Week 348: Dirge for St Patrick’s Night, by Elsa Corbluth

On 17 March 1980 (St Patrick’s Night) Eilidh Corbluth started work as a volunteer at the Mother Teresa hostel for women in Kilburn, London. That first night she was helping to organise a party for the residents when a fire was started in the hostel by an alcoholic, in which Eilidh and nine homeless women all died. This raw, powerful lament is the title poem in a sequence that Elsa Corbluth (born 1929) wrote in memory of her only daughter.

Dirge for St. Patrick’s Night

Rain on the red roses:
I had a daughter. I have none.
Grey fog on green hills rises:
I had two children. I have one.

Mist on the scented blossom:
she left, one afternoon,
face a flower, body lissom:
The same night burned to bone.

Needing to tend the needy,
so to find, and touch, Christ,
she reached his house unready
for this mocking of her trust.

Flowers of flame flourished redly
in her window while she slept:
love of dead Christ proved deadly,
her youth and my joy trapped.

Jesus said, suffer children,
not black-stick skeletons.
God’s Joan or devil’s cauldron?
Ash, all the holy ones.

At her grave’s head, pale roses
picked with their claws of blood:
eighteen summers’ slain praises:
under wet grass lies her God.

I use words: no-one listens.
I use tears with no ending.
My one girl the rain christens,
gutted house beyond mending.

Elsa Corbluth

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Week 347: Donal Og, by Anon, translated by Lady Gregory

This is part translation, part adaptation by Lady Augusta Gregory of an anonymous Irish ballad. You will find the date of the original quoted in various places online as 8th century, but I am sceptical: that’s very early, earlier even than poems like ‘Pangur Ban’ and ‘Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’, and it just doesn’t have the feel of Old Irish to me, so I suspect that a typo somewhere, possibly for 18th century, has become perpetuated. Any Celtic scholars among us who can cast light on the matter? But whatever the date of the original, I think it’s a remarkable piece of translation/recreation. 

Donal Og

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

Anon, translated by Lady Gregory

Week 346: A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

I must confess that until I came to investigate it for this posting, I had always misread this poem, assuming it to be Hardy in age recalling some encounter from his youth, before he met his first wife Emma Gifford. I saw him as reflecting on an opportunity lost, a road not taken, and wondering how differently his life and marriage might have turned out had the rain not stopped, or had he been more forward. But actually it seems that it is about a shared cab-ride in later life with his second wife-to-be Florence Dugdale, while he was still married to Emma, so my assumption of a gauche youthful innocence and a never-to-be-fulfilled desire is way off the mark. It’s still a poignant, bittersweet little poem in its way, but I rather wish I’d stayed ignorant…

A Thunderstorm in Town
(A Reminiscence)

She wore a new ‘terra-cotta’ dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom’s dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.

Thomas Hardy

Week 345: ‘More Light! More Light!’ by Anthony Hecht

Nothing for your cheer today, in fact this is just about the bleakest poem I know, but in a week that has seen the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings it may be appropriate to be reminded of what we should never forget, of the issues lying at the heart of that conflict that made the sacrifice of so many so necessary.

‘More Light! More Light!’

For Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
‘I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.’

Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.

And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity.

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

No light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

Anthony Hecht