Hello all, hope you are all having a reflective, safe and healthy holiday break.
In the 12th century tale of Buile Suibhne or Mad Sweeney, a brutal pagan king is cursed by St. Ronan after he kills one of his priests with a spear-toss. The precipitating event is the historic Battle of Moira in which he is driven mad:
His brain convulsed,
his mind split open.
Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings
and launching came over him,
he staggered and flapped desperately,
he was revolted by the thought of known places
and dreamed strange migration.
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.
(Sweeney Astray, A Version from the Irish, Seamus Heaney)
Mad Sweeney flits about all of Ireland, leaping like a bird from tree to tree. Refusing the company and comforts of human society, he sleeps in treetops, eating watercress and drinking from springs and wells. Sweeney sings a nature poetry rich in both suffering at the cruelties of outdoor life as well its glories:
A starry frost will come
dropping on pools
and I’ll be astray here
on unsheltered heights:
in cold Glenelly
flocks of birds quickLy
coming and going.
I prefer the elusive
rhapsody of blackbirds
to the garrulous blather
of men and women.
Sweeny comes at last to a glade named Ben Bolcain, a glen where all the madmen and women repair “once their year in madness was complete.” It is an embracing place:
Glen Bolcain is like this:
it has four gaps to the wind,
pleasant woods, clean-banked wells,
cold springs and clear sandy streams
where green-topped watercress and languid brooklime
philander over the surface.
It is nature’s pantry with its wood-sorrels,
its berries, its wild garlic,
its black sloes and brown acorns.
It is a next for the geilt, those both mad and wild, bird-like creatures who suffer the pangs of freezing breezes while praising the flowing music of the wood.
For seven years Sweeney wanders in his madness, to Ben Bolcain to rest with the other madmen, then takes off for Britain where he joins with a fellow madman and man of the wood for a year. He returns again to Ireland and Ben Bolcain where he eventually regains his lucidity and goes to meet his fate.
Ben Bolcain is Sweeney’s moulting-ground, serving both as wilderness retreat and home. Elsewhere he calls it
my winter harbour, my haven,
my refuge from the bare heath,
my royal fort, my king’s rath.
Tom Herron and Anna Pilz comment in “Enchanted by the Woods: Sweeney Astray”:
In this liminal environment, Sweeney is exposed to severe conditions of wind, coldness, blizzards, and the piercing thorns of bushes and trees. However, the woods of Glen Bolcain also offer consolations in the form of shelter, food, and companionship, all of which ensure his survival.
There is, furthermore, an etymological felicity whereby the roots of the noun “madness” can be found in the Old English word, “woodness.” The Oxford English Dictionary refers to an early use of the noun “woodness” as denoting a) “Mental derangement, insanity, mania, frenzy, lunacy, craziness”; b) “Extravagant folly or recklessness; vehemence of passion or desire; wildness, infatuation”; c) “Violent anger, wrath, fury, rage; extreme fierceness, ferocity, savageness, cruelty”. All three definitions aptly describe Sweeney’s character. The adjective “wood” insinuates “out of one’s mind, insane” and, intriguingly, there is a further connection between the adjective “wood” meaning “mad” and the Old Irish word for poet, fáith.
Sweeney undergoes a transformation in the wood; he suffers greatly in his wandering, yet as a result the king slowly learns to sing a clear-eyed vision of the bigger, older word. He becomes a poet. Herron and Pilz again:
Sweeney becomes something other during his time in the woods. While he never entirely relinquishes his sense of himself as king, he nonetheless changes shape, repeats endlessly his losses, suffers hallucinations, is exposed to the elements, and experiences pristine visions of the Irish landscape, flora and fauna. He slowly transforms his view of the woods from a purgatory to a place in which he finds sanctuary and a degree of peace. From secular obscurity as a minor king, Sweeney ascends into indigenous sainthood and is celebrated for the poetry that both records his travails and provides a means of endurance. As a king and a “blooded swordsman”, he inflicted needless suffering on those he considered his enemies. But as a bird-man and a penitent he enters into a form of perpetual suffering balanced with the enchantment of his poetic understanding of changed circumstances. Sweeney’s nature poems articulate, to adapt Heaney’s words about Patrick Kavanagh, a lonely but resilient “inner freedom”: they attest to “a way of re-establishing the authenticity of personal experience and surviving as a credible thing.”
I like to think of our earth-poems are bird-song: mad, wooded and wild, a conscious walk in surrender to the wider energies of the world.
The Glen of the Temple, Columcille (PA)
At the megalithic park my father named Columcille, there is a nook called the Glen of the Temple, and swath of land in the forest that sweeps up from the St Columba chapel to the Thor’s Gate trilithon. It is a gentle climb lined on either side by standing stones. (There’s one called The Poet’s Stone where I’ve done readings.). The Glen is patterned somewhat on the mythological turf of the island of Iona off the southwest coast of Scotland, with its Road of Souls leading up to Dun Mananann and the ruins of an Iron Age temple. Long ago the island was ringed with 360 standing stones (pushed into the sea by Christians of the Reformation), and my father spoke of guardian energies he had met at Iona whom he said were honored by the stones of his Glen.
On my daily walks now from my house to the lake and back, I come to a three-block stretch that climbs in similar fashion to the Glen of the Temple though instead of stones it is lined with majestic oaks, sycamores, elm and pine. I like to call it my Ben Bolcain. My previous day’s madness comes to rest there and is fed by its beauty. It is the home outside my home.
This is the last week of 2021 before the turning of the new year. Let’s call it our Ben Bolcain, put our year of madness to rest and find what deep peace there is in the world. For this week’s earthweal challenge, share what you can find in Ben Bolcain.
Trees along the Merced River are coated in white after a major storm dumped a foot of in snow in California’s Yosemite Valley and 8 to 10 feet of powder in the higher elevations along the Sierra Nevada crest on December 16, 2021, in Yosemite National Park.
And welcome to earthweal open link weekend #98. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.
The link forum will be open until Sunday night at midnight EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out.
As I write, the moon of December waxes to fullness. Called “the cold moon” by the Mohawk, it marks the last full moon of the year and occurs just before the winter solstice. It is also “cold” because shines from afar, at its apogee from Earth. (When it’s close, astronomers call it Supermoon; for them tonight’s is a Micromoon.)
This moon heralds the moment of solstice – winter solstice in the North, summer solstice in the lower latitudes. Taken together, they are poles of light which define the high and low points of the year.
Nadir and zenith also locate extremes of the human spirit –the shaman’ lower world of the dead and the upper world of the gods, Satan’s fall into Hell and Phaeton’s chariot driving the sun across the sky, Jim Dowdy on ABC’s Wide World of Sports intoning “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as a downhill skier collapses ass over teakettle off the high jump. Solstices notch the high and low points of human potential where things will never get any better or much worse.
They are also turning points. The winter solstice is thus the beginning of astrological summer, as the summer solstice begins astrological winter. The six months’ march to the opposite pole begins from solstice. It is a moment of birth and a turning toward death. The megalithic tomb of Newgrange in Ireland is situated so that light from the rising sun of the winter solstice creeps all the way in to a farthest wall, calling forth the new year’s issue. In Christian tradition, the Christ is born three days after this event. At midsummer, celebrants engage in sun-dances and greenwood marriages, seeding the rebirth to come at year’s end.
Newgrange at the winter solstice
Enfolded in these celebrations are natural limits which we are well to learn. Birth and death are conditions of all animate matter. Hope and grief are never mutually exclusive. That is important to remember that at earthweal and the ecopoetry we celebrate and further here. The moment we are in is more vast than any single mind can comprehend, but our hive-mind joined with the world’s awarenesses — of fish and tree, current and breeze — creates enough of a garden for interesting concepts to grow. If anything, earthweal is a slow cultivation, offered water and light by the nadir and zenith of our earth-awareness. The grief is real, so is the hope.
The two temper each other. Grief of our vastly changing moment can be endless and feel at the same time as a dead-end, and hope seems nonsensical amid such unremitting ruin.
It makes for hard going in our elegies. Jeffrey Thomsom examines the elegy form in this changing world in his essay ‘Everything Blooming Bows Down in the Rain’: Nature and the Work of Mourning in the Contemporary Elegy” (in Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction, ed. J. Scott Bryson (University of Utah Press, 2002).
Traditional forms of the elegy usually supply a replacement figure in nature for our lost loved one; for Milton, the dead youth Lycidas became the Genius of the Shore, while for Whitman’s grief for assassinated Lincoln is a great star drooping in the west. “The replacement figure overcomes death as the poet places him or her along the shore or in the sky watching over the world, delivering it from its attendant grief.”
Modernists step further and resist consolation by saying nature is mute in this. Elizabeth Bishop in “One Art” deserts her beloved places after her Brazilian lover commits suicide, leaving her only the work at hand — “Write it!,” unconsoled and alone. “Nature exists not as participant or attendant muse to support the poet in mourning. It is shoved aside, a mere pittance the face of true grief,” Thomson writes. The Wasteland offers no nature deity, and the Snow-Man cannot be embraced.
Thomson suggests poetry has a third course for our grief, where nature suffers along with us — not as pathetic fallacy, for that implies “there is a primary a necessary division … that is assumed to lie between nature and human nature.” Eco-poets refuse that division; in this poetry, Thomson writes, “nature is not simply the drapery of emotion, it is the very structure of emotional power.”
Thompson offers this poem by Jane Kenyon as example, written while Kenyon’s father was dying of cancer.
HEAVY SUMMER RAIN
The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day
turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.
Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.
(from Collected Poems, 2005)
Here, nature dies, a father dies: death is what all “blooming” things face, in miniature (a storm) and ultimately (for winter comes). But the secret of blooming — its extravagance — is rooted in both light and darkness. For Kenyon, nature ‘is neither the backdrop of her deeper human grief nor her possible redemption. It is a partner in ruin, her equivalent foundation.”
Another poem Thomson cites is Mary Oliver’s autumnal “Blackwater Woods,” from American Primitive (1983):
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
In the fall, at that dying time of the year, trees exult in their transformation by turning into “pillars of light”; human control of nature ebbs away as ponds return to their “nameless” state; and salvation is found on the far side of the black river, beyond the nadir of winter solstice. For Oliver, there are only “three things” poetry must do: name that relation, claim it, then let it go. Every poem must love the world intensely and fully and then submit to its dying, within and without. Thomson concludes,
What the elegies of Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver present is a third possibility for grief — one devoted not to a surrogate nature benevolently smiling on the human race nor an implacable grief that resists healing and succor. Their elegies demand attention not because they try to avoid sorrow but because they recognize in sorrow part of the pattern of the natural world. This elegiac work offers a new flavor to the tradition, as Oliver says ((in another American Primitive poem, “Honey at the Table”)) “a taste / composed of everything lost, in which everything / lost is found.” In these elegies grief exists not to torment or so that rapture can transpire; loss exists so gain can follow.
Such a poetry in our current moment of budding climate catastrophe offers a tempered consciousness where darkness and light, nadir and zenith, call for earth-songs rich with both grief and hope. (As Hölderlin wrote in his 1802 poem “Patmos,” “where there is danger, salvation is also on the increase.”)
But it isn’t easy work. The traditional and modernist approaches to elegy can’t work under the global conditions we are now experiencing, not when deified nature is so wounded and isolated human nature the defiant assailant. We can’t know yet when climate change will hit its zenith, nor what nadir of global suffering it will produce.
We can only go so far looking for closure for our grief with images of night turning to day and vice versa. Seasons change, but the margins of these are becoming ambiguous as changes in our climate intensify. Unseasonable warmth pervades regions north of the equator now, and many regions south are experiencing their coldest and wettest summer seasons. Where it is dry, it burns — December wildfires in Montana, Colorado and Kansas (US) and elsewhere.
Astonishingly, as the volume of this news grows loud, the general response by governments and individuals alike seems to be not toward action but a fatalistic hunkering-down, as if the world has decided that not doing anything about climate change is a way to pretend that we’ve put it behind us. For those of us who grieve for all of life being pushed toward extinction by human inaction, our grief knows no season, no turning point, no closure.
The family social scientist Pauline Boss developed the theory of ambiguous loss several decades ago. For her, the standard model of grief resolution through emotional closure proposed by Freud (and elaborated upon with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s six stages of grief recovery) is a model which doesn’t help with what she terms “ambiguous” loss. Fathers too wrapped up in their careers aren’t there for family life even while they are there. Alcoholic parents change into someone else when drunk. American soldiers who were lost in the South Pacific during the Second World War produce family wounds that fester for generations; the same happens when a family member disappears and is never heard from again. “The greater the ambiguity surrounding one’s loss, the more difficult it is to master it and the greater one’s depression, anxiety, and family conflict,” she writes in Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Harvard University Press, 1999).
Such grief, Boss has slowly learned, is not just private. Society’s losses are ambiguously grievous. Now in its second year, the pandemic continues to reap the vulnerable and unvaccinated around the world. Here in the United States. more than 1,000 are still dying of the disease every day, and more have died this year than the last. And here comes Omicron, which is proving formidable even against those who have received booster shots. And its greatest advantage is our weariness with having to deal yet again with mask mandates and closures and especially those who have decided to be done with vaccines and worry and go about their business like nine-pins awaiting their fated bowling ball. How to you grieve a disease which has killed 5 million and counting? How to say farewell to all of those who died shrouded in respirators and were kept behind closed doors? How to sum all the stories of loss?
Likewise, our climate grief sprawls out in an ambiguous shape with an end which may be centuries away from being understood if any of our descendants will be around to name it. Whatever catastrophic losses are experienced in the current round of events, there’s no time to hold them and grieve them properly before the next round fires up.
Boss takes a deep look into this in her new book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Climate Change. “Research shows that we do better to live with grief than to deny it or close the door on it,” she writes. “Our task now, after a time of so much suffering, is to acknowledge our losses, name them, find meaning in them, and let go of the quest for closure. Instead of searching for closure, we search for meaning and new hope” (p. 9, Kindle edition).
Boss offers six nonsequential guidelines meant to help people bear their grief: making meaning out of loss; relinquishing one’s desire to control an uncontrollable situation; recreating identity after loss; becoming accustomed to ambivalent feelings; redefining one’s relationship with whatever or whomever they’ve lost; and finding new hope. Two of the guidelines, “meaning” and “new hope,” are especially important for coping, intended to help people consider what the loss signifies in their lives and how they can imagine a future that contains their loss. (So writes Meg Bernhard in her New York Times Magazine article on Dec. 19, “What If There Is No Such Thing As Closure?”)
Finding new hope is essential to turning points: it is perhaps the strongest and most abiding message of solstice. I’ve just begun to plumb Ross’s book, but I’ve a feeling that her understanding of how to work with ambiguous loss is much akin to the poems we struggle to compose.
For this challenge, write of solstice, winter or summer. Companions to this natural event, what does solstice lamp in your poetic interiors? In our great present danger, what salvation is to be found? Has the earth comforted you in your own seasons of grief? In what ways have the two of you grieved together? In your deepest hours of grief, what was given to you that you have carried forward?