Essay / 19 May 2022

To Sing of Peace

Author of the Week: Ireland

Poetry and War

To speak of poetry and war, it is imperative that the first word, and the last, be given to the poetry. This poem is often part of my early day prayer:


The Red Gate

Mornings, when you swing open the red gate –

admitting the world again with its creeds and wars –

the hinges sing their three sharp notes of protest;

you hear the poplars in their murmurings and sifflings

while the labouring high caravans of the rain

pass slowly by; it will seem as if the old

certainties of the moon and stars, mingled

with the turnings and returnings of your dreams, mist

to unreality, although there rise about you

matins and lauds of the meadow-sweet and rowan; the first

truck goes ruttling down the wet road and the raw

arguments, the self-betrayed economies of governments

assault you so you may miss the clear-souled drops

on the topmost bar that would whisper you peace.



Pope John XXIII, whose great effort in the Second Vatican Council was to open the windows of the Church and let humanity in and institutional law out, published an encyclical, Pacem in Terris in April 1963. This work focuses on why conflicts “should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation” – and when I saw a news story on the television, I wrote a response to my memory of this encyclical:

Cedar

In what year of war did Jehovah

abandon them? A man

riding a Yamaha XS 400 model 1982

has taken his two daughters from the ruins of their house,

has left the battered bodies of his wife and mother

among the rubble and tries to flee

across the baked, beloved fields of Lebanon –

into a hole somewhere, please God, the two

children, terrified, big eyes filled with tears, fingers

gripping hard but the bike will scarcely move, it sputters, skids,

one child before him, one behind, both tied to him

with light-blue clothes-line round their waists, the bike

slithers out into the day and turns, please

God, north on a cratered road, the sky itself so beautiful, such

an immaculate creation, and the children’s’ voices wail

louder than the stop-go reluctant coughing of the bike

till an Israeli F16, inaudible, well-nigh invisible, so high

above, oh God please God, draws

a gash of fumes across the sky

and father, daughters, bike explode into shards

of flesh and chrome and are lost

in the bleak inheritance of the Old Testament

while only the back wheel of the bike

a Yamaha XS 400 model 1982

spins in uproarious speed and will

not stop, will not

stop


The encyclical goes on: “And yet there is a disunity among individuals and among nations which is in striking contrast to this perfect order of the universe. One would think that the relationships that bind men together could only be governed by force. But the world’s Creator has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it.”

War is, of course, humanity in utter disorder. In faith terms, “God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good”. All serious art seeks to find order; even presenting disorder in some ordered forms. As Thomas Kinsella wrote, in “Baggot Street Deserta”:

Versing, like an exile, makes

A virtuoso of the heart,

Interpreting the old mistakes

And discords in a work of Art

For the One, a private masterpiece

Of doctored recollections.


If the writing of a poem, the singing of a song, is a form of ordering the graphic lines of a person’s history (and therefore humanity’s history in miniature), the good poetry is one of the great opposites of war. “Human society… demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands too that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own, and induce them to share their goods with others, and to strive in the world to make all men alike heirs to the noblest of intellectual and spiritual values. . . Peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon that order...that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom….”

Birdsong outside our windows is of the order of the universe and is, therefore, anti-war. The beautiful features of the goldfinch is also of the order of the cosmos and stands atop a bird-feeder as a principle of order. A poem. A call for peace and love. But war persists. . . a crime in itself as it tears apart every principle of truth, justice and order. Therefore the call for the total abolition of war, cried out early in this twenty-first century, was like the song of the goldfinch, perhaps too delicate to be widely heard. The initiative was called “The Case for Abolition of War in the 21st Century”. I have never seen this as a foolish, childish or wildly impossible dream, but a wholly intelligent and even necessary discussion. I think that, all my life, I have been bamboozled by the existence of war and wars, of violence, colonialism, land-grabbing that goes by the name of “settlements”. . . I do remember being in the kitchen at home when I was a mere six or seven years old, wondering about the adults gathered around the radio listening to what was going on in Korea. I had no idea, of course, about wars but something did enter into my attending spirit and stuck. I went out at times, with my brother Declan and my father, and we went – or rather father went and we followed – shooting rabbits on a sandy bank in fields of our island, or, during the winter months, out on the hunt for wild geese. I remember how the tiny rabbits scurried for safety into their burrows; how the beautiful wild geese, the Brent or the Greylag, slopped uglily on the scullery table, blood soiling their feathers, and it hurt me somewhere. Years later I remembered how my father tried to teach me how to shoot: I reckon this stirred my first effort at writing an anti-war manifesto!


Eye of the Hare

There! amongst lean-to grasses and trailing vetch

catch her? – vagrant, free-range and alert;

I saw the eager watch-tower of the ears, I knew

the power of legs that would fling her into flight;

concentrate, he said, and focus: you must love

the soft-flesh shoulder-muscles where the bullet bites,

caress – and do not jerk – the trigger: be all-embracing, be

delicate. I had no difficulty with the saucepan lid

down at the end of the meadow, lifted, for practice,

against the rhododendron hedge, I could sight

its smug self-satisfaction and shoot a hole

pea-perfect and clean through. Attention to the hare

left me perplexed for I, too, relish the vision

I imaged in its round dark eye, of a green world

easy under sunlight, of sweet sorrel and sacred herbs –

and I turned away, embarrassed, and absolved.


There is a wonderful poet from Kentucky, Wendell Berry, whose work I have loved for years. I found this wisdom in one of his poems: “Ceaseless preparation for war / is not peace”. It may be, of course, that the human condition seems to demand that one person be superior to another. But we are encouraged to purify the human condition! What the call for the abolition of war was a cry not simply an end to a particular war: (and there are surely several wars erupting somewhere in our world at any and every time) but the total abolition of war. Is it beyond humanity’s powers to do that? If we can travel to Venus or Mars, if we can take out the heart of a person and replace it with another, if we can send videos instantly across the world. . . So, not a “war to end all wars” but war’s abolition. The appeal was not just aimed at Christians but at all people concerned about the question. It pointed to the fact that in the 19th century, the idea of calling for the abolition of slavery was a utopian dream. Perhaps it was, as the results even in our time, are not 100 percent convincing. But something real and lasting was certainly achieved.


The hurt and destruction to humanity is truly horrific, evident in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not only to the combatants but to local populations, innocent and uninvolved women and children. The appeal was, and remains, that the serious study of the process of peace will only begin once the necessity of all war is denied. Should it not be possible, in our enlightened and developed world, that the twenty-first century be for war what the nineteenth was for slavery, the era of its abolition, and let Christians give the leadership necessary in achieving that.

The great 17th century poet, George Herbert, has written in beautiful simplicity and subtle craftsmanship how “love”, or God, or truth, or justice. . . calls on the human being to respond by offering a complete surrender to that way, that truth, that life. It is a call and a poem addressed to the lover by a greater Lover, and the drama of the little piece is beautifully engaged in the movement of the Lover closer and closer to the beloved:


Love

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: compare Luke 12:37. "Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord when he commeth, shall find watching: Verily, I say unto you, That he shall gird himself, and make them to sit downe to meat, and will come foorth and serve them." (Authorized Version, 1611) Compare also to the second stanza of Herbert's poem "Faith": "Hungry I was, and had no meat: / I did conceit a most delicious feast; / I had it straight, and did as truly eat, / As ever did a welcome guest."

So I did sit and eat.


It occurred to me that the speaker of the poem is a sort of “everyman” and the “Love” who does the welcoming could be any lover, or the great Lover of Christianity. Could the invitation in the poem include the call for the abolition of war and its consequences? Love sends out this invitation. And love is the greatest opponent of war and aggression and violence of any colour.

I sat one day outside my home in Dublin and watched a charm of goldfinches as they clustered about the flowers of the evening primrose that had gone into seed; at the same time there were butterflies around the failing plum tree in our back garden. Could I direct my own poem in a gently imitative drama?


The Poem of the Goldfinch

Write, came the persistent whisperings, a poem

on the mendacities of war. So I found shade

under the humming eucalyptus, and sat,

patienting. Thistle-seeds blew about on a soft breeze,

a brown-gold butterfly was shivering on a fallen

ripe-flesh plum. Write your dream, said Love, of the total

abolition of war. Vivaldi, I wrote, the four

seasons. Silence, a while, save for the goldfinch

swittering in the higher branches, sweet, they sounded,

sweet-wit, wit-wit, wit-sweet. I breathed

scarcely, listening. Love bade me write but my hand

held over the paper; tell them you, I said,

they will not hear me. A goldfinch swooped,

sifting for seeds; I revelled in its colouring, such

scarlets and yellows, such tawny, a patterning

the creator himself must have envisioned, doodling

that gold-flash and Hopkins-feathered loveliness. Please

write, Love said, though less insistently. Spirit, I answered,

that moved out once on chaos. . . No, said Love,

and I said Michelangelo, Van Gogh, No, write

for them the poem of the goldfinch and the whole

earth singing, so I set myself down to the task.

If the great and overwhelming movement of creation is an evolution towards wholeness, towards the world working in harmony and unity together, then I find that the following words from St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a rich and urgent call, too: for in unity and harmony and order lives our hope, and anything that works against that unity, whatever holds back our development as humans in harmony with creation, is truly ‘sin’.

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

He preached peace, but peace is not easy won, and the song of the Christ is calling for a response, and that response lays on us all the need to work for the total abolition of war in our time.


Edge of the Known World

Hours they spend, stitching nets along the quayside

these slow warm days; it is a time

to cast into the light such gobbets of wisdom

the older ones have harvested; time for the young

to offer mockeries. It seems they have been

forever sitting there, baiting words; their lives

are complex interactions of rope-lines

with small squares of air, that their days may hold,

that bounty be a little more assured. All this

at the earth’s edge, the old unyielding ground

asserting ocean’s limitations, one eye on the hemp, one

on the fluidity and refusal of the sea. They knot

patience and hope together, the windy

vowels of their humour and spittled consonants

of their expletives. In that place where Christ walks by

and throws their consciousness into chaos with his demands.


And this, of course, is the song the goldfinch sings, and it is the song of the whole cosmos.