Donald's poetry in Summer 2001


Titles at bn.com by:
Donald Levering


Donald's book Horsetail is also available from Woodley Press




by Donald Levering
Donald Levering

William Butler Yeats is the local deity of Sligo, a city of 18,000 on the northwest coast of the Republic of Ireland. Yeats' mother was from County Sligo, and he spent considerable time there in his youth. Though he died and was originally buried in France, a decade after his death his explicit desire to be buried near Sligo under the mountain Ben Bulben was carried out, and his remains were moved here. Tour buses pilgrimage to his tomb in the courtyard of the Drumcliff church with large bronze swans for door handles. One after another, poets and other tourists read and pose by the often repeated, enigmatic, self-penned epitaph, “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!” The tour continues to the lovely waterfall at Glen Cur mentioned in Yeats' “The Stolen Child.” Another tour takes passengers on Loch Gill, wherein is the small island of Innisfree. The famous poem which begins, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” is recited by not only the tour boat guide, but seems to be known by heart by every resident of County Sligo, where sheep farmers and shopkeepers will quote you Yeats.

Downtown Sligo, a modernist bronze sculpture of Yeats looms outside a bank. Under a realistic rendering of his head, Yeats' body is a curved sheaf of paper with readable verses scribed in the bronze. A few doors down a pub's walls are covered with Yeatsian stanzas. Farther down the same street is the Sligo Art Museum, where paintings by Yeats' brother, Jack Yeats, are on display. A profusion of books on the Yeats brothers can be found among Sligo's numerous bookstores.

At the heart of downtown, beside the Garavogue river where swans gracefully swim, is the Yeats Center. Within is a small Yeats museum, library, reading rooms, and the offices of the Yeats Society. This organization has been running the Yeats International Summer School for forty-two years. Although academic credit can be earned by attending and writing papers for the daily seminars, it is more than a school. The two week festival schedule is filled with lectures, plays, films, workshops, readings, and concerts, augmented by the lively local pub scene, where locals will readily break out their instruments and sing a song. Such luminaries as Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney are present not only as formal speakers and teachers, but available for such informal pub gatherings. The festival is truly international – besides the expected Irish, American, Australian, and British attendees, there was a sizeable contingent of Asian scholars. My bed and breakfast house mates were from Taiwan and Korea, and I met two Japanese women in the program while hiking the famously green hills dotted with sheep.

As first landfall for the North Atlantic current, Sligo harbors a weather in late July and early August that can barely be called summery. There are spates of warm sunshine interspersed with clouds and often rain. A thin wool sweater served me well, along with my trusty umbrella. Some students complained about the town, which perhaps because of its age has the feeling of a larger city. It is dirty and littered, they said, and if they expected hot weather, they were underdressed. But this poet found magic and myth at every turn, from the ancient Celtic spirals on the water meter caps to the skylit ruins of the 13th century Sligo Abbey. One day a selkie materialized, masquerading as a fellow festival goer from Tesuque, New Mexico, and took me to the seaweed baths at the beach at Rosses Point. We strolled the strand reading poetry, and when I came to, I realized it was not a dream.

At the morning lectures, I found a varied pallette, with lecturers from England, Ireland, and the United States representing all kinds of specialities and agendas. Among others was John Pethica's academic biography, Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory, chock-full of scuttlebutt unflattering to the Great Poet. Neil Cocoran compared Yeats and Seamus Heaney (who attended some of the lectures), Hugh Haughton discussed Yeats and the contemporary Irish poet Derek Mahon (Americans who don't know his work should check out Mahon's Collected Works), and Rand Brandes explored Ted Hughes and Yeats, particularly their convergent interests in the shamanism and the occult. Yeats' dabbling in, and ultimate rejection of, primitivism, was the subject of Sinead Garrigan-Mattar's lecture. Tom Paulin of Oxford explored connexions between Yeats and Blake, Joyce, and Van Morrison.

"Hodo Chameliontos," the lecture by the University of Rochester's Daniel Albright, was as heady as the local stout. Ostensibly an academic lecture, the talk's mode and depth was in imagery, and it ranged from the speaker's recollection of a pet chameleon he had as a boy, to Keats' “Lamia,” to Zoroaster, to Yeats' apocryphal play The Countess Kathleen, to the fantastic designs in the Irish Book of Kells, to Persian tapestries. The theme of the lecture was not unlike Garrigan-Matter's thesis, that Yeats made several excursions into writing through an uncontrolled, mystical, shamanistic mode, then repeatedly retreated to a rational manner. At the heart of the lecture was this statement, commenting on Northern Persian and Turkish art, “...there's a sort of suppressed glee at the sheer plenty of imagination: designs multiply dizzyingly, dizzyingly mutate into other designs, with something of the disturbing abundance of nature itself, as if nature were better displayed by an art that displayed its processes of generation than by an art that displayed its outer husks (my emphasis).” This one comment held me through many rainy hours.

Albright continued, “Though Yeats has to restrain himself from going too far down the Chameleon Road, it is possible that, without the challenge, the temptation, of such audacity, Yeats' poetic imagery would be shrunken, overlegible; the poet needs some dim phosphor of strangeness to impart depth and fascination to the images...If we could understand the image all at once, we wouldn't be tempted to continue to contemplate it.” Indeed.

After the morning lectures which were held at The Hawk's Well Theatre, the Yeats Center hosted early afternoon readings mostly by local writers. From 4:30 to 6:30 pm were held ten concurrent academic seminars as well as the drama workshop. Every evening was booked with events, such as a one man translation and performance of Beowulf by Felix Nobis, traditional Irish music, Seamus Heaney reading his work, and a premiere film trilogy of Yeats' plays. After the evening shows, the Yeatsians trekked to the pubs, which were often enlivened by impromptu jams with fiddles, pennywhistles, and accordions. At these sessions, the summer school's director, Bernard O'Donoghue, and Associate Director, Geraldine Higgins, could be heard joining in the music making. I came away astonished at the capability of the Irish to remember old songs as well as heartened by the feelings invested in their music.

The intervening weekend of the fortnight festival was given over for some to a poetry workshop. This year's was led by the British poet Jamie Kendrick, who gave a strong reading the next Tuesday evening. The workshop was geared to beginners and dabblers, and was over-booked. I would hope in future years the organizers would offer two tracks, one for beginners and another for more advanced poets. The drama workshop, led by the Belfast dramatist Carol Moore, got enthusiastic reviews from its participants. They met daily, and on the last evening of the festival, they staged a credible production of Yeats' play Purgatory.

About five kilometers outside Sligo is the site of the Carrowmore Passage Tombs. Carbon dated at 7-9,000 years ago, this cluster of tombs is aligned with others several kilometers away. Some of the tombs are situated so that the first light of summer solstice strikes in the middle of the “passageway” (for the release of the soul) between megaliths. From Carrowmore, you can see the enormous cairn atop Knocknarea mountain, where legend has it Queen Maub (in typical Irish fashion, an historical figure is at once a mythological one), was buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster. On the trail through the heather beyond the cairn on Knocknarea is a splendid view of the Atlantic Ocean, where I found myself contemplating Yeats' line, “What's water but the generated soul?”

Sligo Morning

               for Monika

The bread truck cranking over
interrupts the crows' early caucus
as the moon drops inside Knocknarea mountain
where Yeats' poems are baking.
In another hour it will be raining again,
and my landlady's daughter,
whose first communion is a snapshot
on the mantle, will have birthed
another red-haired baby.
Around themselves the sheep are grazing circles
as I read of the Norman crossbow invasion
then drift into the dream
of a fiery worm flying through the sky.
Swans on the Garavogue glide downstream.
Ireland is sweet and thick as its stout,
the Celtic spirals everywhere crossed
by history. Yesterday a selkie
led me to seaweed baths;
today the landlady's telly
comes on with the sirens
of a Belfast bombing.
The purple torches of butterfly bushes
fume in the rain.

Carrowmore Passage Tombs

Is it the light reflected off the Atlantic,
the swallows' return from Morocco
that cause the Irish to sing?
Any opening will do
to strike up the fiddles,
any dolmen's weeping tune.
They say the body's passage
through life is brief,
then the spirit gets guided
through the gap in the gneiss,
shot to incandescence in the sun.
The piper plays. The fiddler saws.
The accordion soughs a lover's lament.
Clouds drizzle on the tombs
as moss multiplies
the number of shades of green.
One child was buried stillborn,
a man interred with three wives,
while Queen Maub grew to four hundred
before being buried upright
facing her Ulster enemies.
Any song will do. Any old story.