I choose this poem by Paula Meehan because last week was St Patrick’s Day (17th March) and we discussed Irish related poetry at a U3A session. It was also a week in which many marched in different Australian cities to protest on violence against women. In part motivated by reports of rape and sexual misconduct within the Australian Parliament.
The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks
It can be bitter here at times like this, November wind sweeping across the border. Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick. The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming, even wild things gone to earth, and I stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as star or planet to ease my vigil
This sets the dark cold night scene for the personification of a Statue of the Virgin. There is a statue and grotto in the main street of Granard in Ireland. And what a bitter night to be out. I always wondered what quick was in the context of cut to the quick and found out as a child that it referred to the sensitive skin below the fingernail so to be very hurt became synonymous with the cutting of fingernails.
The howling won’t let up. Trees
cavort in agony as if they would be free
and take off — ghost voyagers
on the wind that carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
Closer to home the wind sails over
dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
I taste the stagnant water mingled
with turf smoke from outlying farms.
Granard is close to the border with Northern Ireland. The terrible howling wind coming from that direction with intimations of garrison. The mind goes to all the bloodshed and horrors of the religious conflict of the North and the appropriation of God in support of committing their death tactics.
They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.
The mated to no mortal man is the incarnate virgin birth to the blessed holy Mary who also being mother to the grief associated with the death of Jesus on the cross. And the towns people who knee before the statue say ineffective prayers. The statue being cold stone and unresponsive. This hints at the ineffective use of prayer to get things done.
It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
from every rushy acre that’s left for hay
when the light swings longer with the sun’s push north.
Well, the statue reflects on the springtime season giving contrast to the bitterness of a squally November night. And in the context of this poem it is critical to mention school girls with a religious connection.
Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself calls out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child’s sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnates
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.
And then to midsummer and the wedding association of Mary where the earth calls out for coupling. The incarnate birth being the central religious construct. I do like the words – as if they had robbed a child’s sky for their colour – the robbing of the Jesus childhood perhaps. And the statue would like to be incarnate just as those who don’t believe would like to believe (maculate = spotted).
Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east
pear scented, windfalls secret in long.
orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
to his kin. Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season’s play.
Autumn and death being part of the natural cycle. The mention of death is relevant in ensuing stanzas.
But on this All-Souls’ Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.
The repetition of the horrible conditions of the night. And the portrayal of the dead coming out in judgement of the town because of what is about to happen.
On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
I didn’t intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.
The tragic birth from a fifteen-year-old girl in which baby and mother die. The statue or is it religion, and the town that swell the mind as guilty.
On a night like this I number the days to the solstice
and the turn back to the light.
centre of our foolish dance,
burning heart of stone,
molten mother of us all,
hear me and have pity.
A prayer for change by the statue. A prayer for light or is it enlightenment within the community culture responsible for this injustice.
Paula Meehan (1955 –
Context – This poem relates to the real-life death of Ann Lovett (6 April 1968 – 31 January shortly after giving birth beside a grotto on 31 January 1984. Her baby son died at the same time and the story of her death fuelled debate on abortion and women giving birth outside marriage. It is also worth noting that Ann Lovett suffered abuse within her family.
All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died, which is observed by Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2. So it was highly appropriate that Paula Meehan used this day and November in her poem.
The 2015 Poetry Competition ‘A Poem for Ireland’ shortlisted this poem written in 1991by Paula Meehan.
Some background on Paula Meehan (courtesy of the Internet) …
Paula Meehan, one of five children, was born in Dublin’s north inner-city to a working-class family who lived in one of the Corporation tenements flats, the Gloucester Diamond on Mountjoy Square. Meehan’s parents went back and forth to London in search of work, and she was brought up, for periods of time, by grandparents in Dublin.
Her grandfather taught her to read before she went to school, turning her, in her own phrase, into a ‘print junkie’ and she still remembers her love of nursery rhymes, streets rhymes, Mass, prayer, patterns of sound. Phrases such as ‘on the warpath’, ‘I’ll have your guts for garters’ or ‘swing for you’ intrigued her for their images and implications. Her grandfather brought her to the races and the sounds and cadences of the racetrack captured her young imagination. She included them in a poem she wrote in his memory: ‘Evens Swannee River, 7/4 Navarone, 4/1 Rocky’s Doll’.
She grew up in Seán MacDermott St, attended the Central Model Girls’ School but the family moved to Finglas where she attended the local convent – she was later thrown out of the school. ‘I was expelled by the nuns, which in retrospect was the best thing that ever happened to me: I learned the habit of self-direction and independent study.’
After the nuns, she went to the Tech and from there to Trinity College where she was one of what was then the .04% of the student population from working-class backgrounds. ‘Always on the brink of homelessness or living in some terrible kips’, she studied English, History and Classical Civilisation. After college, she set off on her travels: she lived in Crete, the Shetland Islands, and studied at Eastern Washington University.
Back in Ireland, she taught on literacy programmes and in prisons, and organised writers’ workshops. She lived in Fatima Mansions and, fuelled by anger at the oppression and the ghettoised lives of the underprivileged, became involved in workers’ co-ops. She then lived in Leitrim for three years: ‘I wanted to build a garden, watch something grow and harvest it.’
In her teens Meehan wrote song lyrics and began to make poems that would ‘honour the lives I saw, lives of deprivation but also of great courage and of course great humour, which is the signature mode of the city’. She published her first collection Return and No Blame in 1984, Meehan has also written plays, and her most recent collection, Painting Rain, her sixth, was published in 2009. She was appointed to the Ireland Chair of Poetry in 2013 and, in late 2014, was invited to read her poetry in Beijing, on the occasion of President Michael D. Higgins’s State Visit to China.
A Wikipedia Link – Paula Meehan – Wikipedia