We are living in a season of grief. We are living in a season of mass bereavements – from Covid19 or other causes – where we are limited in our expressions of mourning. We are also facing grief for injustices done. Sadness is an appropriate response. Anger is an understandable response. In my own sorrow I turned to poetry. This is the book I plucked from the shelf.
Before I tell you about the poem that I turned to, I want to speak as some one who grew up as a white person in a small town that had one black family and two mixed race families. In 1968 I was eleven and the land of my birth was being shriven with unrest caused by civil rights withheld and a foreign conflict that many did not sanction. Protests that turned ugly were on the 6:30 news most summer evenings. (We religiously watched NBC’s The Huntley BrinkleyReport in our household.) That raised my consciousness, as well as the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. What I had to help educate myself and build empathy was good reading matter.
My elementary school publicised a subscription book club where you could buy cheap paperbacks every month. I spent a lot of my weekly allowance with that Book Club. As a book worm tween I was able to buy and read books like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a biography of Mary MacLeod Bethune. Because I was also hungry for biographies of women (which were thin on the ground in the 1960s), I understood on some unconscious level the desire of having someone who looks like you reflected in the world. In those days we had a new phrase “role models.” I might not have had the same skin colour as Bethune, but golly she was a Mighty Woman! What reading did for me was educate me about lives that were different from mine, but were interesting and powerfully inspiring. It also gave me context for what was happening contemporaneously. Reading forged a connection that transcended social, racial, religious, and gender differences. It also exercised my empathy muscle and prepared me for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. By puberty I was well informed at just how low humans could go in terms of harming fellow human beings.
So, readers, please give your children books that will give them context to help them understand the why of what it happening at this moment. It will help them in so many ways.
Now, to the poem that helped me write the Sunday Weekly poem and also to navigate my sadness with this moment in our history. The poem is Alice Walker’s “Torture” that runs through a litany of “when they torture your…” loved ones with the response “Plant a Tree.” The final verse runs thus:
When they begin to torture
and cut down the forest
they have made
Alice Walker “Torture” from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
There is, on private land adjacent to the ruined St. Brigid’s Chapel in the townland of Kilinagh, a glacial erratic with nine bullaun stones placed in its hollows. We live in a geopark that is littered with these large rocks that the ice age slid down off Cuilcagh Mountain back in the mists of eons bygone. They were both first tools and material, as well as a part of nascent cosmology. This particular rock formation is called St. Brigid’s Cursing and Blessing Stone, the new Christian religion taking over a site dedicated to the old god Crom Cruach. The tradition is to turn the stone the the left and leave a coin under the bullaun stone for a curse. Turn the stone sunwise and you bless.
Curses are all about deep time. They reverberate for generations. In the heroic tales of Ireland this might be for five, seven or even nine generations. A story never ends where you think it ends. The plot is thicker than any witch’s concoction and many of the characters who think they have starring roles only have cameos in the grander scheme of things.
And why should I be thinking of this as I contemplate the Poetry Daily on this morning where the sun is trying to chase the rain and keep it at bay? Maybe because we need to widen the viewfinder on our ideas of story, how it chases our tails and becomes what we know as history. That the long ago then is also are ninety-minute now.
Sometimes you know a story is not done., but the climax doesn't satisfy. The lovers don't walk hand in hand toward sunset. The mean foment more mean, no justice done. Oh, but what if we could just simplify life to a made for TV version? Ninety minutes of conflict to conclusion.
In reality, bitter people who take their ball of no hope, feuds and grudges, go seek their redress at a cursing stone. They leave at this altar their gall, bile's brew. Although there is another ritual that blesses by reversing the turn of bullaun stones. Forgiveness remedies what needs atoned.
No story's compiled in a single tome. It's eons of layers, all known in stone.
It started on 15th September 2018. I have been writing and posting a poem a day for nine months. I reckon it takes longer to make a book than a baby.
Later this morning I will be showcasing the written work done by nine 9-12 year olds who attend a two room-two teacher school at Curravagh in the West Cavan uplands. Funded by Cruinniú na nÓg (Creativity for Youth) programme I was able to spend sixteen classroom hours with them developing story – from the purely imaginative to writing a first person narrative of a real person or historical character they had to research. There is a small exhibition of their work and a recording of them reading some of the finished product happening at Dowra Courthouse Creative Space today at noon.
For inspiration for today’s poetry practice I look back on the week and an expedition with those children and the 5th and 6th classes from Blacklion’s national school. We had a field trip connected with another project I am collaborating on with a local ceramic artist, Jim Fee. We went to the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. There is an outdoor exhibition that recreates a trench system from the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The epigraph that sparks today’s poem is from Plato. Someone quoted it on Twitter. (Yes, truly!)
Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history. – Plato
History as Poetry
The latrine was used by thousands. It was a hole in the ground. Barely yards away. As close as the enemy. When it rained it overflowed. It ran into the trenches where soldiers crouched in stench, heads bowed to avoid the sniper's reach.
The nurses in Casualty Clearing were as close to the enemy as any man. With less say. They had no vote, but died for King and country, mopped up blood, closed eyes of dead men - mostly young. One was aged twelve. One was aged sixty-seven.
Victory tastes of vinegar and gall. Few are spared, less saved. It stinks of old men's money, the rattle in the bag of guineas gold swapped for a load of sabres.
Watch the children pause at the peace sculpture, doves rising like the wheel of fortune from the blasted bog oak tree. Rising as the water falls from figures weeping on their knees.