Helen's Bay, County Down, Northern Ireland
Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month -Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto, by John Hewitt

I’ve just discovered the poetry of Belfast-born writer John Hewitt, which is a shocking oversight for someone writing a novel based in Belfast during the Troubles.  But then his name is somewhat overshadowed by those other dazzling Northern Irish luminaries:  Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Frank Ormsby. I read the poem below and immediately ordered a copy of his Selected Poems, which I’ve been devouring ever since.

If I could put into so few words my sense of conflicted pride, identity, loyalty, pain and longing for Northern Ireland, they would read like this poem, which was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh car bombing on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity in 1998, where thirty-one people were murdered by the Real IRA splinter group, who opposed the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This poem also came to mind when I read of the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murder of civilians during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry

Very unusually for the period, my Northern Irish parents were “mixed”, that is, one was Protestant, the other Catholic. My relationship with my Northern Irish heritage and identity, my fellow countrymen and women and how they have affected my family, and the families of most people I know from the region can be read in Hewitt’s appeal to “bear in mind” the dead.

Remembrance, loyalty and justice are words that have been worn out on all sides by the spilling of so much blood, and by a willingness to turn away from deeds committed in a country of incredible natural beauty and otherwise welcoming inhabitants; a time, place and people that are still overlooked and misunderstood by many.

John Hewitt: Selected Poems

NEITHER AN ELEGY NOR A MANIFESTO

BY JOHN HEWITT (1972)

For the people of my province
and the rest of Ireland

Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using
that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies.

I cannot urge or beg you
to pray for anyone or anything,
for prayer in this green island
is tarnished with stale breath,
worn smooth and characterless
as an old flagstone, trafficked
with journeys no longer credible
to lost destinations.

The careful words of my injunction
are unrhetorical, as neutral
and unaligned as any I know:
they propose no more than thoughtful response;
they do not pound with drum-beats
of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

So I say only: bear in mind
those men and lads killed in the streets;
but do not differentiate between
those deliberately gunned down
and those caught by unaddressed bullets:
such distinctions are not relevant.

Bear in mind the skipping child hit
by the anonymous ricochet;
the man shot at his own fireside
with his staring family round him;
the elderly woman
making tea for the firemen
when the wall collapsed;
and the garrulous neighbours at the bar
when the bomb exploded near them;
the gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square;
and the policeman dismembered
by the booby-trap in the car.
I might have recited a pitiful litany
of the names of all the dead:
but these could effectively be presented
only in small batches,
like a lettered tablet in a village church,
valid while everyone knew everyone,
or longer, where a family name persists.

Accident, misfortune, disease, coincidence
of genetic factors or social circumstance,
may summon courage, resolution, sympathy,
to whatever level one is engaged.
Natural disasters of lava and hurricane,
famine or flood in far countries, will evoke
compassion for the thin-shanked 
survivors.

Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.

 

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of The Month – Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

This month’s poem of the month came to me during a work meeting recently; it was a somewhat attenuated review of some annual targets, and the use of jargon and corporate buzz words led my gaze to fall from the screen and out of the window to the street below. Students from the nearby university were strolling along the road; it was a bright but cold day, and the trees had just the merest suggestion of buds, but still, I could feel Spring; if not in the air, at least on the way.

The corporate terminology continued; lots of standardized acronyms and phrases you would hear in similar-sized organizations.  The students laughed, and moped, and headed for the pub and the express supermarket. The sun shone and the wind whipped the tree branches. My memory presented a poem I had studied for my “O” level English exam; Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”, an ode to the mechanical and regimented horrors of wars endured by the flower of often-conscripted young men.

I was fifteen and attending a Catholic secondary school when I first read the poem. I surreptitiously googled it and had a re-read, while the presenter of the financial performance presentation flipped onto slide seventeen.

And it was a revelation! I remembered being taught that Reed’s poem contrasted the regimented, dead language and efficiency of the military with the living, reaching beauty of nature in Springtime, but I hadn’t realised how sex-filled the poem was! But that makes sense – Henry Reed was conscripted when he was 27, and wrote the poem the next year; he was still a young man, and many of his peers would be in their teens, or barely out of them;  young men becoming proficient killing and destruction machines, when they should, like the birds, bees and flowers, be busy fulfilling their natural destiny; making love in fact, not war! This was a side of the poem not taught to me by my Catholic teachers, and it was a beautiful surprise, like a bonus poem hidden behind the one I already knew.

Reading the words that narrator used  – the swiveling, easing, glistening, using the finger and strong thumbing, and rapid backwards and forwards – it was clear that this particular soldier, like many of his peers, rejected the philosophy of dealing death on the orders of old men, and chose life and its beautiful, natural and erotic perpetuation.

NAMING OF PARTS

BY HENRY REED (1942)

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month – The Journey, by Mary Oliver

I’ve just created this new regular feature for 2019, after re-reading some of my favourite poems; it occurred to me that I’d discovered many of them by browsing around online on all sorts of sites, literary and otherwise. Some of these poems have become touchstones in my life,  and I revisit them regularly to refresh my dry and jaded sensibilities, or maybe my thirsting goals.

So I want to pass on some of these favourites, in the hopes that you, constant reader, will discover a new gem of your own.

So to kick us off, I’ve chosen a poem by Mary Oliver, who isn’t exactly an obscure name; she’s one of America’s best-selling poets, and you can find many a quote from her works on Pinterest and Instagram, but I discovered her only a few years ago.

Her style is accessible; it’s not “clever”, full of obtuse words and hard-to-follow metre, but for all its simplicity, her poems, through their worship of nature, give us access to what is fundamental, divine and even sacred in our lives, or perhaps, what should be if it isn’t already.

Having said all of the above, the poem I’ve chosen to start this new series isn’t really an essay on the essence of nature, or at least, not on the surface level. The journey that Mary Oliver speaks of isn’t one perhaps that we all need to undertake; for those who do, however, it is fraught, perilous and painful.

The seeds of my own journey can be found strewn throughout the budding family dynamics described in And The Buntings Flew, but as this is still a work in progress, perhaps I should just state here that I have had to undertake a journey of my own, perhaps several, although it took me many years in some instances to step out the door and start my journey of a thousand miles.


THE JOURNEY

BY MARY OLIVER

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.