Sep. 9th, 2012

underthewillows: (Default)

Here, have a pome.* Here, have a link to the poet reading her pome and talking about her pome-writin'.

Quarantine by Eavan Boland
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking - they were both walking - north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

*The misspelling is deliberate. What use is poetry, after all? Can you eat it, wear it, make money out of it? It's still taught in English classes in our schools, but I can see the day when the useless stuff is stripped out and only Business English (or Computer English with American spellings - I am already hearing native Irish people thirty years old and over saying the American "zee" instead of the British "zed" for the letter Z) is hammered into the heads of the students (they'll probably be called 'customers' or 'service recipients' instead of "students", the same way nowadays that when you're signing on for the dole you're called a "customer" - as though you have an actual choice and input into the rules and regulations about accessing the services).

I remember back in the 80s the demand for "practical" subjects. The kids are not learning enough foreign languages, was the cry. Teach them German (because they'll need it when they go abroad for work). Then it turned to teach them Japanese (for the multinationals coming in to the West of Ireland) and latterly Chinese (the new giant economic power), instead of useless things like the Irish language (which, after fourteen years in school, no-one can speak) or art or music or any of that extra-curricular nonsense. The recent cry going up is that we're not good enough in maths and science, and we need more (for the technology multinationals).  More maths skills!  More girls doing higher maths!  All good aims, but rather in the sense of "churn out more worker bees!" than "expose our children to all the arts and sciences!"

Somewhere online I saw a comment about how it's no longer "education" but "training", and I'm starting to agree: fill the empty vessels with what will supply the needs of business because they need to be trained for whatever jobs our governments manage to scavage. Teach from the textbook, teach to the test, to get the best grades to get the most points to get the in-demand university courses to get the degree to get you the good job. I felt the need to put up a poem, and I wanted a modern Irish poem, and I didn't want to quote Heaney, so random Googling gave me this. I don't know - or rather, I didn't know - why I decided on this one.

Except the subject matter of the poem resonated with the post on here about memory and the past and the thread that gets cut by the running out of life. There's a small coastal village about fifteen miles to the east of where I live, and when my father used to drive through it, he would always tell me the anecdote about the time of the Famine. There were copper mines here, and during the 19th century (from about 1827-1877) the mines here were the major employers. During the Famine, you took what work you could get, and people from all over the south of Ireland came here looking for work.

A woman and her children, at the height of the Famine, walked all the way from Kerry (let's call it about eighty miles) to Bunmahon, to meet up again with her husband who had gone there for work. They would have been starving and desperate. The man wasn't there - whether he had died, moved on, who knows? They had no choice but to go back home, walk all that way again with nothing.

They probably didn't make it. They were probably amongst those who died by the side of the road. It's one of those stories all too familiar from the time, that was handed down as folk memory and (for a while, at least) part of our official history officially taught in our official schools (though not all of them; there's another local anecdote which I never learned in school but again from my father, about the parish priest of a mountain parish in this county allowing the people - evicted for non-payment of rent and having no choice but the workhouse - if they could get in, which wasn't guaranteed or the roadside - to squat in the graveyard attached to the church, so that when (not if, please note, but when and this is not an error) they died, at least they wouldn't have far to go to be buried.

Except those kinds of anecdotes are not being taught anymore, either as official textbook or by the teachers in class. It's a combination of forgetting the past, teaching the lists of dates and approved regurgitation of the text for the exam and 'let's stop blaming the English for everything' and 'forget our peasant background of misfortune and misery, we're shiny modern New Europeans now' (though the gloss has rather come off that last with the demise of the Celtic Tiger).  When those who remember these stories are gone, what becomes of the stories themselves?

Our history is being reduced to (a) the thing you learn in school to pass the exam and forget as soon as the exam is finished because it has no relevance to what we do nowadays (never mind examining critically what has formed us, and the reaction - the opposite swing of the pendulum, as extreme in its own way as the swing to the earlier side - from 'blame the Brits' to 'revisionist historians rule') and (b) fodder for the tourism industry.  The small coastal village and its mining history I mentioned above?  Has been re-purposed as "The Copper Coast**" and is a European Geopark.  No anecdotes about starving women and children during the Famine, as far as I can make out from their website.

I realised, after a bit of thinking about it, why this poem recommended itself to me (and the whole ensuing rant you've just waded through, if you've made it this far): there's a hotel in town, which has always catered to the tourist trade (in the summertime, insomuch as we get a summer, the tour coaches are lined up outside it on the street) and which is neither as fancy or as modern as other hotels in the town and surrounds, but has done a bit of re-decorating and up-market(ish) styling.

Now there are advertising signs on the walls facing the main road in and out; advertising a "Real Irish carvery".  Well, so what? says you, sure the Sunday lunch trade and pub carvery is keeping many's the business afloat and didn't you have a dacent dinner yourself in such a hotel carvery one time when you were out with your mother shopping? 

Indeed I did, and that's not the point.  The point is the image used on the sign - the stereotypical cartoon leprechaun.   You can do an online image search and find the kind of thing yourself, so I'll spare us both the embarrassment and misery of describing the wretched thing.  The point is, that's what is considered attractive to the tourist trade (so much for the more sophisticated campaigns latterly!  Though the thickness of our national veneer of modern sophistication has always been measurable in ångströms).

That's what they're boiling our history down to; leprechauns and geoparks.  Convenient historical amnesia and Paddywhackery resurgent.  This poem is an antidote to that.

**Feel free to Google, I won't mind.  Oh noes, you may get an idea where in the world I come from?  I'll just have to borrow a shotgun and load it so I can keep you kids off my lawn  :-)
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