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FERTILE AND PURE: A CANDLEMAS HARROW

 

The festival of Candlemas or Imbolc is Feb. 2, and for this challenge let’s all light a candle to fructify and brighten our work for the coming year.

As Sarah Connor wrote in her earthweal prompt on Imbolc back in 2021, “The energy of Imbolc … is about new life and renewed life. It’s about creating light and the return of light. It’s about inspiration appearing and implanting. It’s about the start of new ideas, new projects, new creativity.”

Candlemas is a festival of light returning from winter darkness. Its patron is the goddess Brigit, a deity so powerful that the Christian church could only saint her Brighid, a pillar of light on the magnitude of Michael (croziered from the sea-god Manannan) and the early Irish church founders Patrick and Columba.

The ancient rites of Imbolc were centered around fertility, the growth of crops and the birth of sheep and cattle and human children for the sustenance of the community. Fertility rituals carried over into Christendom with the brídeóg (“young Brighid”), effigies of the goddess or saint that fostered fertility — woven crosses and dolls adorned with shells and flowers. — carried by troops of women.

A folk-tale widely told about Brighid locates her prominence next to the Virgin Mary and the light of divine birth. (It also links pagan and Christian deities in a way the one makes way for the next.) Wade MacMorrighan retells it this way in “Rekindling the Rites of Imbolg”:

As Mary was about to be “churched”—or, some say, to bring the Christ child to the Temple—she was journeying to a Church where she met St. Brighid to whom she confessed how shy she was about stepping up to the altar rails before the whole congregation.  St. Brighid told her not to worry, and she took a nearby harrow (a sharp forked agricultural tool intended to till the soil in preparation for spring sowing) and placed it on her head, turning the points upward.  No sooner had Brighid entered the Church than the points of the harrow miraculously transformed into a glittering crown of glowing candles!  Not one eye turned from the Saint as the meek Virgin stepped up to the altar rails until the commencement of the ceremony.  The Virgin Mary was so pleased that the saint had preserved her modesty that she decreed that from this time forward 1 February should be held in honor of Brighid the day before the Virgin’s own festival of Purification.  It is likely on account of Brighid’s association with midwifery—casting her in the role of a “Light Mother”—as well as the kindling of candles that Alexander Carmichael sought to identify her, not without good cause, as “the Juno of the Gaels.” Brighid may be further identified with a variety of traditional epithets that underscore her association with the soft glow of candlelight, such as Bríde boillsge (“Brighid of brightness”), Lasair dhealrach oir, muime chorr Chriosda (“Radiant flame of gold, most noble foster mother of Christ”), and Bríde non Coinnle (“Brighid of the Candles”).

MacMorrighan also points to rites of purification celebrated in the festival. An early modern translation of Imbolg was “the time that sheep’s-milk comes,” but the Indo-European root Hmelǵ also signifies “purification,” occasionally with the implication of wiping or cleansing ritual tools. Milk was believed a purifier: the Book of Lecan states that milk was the antidote for injuries suffered by poisoned darts, and Brighid, famously unable to eat impure food, got all her sustenance from the milk of a red-eared Otherworld cow. MacMorrighan writes,

The question of the necessity for cleansing rites at the onset of spring celebrated by the convergence of Indo-European cultures … ultimately seem to have their antecedent in the desire to purge oneself after contact or communication with the dead—a procedure that was not uncommon in the ancient world—considering that this more dreadful period of ill omen was generally signified by the previous winter quarter that commenced on November Eve and was officially abrogated by 1 February.

Let us remember we have been chilling recently with the Calleach Bheare, witch of winter. It is now time to rise from her frozen bed.

Eves are important in Celtic reckoning with days beginning on the night before. St. Brigit’s feast day of Feb. 1 is the eve of Candlemas, the holiday which the Church called The Purification of the Virgin Mary. According to Mosaic Law, a mother who had given birth to a son remained unclean for 40 days after birth, in which time she completed her purification in blood.  After the 40 days, the new mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin” (Leviticus 12), where a priest prayed for her and she was cleansed. Forty days after Christmas, that time now arrives. Brigit’s crown of candles, made from a harrow used for spring planting, provided the cleansing light of Candlemas and purifies the Savior’s life to come, the annual round of growth, ebbing, death and resurrection.

There is a divinity for all seasons — a festival for each — and at Imbolc we cleanse winter darkness in the milky glow of candlelit spaces, readying our tools for Spring.

In the environmental movement that have returned many to an earth-centered spirituality. I like to think a third deity now grows out of Christendom, as it once arose from paganism; or a  a polarity returning the other way, as the earth’s magnetic poles reverse (183 times in the past 83 million years, by one reckoning). We can now see Mary’s fire purifying Brigit’s grandmother for the deep old work we so desperately now, providing tools for returning to first principals and primary relations with the Earth. Wildest tools are now needed, to break the bonds of petro-capitalism and neoliberalism and get to work saving our planet.

It is a fire we must tend. At the church at Kildare, dedicated to St. Brigit and probably founded over the pagan sanctuary of Brighid, a sacred fire was kept burning continually, tended by a series of 19 nuns and by the saint herself every 20th day. It survived into the 16th century with the suppression of monesteries and re-lit in 1993 in the Market Square, Kildare, by Sr. Mary Teresa Cullen, then congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters. It burns on today as a beacon of hope in a grieving ecosphere.

That work can be ours, too. The pagan Brighid was also the goddess of crafts, prophecy, divination and poetry; it is by her fires we are inspired and create. We can envision this challenge as singing in her sanctum, each of us holding a candle and singing something pure back to the world.

For myself, the festival is auspicious as I am embarking on a book project about my father’s work founding the community of Columcille in eastern Pennsylvania. Personal relations with my father aside (which had light and dark aspects, as all sons do with fathers), the deepr tale I’m trying to excavate and weave is of how an earth-centered spirituality blossomed there from constant work with the land and a devotion to its mysteries. Rites of purification and prayers for fertile work are essential for me right now as I try to get the story down right. (Ironically, Imbolc has rarely been celebrated at Columcille.)

For this challenge, then, light a candle (or two or three) for the Candlemas or Imbolc of your imagining, to purify and fructify your work and the world’s.

A few poems of that sort I’ve posted below as starter candles.

Happy harrowing!

— Brendan

 

 

 

AT BRIDGET’S WELL

By Doireann Ní Ghríofa

When rain fell on a path of stone,
one by one, we appeared alone.

Each of us wore a different face,
but we were all the same –

drawn by ache to lift green latches,
drawn by want to walk the dark

passage. Past paper stares, we knelt
and wept, we who fed the well in rivulets,

whose plunged wrists trembled
with vessels of blue violets.

We each spoke a spell of stone
and in her gloom heard prayers turn poems.

Ask her, Bríd, what will be
come of us?

Listen. Liquid, the syllables;
the echo, luminous.

 

A BRIGID’S GIRDLE

Seamus Heaney

Last time I wrote I wrote from a rustic table
Under magnolias in South Carolina
As blossoms fell on me, and a white gable
As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner

Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard.
I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet
I’d had for weeks. I heard the mocking bird
And a delicious, articulate

Flight of small plinkings from a dulcimer
Like feminine rhymes migrating to the north
Where you faced the music and the ache of summer
And earth’s foreknowledge gathered in the earth.

Now it’s St Brigid’s Day and the first snowdrop
In County Wicklow, and this a Brigid’s Girdle
I’m plaiting for you, an airy fairy hoop
(Like one of those old crinolines they’d trindle),

Twisted straw that’s lifted in a circle
To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
As strange and lightsome and traditional
As the motions you go through going through the thing.

—from The Spirit Level)

  

FOR EQUILIBRIUM: A BLESSING

John O’Donohue

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of God.

— from  To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Invocations and Blessings (2008)

 

 

open link forum #153

 

 

Greetings, and welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #153. Share a favorite poem and then visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The link forum is open until midnight Sunday EST.  We’re going to bi-weekly challenges, so the next challenge will roll out Jan. 30.

Happy linking!

— Brendan

LATE WORK WITH JORIE GRAHAM

 

Effective this week, Earthweal goes to biweekly challenges. If you would have ideas to improve or contribute to the forum, send them to earthweal@gmail.com.

* * *

Great interview with Jorie Graham in The New Yorker recently. Graham is one of the most lauded poets of our day. I haven’t given her work close notice, dismissing it from my reading because it was too experimental and/or avant-garde for my taste. But recent collections including Sea Change, Place, Fast, Runaway and (To) The Last (Be) Human have gripped down hard into the unfolding climate crisis; and either she has found a different focus or I have, because after reading the interview and delving into some of her poems, I’ve found her right on the money for exactly where we are.

I doubt she’ll ever be a favorite poet — not from one  accustomed to the likes of romantic poets like Rilke, Mary Oliver and  Jack Gilbert — but she does prove to be an essential earth poet.

And what an Earth, these days!  — California is underwater from an ocean of atmospheric river-storms; a report states that the past eight years have been the eight hottest ever, and ocean heat hit another record high last year, the fourth year in a row.  (Since 1970, more than 90% of the planet’s excess heat went into the oceans.) All that is bad enough, but the La Niña (or “cold ocean”) conditions which have persisted for the past three years are about to shift to El Niño, which tends to bring warmth. According to climate expert, James Hansen, this shift will press the gas pedal to the floor for heat, promising 2024 as the warmest year on record. As Elizabeth Kolbert noted in her summary, “the urgency (to decarbonize) couldn’t be any higher.”

In Graham’s interview with Katy Waldman in the Jan. 1, 2023 issue, she spoke of the evolution of what she calls her “late work,” centrally inspired by the climate crisis:

The questions I felt free to ask—because, as a young person, arenas of thought seem more unique, separated by categorical fields of inquiry—did not yet appear to me to spring so clearly and terrifyingly from one system, or from a massive fork in the road which the human story took and which we now find ourselves irrevocably far along. It feels late in our story.

Paradoxically, that sense of lateness is cause for both dread and inspiration:

We are having this discussion at a potentially catastrophic moment. The weeks before COP27—where too-lateness (and much else) stares us in the face at every turn. The failures are so evident already, it’s shattering—yet so predictable. But lateness in a life devoted to an art can be thrilling. You feel you’ve dealt—feeling your way, blindly—with so many partial questions—and then you begin to put the puzzle together. The maze is not a hall of mirrors after all. You’ve lost some innocence, gained an aperture which can make you sick with horror or overwhelmed by the mystery of existence. But things are more layered, history more simultaneous, or circular, and the body, the senses, have become more urgently necessary as detectors—so much more than you could have ever intuited at the start.

Asked what “overwhelming question” of this late work might be, Graham replied:

We’re on dangerous terrain here. … Maybe something along the lines of, What is creation—by which I mean the world around us—and what would be a right relationship to it? How do we—in the midst of such gifts from what we once regarded as an actual “Creation”—do so much harm? And how do we continue such infliction while knowing more than ever the extent and momentum of its harm? So, for me, as for so many others, the question ends up contemplating the tragedy of what we have done as a species to the planet we share with other species and forms of life. It is horrifying and baffling. And further, the question becomes: How do we, nonetheless, in the face of this, live our one life fully — making sure not to override wonder, astonishment, pleasure, joy?

Graham uses shifting viewpoints and voices to allow the world to be hear:

 I cannot speak from the point of view of the ocean, the seafloor. But it is a profoundly operative illusion. The attempt changes one. Radically. It changes one’s size, one’s sense of one’s centrality as the speaker; it compels a kind of radical imagination of otherness. You try to feel your own unlikeness. It’s instructive as a poetic and spiritual action, and it also carried over, for me, into my political sense of my “being”—not just my philosophical sense of my “being at all.” Who is this speaking? That became a question I asked in many ways in multiple books. It felt—it feels—important not to know the answer to that question. It also feels destabilizing in a very fruitful way to keep putting oneself in a situation where one is required to ask it.

The money quote for me came when she was asked about the responsibility of the poet:

Stepping into her historical moment, any living poet’s responsibility is to speak for the human to that brief moment. To keep us human. To keep the language capable of transmitting truth, the heart honest, to force averted eyes to witness what is being done in our name, to bear witness to atrocity as well as mystery, to make consciousness rub up against the most difficult reality it finds and take responsibility—even if that means simply being awake as a witness. But also to joy in and record the astonishment—inner and outer. The beauty—every last drop of it. Is it going to disappear? Perhaps. Then bear witness, pass it on. When they dig our poems up out of the rubble, we want them to know who we were, what consciousness was, but also how astounding and unimaginably infinite and mysterious life was. At any rate, any moment’s poetry has the added task of translating the past for those living now, while imagining the future—to keep that essential current alive. In this, poetry is, indeed, “news that stays news.” I take speaking the past to the future to be a primary moral responsibility of the art.

Does the present moment alter in any way that responsibility?

How to do so now is indeed difficult, also urgent. How to find a voice, or voices, that will extend the ongoing task of poetry at such a perilous tipping point in our evolution, with broken attention spans, few shared beliefs or truths, little patience, little capacity for sustained attention or dilation or complexity, little desire for wonder, let alone in-depth exploration. It’s not enough that billions of people as we speak are gaming, or are addicted to pornographies of various kinds—including those which pass as news. How do we bring all these humans back into the community of somewhat shared reality, and above all shared responsibilities? Offering them some genuine shared economic opportunity would help. But runaway late capitalism thrives on increasing inequality, including unequal access to verifiable fact, as well as experience. Yes, we all know technology’s gifts to us—but how poisoned are these gifts? Because the primary function of much of this technology is to distract the soul from actual living. That’s its business model. It’s monetizing our distraction and destruction. And, hardest yet, most institutions we are obliged to trust are heavily invested in this process.

She adds,

We know we are in a potential death spiral when so many solutions seem to involve some form of total escape—from one’s flesh, one’s spirit, the planet, the real world of work and love, from the time it takes to learn, from bodily knowledge, friendship, nature, from the uncanny feeling nature gives one of being only one species among other species. That feeling should excite us—it used to. Or mesmerize. Or terrify. The unknown in a life is still a gigantic terra incognita toward which every soul can make its pilgrimage. The unknown is not a “not known”—it is mystery, not a function of information. It is the unknowability embedded in the question that Tolstoy suggests we are to ask of life: What are we to do? You cannot ask Siri for the answer. You cannot take a shortcut to it, as much as our systems, and their new powers, want us short-circuited.

Increasingly, as much as we think it is we who enter and engage the machine—retaining agency—it seems it is the machine entering us, diluting our capacity to undergo life as lived. Smallness in relation to the infinite and the nonhuman used to be a hallowed feeling. It is increasingly rare to find humans who relish that engulfing sensation of the immensity of the not us—not made by us, not even known or intuited by us—and to feel brought to life by that wonder or terror. A destroying angel, the sublime, the spirit of place . . . we have as many names for it as we have cultures. In our current model, it would cost our economic system way too much if we all “showed up” for life. If we all insisted on the right to genuine existence—work, vocation, social protections—that would make us free enough to demand our right to experience. The simple demand that we be given—that our children be given—access to non-virtual lived experience would destroy a great deal of capitalism’s cash flow. We are the raw material; we are harvested, our attention is harvested and leached from us—and our simple acceding to the game, with its programmatic collection of data, is the monetizable product. But it’s hard to grasp this if your life has been depleted of options, starved of real work, if you are forced to frantically multitask, forced to accelerate to the point where every shortcut (which is a data-collection point) is not just a godsend but the only way in which they permit you to barely make it through your life. And that’s among the lucky, those privileged enough to even be in this predicament.

Lots to unpack there — using multiple voices to speak for the world, the poet’s moral responsibility to speak the past to the future, a re-engagement with “non-virtual lived experience.” And what about that “late work” that we’re about?

For this week’s challenge, write a poem inspired by Graham’s comments. Experiment with form if you like, or throw your thought in the wide embrace of the world. Give it a whirl.

— Brendan

 

TREE

Jorie Graham

Today on two legs stood and reached to the right spot as I saw it
choosing among the twisting branches and multifaceted changing shades,
and greens, and shades of greens, lobed, and lashing sun, the fig that seemed to me the
perfect one, the ready one, it is permitted, it is possible, it is

actual. The VR glasses are not needed yet, not for now, no, not for this while
longer. And it is warm in my cupped palm. And my fingers close round but not too
fast. Somewhere wind like a hammerstroke slows down and lengthens
endlessly. Closer-in the bird whose coin-toss on a metal tray never stills to one

face. Something is preparing to begin again. It is not us. Shhh say the spreading sails of
cicadas as the winch of noon takes hold and we are wrapped in day and hoisted
up, all the ribs of time showing through in the growing in the lengthening
harness of sound — some gnats nearby, a fly where the white milk-drop

of the torn stem starts. Dust on the eglantine skin, white powder in the confetti of light
all up the branches, truth, sweetness of blood-scent and hauled-in light, withers of
the wild carnival of tree shaking once as the fruit is removed from its dream. Remain I
think backing away from the trembling into full corrosive sun. Momentary blindness

follows. Correction. There are only moments. They hurt. Correction. Must I put down
here that this is long ago. That the sky has been invisible for years now. That the ash
of our fires has covered the sun. That the fruit is stunted yellow mould when it appears
at all and we have no produce to speak of. No longer exists. All my attention is

free for you to use. I can cast farther and farther out, before the change, a page turned,
we have gone into another story, history floundered or one day the birds dis-
appeared. The imagination tried to go here when we asked it to, from where I hold the
fruit in my right hand, but it would not go. Where is it now. Where is this here where

you and I look up trying to make sense of the normal, turn it to life, more life,
disinterred from desire, heaved up onto the dry shore awaiting the others who could
not join us in the end. For good. I want to walk to the left around this tree I have made
again. I want to sit under it full of secrecy insight immensity vigour bursting complexity

swarm. Oh great forwards and backwards. I never felt my face change into my new
face. Where am I facing now. Is the question of good still stinging the open before us
with its muggy destination pitched into nothingness? Something expands in you
where it wrenches-up its bright policing into view — is this good, is this the good —

under the celebrating crowd, inside the silences it forces hard away all round itself,
where chanting thins, where we win the war again, made thin by bravery and belief,
here’s a polaroid if you want, here’s a souvenir, here now for you to watch, unfold, up
close, the fruit is opening, the ribs will widen now, it is all seed, reddish foam, history.

— from Runaway

 

 

FLURRIES

A.R. Ammons

Streaks, drifts, mounds
of meaning build,
flare: roof-lochs spill,

catching at the eaves
meanings
icicle-clear:

glaciers grind visionary
meanings down nordic gorges,
letting all

rivers to rustle
narrows amply clean cut:
hold still, the

spirit cries, hold this,
but motion
undermines meaning with meaning.

from Brink Road: Poems (1996)

 

CHORD

W.S. Merwin

While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
thought of their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was
hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they
were cutting it forever
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest
the size of a foreign ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and
were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

— from The Rain in the Trees (1988)

 

PATIENCE

Kay Ryan

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable —
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time’s fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn’t be
distinguished
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)

 

 

UNDERNEATH

Jorie Graham

needed          explanation
because of the mystic nature        of the theory
and our reliance          on collective belief
I could not visualize the end
the tools that paved the way broke
the body the foundation the exact copy of the real
our surfaces were covered
our surfaces are all covered
actual hands appear but then there is writing
in the cave       we were deeply impressed
as in addicted to results
oh and dedication training     the idea of loss of life
in our work we call this emotion
how a poem enters into the world
there is nothing wrong with the instrument
as here I would raise my voice but
the human being and the world cannot be equated
aside from the question of whether or not we are alone
and other approaches to nothingness
(the term “subject”)(the term “only”)
also opinion and annihilation
(the body’s minutest sensation of time)
(the world, it is true, has not yet been destroyed)
intensification      void
we are amazed
uselessness is the last form love takes
so liquid till the forgone conclusion
here we are, the forgone conclusion
so many messages transmitted they will never acquire meaning
do you remember          my love my archive
touch me (here)
give birth to       a single idea
touch where it does not lead to war
show me    exact spot
climb the stairs
lie on the bed
have faith
nerves wearing only moonlight lie down
lie still patrol yr cage
be a phenomenon
at the bottom below the word
intention, lick past it
rip     years
find the burning matter
love allows it (I think)
push past the freedom (smoke)
push past     intelligence (smoke)
whelm      sprawl
(favorite city)   (god’s tiny voices)
hand over mouth
let light arrive
let the past strike us and go
drift        undo
if it please the dawn
lean down
say      hurt      undo
in your mouth be pleased
where does it say
where does it say
this is the mother tongue
there is in my mouth a ladder
climb down
presence of world
impassable       gap
pass
I am beside myself
you are inside me       as history
We exist         Meet me

— from Swarm (1999)