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."
"It was a day of coldBlossoms 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.
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
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,
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring."*
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 ****|
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:
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."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."***
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 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51607/casualty-56d22f7512b97
** 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 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/world/europe/lyra-mckee-funeral-northern-ireland.html
*** 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, www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/at-lyra-mckees-funeral-in-belfast-priest-asks-why-it-takes-a-murder-for-politicians-to-come-together/2019/04/24/39c54712-6610-11e9-a698-2a8f808c9cfb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.06004c8c87c5.
**** 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 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/world/europe/lyra-mckee-funeral-northern-ireland.html
***** Casual/Casualty. (2015, January 26). Retrieved April 28, 2019, from http://www.word-detective.com/