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

Week 344: From far, from eve and morning, by A.E.Housman

Another of my favourite A.E.Housman poems, from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. When I first read it I thought the ‘twelve-winded sky’ sounded mysteriously poetic but also a little puzzling: I supposed that one could divide the compass up how one wanted, but convention seemed to require four or eight winds. But that’s just the modern convention: the Greeks and Romans did indeed see the compass in terms of twelve points, each wind being given its own name: Boreas, Zephyrus etc.. It seems very appropriate for Housman the classical scholar to hark back to that, but he also manages in this poem to neatly prefigure a modern scientific idea about the stuff of life: that the atoms that make up our bodies were forged in the heart of stars and then borne hither on some cosmic wind to be assembled before dispersing again. 

From far, from eve and morning

From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart–
Take my hand quick and tell me,
    What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

A.E.Housman

Week 343: Gold Leaves, by G.K.Chesterton

I turned 75 last Sunday, and have been casting around for something to put a positive spin on this – OK, I now get a free TV licence but otherwise compensations seem thin on the ground. But I do take some heart from this poem of old age by G.K.Chesterton, that combines serenity with a typically Chestertonian sense of how extraordinary and precious the ordinary is.

Gold Leaves

Lo! I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I am old.

In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,
Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold.

G.K.Chesterton

Dream Song 324 An Elegy for W. C. W., the lovely man

Another of John Berryman’s quirkily affectionate elegies for fellow American poets (see also week 120), who did seem to predecease him in depressingly large numbers, causing him to wonder in another poem, this time about Sylvia Plath, why he ‘alone breasts the wronging tide’. This one is for William Carlos Williams.

Note: Berryman in these poems used an alter ego Henry.

Dream Song 324 An Elegy for W. C. W., the lovely man

Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.

At dawn you rose & wrote–the books poured forth–
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth–
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.

Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

John Berryman