This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

February 28, 2006

Happy Birthday Perry!
A little warmer this morning (18) than yesterday (6) and less wind-- a veritable heat wave. I teach Irish Language and Culture at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and last night we did An Gortha Mor (The Great Famine). Ordinarily we end this lesson with a trek to the (virtually unknown) Irish Famine Memorial on Cambridge Common, but two folks were missing last night (one at a dress rehersal for an upcoming concert) so we will make our pilgrimage next week. We read from Black Lightning, a deeply moving 'novel' in the form of dozens of poems by my friend Jean Flanagan, which chronicles the Famine through the eyes of Kathleen and Timothy, two lovers who live through the catastrophe and flee to Boston. 1.1 million died and another 2 million fled. It is said that if one were to plant a cross for every person who died on the way over to America on the 'Coffin Ships', one could walk from Castle Island to Mayo and never get one's feet wet.

Kathleen Calnan: My Sister's Burial at Sea

I made sure her dress
was sewn. Tied ribbons
in her blonde hair
and rubbed her face clean.

I wrapped her in the blanket
Mother made
for the journey.
The sailors lined her up
with the rest of the dead.
While we sang hymns for
their souls to the Blessed Mother,
the sailors opened the gate
and in a moment
my sister was gone.

From Black Lightning, Jean Flanagan

We ran out of time (again!) and hence didn't get to look at the work of West Corkian Sean O Riordain (1916-77), arguably the best poet writing in the Irish lanuguage in the Twentieth Century. His first published poem appeared in the March 1944 issue of Comhar. His first collection of poetry, Eireaball Spideoige (A Robin's Tail), appeared in 1952, followed by Brosna (Kindling, but also a place name) in 1964, and Linte Liombo (Limbo Lines) in 1971. Tar Eis mo Bhais (After my Death), which contains work never before published as well as poems previously published in periodicals, appeared posthumously in 1978. O Riordain's work is noted for its philosophical introspection and the keenness of its psychological observation. It is distinguished by a love of paradox and the "word," and by a preoccupation, especially in the later work, with questions of the integrity of the self and of form. He had a vast cosmological awareness, urging compassion for all that is, especially the marginalized:

Ni Ceadmhach Neamhshuim
(Translation by Iarla O Lionaird)

There is no winged creature
Moth, fly, or bee,
Nor even the insane man
in the valley of sadness;
That we should not sit with
And by sitting, understand.

There is no place
Stream or thorn,
No matter how remote
No fold or rock,
Whether north south east or west
That from us is not born.

Though Africa's heart may seem afar
And the moon's reach distant to our touch,
Yet we are of them and they,
They are of us.

I went to bed last night thinking of what our country and hence our world might be like if we had a poet, a quiet man or woman of the glens and hills, as president. I pictured proclamations in iambic pentameter, or free verse, and scholars pondering their meaning. I woke up this morning and read that Bush's approval rating is now at an all-time low of 34%, and Cheney's at 18%, and that 100 more had died in Iraq.

Usually I bring Fionn to Harvard Square with me on Monday nights. We walk around Brattle Street and Longfellow Park (by the Friends' Meeting House) and then he awaits me in the car nestled in his blankie while I teach. But last night was too cold. Ergo when I got home, he was of course bouncing off the walls and raring to go! He uses the long hall from the kitchen to my bedroom as a kind of runway, and becomes airborne in his flight to my bed halfway before he gets there. Like shampoo instructions, it's a case of Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A frosty walk, a game of keep-away in the moon-lit snow, and a good feed settled him down, and now he is waking up, eyeing me, awaiting new adventures.
Everything he does is for the first time.


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