The Weekly Poem – Birch

This post is written in haste. The poem was written in advance because today we will travel north of the border and meet much loved relatives after the long Lockdown separation. Our nephew has not been seen since Christmas 2019. Our niece did visit briefly last September, but it was a sad sojourn of making end-of-life decisions and saying goodbye to the dog of her childhood; Ellie came to live with us when her Mum was hospitalised and it became clear that the dogs should stay with us. (Ellie has been immortalised in some poems on this blog; https://sojourningsmith.blog/2019/01/30/cailleach-conditions/.) So this is the prospect of a joyful reunion, released as we are from Lockdown, into a post-vaccination world of pandemic hugs. I am so over-excited I cannot say if I am beside myself or over and above myself!

So…without further ado…on to the weekly poem! Which was generated from the Personal Universal Deck that NaPoWriMo 2021 suggested on Day 3. It has actually turned out to be a very fun poetry tool. And the birch tree feels like a worthy totem for our brave, slightly tentative, pandemic new world.

Birch

Whether white, silver or gold...
I have sipped your sap,
chawed on a peeled strip of bark
that is your fat, your taste
unmistakeable, both fresh
and keen as new beginnings
that you know will somehow
turn out sweet as the hull
of the canoe transporting you
on that next adventure.   

I have seen seven birch trees
dancing in a huddle together
on a bog in Fermanagh
under their sister Pleides
that small gourd offering all
refreshment after a long, long
drought, Drink a long draught.
Stand tall once again.
Listen to the rustle of the catkins
early in the season, itching
to dance with spring's fair wind
even when it still feels cold.

Tree of second chances...
starting up and over, one that knows
joy even in the coldest, the darkest
of places on earth. It knows it is
truly a good earth for all, even
for the mistaken and the misguided,
that the lost need their chance to be found
once again, at the last, which is at
the very optimistic heart of 
this tree's very hard wood.

Copyright © Bee Smith, 2021. All rights reserved.

Featured image Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The Weekly Poem – The Long Division

Tentative re-opening here in Ireland. We had a shared outdoor coffee with friends last week and had a laugh. Isn’t it great to hear a company of people laughing at some shared joke? It feels quite intimate. Especially as we have probably just been laughing on our own to episodes of comedies on Netflix for the past fourteen months. I discovered the charming ridiculousness of Brooklyn 99 over the winter and I did do the literal LOL sometimes. But to laugh in company feels liberating after the long winter and the cold spring. I may yet regret sending all those sofa throws to recycling. We may need them for outdoor physically distanced tea on the terrace!

I saw my hairdresser drive down my lane and if there wasn’t a pandemic on (and her vehicle shielding her) I would have hugged her I am so happy to have a hair appointment on May 13th. I last saw her nine months ago. She has a salon in the village so would have seen her frequently in pre-pandemic times. Nuala, I am so happy to have you back! She has been working in care homes during Lockdown so got her vaccination three months ago. Also, she gets Covid tested every Tuesday. How is that for a confidence booster?!

Our own second vaccination is on 14th May. From 24th May, we have 94% immunity. But that doesn’t mean that I am going to madly go out and see lots of people. I have marked it on the calendar though as ‘Immunity Day.’ (Well, 94% Immunity Day anyway!)

I do have to carefully consider going in to schools for sessions though and I am still weighing that up. Where I have been in schools before and they know what I look like without a mask it feels sort of okay. But to go in where my face is unknown feels kind of weird. Also, in conjunction with the Geopark Poetry Map project, it would involve schools cross-border and each jurisdiction will have differing guidance. Meanwhile, thank heavens for Zoom. I have an ergonomic seat cushion now to help with the sciatica from long sessions. Not perfect, but it helps.

The theme of Division has been in mind. One You Tuber I watched this week says that the collective energy at the moment is Division. And surely we have got plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence to back that claim. Some don’t ‘believe’ in the illness, while others trust the science. Some don’t want to mask while others (like myself) have been double masking since this time last year when I could obtain mask filters on Amazon. Some will vaccinate and others will not. We live in a global society of haves and have-nots. We do live in the most divided of times it would seem.

Hence, the title of this week’s Weekly Poem, which also harkens to my slight discalculia, only discovered once I was an adult.

But before I get to that, just a reminder that I am curating the #MACGeopark #Poetry #Map and we need contributions. The deadline for submissions is 31st May 2021. You don’t have to be local either. I have already had one submission from Michigan, USA and another from Singapore. Research is often a good start for a poem and the Geopark staff have provided a great document to help submitters. Email me at GeoparkPoetryMap@gmail.com for full details.

Mapping Marble Arch Caves Geopark Poem by Poem in a digital Poetry Map
The Long Division

Long division, the fraction represented by
the decimal point, not a chunk of pumpkin pie
on a virtual plate. What a confounded headache
for my young brain, fumbling, making countless mistakes.
I failed at dividing - wandering cloudlike past
boundary walls, crossing borders quite unabashed.
I preferred the geometry of the circle -
the line drawn together, sewn into a portal.
Everything is connected neatly. And equal
in how one stands for everyone. It's peaceful,
not lonely, all chipped off into fractious factions,
crouched behind that decimal...fatal abstractions.

Copyright ©Bee Smith, 2021. All rights reserved.

Featured image Photo by Vic on Unsplash

March Gambols In

The energy has shifted. Apart from dwarf narcissi blooming, I have sourced and received seed potatoes delivered to my doorstep. Onion bulbs still are hard to find between Brexit and the pandemic. Peas have finally been sourced. Sometimes in the oddest places, like the petrol station in Manorhamilton! This week I sowed garlic and broad beans, which is a profound gesture of hope against potential frosts. Fortunately, they are made of fairly stern stuff and like cold conditions. March arrived sunny and warm after some early morning mist and an overnight ground frost; which may not be a good sign for the rest of the month. I will take my weather auguries with a pinch of salt. As one old neighbour, long past his passing, once said, ” A fair February crushes the rest of the year.” And as another colleague once noted, “The old signs no longer hold…” Which pretty much sums up climate change. Nothing is normal these days, so we may as well take each day at a time as it comes and deal with it accordingly.

I am treating my body like the temple I never before worshipped at these days. Full disclosure: I am from the most unathletic family. The rules of ball games confuse me into brain freeze. As a teenager I fretted that my gym grades would pull my grade point average down to a point that I would not get the scholarships I desperately needed to get me to a college out of state. As the youngest of four whose mother had already been a widow for thirteen years by the time I was due to enter college, it was imperative that I get that financial aid. I was never built to be a jock and I was enough of an in intellectual snob to eschew all things athletic.

Yet, here I am approaching sixty-five taking my first fitness class ever by Zoom. And, truthfully, the only reason I am there is because we can turn off the video. There are no judging eyes there to body shame me. Because my weight has always been a bone of contention and smoking is really not a healthy way of weight control. (Tried that. Loved it. Gave it up after ten years.) But now that I am needing to mind my blood sugar levels (my sister is a a Type 1 diabetic) and my BMI is out of control, I am finally stepping up and putting on a pedometer every day. I loved baking too much in Lockdown 1 and I loved eating the cookies I baked even more. Being both a greedy eater and a good cook is not a helpful combination.

(As a digression intrepid readers… I speak to my bestie in England each evening and we often talk recipes and culinary methodology. Well, I am only going to food shops for the past year after all! And the pandemic has meant a certain inventiveness is required to avoid too much menu repetition. I was complaining about how Yotam Ottolenghi is always lacing his recipes with sumac and what the heck was that anyway?! And where on earth would I find it in rural Ireland? Pen sent some as Christmas present because you can get it in the shop attached to her local post office in England. And…yes it is a useful addition to flavouring soups and stews.)

However…that kind of radical self-care takes a lot of energy when you are unfit and over sixty. But I am gradually creating a new life balance. I am teaching poetry to a small group, which fits perfectly in terms of creating conditions of creative colleaguality. I am also facilitating a short class in spiritual autobiography, again to a small group. I have shifted the time to suit me and my energy levels rather than consider participants’ needs over mine. So, no weekday evening class this season, while I build myself up after the New Year injury.

Putting my own needs first was a huge challenge. Probably because women of my generation were conditioned to think that is selfish. Even those identifying as feminist are not immune to those subtle socially pervasive messages.

And so to the weekly poem, which has emerged out from under the gardening, the household maintenance, the supply chain fulfillment, and exercise regimes. It was a comfort to read in the Guardian Review the weekend before last that many writers have experienced writer’s block during this pandemic. All this time and yet so little output!

Look Up!

Look up! A cloudless blue sky bright
as the Crayola ™ Crayon of that name.
For months I've had the ground in sight,
the endless go round of the same old same.
I measured our days making meals,
planning menus, the thirty minute slot
for exercise. Evening's newsreels
unspool while stirring tomorrow's soup pot.
Will the weather forecast ever
cut us a break from dark, overcast days?

March arrives lamblike, outward favour.
Some daffodils are out, small bouquets.
I sowed some seeds out yesterday.
Look up! Hope and pray for fairer weather.
Grow broad beans and garlic, stout and pungent.
This year, bring us savour and abundance!

 
 Copyright  © Bee Smith 2021. All rights reserved 

Featured image Photo by Andréas BRUN on Unsplash

And then Cailleach Beara Laughed

…at my last post,which implied Spring was a coming in here in Ireland. And it was, pretty much, until the last few days. Then on Thursday we had the most astonishing sunrise. More astonishing still, I was up and at the digital memorialising of it even though the temperatures were sub-zero. Because you know it’s cold when you have to put a hot water bottle on the (outdoor) calor gas drum to coax it to flow so you can have your breakfast porridge!

Red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning and all that… We woke up to a very different dawn, with a barely there light and snow coming down. Only around two inches like, but that is enough for orange snow and ice warnings for the area from MetEireann. My husband fed the birds and I walked the dog before 9:30 am during a lull in the snowfall. The mountain in the sunrise photo was obliterated between heavy cloud and snowfall. The wind, on a yellow warning, did some damage; between the weight of the snow and the wind, a long tear seared the polytunnel’s skin. (Not to worry, since it was scheduled for a re-skinning this spring.) So it has felt as if the Cailleach Beara, or Mother Winter, really was having a laugh at my precipitous statement.

However, it livens up what I am now terming Pandemic Groundhog Day. For those of us who have really stuck to minimising our essential trips (most to the village that is 3km from home) and taking exercise within 5km, it amounted as a major change of scenery to take the general waste to the tip 20 km away. We also needed the nearest health food store 32 km away, last visited the first week in December after Lockdown 2 lifted, for items unobtainable in the village. It felt like visiting Babylon.

And while I have continued my haiku/senryu/tanka a day journal, I really have felt the flame of inspiration sputtering and guttering. At least I know I am not alone in this. Here is my friend and sometime creative colleague, Morag Donald’s, recent blog. (https://moragdonald.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/creative-spark/?fbclid=IwAR3c4coU7wfTGBzWqrKIvamRWrPNRX2Dn0VKL-yaa3Nf3ZlFaK-WsYgSTuE). Brigid’s Day 2020 saw us co-faciliating a day retreat of craft and poetry. I look forward to days when we can co-create in person.

The sheer grind of keeping the household tidy, supplied, hygienic, fed and watered, as well as taking our prescribed thirty minutes of daily outdoor exercise has been energy sapping. It may, in part, be the toll the January injury took, but I am now coming round to the conclusion that there is a chink in my pandemic stoicism. There has been a death from Covid in the next village over from us, according to the local undertaker’s wife. (The things you learn while doing the weekly shop!) And I posted off two Recuperation CARE parcels in the past ten days. This variant is picking off the younger generations and hitting them hard.

Yes, the Cailleach laughed. Winter is not over yet. Even so, I did a panic online shopping spree last Sunday when I saw a report that Brexit has slowed plant and seed supplies into Northern Ireland, where our nearest garden centre is located. A quick online snoop had me ordering willy nilly from various Republic of Ireland sources, alarmed at all the ‘Out of Stock’ labels. Still need to source spuds and yellow onions.

Meanwhile, my friend Morag’s blog post seems to be pointing me in the right direction for digging myself out of my creative funk. My zoom classes and students probably kept the creative flame kindled in 2020. I need to acknowledge that I receive so much from that contact and be grateful for them. It might be time to make contact with those creative colleagues again to keep inspiration’s flame alive. I am thinking that it might be time to recommence the poetry workshops, starting with a two month dive into a handful of poetry forms.

I do have a poem in the works, but it is not fully ‘cooked.’ In the meantime, I am pointing you towards a video show I participated in last Sunday, hosted by my friend John Wilmott of Carrocrory Cottage and Labyrinths. I read four poems at roughly thirty minutes into the show. One poem is in the archive, but the others are probably new to blog followers. (https://youtu.be/sfIofvscCyY).

The poem that is in the works was ‘sparked’ by the theme of that day’s show. Hope you get some inspiration. Meanwhile, renewal is on its way. The snowdrops are blooming and the daffodil shoots are braving it through the snow. I just need to be more like them.

Poetry in Pandemics

Some people count the weeks that they have been cocooned, quarantined or locked down. Until this morning I had not. I knew the date that was the last time we had driven outside of our village. We went to the nearest town twelve miles away to carry our some essential life laundry tasks and skittered back home fast. I was gloved up for that outing and have masked and gloved up since, even though Leitrim has the lowest infection rate in the Republic of Ireland. That was 52 days ago. Since then we have stayed within 2 kilometres of our home. Tony, celebrated his 70th birthday in March as cocooning was announced; he has been happily cocooned and busy in the garden. We realise how blessed we are to have it and our rural setting during this pandemic Chastening Time. I shop in the local grocery and post office/hardware for essentials. Anything we cannot get locally we buy online or is shopped for by a young neighbour, who also gloves up and masks, when he goes to the county seat each week. I sanitise like OCD is a fashion and not a mental disorder.

This week the realisation sank in that even as other parts of the world are loosening quarantine, this is now our new normal and will be for a long time to come. Technically, we could invite two non-related friends round for tea outdoors with our chairs spaced six feet from each other. In practice, I don’t think many of us are quite ready for that just yet. A kind of pandemic agoraphobia has set in. So while others may be planning a trip to the garden centre tomorrow, I have been contemplating the logistics of winter in the Chastening Time, which is now my name for this collective pandemic experience. Generally speaking, I am an optimist. But I respect science and historical experience.

I did some Googling around what people were reading during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. According to a YouTube documentary I watched this week it was misnamed. The origins of that virus was in the American rural heartland when it jumped from pigs to humans. Spain got the name because it announced to the world that this killer virus was sweeping the nation. Elsewhere there had been cases but due to media censorship during World War I, the infection was more rumour than public health bulletin. The troop movements exacerbated the virus finding more and more human hosts globally. The last landfall of that particular virus was Australia in 1919.

Of course, the horror of mechanised war was what dominated the poetry publisher lists. Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling must have been an interesting juxtopositioning on the Publishers Weekly lists. W. B. Yeats published his Wild Swans at Coole that included his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Sara Teasdale’s Love Songs was awarded a Pulitzer in 1918. In 1919 Margaret Widdemer’s The Old Road to Paradise shared the poetry Pulitzer with Carl Sandburg’s The Cornhuskers. Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot were just beginning their poetry careers in the UK. They were also mourning poets killed by the war like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, who was a close friend of Robert Frost.

Even though the Spanish Flu could strike you stone dead within twelve hours there is not a great deal to hint that this pandemic was killing more than the considerable casualties of the Great War. But, as a friend who studied Public Health Administration told me in a phone conversation, that generation was used to people falling ill and dying. They did it all the time. They did not have antibiotics. Recovery was a miracle; invalid relatives appear in novel’s marginalia all the time in the 19th century. Beth March is probably the most famous example. They all visit the seaside, but linger as shadows and then die. Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics were within living memory. Tuberculosis was rife. So numbed by the sheer scale of military casualties, the Spanish flu barely ripples across the pages of poetry. That people should fall ill and die was in the normal purview of the Grim Reaper. That a generation of men should be gassed, maimed and suffocated in muddy trenches was something new and horrifying.

But here we are a century on, innured to the medical magic bullets of antibiotics and vaccines. Except this particular virus has all the wiliness of a fox and the whole pack of hounds on its heels can simply not run it to earth. Or, at least, in no time in the near future. And for those who object to blood sports, I apologise to the fox in the metaphor above.

All this rumination comes from contemplating how you can be preparing a manuscript to send off to publishers (many of whom may go to the wall in the economic crash) without somehow referencing this collective experience. Or, as same friend in a phone call relates, the only thing that remains the same in one’s life are the seasons.

So for this Sunday’s Weekly poem I concentrated on one of the eternals in life.

Annunciation
 
In the shade of drystone wall
                                                among weeds.
Beside celandine and sedge
                                                two purple
flowering heads announcing that
                                                it’s coming.
All the times I have paced passed
                                                I missed them.
Such is the surprise of joy
                                                in small things –
the cuckoo’s call, smell of earth
                                                after rain,
the hawthorn blossom's sweet scent
                                                of new life
and its promise of decay.
 
 
                                                Do not pick
purple orchid or hawthorn in flower.
                                                Let them be.
Allow them to be released
                                                to surprise
summer after summer, again
                                                and again,
a small ration of joy found.
                                                Not foraged.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

By the by, the two of best selling authors whose names still had some recognition a century later were Zane Grey and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Agatha Christie broke out in Publishers Weekly in 1920. So if you can only read light fiction at the moment, you may have something in common with our ancestor’s pandemic reading tastes.