Friday, 25 September 2015

Audience of One (For Bob, Who Wanted to Know How It Worked)

Not actually Brigit OR Mary, but St Lucy wearing a harrow crown

Audience Of One

I belong to a weekly writers workshop that meets through the cooler months, making of a little more than half the year a time that has been for me, for a few years now, focussed on writing poetry to, about, and in honour of Brigit, both as goddess and as saint, in her (their) many, often conflicting, aspects and time periods. This season has just recommenced and much as I’ve enjoyed the summer writing—a longish research paper, some short essays, and portions of an online course—I’m comforted and delighted to be back with the poetic source that I can’t seem to stem.

By which I mean, the number of poems continues to grow. Each fall I say, Yes! Now I will finish editing these Brigit poems and get on to the next project. But the more I edit, the more I am inspired to write. The more I write, the more I refer to materials to be sure I’ve got things straight. And the more I refer to these materials, the more wonders I encounter, flushing up the desire to write (oh, guilty pleasure) yet another poem... Maybe what I am learning from this is that I shouldn’t worry about “finishing”, that though a collection may yet come of it, for me the practice of writing these poems is the most important thing.

Last week, after our first meeting, a new member of the group asked if he could pose a few questions about the process I go through when writing the poems. He offered to pay me for my time by buying me a cup of coffee. (He is much cheaper than you may imagine. Our coffee goes for fifty cents per class.) I agreed, and this is the result. (He may have bitten off more than he can chew. Sorry, Bob.)

Bob’s Questions

If you happen to want to write a piece for an audience of one, here's what I'd love to read:

1. Provide the background for one of your poems (what you gave today for the Christian/Neo-Pagan one was great).

2. Describe what was going on in your head as you wrote and revised the poem. For example:
- what were you hoping to achieve?
- how easy was it to write? Was there anything you struggled with?
- what options did you consider and reject?
- where were you concerned your readers wouldn't get it?
- how extensively did you edit and revise?
- how satisfied were you with the result? Was it what you initially envisioned?
- how enjoyable was the writing process?

3. Present the poem.

I've two reasons for making this suggestion. One is that while I enjoy your poems, I know I'm missing a lot of their depth. The second is that I suspect you might be one of the rare people who can actually describe something of the creative process in a way that's interesting and helpful to others, and which makes it easier for readers to appreciate the result.

If you don't want to do this, that's fine - I'll get over my heartbreak. You won't get a coffee, though.

Casey’s Answers

1. Provide the background for one of your poems.

Most of the material I’ve relied on for the Brigit poems has been Irish: medieval Lives of St. Brigit, early “secular” texts, folk lore, and so on. But there is a rich tradition in Scotland of St. Brigit under the name of Bride, containing much overlap with the Irish tradition and many uniquely Scottish aspects, such as the serpent coming from its hole on St. Bride’s Day.

“Friend of Mary” draws on both traditions, and a number of sources. Prayers such as “Brigit Bé Bithmaith” (Irish: Trinity College Dublin MS 1441, Liber Hymnorum,11th c..), and “Sloinntireachd Bhride” (“Genealogy of Bride”) (Scottish: Carmina Gadelica, Vol. I, [70] 1900), for instance, refer to her as golden, radiant, sparkling, and so on. The Scottish prayer calls her “noble foster-mother of Christ”, a role I don’t find mentioned in the Irish material I have access to. In his preamble to the prayer Alexander Carmichael notes that her festival gave rise to many sayings, including:

Thou Bride fair charming,
Pleasant to me the breath of thy mouth,
When I would go among strangers
‘Thou thyself wert the hearer of my tale.

This provokes the image I tried to instill in the poem of a woman of great empathy. So, too, does the final stanza of the Sloinntireachd, which depicts Bride not only as Christ’s foster-mother, but the petitioner’s own. (This prayer was said for protection.)

No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,
No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown me,
No arrow of fairy nor dart of fay shall wound me,
And I under the protection of my Holy Mary,
And my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.
The image of the harrow on Brigit’s head (or in some versions, candles in her hands) is an Irish one, though reported by Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica. It’s usually associated with Mary’s purification, and it was in gratitude for this kindness that Mary let Brigit’s feast be held before Candlemas—Mary’s own Feast of Purification.

The Scots have a detailed account of Bride as a poor daughter of innkeepers in Palestine who shared her “stoup of water and a bannock of bread” with Mary and Joseph one fateful night.

“She was the aid-woman of the Mother of Nazareth in the lowly stable, and she is the aid-woman of the mothers of Uist in their humble homes.”

                                                            Carmina Gadelica Vol. I

This is particularly meaningful to me as my great-grandmother would have been born with Bride’s aid on North Uist, an island historically devoted as well to another emmigrant from Ireland, St. Columba.

2. Describe what was going on in your head as you wrote and revised the poem

→I love the idea of St. Bride befriending Mary, a woman who lived hundreds of years before her in a far distant land, yet who she is identified with in many ways—St. Brigit is called the Mary of the Gael—and who she is seen to have great kinship with by the Scots. Though “practically” they could not have known each other, short of time travel, poetically, in the kernel of the heart and mind, they absolutely belong together. It delights me that the distance in place and time was no obstacle to the people who fashioned and celebrated the tales regarding this unlikely, utterly suited pair. It seems very right that this was so.

I suppose, too, that I’ve always seen Mary as a rather lonely figure. She is so central and yet so peripheral to the story of Jesus. She may have had friends, they may even have been mentioned in the Bible, but the image I have in my mind of her is of a solitary woman, wreathed in glory perhaps, but on her own when not tending her son. I wasn’t fond of her when I was a kid, and maybe that aloof serenity was part of why. She had no real personality beyond Mother of God.

I love, therefore, that she’s imagined here as timidly entering the church for her rite of purification after Jesus’s birth. It makes her very human, someone I can relate to; that Bride was also moved by her plight, and had the audacity and peculiar creativity to think of preceding Mary into the church with a burning harrow on her head to distract onlookers, makes Bride herself both more human and more divine.

The burning harrow speaks of something much older and of a religious significance I don’t fully understand. There is mystery there even though to a modern imagination it may seem funny. Bride becomes greater and more cosmological than the suddenly human mother of God, even while humbly serving her. This entices me both intellectually and spiritually, and entertains me in a childlike and poetic way.

→In the case of “Friend of Mary”, I didn’t refer to any texts while writing (time for fact-checking in the editing process), but drew from memory various details that seemed relevant to the relationship I was looking at. That made the actual writing pretty breezy—jot down an image that flashes to mind, then the next; pause and wonder if I’ve left anything out, realize I have, puzzle a way to fit those in without overweighting the boat.

Other poems require me to write a few lines, refer to the text I’m drawing from, correct my trajectory, and feel out how to go on. Those poems can take months to complete. If there’s a lot of information available it sometimes makes the writing harder—choosing what to leave out, what to allude to, what to explain. But whichever sort of poem it is, going back to the materials makes me look more broadly than I at first had, to find meaning I hadn’t expected when setting out.

→All I hoped to achieve, then, was to flesh out the friendship as simply and fully as I could without burying its charm in words. I wanted to provoke a little of the humour and wonder, the warmth and genuine kindness of the original stories, as well as the undertone of magic present in them.

Actually, there was more. The imagery of light, for instance—“brilliant”, “radiant flame”, “golden light”, “crown” (with its implication of glittering metal and perhaps jewels), “flaming harrow”, and so on—is very important in understanding St. Brigit.

Alexander Carmichael writes, in his commentary on the “Invocation for Justice” (Carmina Gadelica I), “...the spreading rays of the morning sun [represents] divine grace”. Brigit in her vitae is depicted as being in touch with God through prayer at all times, more even than St. Brendan, who is rather jealous about it. The complex linking of Brigit to radiance is a way of illustrating the fullness of God’s grace in her at all times. Mary of course is depicted in a similar way, so it is no surprise Brigit (or Bride) is seen to be living the life of Mary. I wanted to bring in the importance of Bride as radiant, however subtly, amongst the aspects of her relationship to Mary and Jesus and the different ways she served them—to take these rarified elements and then draw them down to earth with their quiet affection.

→It wasn’t too hard to write. There are a total of only five drafts so far, though there is always the danger if I look at it again it will continue morphing. The first draft was prompted by a reading in The Festival of Brigit by Séamas Ó Catháin. It was eleven lines long, not all that different from the first part of the poem as it now stands. The second draft involved a more direct mention of the relationship itself, though in the form of wondering what it was like, and how it had occurred. At that point I also realized not everyone would understand that fosterage was a primary social occupation in medieval Irish society, and doubtless as well in the Scottish society that grew in part out of the Irish. So I underscored that without explaining it, so the reader would not be wondering if Mary had gone into rehab for a while or something, prompting Jesus to be fostered out.

After that it was mostly wrestling with wording for a couple of drafts, until I realized I was cheating by just wondering, and ought to concretize their intimacy by actually depicting an interaction between the two. So in draft four we went from wondering what words passed between Mary and Bride to saying I heard words pass, and on what topic. In draft five I took myself out of the poem—it felt like an intrusion to put me there. I was of no importance to the story and a big distraction, raising all sorts of unnecessary questions like How the hell did I get there?! A little more word whittling and we were where we now are.

→How satisfied was I with the result? Honestly, the satisfaction for me comes 90% from the process, not the outcome, and it was a highly enjoyable one. I love imagining these extraordinary situations; it becomes very real to me, and is as refreshing as a trip to the Promised Lands. I also love tinkering and tinkering with the shape and the texture, noticing what I’ve overlooked, smoothing out wording, reading it aloud repeatedly until it runs smoothly off my tongue.

I wouldn’t be satisfied at all, though, if I was hoping to replicate the original. The stories of Bride told to Alexander Carmichael, for instance, are highly magical, highly inventive, detailed, surprising, moving—absolutely wonderful. If my short and extremely stripped-down poem were to prompt someone to read the stories as he has recorded them, that would be great. (Easy, too: the whole of Carmina Gadelica is available online at

→It isn’t what I envisioned because I don’t envision anything. At least, I interpret “envisioning” as a pre-picturing of how the whole will look. I’m not thinking much about how it will look until the editing process. When I’m writing initially, I’m in the story, in the images, digging for meaning and its expression.

→How enjoyable was the writing process? Delightful. In part because of all I’ve said above, but also because in doing this I’m integrating scattered information, impressions, and insights I glean from reading, observing, living—things that are usually stored half experienced in some corner of my brain. In this place, the place of writing Brigit’s poems, everything comes together and makes the most colourful and profound sense to me. I feel I am right here, absolutely alive.

Caveat: All of the above gushing description is limited to the process of writing. I’m not claiming after all that to have written a fine, or worse, a perfect poem. I am never certain about my poems, always regard them with great reservation, and would never put them next to the poems of a master—Seamus Heaney, for example, whose least poem soars. I like most of my Brigit poems enough to want to share them, and I hope they collectively shed some little light on her for those who don’t want to plough through all the materials themselves, and maybe be of pleasure to the reader.

But I look at this poem, in particular, after writing about it, and am clear that it’s not, itself, anywhere near as marvellous as the matter about which it speaks. In a way, that is one of the strange gifts of this exercise. To immerse, to revel, and to in some manner let the whole thing go.

3. Present the poem.

Friend of Mary

brilliant Bride
radiant flame—
Mary’s midwife

you eased tiny Jesus
into our world’s golden light
fostered him
as any Scottish noble would
wore a crown
—flaming harrow—
Mary’s shield from eager eyes
shy mother come for cleansing
after birth

words pass between you
whispered request for swaddling
quiet chuckle at your
irreverent babe-remarks
this woman of desert reaches
you    of rocky isles
bound in ways that cleave through
place and time

what wise and wondrous
feat of prayer transported you

to her—long ages parted—
needy side

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