In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face- the face of one long dead-
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow on its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
I can’t imagine the increased sorrows and difficulties that COVID has created for those mourning the deaths of loved ones, regardless of cause. Celebrating life and mourning the death of friends and family is supposed to be an expression of family and community unity, not something we do remote. We hug, we cry, we eat, we talk, we share, we sit silently together. October is the anniversary of my Mother’s birthday and internment of her ashes. This blog arouse out of me processing the one year anniversary of that event and using poetry as a salve for the hurt of mourning.
October is a month of harvest and senescence, living things withering, dying, decaying, recycling the contents of their living cells and nutrients back to the soil, in preparation for new life next spring. The vibrant colors of this year’s leaves in Minnesota are a reminder of the inherent beauty in the cycle of life all around us. Even the end of the cycle of life.
When All The Others Were Away At Mass
by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
St Kevin and the Blackbird
by Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it.
Rite of Spring
by Seamus Heaney
So winter closed its fist
And got it stuck in the pump.
The plunger froze up a lump
In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.
Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light
That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.
A Drink Of Water
by Seamus Heaney
She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup, Remember the Giver fading off the lip.
The pockets of our great coats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
Poetry manifest as a reminder of bravery in the face of injustice has a long history in literature. It is the stuff from which epics and legends arise. Seamus Haney’s poem is about the battle at Vinegar Hill where 15,000 Irish rebels, many armed with only pikes, were outgunned by the English bent on slaughter and extermination. The English deploying a professional army of nearly 20,000 men, replete with cavalary, cannons equiped with newly invented shrapnel artillery shells to more effectively rain death down upon your enemy from afar. To say the battle at Vinegar Hill was a mismatch is an understatement. Courage and luck were on the rebels side and though 1,200 died that day, many of the dead women and children camping with the rebel army for protection, the majority escaped through a gap in the lines and lived to fight another day.
My daughter spent a semester abroad in England a few years ago and during her spring break I picked her up in London and we rented a car and drove to Edinburgh, Scotland. We rented a flat for five days and tramped our way around the sites on the Royal mile, visiting museums, art galleries, churches and castles packed into the center of that marvelous city. It was my first time in Scotland and the history of war between the Scots and the English is a bit overwhelming for a Minnesotan. But the biggest surprise to me was the history of Scottish on Scottish violence. It would be easy to characterize the long history of conflict between the English and Scots or the English and the Irish as the fault of English domination and cruelty, but the darker truth is much of the history of violence throughout all three countries arose from local conflicts over land, power and control. Religion was not the true root of the conflict during the clearing of the Scottish highlands, it was a shallow excuse for the brutal dislocation of the rural poor. The conflict was really about power and the wealth that came from it between the landed gentry and the rural peasants who lived on that land.
I had never heard of the clearing the Scottish highlands prior to my visit to Scotland and what was interesting was how little it was discussed in all the museums we attended. It came to light while visiting with an employee at a Scottish museum on the shores of Loch Ness and once I came aware of it, it helped knit together a more complex history of the United Kingdom. The clearing of the highlands began about the same time as the great famine in Ireland and in many ways is relatively modern history. The Scottish peasants were forcibly driven into the cities from the end of the 18th century and continued into the mid 19th Century. These were poor farmers dislocated from their agrarian cattle based existence not by famine but by force, to be displaced by sheep that did not need a large rural labor force for landowners to make money. The clearing forced the poor, largely illiterate peasants into slums in rapidly expanding cities to become cheap labor for the industrial revolution. Industrial factories owned by the same wealthy land owners, industries like fabric mills in Paisley and the ship building industry across Scotland that utilized iron and coal mined locally. The clearing of the Scottish highlands marked a transition across the region from rural to urban, from agrarian to industrial, from a mix of pagan/Catholicism to Presbyterianism, a change in perspective in the way the average person looked at the world in which they lived and the way they made their living.
It’s hard to walk away from a visit to Scotland and figure out where does justice reside? Each side, (the Scots and the English, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Anglicans versus everyone else) committed so many atrocities over such a long period of time that it is amazing that a United Kingdom ever came to be. Each side lionized their heroes and victories with monuments and poems. But after visiting at least one castle a day for a week, I got the impression that the past 1000 years were one continuous battle, everybody fighting everyone else that was the “other” for their one square inch upon which to scratch an existence.
The history of Presbyterianism came alive during that visit, its birthplace the revolutionary Calvinist principles that would supplant the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church with small free kirks (churches), whose seat of power was local and largely democratic. The protestant reformation changed how many viewed their relationship with their God and alliance to King and Country. Is it any surprise then, that the evolution of the Church of Scotland, which is the Presbyterian Church, would result in bloodshed? The institutions of religion, royalty and governance so intertwined in Scotland, Ireland and England that change could only come about through violence. It’s a history that is very relevant today around independence and Brexit and the advantages and disadvantages of local populism versus larger economic collectivism.
The following poem wrote itself one afternoon, while sitting in the park on top Calton Hill overlooking the city, the rhymes and rhythms of the past echoing into the present.
by T. A. Fry
Speyside. Wayside. Go round the roundabout.
Hang’em high! Crucify! While women scream and shout.
If it’s my fate to make a date, with a Scottish maiden.
Then bless the martyrs just for starters and send me off to Satan.
In the High Kirk or Free Kirk, we’ll say our common prayers.
Jenny Geddes said “Come and get us, King Charles if you dare.”
But the Jacobites were not affright; took up the Bishop’s cause.
To kill free men and say Amen, to the King’s unholy laws.
Playfair. Wayfair. A call from Calton Hill.
“If we’re to die then let ’m try to enforce the conventicle.”
For John Brown was gunned down with polity on his side.
The King’s men shot again and justice was denied.
Claverhouse, a clever louse, the English devil’s son.
He took to killing for his living, ‘till Scotland was undone.
“I don’t need a reason to call it treason,” laughed the Bluidy Clavers.
“So fall in line for the killing time, the dying’s just begun.”