Thursday, April 30, 2009

Easter Snow, Burren Gentians

Conflating three tributes today, Michael Longley's "A Single Gentian" poem with Christy Moore's "Easter Snow" lyrics for departed piper Séamus Ennis. I triangulated from my own father's funeral this morning via Ben Howard's post on Longley's verse. Voice, tune, mass, death, longing all merge.

Professor Howard's "The Practice of Zen" entries demonstrate the author's patient tutelage in that discipline. (I've added "TPOZ" as a blog link at the right-hand side of mine.) A spare white blog balances my verbose cluttered one. Longley shares such compression. Four lines capture a universe in Co. Clare's lunar landscape of the Burren.
While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills
You showed me, like a concentration of violets
Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky
A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.

I recalled, while reading Longley, D.H. Lawrence's poem "Bavarian Gentians." Written near his death in 1932, it anticipates a Plutonian "marriage of the living dark," a twilit-blue, intensely purple realm of shadows to where Persephone returns after her allotted six months in the sun. I quote Tina Ferris from the website linked to the poem; "we are all virgins to Death." Persephone knows she will be resurrected come spring; those with whom I mourn my dad today believe this too.
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on
the lost bride and her groom.

Howard explains how Longley's titular gentian with its burst of purple flowers at its heart also brings death. "At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning."

For me, the Easter symbolism-- which Longley picked up when he wrote the poem on Easter Sunday 1998 to mark the Good Friday Agreement, and which Howard extends-- also stretches beyond that Republican cause, and those recent deaths which have tipped the North back, if for a fatal instant over a flailing duration, into murder. The lily-- pinned or stuck-- became the ultimate representation of sacrificial martyrdom of poets and patriots, intellectuals and workers, in Dublin's streets nearly a hundred years ago. Farther back, rooted within "Easter Snow," I am not sure if Longley or Howard know of another use of this Paschal phrase, although with their combined erudition I am sure they must!

My family comes from the borders of East Mayo and North-West Roscommon. Not far from where my mother's father's people long farmed, approaching the latter county's frontier with Leitrim and Sligo, in the ancient territory of the McDonnells' Moylurg near Lough Key, a townland rests at the edge of the Plains of Boyle, an hour's walk from the market town of the same name. The crossroads on the rail between Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon is called by the evocative title "Estersnow," or "Easter Snow."

I wondered, when I first read of this beautiful adjective and noun, what led to such a graceful honor for such a humble locale. It's a corruption, if a pretty one, from the Irish "Díseart Nuadhain," or the "desert" as in hideaway or retreat, it being Ireland after all, of Nuadh (as in "of the Silver Arm," I fantasized). The tune in turn was rendered back into Gaeilge as "An Sneachta Casca" or "Sneachia Casga" into a straight if skewed "Snow of Easter" by George Petrie. (The same folklorist who bested his rival in an 1835 competition that inspired an earlier Irish debate over Buddhism as or as not a Celtic construct, but that's another story that I am working on retelling this spring to present next fall, a project that led me earlier this month to Prof. Howard in his later look at Eastern-influenced elements in Irish poetry, as we spiral, wheels within wheels.)

A musical notation resource assures me that Nuadh here's but St. Nuadha, not the king of the Tuatha de Danaan whose limb was severed at the first battle of Mag Tuired, not that far either from Moylurg if you're a mighty warrior; Cruachain Ai is very close to Estersnow, I note. St. Patrick tramped by that townland, skirting the domain of St. Fidelma the Ruddy and her sister Attracta. These two virgin princesses were baptized and died on the spot shrived if not swived-- on the doughty holy man's way to geld such deflowering pagans of the North as St. Nuadh's namesake, anyhow.

No spell or "geis" I can summon that connects silver-handed Nuadh to master piper Séamus Ennis, let alone how to work in familial Roscommon, but here's that tribute by Moore to his old friend-- one of the greatest Irish musicians ever-- after his death in 1973.
Oh the Easter snow
It has faded away
It was so rare and beautiful
And it melted back into the clay

Those days will be remembered
Beyond out in the Naul
Listening to the master's notes
As gently they did fall
Oh the music
When Seamus he did play
But the thaw came on the mantle white
And turned it back into the clay

He gazed at the embers in reflection
Called up lost verses again
Smiled in roguish recollection
While his fingers gripped the glass to stem the pain
When knocked upon his door would open
With a welcome he'd bid the time of day
Though you came when the last flakes had melted
While it lay upon the ground you stayed away

Photo: "Burren Perfumery: Spring Gentian."

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