sunday and Lúnasa and Crom Cruich.
I cannot do the live with him next Sunday so I made a wee video of one of the poems I am posting for you today. He will be looking at the old god Crom Cruich or Crom Dubh next Sunday. This god of the underworld was much celebrated in this region where I live, Cuilcagh Lakelands Geopark. (YES! Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark has a new name to more accurately reflect it’s crossborder identity!) The Blacklion-Belcoo region about eight miles from where I live was a great centre for worship of Crom Cruich. The text for one of the poems is below. A video reading this poem and another is uploaded on YouTube. I recorded it in my garden this past Sunday.
Hurry to cut the hay! Foot the turf!
The blazing sun plays beat the clock
waltz time to tractor engine tune.
The Council officials scythe the long grass
around graves in the old cemetery
dressing them up to be blessed once again.
Sunday is meant to be for rest.
In this most strenuous season
long days of sweat bear first harvest.
Even so, we take the time to climb up
holy heights or circle the holy well
repeating ancient patterns, saying prayers.
Bilberry’s tight fruit, slightly sour,
are offered up on walks taken
in high summer’s brief leisure hours.
Bog myrtle too sprouts from peat rich high ground,
exposed to sun and scorched dry by recent heat,
splintering like bog oak exhumed, risen.
up from damp ancient underworld,
Auld Crom Cruich’s proper domain,
along with Belcoo’s freezing spring.
The pilgrims visit, praying the pattern,
An elegy, requiem for dying
Summer and all being gathered.
But just now we are too busy.
We must save the seed and preserve
fruits of harvest we don’t consume.
We are too busy to mourn what’s cut down.
It’s enough to know the year is waning.
That seed saved is hope of new beginnings.
Since I missed last week, I will add a wee haiku as a bonus.
Thistle's downy seed head drifts
Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up! I was at my first (outdoor) gathering with more than five people last night. Droímín Creatives Cavan has been having a literature and arts celebratory weekend. My creative colleague and I were invited to the Saturday evening event. It was outdoors; tables and seats were socially distanced, dotted around the grounds of Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. Droímín Creatives is an intiative to create literature and arts experiences inspired by the Cavan landscape. You can find out more and see my profile on https://droimincreative.ie/
It was a bit freaky to be in a large group of unmasked people for the first time in seventeen months. I have been bubbled with my creative colleague, being one of the handful of folks that we have seen at various socially distanced meet ups in between lockdowns. There was live music, albeit in a slimmed down group – a trio that included The Cavan Man Martin Donohoe himself, Philip Clarke and Hannah O’Reilly, an All Ireland Fleadh Singer Winner. It was The Cavan Man’ssecond gig in sixteen months. We sat at picnic tables with cloths made of a collage of artwork and quotes from Cavan writers.
I sat down at the picnic table to eat the delicious light supper provided ; Cavan County events have the best hospitality on principle. I moved my paper plate aside to see a quote of one of my poems published on this website. You can see the quote here
Over supper I struck up a conversation with a woman who was puzzling over my accent. The answer to the question, “Where do you come from? ” and my answer “Dowra, in the far west of Cavan” didn’t entirely satisfy. We unwound my complicated accent history – an Northern Irish husband, time in London and Leeds, all the way back to my birthplace in New York City. It turned out that she had spent twenty-four years in Queens. “Where?” I queried. “Elmhurst,” she answered. I replied that many of my father’s family lived around 82nd Street in St. Adalbert’s parish. It turns out that that was HER neighbourhood for many years. She even used the term “going up the hill”, which is what my father’s mother said when she set out to visit her parents and sisters who lived near St. Adalbert’s Church. I mentally dropped my jaw. In Ireland there never seems to be even three degrees of separation between us.
Later on I was chatting with poet Rita Kelly and the Cavan Arts Officer, Catriona O’Reilly. We paused our conversation politely while Hannah O’Reilly gave us a song that had the rather jocular refrain that went something like…”sure we’re all related by marriage or birth…” I broke into a grin. I was suddenly reminded that both my sister’s Ancestry DNA reports and my own My Heritage DNA reports had noted that we share DNA with people who emigrated from Cavan and North Leitrim. Indeed, according to Ancestry we had a couple fourth or fifth cousins knocking around North Leitrim now.
We do not know my paternal grandfather’s paternity. My surname Smith is a bit of a fiction, which many other unrelated Smiths share across the world where registrars note that ‘John Smith’ was the father in cases where the mother was unmarried to the biological father.
As of Autumn Equinox this year I will have lived in County Cavan for twenty years. That is the longest consecutive residence I have any anywhere in my nearly 65 years. If you had suggested this to me as a teen that this would be the place I felt most as home I probably would not have known where to place it on the map of Ireland. When we decided to come to Ireland in 2000 I dowsed the map of Ireland and the pendulum swung over Cavan and North Leitrim. As far as I was concerned we were heading to Clare. Yet, by another series of synchronicities here we are and here we stayed. Even when you do not trust them, sometimes they have a way of over-riding the best laid plans and scripts.
You really can’t make this stuff up. The synchronities that cropped up – first mention of my father, then the locality where the family lived for decades and the song lyrics – all seemed to point to a nod from the ancestors. We may never know Joe Smith’s dad’s name, but the ancestors seem to have pulled at some of the threads of his back story and may have brought me back to the landscape that spawned his own paternal lineage.
It is very hot for Ireland this week. Which accounts for my later posting of the weekly poem . While our temperatures are in the 25-27C range, (which sounds laughably cool to many people) with the humidity in the 80 percentile it is not comfortable for folks used to summers where a few days at 21C is a cause for rejoicing and the populus turning lobster pink as we boil in the unusually relentless sunshine.
Consequently, I am rising early and doing activities that are…well, active before noontime. Air conditioning is unheard of in Ireland except in public buildings. The supermarket was cool, but my ice cream cone (that I ate outside where I could take off my mask) was a bit melty by the time I finished it. The lane’s tarmac weeps once we go over 25C. So I am walking our little dog between 7am and 8am each morning to preserve his wee paw pads. Even by 8am the exertion makes me sweat. There is a race to water, weed and harvest in the garden before I swoon from the sun. Also, to do any cooking since putting on the oven or using the gas stove only adds to the heat. So, I only settled down (wearing my bou-bou from Mogodishu, a gift from a South African friend) to write the weekly poem well after lunchtime. It is, in part, inspired by a stray fact gleaned from the Long Read in today’s Guardian by Zarlasht Halaimzai. I commend it to you.
I took a break from the blog last week. It was a week of reuniting with members of my husband’s family who live over the border in Northern Ireland. On the 4th, his eldest brother celebrated his 80th birthday in the care home where he resides. We convened with his twin brother and took turns to visit as he can only have two at a time. It was a stormy drive with scattered deluges on the way there, but we made it there and back. The following day our much loved niece came for her week off from her hospital job. It was a laid back time- she crochetted, I knitted, we picked elderflowers and I initiated her into cordial making according to the Aunty B method. (Include lemon balm and rose petals in the mix.) We revelled in one another’s company. What we cherish after the many Lockdowns this past year is the face-to face meetings. We are all vaccinated and we still are not being wildly sociable.But we are prioritising seeing loved ones who have been scarce on the sofa these past eighteen months.
I only caught up later in the week with an article in the Weekend Guardian Review by Tishani Doshi. It is a dangerous job being a poet. (I know some will have cognitive dissonance over this. We are, as a tribe probably a majority of myopics with poor hand -eye coordination.It’s like imagining a librarian as a guerilla fighter…which, metaphorically speaking, they are actually.) Several years back I did some research for a Toastmasters speech. According to PEN International, oppressive governments have never liked writers in generally, but they disproportionately jail poets. Which is a surprise since being a poet earns you peanuts. We are hardly oligarchs bankrolling a coup. Yet apparently our economic disadvantage allows us a super-power for getting up the sensitivities of dictatorships. Poets are considered much more of a threat than even investigative reporters or editors of publications critical of a regime. Read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/05/flogged-imprisoned-murdered-today-being-a-poet-is-a-dangerous-job.
Perhaps poetry is the best way to authentically bear witness, not just to the facts of events or the sweep of history, but of the feelings invoked in an individual who is a particle of the zeitgeist. I think of the Cursing/Blessing Stone that is in a townland about seven miles from us. In the face of insurmountable injustice, when individuals and a population have no recourse to compassion or natural justice, why wouldn’t you lay a curse in the absence of any other personal power? But also, when things go right, why wouldn’t you bless the justice giver? Now many will tell you that an unjust curse will backfire on you and your descendents for many generations to come. But that stance lacks the point of view of a person whose only agency to to call down whatever supernatural power to deliver some accountability for evil done and cruel power exerted over others. We grow impatient for Nemesis to arrive. In bearing witness with language, both spoken and written, perhaps poets are invoking a similar curse or blessing for human accountability and hustle on the karma delivery. Perhaps, somewhere on the periphery of the collective unconscious dictators understand that poets will call down Nemesis on their heads.
The weekly poem grew out of our last monthly poetry session (July’s session is this Saturday where we will tackle the terror of the villanelle.) We met on Zoom on Juneteenth and we explored the theme of freedom, which offered me the opportunity to channel some empathy for social justice for others. I hark back to a quotation in an On Being email.
We all come into this world with a need for connection and protection AND with a need for freedom.
While there was a little lull in the Geopark Poetry Map proceedings I have been catching up with some house and garden tasks put on the (very) long finger. But now I am again reading submissions, this time from the school children of Curravagh National School and Florencecourt Primary School. With both groups I had introduced the haiku on previous visits pre-Covid 19 and as a preparation lesson before my school visit. In the session I also introduced the poetry form of the cinquain. It is a five liner, but unlike a five line form like the tanka you do have license to rhyme if that is how the muse leads you. In addition, we had to talk about the geoheritage and Geopark site element that was an important component to the poems, too.
While only two children had never visited a Geopark site before, many had visited a wide range of sites across the Geopark – Castle Archdale, Ely Park Lodge, Devenish Island, White Father’s Cave, Pollnagollam Waterfall, as well as sites closer to home like Marble Arch Caves, Claddagh Glen, Shannon Pot and Cavan Burren Park.
However, I was really struck by a poem written by a child who is considered educationally ‘challenged.’ While he did not write a poem about a Geopark site, his poem about the den in his garden was a standout. It had vivid images. His simple language conveyed a contentment and feeling of security and serenity that is marked in these uncertain times. I wish I could include it, but sadly it does not fulfill the geoheritage criteria. But I made sure to write his principal to ensure that he gets some praise heaped upon his head for his very well conceived and executed poem.
It really is both a pleasure and a privilege to be reading all these submissions.
For the weekly poem this week I decided to write a cinquain, too. The five liner runs 2-4-6-8-2 syllables per line. The subject has been haunting me these past few weeks, sometimes, rather unnervingly, peering straight at me through my bedroom window in the morning. Yesterday on my dog walk up to the holy well I happened upon a found object.
edge cobalt blue bleeds
to coal black, finally
transitioning to bottle green:
Meanwhile, it is back to the house and garden tasks. I have a half-finished bedroom that needs the final wall painted. The (fully vaccinated) niece is calling next week and wants to have a peek at all the do it yourself rehab going on. There is also a lot of bindweek and cleavers that needs to be weeded out and burned at the stake!
I hope that you are finding some summertime joy safely, in uncrowded places.
We have passed the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. We have had not just long days and short nights. Even the nearly full moon was blasting away at 2am when the cat that was the muse of last Tuesday’s weekly poem scratched at the window to be let indoors. I only opened one eye, but I did sense a very pink moon. I know that last full moon was technically the Blood Moon, but this upcoming Strawberry Moon was just as pink!
We are having cool temperatures and not a great deal of rain. Mercifully, as I type this we are having a good shower. Everyday brings gardening tasks of one sort or another. Always some weeding. We do not use artifical weed killer, so it is done by hand, with burning or drowning the most pernicious ones. Some are just wild plants and if they are not interfering with the vegetables then they are left in peace. Unless they are bind weed or cleavers, locally known as ‘Sticky Willy.’ weeding them is the Sisyphus task of my life, plucking and burning almost daily this month.
After a very, very cold spring and late frosts, things are beginning to green and grow. While I understand that the USA is having a plague year of cicadas, this year the midges are having a rave up in my part of West Cavan. They love me too much. When there is no breeze I am essentially under house arrest. Which brings me to the Summer Solstice on Sunday when I was forced to stay indoors to avoid being midge meal on a banquet scale. I stayed insided composing the Weekly Poem.
When you live in the country and have such an abundance of nature, it often leads to wild crafting remedies. My friend Morag plucked some bog myrtle from a nearby bog for me. Half of it is mascerating in a jar of almond oil to make midge repellant. So far, it has been the most effective prophylactic from the bites that I react to so badly. The other half is still in its bunch for me to keep beside me. I do actually see midges flying indoors – impossible to keep them out in a land that does not believe in screen windows – do a ninety degree turn around when they come close to me and I have it on me!
Of, course, now that we have had a good rain shower, the slugs will be patrolling. The vegetables most tasty them them (and us) are in raised beds with copper tape stuck on the perimeter.
There is a great satisfaction in growing some of your own food. It also cuts down on food miles and is better for the climate. It’s an activity I can see myself dedicating a great deal of energy to in the years to come. It is also an exercise in learning how to cut your losses. It humbles any notions of being in control right out of you.
Also there is still poetry… here is this week’s offering
Belated Happy Juneteenth! And Happy Solstice -either Summer or Winter depending upon your hemisphere. My mother would have been 104 years old yesterday. A high school friendship with an African American girl, Nellie Gator, was strongly influential in her support of civil rights for black American citizens during the dark Jim Crow years. She never forgave the DAR for refusing one of her operatic sheroes, Marian Anderson, Constitution Hall as a concert venue. While she never scurried down the genological rabbit hole to prove her ancestors fought in the American Revolution (unlikely, as we now know many were Quaker), but she said very firmly, with tightened lips that “even if she could, she would never join them.” I think Mom would be proud to share her birthday with this newly proclaimed US national holiday.
I did not post yesterday because of my monthly Zoom poetry group. We explored free verse, or open form, poetry. While North Americans have a strong tradition in this form, my Irish students are less familiar with it. While rhyme has not been something that has come naturally to me, I often find that Irish people can spontaneously rhyme from their very first effort at a poem! So this was a bit of a challenge for the Irish born members of my Zoom group.
But I warmed them up with a syllabic form first, the cinquain. I used this in my Geopark Poetry Map schools workshops as an alternative to haiku. Most primary age children will have had a bash at haiku by the time they are ten years old. The cinquain is a five liner, easy for a 45 minute workshop; it’s lines run, 2,4,6,8,2 syllables.
We addressed the theme of freedom in our poems yesterday. In keeping with both the day’s theme and the free verse task, I read aloud poems by African American poets, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Gwendoline Brooks. All these poets were new to my Irish colleagues.
Here is my cinquain for Juneteenth.
Able to breathe
Not always watching your back
Knowing your someone's prey
Happy Freedom Day! Happy Juneteenth, Mom! Meanwhile, it must be summer on schedule now. The wild orchids of West Cavan are out for Midsummer’s Eve. May this liminal day bring you gentle revelations.
It has been a hectic few days. Today is the closing date for the Geopark Poetry Map. Which is why the Weekly Poem is published a bit later in the day than normal. The rest of the week will also be busy reading the submissions and liaising with Geopark staff via Zoom.
It was also a day that began early with a school workshop on the Geopark Poetry Map in a Fermanagh school. While the rest of the world seems to be getting broiled, steamed or stewed in summer heat, here day broke with a temperature of 12C/54F. And there was no promise of it nosing much farther than that until much later in the day. The workshop had to be outdoors, but we had a bell tent for shelter and rough hewn ‘desks’ from reclaimed cable reel wheels and stools from tree stumps. The children sat on tarps spread over the bark ‘floor’. The rain held off, but the midges, as we say here in this part of the world, were mighty! This particular primary school is interested in the whole concept of Forest Schools. Given the pandemic, this is their moment! Covid Regulations do not allow visitors inside schools at all (except for repair and maintenance workers.) For freelancers like me, our only way of interacting with school children is outdoors and in a mask or face shield. For teachers who can squeeze us into their programme, they are grateful for the children getting some outside influence. A new face, even if it is behind a plastic face shield.
More than ever before I feel strongly that poetry writing needs to be part of the core curriculum.” Poetry makes you feel calm.” So said an 11 year old today. It has been far from calm these last two years, which make up about a fifth of their lifetime already. Poetry writing can help children process all the emotional challenges of this pandemic and what it has meant for them personally and for their families. Nature can be healing, too.
The school we visited today is very lucky in having over an acre of land that they can use for playing fields and outdoor activities. They plan on erecting another tent ‘classroom.’ But most schools do not have that option. In Brooklyn, where my brother lives, they closed his street so the public school on the corner could have recess space. The playground itself was transformed into an outdoor classroom last fall.
It was an early rising. Not quite amrit vela as it was already light. I dashed off a poem for today and began noodling with another. While one of our other cats has often been the featured hero of poems published in this blog, we have a new entry today. The ginger ‘legacy’ cat. Basically, we have an inexhautable supply of feline muses in this household.
The closing date for submissions to the MACGeopark digital Poetry Map is fast approaching. The closing date is 15th June 2021 and I am still getting enquiries for submission guidelines. While I am feeling the countdown of days – 5, 4,3,2,1…it’s not all about the countdown. There are a lot of moveable parts to this project and even after the closing date there is much more that will happen before it is unveiled in October 2021.
Last month’s blast of poetry prompts and memes on Twitter and even Instagram seems to have caught some traction. We have had an open call out since Poetry Day Ireland since 29th April for poem on specific sites within Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark that highlights some aspect its geoheritage. Martina O’Neill, Development Officer for Partnership & Engagement created a wonderful document siting the geoheritage points of dozens of sites around the Geopark. (I quoted copiously during the 14 days of Geoheritage Poetry Prompts for the Poetry Map.) The earth has been reflected in ancient monuments like the wedge tombs and dolmens, and more recently, in industries like Belleek Pottery and family run lime kilns. The Geopark has glacial erratics, but also has the built heritage that the smaller rocks were used to make sweathouses, dry stone walls, castles and abbeys. We also have many sites of special scientific interest for plants and the blanket bog on Cuilcagh and other upland areas. Because of the limestone we have orchids, too.
But that is only one moveable part of the project. First we commissioned five established writers to create new work. Dara McAnulty, author of the award-winning Diary of a Young Naturalist, will write on Big Dog Mountain. (The North American edition has just been published by Milkweed.) Noel Monaghan has many poetry collections published by Salmon Poetry; Loughoughter is his chosen site. Maria McManus grew up in Belcoo with the Marble Arch Caves just down the road from her homeplace. Seamus Mac Annaidh has published in many genres – novels, poetry and history – in the Irish language and is known by English readers mostly for books centring on Fermanagh history. A J Quinn is best known for his crime novel series set in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
We were able to announce all the commissions for Poetry Day Ireland on 29th April 2021. Then began the push and open call to new and emerging poets for their poems which will conclude this Tuesday, 15th June.
The other part of the project has been really challenging. How to involve school age children? I have facilitated poetry workshops in primary schools before. So that held no terror. But there was a long wait for getting vaccinated as I felt it only prudent, given my age and health, to have that done before venturing out. Immunity Day came on 24th May for me.
But even venturing out still means not going into schools. And therein we have another challenge – the Irish weather! The school year for primary pupils ends in the last week of June. This has been an extraordinarily challenging year for teachers and having someone come into the school with an additional project which may, or may not, compliment the curriculum was just one factor to consider. The other is that they are playing catch up from winter when they have only had home schooling. In rural areas remote learning was sometimes just impossible. As far as I am concerned teachers are the unsung front liners of this pandemic.
Yet despite all these challenges one school in Cavan and Fermanagh agreed to have me come in for a 45 minute session on the project. Fortunately, the Geopark has a lot of good material that is aimed at schools that were stockpiled from when they could engage with them pre-pandemic.
Given Covid regulations the workshops are outdoors. Fortunately, the rain and the midges were busy elsewhere when I worked with the older students at Curravagh National School in Glangevlin, Co. Cavan. What better way to teach geoheritage than to point to the rocky outcrop behind the school and name it – karst, weathered limestone. And then swing my arm the other direction and talk about drumlins and how drumlins even gave their name to a Cavan abbey. Outdoor classrooms have more than just one advantage.
I have worked with these kids before and it felt joyful to see how much they have grown and matured over the two years since I last worked with them in June 2019. Even though we were outdoors, I masked so that I could look at their work and help them when they asked questions. But what really impressed me was that all but the very youngest pupil opted to wear a mask, too. As did their teacher.
But who they really wanted to see was my husband, who they know for his guitar and singing and sometimes even a story. He sang into his plastic face shield from a safe social distance. And somehow, it felt a bit like the old normal for us and for the kids. As their principal told me. They need to see new faces and hear new slants on things. It was a memory of how things were when we last met two years ago and how things are now, but still there could be some silly singalongs and laughter.
On the 15th Tony and I will be in Fermanagh, but there the primary school has a big bell tent that we can shelter in at a safe social distance with a large group. The tent has been acquired because of the interest in Forest Schools post-pandemic. And they are fortunate enough to have the space for it. There, too, the head teacher was keen when he learned that my driver can come along with his guitar. We dropped off the Geopark material and my lesson plan in advance to prep the class teacher on what we aim to accomplish – a poem. I have two short forms to offer that can rhyme or not, but what I really am eager is to hear where they have been in the Geopark and how they feel about those places. Getting some aspect of the arts into schools during the pandemic is considered a huge boost to the kids by teachers who know the added value they bring.
In the Cavan school I learned that one pupil has a lime kiln on their land. (Oh, for a lime kiln or sweathouse to feature in a poem; wish list!) Another lad climbed Cuilcagh with his family as a memorial walk on the anniversary of his father’s death. Geoheritage is not something museum-like to these kids who live in Geopark communities. It is all around them and inside them.
You can email queries or submissions to GeoparkPoetryMap@gmail.com by 15th June 2021.
The bank holiday yesterday brought me up short when I suddenly realised that yes, today is Tuesday! Time to post the Weekly Poem. There has been little poetry writing time in recent months, given the attention that the Geopark Poetry Map has needed. Also, the garden suddenly needs an extra pair of hands. I am better at the destruction aspects – weeding, burning my mortal enemies ‘Sticky Willy’ (cleavers) and Bindweed. We don’t use chemical fertilizer or pest pest control. Our garden may not have official certification, but we use organic principles on our acre. So it wildish and has a carpet of buttercups where the daffodils were in March.
With the Summer solstice and the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere rapidly approaching, we are seeing the last of Spring…and also some signs which would normally have appeared over a month ago.