Mar. 17, 2013

Places to Return

by Dana Gioia

There are landscapes one can own,
bright rooms which look out to the sea,
tall houses where beyond the window
day after day the same dark river
turns slowly through the hills, and there
are homesteads perched on mountaintops
whose cool white caps outlast the spring.

And there are other places which,
although we did not stay for long,
stick in the mind and call us back—
a valley visited one spring
where walking through an apple orchard
we breathed its blossoms with the air.
Return seems like a sacrament.

Then there are landscapes one has lost—
the brown hills circling a wide bay
I watched each afternoon one summer
talking to friends who now are dead.
I like to think I could go back again
and stand out on the balcony,
dizzy with a sense of déjà vu.

But coming up these steps to you
at just that moment when the moon,
magnificently full and bright
behind the lattice-work of clouds,
seems almost set upon the rooftops
it illuminates, how shall I
ever summon it again?

"Places to Return" by Dana Gioia, from The Gods of Winter. © Graywolf Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is St. Patrick's Day, a day to celebrate all things Irish. If you are in the mood, you can sing some classic Irish folk songs.

There's "Cockles and Mussels," about a beautiful fishmonger who dies of a fever, but whose ghost continues to wheel seafood through the streets of Dublin. The song begins:
"In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!"

There is "Down By the Sally Gardens," which takes its lyrics from a poem by W.B. Yeats:
"It was down by the Sally Gardens, my love and I did meet.
She crossed the Sally Gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree,
But I was young and foolish, and with her did not agree."

And there is the very popular "Irish Lullaby":
"Over in Killarney
Many years ago,
Me Mither sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low.
Just a simple little ditty,
In her good ould Irish way,
And I'd give the world if she could sing
That song to me this day.
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, that's an Irish lullaby."

One of the most enduring stereotypes of early theater was a character called "Stage Irish." This man was usually a badly dressed country bumpkin, drunk on homemade liquor, who couldn't hold down a job but was full of down-home Irish wisdom. No one is sure which English playwright first capitalized on this stereotype of the Irish, but it might have been Shakespeare with his Captain Macmorris in Henry V. Shakespeare decided to make the three captains of Henry's troops an Irishman, a Welshman, and a Scot, as a reference to the unification of Britain — which happened not during Henry's time but during Shakespeare's. On the one hand, he was eager to include all of them, countries symbolically fighting a common enemy. On the other hand, they are all made out to be foolish, with exaggerated accents, particularly Macmorris. Shakespeare gives Macmorris lines like:

"It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the
day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the
king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The
town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the
breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing:
'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to
stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is
throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there
ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la!"

In the 18th century, the playwright Thomas Sheridan wrote a play called The Brave Irishman, or Captain O'Blunder. Captain O'Blunder likes to burst into spontaneous song and flirt with servant girls, and in one scene he forces his French nemesis to eat a potato. Sheridan was pointing out the ways that English people stereotyped the Irish — but it was still a stereotype.

Jonathan Swift, who was born in Dublin, wrote: "What we call the Irish Brogue is no sooner discovered, than it makes the deliverer, in the last degree, ridiculous and despised; and, from such a mouth, an Englishman expects nothing but bulls, blunders, and follies."

The famous American director John Ford was of Irish heritage, and he also perpetuated Irish stereotypes in his films. He directed The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and American Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Most of his films featured Irish or Irish-American characters, and his film The Quiet Man (1952) was set in Ireland. One of the characters in The Quiet Man, Michaeleen Og Flynn, smokes a pipe, wears shabby country clothing, and spends most of his time telling stories and drinking. There is a scene where the hero, Sean Thornton, is approached by a local who knows about his relationship with a young woman in town and says, "Here's a fine stick to beat the lovely lady." In another scene, Sean drags the lovely lady across a field when she refuses to sleep with him. The Quiet Man was a big success in America, but it wasn't received very well in Ireland.

The writer and journalist Donald S. Connery wrote: "The popular image of the natives is a kind of gummy Irish stew of comedians, colleens, characters out of The Quiet Man, drunk poets, IRA gunmen, censorious priests, and cantankerous old farmers who sleep with their boots on. It is as if time had stood still in the Ould Sod while other nations had moved on

It's the birthday of Arab-American writer Gary Paul Nabhan (books by this author), born in Gary, Indiana (1952). He said: "The playgrounds of my childhood were built from cast-offs of the local steel mills. There were big steel-barred slides and swing sets, and pig-iron cinder was spread across the ground. I saw one wild animal on those playgrounds the whole time I was growing up, a butterfly that happened by. All the kids ran to catch it."

He became an advocate for preserving heritage plants and animals, and started raising them himself. He has written many books, including Coming Home to Eat (2001), Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry (2004), and most recently, Where Our Food Comes From (2008).

Nabhan said, "I think there are patches of wildness in our backyards, within our own bodies, within every urban and rural area in North America."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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