October: and here in Florida, that means another month, maybe two, of summer. And hurricanes? Perhaps. How kind, too, many of you have been, inquiring after our safety and general well-being in St. Petersburg. All is well, or will be – but, as I also replied to someone, those revved up mannequins on the local news did scare the bejeezus out of us for a while. Our thoughts are with Puerto Rico and the Keys, and – oh, a different sort of catastrophe as if that mattered, Las Vegas, too, just this morning on the news …
So, grief and shock, yes, but hope and determination, again, are the order of the day. And once more what better way to begin this new-er autumn than with thanks for Stewart Moss’s lovely introduction to the just-so — and utterly enchanting (and who can’t use a little enchantment right now?) — poem from Seamus Heaney, “From the Republic of Conscience.”
Stewart Moss – Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience”
During these past several months of unconscionable actions committed by political leaders and others here and abroad, I’ve found myself turning for solace to Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience.” Unlike Dante’s Virgil, who guides him on a terrifying excursion through an underworld where all hope is abandoned, Heaney’s narrator invites the reader to accompany him to a land characterized by hope and where culture, customs and civic institutions are determined not by whim or arbitrary justice but by the human conscience. It’s a sanctuary where after the narrator has landed and the plane’s engines have stopped, he “could hear a curlew high above the runway,” a water bird that symbolizes a new beginning.
What could be more unlike our own society than a land one can enter simply by sharing a common humanity with an immigration clerk who “showed me a photograph of my grandfather?” Or where elitism is non-existent so that “You carried your own burden and very soon/your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.” In this “frugal republic,” “their most precious mineral” is humble, but essential, salt, and public officials don’t deliver bombastic speeches at their inaugurations but rather “weep/to atone for their presumption to hold office.”
As I stood in a synagogue recently in ritual atonement for ethical violations both individual and collective, I read not the traditional Amidah – a silent recitation of petitions and praise – but Heaney’s poem. I had tucked it into my prayer book to remind myself that I was a “dual citizen” of both The Republic of Conscience and my own troubled nation. And as a poet and writer, I adopted as my own “sacred symbol” Heaney’s “stylized boat” made from an ear, a pen and a mouth and so that as I ventured out into the fraught waters of human experience, I would do so with an “open eye” and my conscience as my keel.
From the Republic of Conscience
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents
hang swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylised boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office-
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
Seamus Heaney was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland. Death of a Naturalist, his first collection of poems, appeared in 1966, and was followed by poetry, criticism and translations which established him as the leading poet of his generation. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and twice won the Whitbread Book of the Years, for The Spirit Level (1996) and Beowulf (1999). Stepping Stones, a book of interviews conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll, appeared in 2008; Human Chain, Heaney’s last volume of poems, was awarded the 2010 Forward Prize for Best Collection. He died in 2013.
As the former Executive Director of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, Stewart Moss helped establish creative writing programs for adult immigrants in the Washington, DC metro area, and for members of the military recovering from neurological and psychological trauma. An essay of his is included in Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq & Afghanistan (Hudson Whitman/Excelsior College Press, 2016) and his poetry has been published in Origins Literary Journal. He has also been featured in “The Poet and the Poem” podcasts at The Library of Congress. A native of Boston, MA, Moss resides in Annapolis, MD.
That is a tonic, no? And a call, a spectral votive, a velveteen church-bell.
And now for a bit of public relations. Plume will be hosting a reading this month, 12 October, at the lovely Jefferson Market Library in NYC. Many thanks to Frank Collerius of that fine institution for allowing us in and wrangling what must be some serious paperwork, and the poets who will be reading: Charles Bernstein, Larissa Shmailo, D. Nurkse, Elaine Equi, Jerome Sala, Dean Kostos, Sally Bliumis-Dunn, and Marc Vincenz. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by – that’s quite a roster!
Also, Plume will become part of the (indoor!) Bryant Park Winter Series; our date is Tuesday, January 16, 2018, at 6 pm. As I think about this now, it seems as good a time and place as any to ask those who might be interested in reading to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know. According to the kind and generous Paul Romero, “The reading should include four poets and each poet must have at least one collection of poetry published. Each poet reads for 15 to 20 minutes.” I’ll keep a sharp eye on my inbox.
Next up, though tentative at the moment, another Plume reading in Cambridge, at MIT, in early 2018, I hope. That date and roster TBA.
As has become our custom of late, a few new or forthcoming poetry book releases from Plume contributors:
Our cover art this month is from Laurie Simmons – to whom we return after …some time: Ms. Simmons’ work graced the covers of issues 7-12 of Plume. Accomplished as she is, a thoroughgoing bio note would consume more space than we have here — so, in (very) brief, from Artspace: Using dolls, dollhouses, dummies, and figures cut from magazines, Laurie Simmons constructs and photographs voyeuristic scenes of dreamlike distortions that challenge sensory perceptions. Working as a filmmaker, she made The Music of Regret, a mini-musical in three acts in 2006. It premiered at MoMA and featured musicians, professional puppeteers, Alvin Ailey dancers, and actress Meryl Streep. More recently, Simmons played a fictional mother in her daughter Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture. She has received numerous awards, including the Roy Lichtenstein Residency in Visual Arts at the American Academy in Rome, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts.