Week 526: Sandra Lee Scheuer, by Gary Geddes

Sandra Lee Scheuer was a student at Kent State University. Her subject was speech therapy. She died in 1970, aged twenty, when she was shot in the neck with a bullet from the M-1 rifle of an Ohio National Guardsman. Three other unarmed students were also killed in the shootings. At the time a student demonstration against the escalation of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was taking place on the campus. There are differing views regarding the magnitude of the threat posed by rock-throwing students to National Guardsmen armed only with rifles and grenade launchers, but all seem to agree on one thing: that Sandra had nothing to do with the demonstration and was merely walking between classes.

The poem appears in a 1980 collection by the Canadian poet Gary Geddes (b. 1940). It must have been hard to write it without overt anger, yet what dominates is pity, and maybe the poem is all the more effective for it. Note how the poet weaves into the narrative Sandra’s subject, speech therapy, such that the silencing of her voice and consequent loss of her healing gift becomes emblematic of the whole violent suppression of the freedom to speak out.

‘or put a flower in his rifle barrel’ – this refers to an incident the day before when another student, Allison Beth Krause, had put a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman’s rifle, saying ‘Flowers are better than bullets’. Allison too was killed in the shootings the next day.

Sandra Lee Scheuer

(Killed at Kent State University, May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard)

‘You might have met her on a Saturday night,
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step

between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.

She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.

In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could no doubt more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.

While the armouries burned, she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.

And while they milled and shouted on the commons,
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That’s it, SSSSSSSS,

tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?

As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,

was going down on one knee, as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,

severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech;

and who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?

Gary Geddes

Week 525: The Remembrance, by David Sutton

Remembrance Sunday last weekend, and again a surprisingly large crowd from our village gathered round the memorial cross at the corner of the green. I remember when we moved here in the early seventies there would be no more than a rather pathetic handful of attendees, but since then we have had the Falklands, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the hope that war between civilised societies might be becoming a thing of the past has had to be put aside, with a resultant renewed awareness of freedom’s price, and a desire to remember those who have paid it on our behalf. So this week I offer on this theme one of my own poems, that I wrote after a somewhat larger gathering on Shirburn Hill to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995.

The Remembrance (May 8, 1995)

We crowd the hilltop, standing in loose ranks,
A thousand, maybe, come from all around.

Scents of hawthorn, woodsmoke, trampled grass.
A chilling wind; grey battlements of cloud
Rimmed with gold, pale shafts of hidden fire
Fanwise to the west.
                           Eight thirty-three.

A queue for hot dogs; skittish children; prams;   
A roped-off bonfire darting orange flames
This way and that, on cold upswirling air.
The minutes tick away. We wait, unsure.

For we were young: what grief was this of ours?
A rumour from beyond the sky, a shadow
That fled before our childhood. Fifty years
Is long for men, in life and memory.
Yet we knew names; we saw the sad closed faces.
Their grief has been our freedom.                                                                                                                           A maroon
Cracks like a whip. A deep obedient hush
Falls on the hill; coats rustle; one small child
Cries and is rocked. We stand. Two minutes pass.
Mist on the plain beneath, a white half-moon
Strengthening above.
                           Then bugle notes,
A roll of drums. The solemn statues move,
Speak and are ordinary. We go back,
Torches aloft; cars nose the narrow lane.
Something is served: at least, our silence said
All that the living can say to the dead.

David Sutton

Week 524: From ‘Lament For The Misty Corrie’, by Duncan Ban MacIntyre

This week an extract from a long poem by the Highland poet and forester Duncan Ban MacIntyre, or to give him his Gaelic name Donnchadh bàn Mac an t-Saoir. Duncan (1724-1812) is generally accounted one of the greatest of Gaelic language poets, and in this piece he laments the changes wrought by careless stewardship on a landscape that he has long loved. In many ways it seems ahead of its time, and bears comparison with John Clare’s poignant lament for a countryside changed by the Enclosure Act (see week 52). Of course, there had from early times been a strong tradition of nature verse in Celtic literature that is largely missing from English, at least up until the time of the Romantic revival: we have, for example, lyrics in early Irish celebrating the natural world purely for its own sake, and the poetry of the mediaeval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is full of cuckoos, spring in the greenwood and the like. Yet perhaps it is only about this time, in the eighteenth century, that we see a nascent spirit of conservation emerging. This may seem odd given that man had been changing and despoiling the natural world from time immemorial, with, for example, huge clearances of woodland, but maybe up till that point it had just never dawned on people that the earth’s resources might not be infinite, or that its beauty could be irreparably defaced.

Speaking of conservation, may I make a plea for my readers to support the Scots Gaelic language, now down to its last hundred thousand or so native speakers, in any way they can. This is not my fight, of course – as far as I can determine my ancestry is irredeemably Saxon with no trace of the Celt – but anyone who loves language and literature must grieve at the idea that the great blaze of Gaelic poetry and song should be allowed to survive only as few stray sparks, or even go out completely. It can’t be denied that Scots Gaelic is a fairly difficult language for an English speaker, largely because of the pronunciation – you have to remember that half the letters are silent and half the ones that aren’t sound nothing like their English counterparts – but there are some great online resources (try the learngaelic.scot site) – and also a wealth of song on YouTube, much of which I find achingly beautiful.

The translation that follows is my own. It’s a bit free in places – close translations from Scots Gaelic don’t work too well – but I hope it captures a little of the spirit of the piece.

corrie: a kind of basin with steep sides and a gently sloping floor formed in mountainous regions by the erosive action of a glacier, also known as a cirque or cwm.

From ‘Cumha Choire a’ Cheathaich’

Tha choille bh’ anns an fhrith ud,
Na cuislean fada, direach,
Air tuiteam is air crionadh
Sios as an rusg;
Na prisein a bha brioghor
‘Nan dosaibh tiugha, lionmhor,
Air seacadh mar gu’n spiont’ iad
A nios as an uir;

Na failleanan bu bhoidhche,
Na slatan is na h-ògain,
‘S an t-ait am biodh an smeorach
Gu mothar a’ seinn ciuil,
Tha iad uil’ air caochladh,
Cha d’ fhuirich fiodh na fraoch ann ;
Tha ‘m mullach bharr gach craoibhe,
‘S am maor ‘ga thoirt diubh.

Tha Uisge Srath na Dìge
Na shruthladh dubh gun sìoladh,
Le barraig uaine lìth-ghlais,
Gu mì-bhlasta grànd’;
Feur-lochain is tàchair
An cinn an duilleag-bhàthte –
Chan eil gnè tuilleadh fàs
Anns an àit’ ud san àm;

Glumagan a’ chàthair
Na ghlugaibh domhainn sàmhach,
Cho tiugh ri sùghan càtha,
Na làthaich ‘s na phlam;
Seann bhùrn salach ruadhain,
Cha ghlaine ‘ghrunnd na uachdar –
Gur coslach ri muir ruaidh e,
Na ruaimle feadh stang.

Duncan Ban MacIntyre

From ‘Lament for the Misty Corrie’

The woods where once the deer roamed,
The long trunks straight and slender,
Are withered even to the bark
And fallen now forever.
The bushes rich in berries,
So plentiful and thick,
Lie rootless on the soil now,
They plucked up every stick.

The shoots that were the fairest,
The thickets of young trees,
The places where the thrush would sing
Its gentle melodies,
Are changed beyond all knowing,
No wood nor heather there,
And since the bailiff took them
No tree but lopped and bare.

The waters of the burn run black
Like rinsings from a drain
And covered with a foul green scum
Will not run clear again.
The tarns are choked with grass now,
Where water-lilies show
Only the stagnance of a place
Where nothing else will grow.

Like bogland pits its potholes
So limpid in their time
Are filled with a thick porridge
Of sediment and slime.
A scurf of dirty water,
Unclean above, below –
So through the muddied river
The rust-red waters flow.

Week 523: Desert Places, by Robert Frost

This week another of my favourite Frost poems, a masterclass in profound simplicity. This is the darker, less folksy Frost that many prefer, lonely, self-doubting, alienated, the poet of ‘Acquainted With The Night’, ‘Design’, ‘To Earthward’ and ‘The Most Of It’. It is worth dwelling on that ‘absent-spirited’. Does that simply mean that his mind is elsewhere, perhaps in happier times and climes, or that the fight has all but gone out of him, that he is on the verge of surrendering to the desolation, almost relishing the fact that it asks of him nothing, offers him nothing and is not even aware of him? But then the last stanza is paradoxically defiant, a wryly stoical acceptance of his own condition: when he speaks of ‘my own desert places’ he is referring, of course, not only to the winter fields near his home but to the cold blank places in his own mind for which those fields serve as what the critics call an ‘objective correlative’. In the end it is a painfully honest poem that manages to conjure an affirmation, even a kind of austere beauty, out of desolation.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost