Sunday, April 28, 2019

Seamus Heaney, Lyra McKee, and Casualties

So already, have you ever noticed how, in late April-early May, trees covered with white blossoms become practically spectral when dusk becomes evening? As I drove home last night in dusk's diminishing light, I witnessed that transformation again: the white-blossoming trees planted on the grassy strips between sidewalk and roadway seemed to dissociate themselves from the shadows and to press toward the roadway like shades stepping up to the edge of the River Styx seeking to make the crossing.

The River Styx has been one busy place since mid-March: souls have been arriving from New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and, just yesterday, from San Diego, California.

In fact, the image of white blossoms moving just above the surface of darkness has been on my mind throughout National Poetry Month, thanks to Seamus Heaney's "Casualty." I read that poem for the first time a few weeks ago at a meeting of the Scituate Town Library's poetry discussion group. In it, Heaney mourns the loss of a fisherman friend/acquaintance "blown to bits" just three days after the Bogside Massacre, Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday. 

The poem has three sections. 
  • The first establishes the friendship of two drinking buddies, the taciturn poet writing the poem and arch fisherman whose "quick eye/ And turned observant back" takes in and acknowledges the poet's "tentative art." It then briefly lays out the circumstances of the fisherman's death. 
  • The second elaborates those circumstances, first describing the funeral for the Bogside Massacre's thirteen victims and then explaining the insufficiency of a curfew to dissuade the fisherman, a dedicated nightly drinker, from following "the lure/ Of warm lit-up places" and "gregarious smoke."
  • The third section explains how the poet chooses to honor his friend's memory before he directly addresses his departed friend, communicating his profound personal loss: "Dawn-sniffing revenant,/ Plodder through midnight rain,/ Question me again."
While Heaney's learned profession probably prevents him from fully being "one of the guys" at the local pub, it doesn't prevent him from becoming part of the "we" on the day of the funeral of the thirteen. The stanza that renders the mesmerizing procession of coffins as they exit the cathedral is as beautiful and comforting as any that I have ever read.
"It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its saddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound 
Like brothers in a ring."*
Blossoms caught in the swirls and eddies of lolling streams, rushing and stalling in alternation as they move downstream: that's the stuff of springtime in the Berkshires. I know that transfixing motion. So I can easily envision the blossom-like coffins descending the cathedral stairs, threading their way through and around the bereaved, weaving them together.

When journalist Lyra McKee was shot on the eve of Good Friday in the same setting as Heaney's poem, and in connection with still smoldering political tensions that underlie it, I just had to reread the poem. According to The New York Times,
"And an I.R.A. offshoot, known in the news media as the New Irish Republican Army, has been linked to several terrorist attacks, . . . — and last week’s shooting [of McKee].
"Riots broke out in Londonderry after the police raided a home in a nationalist area of the city last Thursday evening. Amid the melee, a masked militant from the New I.R.A. fired at least four shots toward a police van.

"The next day — the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, as the 1998 peace deal is known — Northern Ireland awoke to learn that one of those shots had hit Ms. McKee by accident.**
The New York Times Photograph ****
I had to read the poem yet again when I saw the Times photograph of McKee's casket being borne down the steps of St. Anne's Cathedral with mourners attending it. Apparently, those from across the political spectrum attended her funeral, causing the presiding priest to lament that it took the death of McKee to bring them together.*** Maybe the procession actually wove them together.

Like Heaney, McKee, though not a poet, professionally used words to speak truths and tell stories. Like Heaney's fisherman, she elected not to stay home, in her case because her being a journalist meant that she needed to be on the scene, to observe, to witness, and to report.

Of course, when the unintended are killed in conjunction with an intentional attack, apologies are often made, and they were again in this case:
"In a communique to the Irish News, using a recognized code word, the paramilitary group “New IRA” said one of its cadre was responsible for her death and offered 'sincere apologies.'

“In the course of attacking the enemy Lyra McKee was tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces,” the group said, reviving both the fear and revulsion that the days of sectarian violence could return to Northern Ireland."***
But McKee wasn't anonymous collateral damage: she already stood for something different and better than the old, narrow, sometimes violent ways. She'd already published a essay--five years ago, basically a letter to her adolescent gay self--meant at least in part to reassure gay youth that happiness, acceptance, and freedom from others' misunderstanding, judgment, and hatred were not just possibilities, but probabilities.

It was another kind of hatred that got her, though it wasn't directed at her. And that's why the news reports made me need to understand whether there is a difference between being a victim and being casualty, and what the precise relationship is between the words "casual" and "casualty."

Thanks to the Word Detective, I learned that our current understanding of "casual" as
“'informal, not fixed or rigid,' 'unimportant' and 'unconcerned'”***** has no connection to "casualty." An older definition of "casual" as meaning "by accident or chance" does help to explain it--and also makes clear that "victim" and "casualty" are not synonyms from all perspectives. From the perspective of my research, McKee is both a victim and a casualty. In contrast, those who were intentionally murdered in Sri Lanka and New Zealand  are victims rather than casualties: their deaths were the intention, not the collateral damage associated with a deadly intention gone awry.

Since Lyra McKee died, her own and other journalists' words have helped readers everywhere know who she was, whom and what she loved, and what motivated her. Similarly, Seamus Heaney's establishes his fisherman friend--his habits and his recalled challenge to Heaney--"'Now, you're supposed to be/ An educated man,' /. . . 'Puzzle me/ The right answer to that one'"--as an individual as opposed to a representative of a group. The poem and the press make both of these stories about particular individuals, despite the important political realities that shaped their and others' lives and deaths. This makes them understood differently than the undifferentiated victims who died in mosques, hotel lobbies, and churches just recently.

I wish we had poems about each of those victims. In the absence of the information that distinguishes victim from victim, it's hard to imagine just how the loss of each affects her family, her work place, her community. Furthermore, the idea of reconciliation is nowhere in the picture, let alone even the most nascent efforts at it. So death can't be paired with new hope.

The banks of the River Styx are awfully crowded these days, and I fear that they may become even more crowded in the months ahead. Poetry and spring's white blossoms offer some consolation, but so much consolation is needed. And much more than consolation is needed, too.

* Heaney, S. (n.d.). Casualty. Retrieved April 28, 2019, from
** Kingsley, P. (2019, April 24). A Journalist’s Funeral Shows Northern Ireland’s Progress, and Its Regressions. The New York Times. Retrieved April 28, 2019, from
*** Ferguson, Amanda, and William Booth. “At Lyra McKee’s Funeral in Belfast, the Priest Asks Why It Takes a Young Journalist’s Death for Politicians to Come Together.” The Washington Post, 24 Apr. 2019,
**** McQuillan, C. "The journalist Lyra McKee’s coffin was carried out of St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast after her funeral on Wednesday as her partner, Sara Canning, behind left, followed." [Photograph] with Kingsley, P. (2019, April 24). A Journalist’s Funeral Shows Northern Ireland’s Progress, and Its Regressions. The New York Times. Retrieved April 28, 2019, from
***** Casual/Casualty. (2015, January 26). Retrieved April 28, 2019, from

Saturday, April 13, 2019


So already, a sentence in a recent Boston Globe article about varieties of salmon and their relative tastiness, taken out of that context, suggested a whole other possibility. What if salmon could forgive people not just for the transgression of over-cooking? And so, in National Poetry Month, a poetic offering--and I mean offering, not sacrifice:

“Because of its fat content, fresh salmon is forgiving.”**    

I read that in the morning news--
Quick changed my clothes, put on my shoes:
If salmon had true pardon power,
Best to the fish store that same hour.

Once there, and walking towards the counter,
I eyed cod and then eyed flounder.
But I’d just read “All fat is the Lord’s”***:
Ancient words had struck new chords.

Frankly, I was sore distraught—
‘Til I spied salmon, wild-caught,
Plucked, then shipped from the Bering Strait:
I’d have the chance to clean my slate!

There it lay, boned and filleted,
Coral slabs in layers displayed.
Fat-flecked flesh, arranged on ice,
Recalled to me old sacrifice

Consumed in flame, and not just grilled,
For that was what the gods then willed.
The slick fillets were oil-anointed**:
I doubted I’d be disappointed.

But the counter man, so young—so lean—
Corporally, could he my need to glean?
He wrapped my salmon tight so fast
I feared that it could not full cast

Its eye upon me, take me in,
Gauge my guilt, and sense my sin—
And then by virtue of its fat,
Say softly, “You’re forgiven that.”

But faith trumped doubt; I went home shrove
And plopped my salmon on the stove,
And grilling it, released its savor—
Heaven-scent is what gods favor.

Oh Alpha and Omega-3,
For sure, who made the Lamb made thee.
To best serve God and eschew mammon,
I’ll serve and chew great stores of salmon.

* “Salmon is confusing. So we looked into it — and tasted different varieties. Boston Globe. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from
** Photo accompanying above Boston Globe Article by Food styling/Sheryl Julian; Sally Pasley Vargas for the Boston Globe.
*** Leviticus 3:16

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Harmony of Wednesday Morning

So already, recently my choral conductor, Margo Euler, invited me to read aloud and "say a few words" about Mark Van Doren's "The Harmony of Morning." The Broad Cove Chorale and women of the Unicorn Singers will be performing Elliott Carter's setting of the poem as part of American Kaleidoscope, the Unicorn Singers' fortieth anniversary concert on April 14. Some Wednesday morning rehearsal time spent exploring the poem, Margo theorized, would help us sing Carter's piece with greater sensitivity and conviction. 

Before I begin to talk about what I said about the poem and how I came to say it, here is its text in its beautiful, puzzling entirety:

The harmony of morning, and a thrush's
Throat among the sleep-deserted boughs;
Expiring mists that murmur all the day
Of a clear dusk, with music at the close;
Wind harp, rain song, night madrigal and 
There is no word melodious as those.

Rage of the viol whose deep and shady 
Is sounded to a tempest by the strings;
Sweet keys depressed, swift rise upon a 
Whence all the narrow soul of music hangs;
The lifted flute, the reed, the horns 
Words in the wake of these are scrannel 

In them another music, half of sound
And half of something taciturn between;
In them another ringing, not for ears,
Not loud; but in the chambers of the brain
Are bells that clap an answer when the words
Move orderly, with truth among the train.*

By the time Margo asked me to talk about the poem, both it and Carter's music were already lodged under my skin, intriguing irritants that refused to give up their secrets. I knew they fit well together, knew I felt uplifted by both of them, and understood neither of them. But now I had task and a deadline to push me, and I was determined to understand why they were holding such sway over me.

So I did what I always do when art baffles me: I worked by association. Though the poem's subject is varieties of music, its abundant visual imagery practically cries out for visual representation. That's what prompted me to make a collage (of sorts).

Besides Van Doren's poem, my collage incorporates several other texts and various images:
  • The background onto which other poems and images are glued is a photo of the field in front of the one-room cabin just west of Williamstown, MA that belongs to my husband's family. Morning outside its open windows on sunny summer days is utterly harmonious.

  • The left-hand bottom quadrant features Amy Lowell's "Music," in which "flute-notes push against my ears and lips, and I go to sleep, dreaming." Though we readers of poetry generally rely on our senses of hearing to experience musical notes, Lowell's speaker experiences them primarily through her sense of touch--and thus asks us to do so, too. Van Doren also changes up reader sensory expectations in his poem's last stanza: words, if they're ordered and accompanied by truth, "clap an answer" "not for ears." We readers generally experience clapping, be it of bells or hands, through our senses sight, touch, and especially hearing. But things are different in "the chambers of the brain."

  • Which brings us to the picture of a small door that opens into a bright gallery-like room in the upper right-hand quadrant. Van Doren originally entitled his poem "Another Music." Given the poem's alternate title, the viol's "deep and shady room," and "the chambers of the brain," my mind jumped to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "the music from a farther room." There's more than one kind of music . . . and many different kinds of rooms.
  • And that brings me to my most important association of "The Harmony of Morning" to "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere,"** Elliott Carter's setting of an Emily Dickinson untitled poem. I quote Dickinson's poem in its entirety here--in part because all of it matters, and in part because I love it: 
 Musicians wrestle everywhere--
 All day--among the crowded air
 I hear the silver strife--
 And--waking--long before the morn-- 
 Such transport breaks upon the town 
 I think it that "New Life"!
It is not Bird--it has no nest--
Nor "Band"--in brass and scarlet--drest--
Nor Tamborin--nor Man--
It is not Hymn from pulpit read--
The "Morning Stars" the Treble led
On Time's first Afternoon!
Some--say--it is "the Spheres"--at play!

Some say the bright Majority
Of vanished Dames--and Men!
Some--think it service in the place
Where we--with late--celestial face--
Please God--shall Ascertain!
"The Walk" by Marc Chagall
The poem is filled with speculation--and no conclusions--about what the musical "silver strife" is that the poet senses all of the time. But whatever is wrestling and glinting in the "crowded air," it's magnificent, mysterious, omnipresent, and teasing. That's what sent me to the paintings of Van Gogh and Chagall: I had to crowd at least some of the air in my collage with the swirls, spheres, and people.
During much of "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere," the lines sung by the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses whirl and circle around each other, approaching and retreating, as if involved in a game of tag: "'the Spheres' . . .  [truly seem to be] at play." But Carter's setting of Dickinson's final three lines is far more sober. In fact, both "The Harmony of Morning" and "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" conclude with a similar ordered, shimmering gravitas, perhaps a response to the intuition of and aspiration toward the "music from a farther room."
With our rehearsal fast approaching and these collage associations in mind, I decided to provide something short, clear, and provocative--something that authentically reflected my tentative answers and ongoing questions--to my fellow singers. On Wednesday morning, feeling very much like my former Cambridge Rindge and Latin School English-teacher self, I gave each of them a small piece of paper that featured this list of facts, observations, and questions:

"Morning Harmony" by Susan Swartz***
  • Three things “sound” in this piece.
  • Each of these “sounds” more or less “satisfactorily” than the others—or are we just talking differently?
  • To sound can mean to emit something audible, or to convey something.
  • Words offer “another music,” composed of sound and “something taciturn between”—between words, or between words and something else?
  • Without order, there’s neither truth nor “an answer.” (But what’s the question? Something about truth and beauty—or truth and magnificence?”)
This combination of "reminders" and questions pleased a number of my fellow singers, who also appreciated my acknowledging that I was doing "a" reading of the poem and that each of them was entitled to her own reading of it. Their responses assured me I'd done right by them and also by the poem.

I also felt that my choral conductor had done right by me. Margo had done me a great kindness, though she couldn't have known I needed one: she'd "assigned" Van Doren's poem to me just when I was feeling estranged from poetry, just when truth and beauty were most eluding me. In so doing, she gave me the opportunity to engage with all three.**** Estranged people sometimes need a shove toward the "farther room" they're struggling to apprehend.

Poetry and I are working our ways back toward each other. Meanwhile, music and I are constant companions, and we better be: the Unicorn Singers and the Broad Cove Chorale will be performing "American Kaleidoscope" next weekend--on Sunday, April 14, at 4:00 at the Inly School in Scituate. Poetry and music harmonize throughout our concert, not just in "The Harmony of Morning"--and what could be more appropriate for National Poetry Month? Please come and see and hear for yourself. 

* Quoted in its entirety from inside cover of the following sheet music: Carter, E. (Composer). (1955). The Harmony of morning [Sheet music]. Milwaukee: Assocated Music Publishers, Inc. [Note: The piece was premiered in New York City in 1945.]
** Found on
*** Swartz, S. (n.d.). Morning Harmony [Painting]. Retrieved April 3, 2019, from
**** This is a reference to my first blog post of this National Poetry Month, entitled "Seeking Late, But Not Too Late."

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Seeking Late, But Not Too Late

So already, it's National Poetry Month! Get ready for poetry-focused blog posts in the weeks ahead.

Not that poetry and I have been on easy terms of late. For many months, I've behaved like an unrequited, ambivalent lover who's been too awed, humbled, and, yes, absent to write the love letters she's claimed to have wanted to send. If she had written, her beloved might have responded with waves of love--and great poems!

In mid-March, my poetry-writing group met at my house. For the second straight meeting, I had no poem of my own to read. The best I could muster was a fruit salad.

But our meetings always begin with the hostess's sharing a poem. Whatever blank pages and rightfully abandoned fragments were the sum of my scarce poetic efforts--really, my efforts to write anything at all--I was certain days before our meeting that I wanted to read Louise Glück's "Nest" to the group. 

I share the whole poem with you here 
  • because it's hard to find it online in its entirety; 
  • because I want you to have the chance to read--and love--the whole poem, though I won't discuss all of it; and 
  • because I've purchased so many copies of Vita Nova over the years to give as gifts that I hope Glück would regard my quoting her entire poem as an act of reverent gratitude and appreciation, not theft or disrespect.
Here it is:
"Make For" by Scott Ketcham

A bird was making its nest.
In the dream, I watched it closely:
in my life, I was trying to be
a witness not a theorist.

The place you begin doesn't 
the place you end: the bird

took what it found in the yard,
its base materials, nervously
scanning the bare yard in early 
in debris by the south wall 
a few twigs with its beak.

of loneliness: the small creature
coming up with nothing. Then
dry twigs. Carrying, one by one,
the twigs to the hideout.
Which is all it was then.

It took what there was:
the available material. Spirit 
wasn't enough.

And then it wove like the first Penelope
but toward a different end.
How did it weave? It weaved,
carefully but hopelessly, the few twigs
with any suppleness,
any flexibility,
choosing these over the brittle, the recalcitrant.

Early spring, late desolation.
The bird circled the bare yard making
efforts to survive 
on what remained to it.

It had its task:
to imagine the future. Steadily flying around,
patiently bearing small twigs to the solitude
of the exposed tree in the steady coldness
of the outside world.

I had nothing to build with.
It was winter; I couldn't imagine
anything but the past. I couldn't even
imagine the past, if it came to that.

And I didn't know how I came there.
Everyone else much farther along.
I was back at the beginning
at a time in life when we can't remember beginnings.

The bird 
collected twigs in the apple tree, relating
each addition to existing mass.
But when was there suddenly mass?

It took what it found after the others
were finished.
The same materials--why should it matter 
to be finished last? The same materials, the same 
limited good. Brown twigs, 
broken and fallen. And in one,
a length of yellow wool.

Then it was spring, and I was inexplicably happy.
I knew where I was: on Broadway with my bag of groceries.
Spring fruit in the stores: first
cherries at Formaggio. Forsythia

First I was at peace.
Then I was contented, satisfied.
And then flashes of joy.
And the season changed--for all of us, 
of course.

And as I peered out my mind grew sharper.
And I remember accurately
the sequence of my responses,
my eyes fixing on each thing
from the shelter of the hidden self:

first, I love it.
Then, I can use it.**

I hadn't reread "Nest" before deciding it was the poem wanted to read. But while I was reading it aloud to the group, I knew why I'd chosen it: I was the "I" in the poem, the speaker who eventually becomes one with the bird, the aspiring poetry reader and writer "coming up with nothing," the one "back at the beginning" who "had nothing to build with," the one amassing "carefully but hopelessly" the twigs and sticks that others had passed over, the one destined to be "finished last."

Forget the poem's happy ending: I've yet to come across forsythia***  this spring, and I am not frothing with joy on this April 2. But oh, is it comforting to stand in the company of that speaker/bird in the earlier stanzas! That's one of the great gifts of really good poetry--the way it permits us to stand in company--emotional, intellectual, spiritual, even physical--and in so doing significantly eradicates our existential loneliness and despair. Especially at those moments when we feel that "For this, for everything, we are out of tune,**** great poems remind us of ". . . [our] place/In the family of things."*****

I have written only one blog post since 2019 began, and that on the precipitous occasion of the death of a good friend in mid-January. By then, deep sadness and worry were dominating my emotional landscape, I was already doubting that I had anything to say, and I was certainly doubting that I could add any truth or beauty to the world. Poetry--others' poetry--and music helped me navigate that moment, though. 

Not a coincidence I bought these notecards?
When my parents finally--thankfully--agreed in late January to go into assisted living, moving them became my focus. Not the stuff of poetry; just the stuff of being a daughter of nonagenarian parents. I was glad to be helping my parents make this needed change in their lives. In fact, I embraced my task with fierce, calm single-mindedness. My hope was--and still is--that their move will improve the quality of all of our lives, but especially theirs.*****

But as a result of my narrow focus, my already doubting and overwhelmed creative self further separated itself from me, slipping away between the stacked cartons and piled garbage bags, and then retreating into "the past" that I "couldn't even imagine."

Since my parents have somewhat settled into their new place, I've begun courting poetry again and trying to ease my creative self out of the shadows. This simultaneous reaching forward and reaching back isn't easy work, but I'm glad to be doing it, and I believe in it.

It's been almost a month now since I began late, soon, again, and with hope and support. Increasingly, beacons and guideposts are springing up along my path. Or have they always been there and I'm just seeing them now?

Sometimes, I hear them as music and snippets of conversation. Other times, they take the form of poems and the invitation to read them, to be lifted up by them, and even to make them a part of myself. More about all of this as National Poetry Month continues, the forsythia goes from gold to green, and the birds nest.

* "For the first time, the official National Poetry Month poster features artwork by a high school student: tenth grader Julia Wang from San Jose, California, who has won the inaugural National Poetry Month Poster Contest. Wang’s artwork was selected by contest judges Naomi Shihab Nye and Debbie Millman from among twelve finalists and more than 450 student submissions. It incorporates lines from the poem "An Old Story" by current U. S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. SmithRead more about Wang’s winning artwork, including the judges’ citations." Quotation from the National Poetry Foundation Web Site Poster Request Form link:
** Glück, L. (1999). "Nest". In Vita nova (pp. 37-39). New York, NY: Ecco Press.
*** Photo accompanying "Pruning Forsythias in Maine":
**** From William Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us, Late and Soon": 
***** From Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese":
****** Thus far, the move has made my parents safer--but that's probably been the only improvement, I'm sad to say.

#NationalPoetryMonth #NationalPoetryMonth2019