It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
How We Remember
The last stanza of this old ballad translated from an anonymous 8th century Irish poem by Lady Augusta Gregory, has been ringing in my head, all the time thinking it was a song I may have heard over the radio, at the mall, or another poem I read some time ago but whose particular source or author I could not recall. Its strong declaration and overwhelming fear of loss kept me looking:
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me; you have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me; and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
So I started to reread both familiar and new poems I’d just encountered to see if that’s where the lines were from. I also looked up popular love songs because of the energy and lyricism in the lamenting voice. I even read the Psalms and the book of Job, since I recognized the incantatory tone and hymnal-like repetition. I was amazed at my process in actively trying to remember, and the urge to experiment with various sources. I found myself thinking deeply about the steps we take in remembering things that happened a long time ago but come back to us in fragments or phrases. How do we unravel the whole? Could that be the real reason we take pictures, for instance? To help associate images/symbols with words/stories or events; to have the albums to go to when we need to bring back lives and whole scenes; not just to celebrate the moments when the pictures are being taken, but to have something that aids memory in future, as a point of reference and remembrance?
Anyway, my appeal to memory to rearrange itself and bring me the whole led me to Antonio Machado’s short poem, “Lord, You Have Ripped Away,” which has an almost similar rhythm, plea and echo to Donal Og. So I thought, even if it wasn’t what I was looking for, I liked that I had stumbled on it. And so I’ll share it.
Lord, you have ripped away from me what I loved most. One more time, O God, hear me cry out inside. “Your will be done,” it was done, and mine not. My heart and the sea are together, Lord, and alone.
Antonio Machado, a native of Spain, lived from 1875 to 1939. While Machado’s poem is said to be about the death of his young wife whom he loved very much, Donal Og addresses a lover who goes away and never returns. The voice in the two poems cries out to be heard, to share the anguish of those left behind.
I had given up looking for the lines of Donal Og’s last stanza when I started to file and clean my work station, only to find the poem beneath a pile of papers on my table. I now knew why the lines were haunting me. Months ago I had wanted to write a piece for Zócalo Poets featuring the poem but the piece wouldn’t happen. I read and printed a copy thinking that if I kept looking at it on my table something wonderfully magical would be triggered. Nothing. Eventually, other poems and papers piled on top and that’s how the poem was forgotten. I think that tells you more about my organized mess and belief in random resourcefulness.
I will not go into details about the poem’s timelessness or what it has in common with modern-day songs and ballads, how it handles love, betrayal, broken promises, responsibility or translation, but rather how, when we have forgotten about its existence, it will have its own way of nudging us back to itself, to marvel at its sacred and secular emotional position, neatly brought out in stanza six:
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you; the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday. And myself on my knees reading the Passion; and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
Lastly, because I listened to a couple of songs while I was searching for Donal Og without knowing that’s what I was looking for, I came across Leonard Cohen’s The Darkness song, first stanza: I caught the darkness It was drinking from your cup I caught the darkness Drinking from your cup I said, “Is this contagious?” You said, “Just drink it up…”
And it made stanza eight of the poem remarkably significant, not just in the similes but the compounding of blackness and darkness:
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe, or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge; or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls; it was you that put that darkness over my life.
I think the experience of acknowledging and letting out the darkness in music, poetry, stories and so on, helps the heart to transform and go on, even in profoundly devastating situations. The cry from the writer, reader, singer, or audience becomes the light that keeps beating. If nothing else, this simple act of the experience of letting out could be the greatest gift of creative works to humankind and animals.
Enjoy the reading and the letting out.