Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Poems and "current issues"

Poetry is often accused of not addressing contemporary issues, public issues. This is a lazy accusation, generally made by people like columnists seeking for an easy headline, who either don't read much poetry or who don't get the role of nuance in poetry, expecting it to spell out The Ishoos in capital letters for the benefit of the obtuse (a group for whom poetry simply cannot cater and should not try to).

When I recently reviewed Frank Dullaghan's latest collection, Lifting the Latch, one poem in particular stood out for me as addressing a current issue in a way that only a poet, as opposed to a journalist or polemicist, could really hope to do. Frank has kindly agreed to my blogging about it and quoting it in full in the process, so I am.

The first thing to note is the narrative voice. It would have been very easy to choose an "I" voice and enlist sympathy for an individual. But this poem is in the "we" voice, assuming the identity of the countless multitudes who flee, and have always fled, one place for another. And while it empathises with their plight:
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us
this sense of multitudes also, quite deliberately, carries a hint of alarm, not from any ill-will on the part of the speakers but because their arrival heralds massive change to a way of life:
We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
[…]
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves.
It is the fear of such change that leads so many to be hostile and unwelcoming in the face of this influx. The poem does not deny its reality. But the narrative voice, through its emotionless patience, its inexorable repetition of "we move" and "we walk", not only echoes the trudging feet; it points up the inevitability of what is happening and the utter uselessness of trying to turn the tide, rather than live with it. The mention of the earth's rotation reminds us of how long it has been the case, ever since we came out of Africa, that we have been moving south to north, east to west – another advantage poetry can have in addressing "current issues" is by going beyond the "current". And although the poem never explicitly says so (see above, because it's a poem, not a polemic), its end points to the fact that this movement is not just political. If climate change does what most scientists think it must (and given the kind of noddies on the "denial" side, one is driven to think it certainly will), then what now looks like a flood will seem a trickle and those who now have borders, villages, countryside they can call their own will have to realise their own place in the world is not as secure as they thought. A powerful poem.

There is Nowhere Left
by Frank Dullaghan

We move through your borders,
your villages, your countryside.
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us.

We move through your language,
your donated food, your fields
of tents. We walk without hope,
as if this is our new reason for being –
this great walk, this achievement
of pushing the miles behind us.

We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
We walk against the turn
of the earth - East to West, our
great numbers slowing its rotation.
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves. Our footsteps
will dog the rhythm of your days.
We will walk across your clean
bed linen, your tablecloths, your
conversations. There is no stopping

now that we have started. There is
no use erecting barriers, arguments,
prayers, for you too are moving,
you too are losing your place.
Tags: criticism, frank dullaghan, poetry, politics, ways of working
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