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An Ulster Twilight -- Seamus Heaney

Guest poem submitted by Janice:
(Poem #1793) An Ulster Twilight
 The bare bulb, a scatter of nails,
 Shelved timber, glinting chisels:
 In a shed of corrugated iron
 Eric Dawson stoops to his plane
 At five o'clock on a Christmas Eve.
 Carpenter's pencil next, the spoke-shave,
 Fretsaw, auger, rasp and awl,
 A rub with a rag of linseed oil.
 A mile away it was taking shape,
 The hulk of a toy battleship,
 As waterbuckets iced and frost
 Hardened the quiet on roof and post.
 Where is he now?
 There were fifteen years between us two
 That night I strained to hear the bells
 Of a sleigh of the mind and heard him pedal
 Into our lane, get off at the gable,
 Steady his Raleigh bicycle
 Against the whitewash, stand to make sure
 The house was quiet, knock at the door
 And hand his parcel to a peering woman:
 `I suppose you thought I was never coming.'
 Eric, tonight I saw it all
 Like shadows on your workshop wall,
 Smelled wood shavings under the bench,
 Weighed the cold steel monkey-wrench
 In my soft hand, then stood at the road
 To watch your wavering tail-light fade
 And knew that if we met again
 In an Ulster twilight we would begin
 And end whatever we might say
 In a speech all toys and carpentry,
 A doorstep courtesy to shun
 Your father's uniform and gun,
 But -- now that I have said it out --
 Maybe none the worse for that.
-- Seamus Heaney
This is one of my favourite Heaney poems -- simple, beautiful, so
atmospheric. Okay, a little background on Ulster. Ulster is one of the
provinces of Ireland and makes up Northern Ireland which is part of The
United Kingdom (except for three counties which are part of The Republic of
Ireland). The majority of the population, the Unionists, wish to remain
under The United Kingdom stamp while a minority, the Nationalists, long for
a United Ireland. The conflict of course, arises from the fact that the
former are predominantly Protestant and the latter are mainly Catholics.
Political unrest was at its worst during 1968-1994, violence stemming from
the wish to end British presence in the area launched by the Provisional
IRA, resisted by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (For a
far more detailed account check

This state of being neither here nor there, of an uneasy silence, of
brooding heaviness is beautifully captured in Ulster Twilight, the title
encompassing the situation and feelings of a people who fight for freedom
and identity. Heaney begins with fragmented images, small images, like
little pictures that flash through a window. A work-shop where anything
could be in the process of being made -- a bomb? a weapon? But it is
Christmas Eve and Eric Dawson is making a toy battleship -- but a battleship
all the same. The frosty evening images reflect the sombre, cold

Then we realise that it is a flashback. It is a Christmas Eve of fifteen
years ago, a surreptious evening unmarked by the season's cheer and
brightness. It is steeped in an atmosphere of surveillance, the cautiously
peering woman, the little boy watching with a monkey wrench in hand ...
while the man does something as simple as deliver a present. The dim hope
held at the end is that perhaps if they ever met again, there could be some
sort of dialogue (note: a 'speech', not even a conversation) and not a mere
doorstep courtesy.

I love the fact that the movement of the poem spirals as we reach the end.
Beginning with sharp, small images the feeling at the end is of something
larger, looming, something that envelopes and permeates. The underlying
violence, tension is like a gun that's trained on you, waiting to go off.

Hope you enjoy the poem!


Winter '84 -- Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta

Guest poem submitted by Salima Virani:
(Poem #1792) Winter '84
 I tell the corner store owner
 'pretty cold out there'
 he says
 'ain't what it used to be'
 'oh', i say, 'why is that'
 wondering if coloured immigration
 has affected the seasons...
 'they've been fooling around
 with the weather',
 he says.
 [his wife nods]
 'ever since they sent a man
 to the moon
 it hasn't been right'

 oh, i say,
 breathing out
 'yeah, i know what you mean'
-- Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta

I recently came across this poem and what struck me most about it is that
although it's been over twenty years since this poem was written, there are
many new immigrants in Canada that continue to feel some discomfort and
unease with their status as immigrants. I'm not sure if that is because
there continues to be a lot of racism or if it's something else.

I'd like to believe that actual instances of racism are much fewer now than
what may have prevailed two decades ago. I was born and raised in India and
have been in Canada for less than a decade but I've never really experienced
any racism. That said, my parents who recently moved here (about three years
ago) from India, go to great lengths to avoid eye contact/conversations with
anyone that speaks different or, in their view, is "very Canadian". They
feel unequipped to engage in casual conversations with white folks and so
all their interaction with them is typically on a "as needed" basis. And so,
if, as it sometimes happens, they're approached by a friendly neighbour who
knocks on the door to inform them about a missed fedex delivery or something
similar, their first reaction, much like Bhaggiyadatta, is always unease and
anxiety. Mum will wonder if her cooking is emanating unpleasant odours or if
her blaring music (of Nusrat or Bollywood tunes) is causing a nuisance.
When they find that it's something to do with fedex and that the "white"
neighbour is actually quite a harmless and friendly guy - they're pleasantly
surprised and quite relieved.


There is a lot of information about Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta scattered
over the web but I was unable to find a single page that gave me a
comprehensive bio about the author. So, I have taken the liberty to put
together the information I discovered and compile a bio (of sorts) for him.
Any errors and omissions are entirely mine.

Bhaggiyadatta is a Sri Lankan-Canadian and a prolific writer. He has
authored several books and articles that tackle the issues of racism and
marginalization. He's also a playwright and  one of his popular plays is
called "The D.M.O. (Dishwashing Machine Operators)", which refers to the
jobs held by many Sri Lankan immigrants to Toronto. Bhaggiyadatta has
published five books of poetry: Domestic Bliss, The Only Minority is the
Bourgeoisie, Mothers and Generals, 52nd State of Amnesia, & Aay Wha' Kinda
Indian Arr U. His works have also appeared in other publications such as in
Passport Photos by Amitava Kumar.


Poem I -- Sappho

Guest poem sent in by Emlen Smith

I just realized there was no Sappho on the Minstrels site, and I think that
needs to be fixed. (I couldn't find a translation I liked online, so this is
mine; I tried to stay as close to the literal meaning as possible, in
something vaguely resembling the original meter):
(Poem #1791) Poem I
 Immortal Aphrodite of the beautiful throne,
 Guile-weaving child of Zeus, I pray you,
 Do not oppress with pain and sorrow
 (O queen) my heart.

 But come here, if ever another time,
 Noticing my prayers from far away,
 You heard, and leaving your father's house
 Of gold, you came,

 Your chariot under you, driven by fair
 Swift doves flying over the black earth,
 With their strong wings, fluttering down
 Straight from the sky,

 And soon they arrived; and you, o blessed one,
 A smile upon your immortal face,
 Asked what was wrong this time, and why
 I called you this time,

 And what I wanted most of all to happen,
 In my mad heart; "Who shall I persuade this time
 To bring you back into her favor? Who, O
 Sappho, has hurt you?

 And if now she flees, she soon will chase you;
 If now she refuses gifts, she will give them;
 If now she does not love, soon she will love,
 Though against her will."

 Come to me now, too, and set me free
 From bitter cares, and do everything
 That my heart wishes done; and you yourself
 Become my ally.
-- Sappho
This is one of the only complete poems of Sappho that we have; another was
dug up recently, and there's a chance that 31 is complete (but it's probably
missing at least a full stanza), but the rest are all fragments, quoted
(like this one) by other authors, or found on scraps of papyrus in ancient
garbage heaps. You can go crazy thinking either about what treasures are
lost forever, or how lucky we are that Dionysius of Halicarnassus happened
to use this one as an example of something.

The poem starts off sounding like a traditional hymn, with several names of
the goddess, and then a request for help. Recalling help given in the past
is also traditional in Greek prayer. But the tone of intimacy, and
Aphrodite's (the goddess of love) indulgent attitude, as if toward a
favorite child, are just about unique. The changes in perspective are
wonderful, too: For the first few stanzas, Aphrodite seems to be constantly
coming closer, until we get her own words spoken in her own person.

Sappho lived on the Greek island of Lesbos (whence the word "Lesbian")
around the end of the 7th century BC. We know very little about her life,
though since antiquity people have eagerly made things up (there's a famous,
and utterly unfounded, story of her throwing herself off a cliff after an
unhappy love affair). Her poetry, like all Greek poetry until long after
Sappho, would have been performed to some sort of musical accompaniment, but
the exact circumstances of the performance are a matter for speculation: did
she sing her poems herself? Were some or all of them accompanied by a
dancing chorus? Did she run some sort of pre-marriage school for young
women? Were her poems performed at religious festivals (some, at least, seem
designed for weddings)? At small gatherings of women? Of men? We know so
little, and we've lost so much context (and so much actual poetry), that
it's really incredible how clearly Sappho can speak to us.

-Emlen Smith


Greek text, and a recording of someone reading it (I don't have Real Player,
so I couldn't listen to it, but how bad could it be?) at:

And if you don't read Greek, but want to know how this should sound, there's
a transliteration (and another translation) at:

Some translations of Sappho's poems:

Broken Hearts -- Jeremy Reed

Guest poem submitted by Anne McGrath:
(Poem #1790) Broken Hearts
 There should be heart-shaped rooms in which we sit
 as a collective to repair
 the damage done by love, and half the night
 we'd exchange stories, share a common pain
 that's always different, but never less
 in how the ruin's total, like a house
 slipped off a cliff edge to the sea
 or like a turtle that has lost its shell
 but keeps on going, making tracks on sand
 to find a refuge up beyond the surf.
 We're all suddenly disinherited
 from little ways, familiar dialogue,
 security of someone there to share
 bad news, rejection, a red letter day,
 a downmood's tumble of blue dice,
 or someone there to celebrate a quiet
 in which the meaning is in being two
 without a need to speak. But out of love
 we seem to be falling down stairs
 that never terminate. He left or she
 took off with someone else, it's like the blow
 will never stop arriving in the heart
 as an impacted fist. We'd call the place
 Heartbreak Hotel, and hope to patch the scars
 of unrequited love and leave
 a little less in tatters, disrepair.
 I'll find the place one day, and book a room
 and talk amongst the losers of a face
 I can't forget, and of a special hurt
 bleeding like footprints scattered over snow.
-- Jeremy Reed
Jeremy Reed is one of my favourite contemporary poets. As a commentator and
guide to contemporary life there is none more penetrating and in matters of
the heart none more sensitive. There is always such incisiveness and balance
in his poems, and always such striking and apt imagery - '...but never less,
in how the ruin's total, like a house slipped off a cliff edge to the sea.'
Yes! Isn't that exactly what its like? - and, as in this one, there is often
consolation in his pointing up shared experience. In reading this one I
always run in my own head my own experiences, remembering that one 'special
hurt' above the rest - that we all have - and so, as is often the case with
him, the silence at the end of his poems becomes more like a space in which
your own poems are whispered back to him, and as in any sharing of pain
there is a lessening. His output is quite phenomenal, and there is no
'typical' Reed poem, but this is a good one to start with. As a poetic guide
on the journey he is worth taking along.

Anne McGrath.

The General -- Siegfried Sassoon

Guest poem submitted by Bill Whiteford:
(Poem #1789) The General
 "Good-morning, good-morning!" the General said
 When we met him last week on our way to the line.
 Now the men that he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
 And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
 "He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
 As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

 But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
-- Siegfried Sassoon
I'm suggesting this on November 11, Armistice Day here in Britain (and
presumably in many other countries). We're often taught the first world war
poets at school, and I remember being struck by the power of this short poem
then. I've never been very good at memorising long screeds of verse, but I
could usually remember the last three lines of this. Interestingly, I
thought there were two stanzas, of four and three lines. But I see most
sources render it as above.  Again , there's a lot you could do in the way
of analysis (the very strict rhythm of lines 1-6, the stutter-step in 7),
but I will leave that to others.

Bill Whiteford.

The Leader -- Roger McGough

(Poem #1788) The Leader
 I wanna be the leader
 I wanna be the leader
 Can I be the leader?
 Can I? I can?
 Promise? Promise?
 Yippee I'm the leader
 I'm the leader

 OK what shall we do?
-- Roger McGough
This skirts perilously close to my "why is this even a poem?" line, but for
all that, I enjoyed it. McGough has a fine feel for the rhythms and patterns
of colloquial speech, which makes his poetry a delight to read. Also, he has
perfectly captured a common behaviour pattern in a few well-chosen lines -
the image made me laugh, and I can imagine several of my famous cartoonists
doing a great job illustrating the verse.

This is the sort of poem that, while not precisely epigrammatic, I
nonetheless find myself quoting when events or discussions take a
predictable turn. If nothing else, poems like this provide an entertaining
way of recognising and commenting (even if only to myself) upon life's
little, commonplace absurdities.


Diving into the Wreck -- Adrienne Rich

Guest poem submitted by Janice:
(Poem #1787) Diving into the Wreck
 First having read the book of myths,
 and loaded the camera,
 and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
 I put on
 the body-armor of black rubber
 the absurd flippers
 the grave and awkward mask.
 I am having to do this
 not like Cousteau with his
 assiduous team
 aboard the sun-flooded schooner
 but here alone.

 There is a ladder.
 The ladder is always there
 hanging innocently
 close to the side of the schooner.
 We know what it is for,
 we who have used it.
 it is a piece of maritime floss
 some sundry equipment.

 I go down.
 Rung after rung and still
 the oxygen immerses me
 the blue light
 the clear atoms
 of our human air.
 I go down.
 My flippers cripple me,
 I crawl like an insect down the ladder
 and there is no one
 to tell me when the ocean
 will begin.

 First the air is blue and then
 it is bluer and then green and then
 black I am blacking out and yet
 my mask is powerful
 it pumps my blood with power
 the sea is another story
 the sea is not a question of power
 I have to learn alone
 to turn my body without force
 in the deep element.

 And now: it is easy to forget
 what I came for
 among so many who have always
 lived here
 swaying their crenellated fans
 between the reefs
 and besides
 you breathe differently down here.

 I came to explore the wreck.
 The words are purposes.
 The words are maps.
 I came to see the damage that was done
 and the treasures that prevail.
 I stroke the beam of my lamp
 slowly along the flank
 of something more permanent
 than fish or weed

 the thing I came for:
 the wreck and not the story of the wreck
 the thing itself and not the myth
 the drowned face always staring
 toward the sun
 the evidence of damage
 worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
 the ribs of the disaster
 curving their assertion
 among the tentative haunters.

 This is the place.
 And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
 streams black, the merman in his armored body.
 We circle silently
 about the wreck
 we dive into the hold.
 I am she: I am he

 whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
 whose breasts still bear the stress
 whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
 obscurely inside barrels
 half-wedged and left to rot
 we are the half-destroyed instruments
 that once held to a course
 the water-eaten log
 the fouled compass

 We are, I am, you are
 by cowardice or courage
 the one who find our way
 back to this scene
 carrying a knife, a camera
 a book of myths
 in which
 our names do not appear.
-- Adrienne Rich
I remember studying this in college and loving the way the poem draws the
reader in... just as the poet is diving so are you. There have been many
interpretaions of what the diver is looking for; the wreck has been called
the bulk of sexual definitions of the past, the treasure has been seen to be
knowledge, the book of myths patriarchy itself.

But I like to see the peom as one of transformation: the diver almost
'becomes' an androgyne, land is transformed into ocean, even breathing is
different there... the ocean changes from blue, green to black and the
shipwreck takes on mythical connotations. It is a journey of self-discovery
in more ways than one. There is a quest, a treasure and the journey she/he
makes is into the past, to look beyond myths and discover the truth behind
the wreckage.

Hope you enjoy the poem.


The Moon is Distant from the Sea -- Emily Dickinson

Guest poem sent in by Rachel Rein
(Poem #1786) The Moon is Distant from the Sea
 The moon is distant from the sea,
 And yet with amber hands
 She leads him, docile as a boy,
 Along appointed sands.

 He never misses a degree;
 Obedient to her eye,
 He comes just so far toward the town,
 Just so far goes away.

 Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand,
 And mine the distant sea, --
 Obedient to the least command
 Thine eyes impose on me.
-- Emily Dickinson
As the 22nd Dickinson poem on Minstrels, there isn't much left to say about
the formidable woman herself, though I will touch upon the text for a
moment. I was introduced to it while singing an arrangement by David Childs
in a woman's chorale.

I've seen the poem written with a dash in nearly every phrase instead of
commas or periods, though I do not know which version, if either, is the
"correct" one.  I've also heard some say Dickinson was writing about God. I
would broaden the scope to say I believe this poem to be about any strong
male figure, be that father, brother, or a deity. Strong, though, to a
fault; we cannot tell whether the sea wishes to be so conforming, does not
have a choice, or does not know the difference. It is also interesting to
note the gender of the moon and the sea, then the seeming reversal in the
last stanza: the man becomes the formerly feminine moon while Dickinson
becomes the manchild sea. While I do not know what to make of this, I hope
someone will comment and illuminate.

In all, this is one of my favorite Dickinson poems and I'm proud to add it
to the Minstrel archive.

-Rae Rein

Stray Birds -- Rabindranath Tagore

Guest poem sent in by Sarah Korah

I was reminded of this poem when I recently read Keats 'To Autumn' on
(Poem #1785) Stray Birds
 Stray birds of summer come to my
   window to sing and fly away.
 And yellow leaves of autumn, which
   have no songs, flutter and fall
   there with a sigh.
-- Rabindranath Tagore
In this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when night comes early and
remains long, this poem reminds me of summer days which fly away all too
soon. It also made me realise that while there is beauty in fall colors and
a certain poignancy in falling leaves, there's little music in them.

Tagore through and through, simple and beautiful.

Sarah Korah

Thinking of Russia -- Harold Harwell (H H) Lewis

(Poem #1784) Thinking of Russia
 I'm always thinking of Russia
 I can't keep her out of my head.
 I don't give a damn for Uncle Sham.
 I'm a left wing radical Red.
-- Harold Harwell (H H) Lewis
     (c. 1932)

I first read this amusing little ditty over a decade ago, quoted (without
attribution) in a newspaper opinion piece. I've been searching for it on and
off ever since, and finally found a reference to it via google (I love the
internet!). As an unexpected bonus, I found it embedded in an excellent
review (see links) of Harold Bloom's "The Best Poems of the English
Language", where the reviewer, Cary Nelson, has this to say:

  And, finally, like many steeped in high literary traditions, I have some
  favorite pieces of doggerel whose capacity to burlesque literary ambition
  and bring it down to earth is a necessary cultural and personal antidote.
  My all-time favorite remains H. H. Lewis's "Thinking of Russia".

I agree with Nelson - this is indeed a brilliant piece of verse. It has that
indefinable quality called "catchiness", which is sadly missing from most
classroom discussions of literary theory, but which is nonetheless a very
real measure of a poem's merits (witness the fact that I remembered it
fifteen years after seeing it quoted). Some combination of the easy metre,
the deliciously irreverent tone and the wonderfully rhythmic phrase "left
wing radical red" make this a poem far more timeless than its overtly
political content would suggest. It might never make the pages of Bloom's
august tome, but I'm more than happy to run it here.



The Bloom review: