Now we are they who weep

Our Master lies asleep and is at rest:
     His Heart has ceased to bleed, His Eye to weep:
The sun ashamed has dropt down in the west:
     Our Master lies asleep.


     Now we are they who weep, and trembling keep
Vigil, with wrung heart in a sighing breast,
     While slow time creeps, and slow the shadows creep.

Renew Thy youth, as eagle from the nest;
     O Master, who hast sown, arise to reap: – 
No cock-crow yet, no flush on eastern crest: 
     Our Master lies asleep.

(Christina Rossetti)

This bread I break

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wind at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.

Once in this wine the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

(Dylan Thomas)

Past pronouns

Another trip to the library and I find myself asking again why so many children's books, especially animal books, have male protagonists and even all-male casts. Not just older books, which might claim some cultural immunity from equality, but new books too. Books that should know better. Why? Why, when the bear or the duck (or at least his friends and offsiders) might so easily be female - when changing the gender wouldn't change the plot one bit - are they so often male? Sometimes I change the pronouns as I'm reading, just to mix it up, but soon Olivia will be alive to this editing - she already pulls me up if I vary even one word ("Not 'the' parrot, 'that' parrot!"). And I think, why didn't the author make these edits? Why wasn't it obvious in the writing that someone - in fact an entire gender - was missing? My best guess is that it's unthinking: an unreflective default to an unaccountable bias towards the male as universal. But that doesn't explain its persistence in our time, some fifty years after the male default was found (at long last) to be deficient. Especially now, but even then, why didn't it occur to anyone that books without girls were an imperfect reflection of the world; a world of eerie erasure and ghostly absence, in which boys roam free and alone inherit the earth?

That women are people, and that roughly half the time people are women, seems the most stubborn and yet the most stubbornly controverted fact in human history. That my two-year-old daughter encounters this controversy in books that contain barely thirty words fills me with despair. I should add that as far as I can tell she doesn't notice or care. Her enjoyment is not dimmed by the fact that the poky little puppy, the saggy baggy elephant, and the tawny scrawny lion are all males. But that's what troubles me: she's imbibing this imbalance unconsciously, learning with every story and each hero that it's boys who take up the world's subjective space. I don't want her to grow up taking in a view that leaves her out. So that's why, where I can, I make the little panda she not he, and make Mr Kangaroo a Ms. 

I have picked wild flowers for you

If Saint Patrick’s Day means celebrating Irish loves and lore, the thing that comes to my mind above all is beauty. The surpassing beauty of the place lives in all its songs and speech, in its rumours of heaven, and in its rich reserves of poetry. There's something miraculous about a country where trouble and tragedy, though long-lived, have never managed to banish beauty or silence the poets, who, in every sense, know their place.

One poet I have learned to love lately is Michael Longley. He's called, like his friend Seamus Heaney, 'a poet of the troubles' - his elegies for the fallen are quietly heart-stopping - but nothing in his work suggests that trouble is the true or abiding state of human life. Rather it's an affront, an uncivilised interruption, to the loveliness of ordinary life and the beauty that is everywhere if we only look. 

The place he knows best he's been visiting for nearly half a century, and it has never yet ceased to inspire poetry. This poem, 'The Leveret,' is about his grandson Benjamin visiting for the first time. It delights me not only because it is filled with beauty, and with the miraculous inexhaustibility of a beautiful place, but because I love the idea of the kind of grandfather who would mark the visit of his grandchild by picking wild flowers and writing a poem. Here's a man who knows what life is for, and how to praise the earth's unearthly beauty. 

This is your first night in Carrigskeewaun
The Owennadornaun is so full of rain
You arrived in Paddy Morrison's tractor,
A bumpy approach in your father's arms
To the cottage where, all of one year ago,
You were conceived, a fire-seed in the hearth.
Did you hear the wind in the fluffy chimney?
Do you hear the wind tonight, and the rain
And a shore bird calling from the mussel reefs?
Tomorrow I'll introduce you to the sea,
Little hoplite. Have you been missing it?
I'll park your chariot by the otter's rock
And carry you over seaweed to the sea.
There's a tufted duck on David's lake
With her sootfall of hatchlings, pompoms
A day old and already learning to dive.
We may meet the stoat near the erratic
Boulder, a shrew in his mouth, or the merlin
Meadow-pipit-hunting. But don't be afraid.
The leveret breakfasts under the fuschia
Every morning, and we shall be watching.
I have picked wild flowers for you, scabious
And centaury in a jam-jar of water
That will bend and magnify the daylight.
This is your first night in Carrigskeewaun.

 

 

Newmown hay and ancient woods

Here's some more Robert Francis, whom I like a lot. He's like Frost, who liked him too; and, like Emily Dickinson, he lived a long, lonely time in Amherst, Massachusetts. He died in 1987, at 85, having published a dozen books (mostly poetry, some travel writing) and collected a handful of prizes. Apart from the poems, there's little else to say about him, he lived so simply and, it appears, deliberately. Poetry was about all he wanted to ever do or leave. The poems are simple, but not easy to classify. They're Frost-like, of course, but Frost's wryness here rises to something more playful, more like Hopkins in its capering pursuit of sound. He's grounded, surrounded by grass and woods and farm animals. He was a nature poet of New England, after that was already a thing, so he's self-conscious: he writes as much about nature as about poetry itself. Yet there's a transcendent element, too. The landscape is enchanted. He works in it and on it not only with wry affection, but with reverence and a knack for the uncanny. This is “Evening Ride,” which makes an ordinary ride in familiar countryside radiant with mystery.

The world lay still and clear like a long mural
And we who watched were all that moved and we
Could overlook that we ourselves were moving.

There was no wind to flaw the level sunlight
And the long shadows lying on the hills
And chimney smoke pale blue on deep blue air.

Three children by the roadside stopped their play
To gaze. A woman sewing on her porch
Paused with the lifted needle in her hand.

Two farmers with a load of hay half loaded
Stood with their pitchforks idle as we passed.
Even a dog looked and forgot to bark.

The road was always upward. Now it was day,
Now twilight, and now day again. Now warm,
Now cool. We felt the cool grow ever cooler.

Woodsmoke was in the air, late supper cooking,
Fragrance of newmown hay and ancient woods
And evening vines in sudden deep ravines.

We reached the summit but only after the sun
Had gone. The road beyond dipped down to darkness
While all the higher hills round us were bright.