Pentecostal fires, Pandemic, and the Poetics of ‘potential history’
This weekend, non-Orthodox Christians will mark the feast of Pentecost, a liturgical recalling of one New Testament post-resurrection story in which the Holy Spirit manifests as a rushing wind, and appears as flames upon the heads of Jesus’ disciples. In this telling of the story of the foundation of the Christian church the spirit enables the disciples to speak to all the people of the world in their many, diverse languages. It is a story voice giving, and, in turn, an expression of the significance of giving voice to a story. The word ‘pentecost’, itself, is derived from the name for a Jewish festival, of the time; a celebration marking the passing of fifty days from the ‘festival of fruits’. It is also rooted in the word used for the celebration of the fifty-year cycle of Jubilee.
This is the second Pentecost that will occur in our pandemic time. In this moment of the pandemic, it is poignant to note that the festival of Pentecost commemorates stories of events in Jerusalem, a city made present to us now through the viral news circulations of recent hostilities between the state of Israel and Hamas, in Palestine. The flames that have descended upon the heads of people, including many children, in that part of our world seem far removed from the lyrical imagery of biblical poetry. Yet, in this essay, and in some of my own poems, shared below, I propose that perceiving our world through poetics – expansive, empathetic imaginings of our own and other’s lives – and the thoughts and actions these perceptions inspire, can spark our desire for connection and our intention to repair inequities and injustice. Here, thinking, feeling, and sharing in the social act of putting into words the world as it is, and the world as we hope to make it, is offered as a way to practice breathing in compassion and expressing life and potential for all.
In poetic terms, the drama of Pentecost, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, seems congruent with what philosopher poet Édouard Glissant once identified as the poet’s purpose: ‘to speak the world’. Glissant, a postcolonial thinker and writer from Martinique, translated his experiences of archipelago dwelling into ways of thinking of the world; understanding our global connectivity as the expression of relations between what are, in effect, a series of multiple archipelagos. As a descendant of Africans enslaved in French colonialism, writing in a primarily Anglophone world, Glissant understood the significance of acts of translation. He saw such activity as foundational to the poet’s responsibility, being both to understand and express fluently the diverse meanings, nuances, and lyricisms of the languages of the people they relate with. He held that this poetic voice giving should also include transferring the stories held in these languages-in-cultures into universal idiom – metaphor, myths, imagery. This, he ascertained is the poet’s work: to speak back ‘the world’ poetically so that it can be known again and anew, and, where necessary that this new way of knowing can inspire new inquiries, new actions. In this way, he argued, poets can illuminate connections for people, highlighting relations between the world as they live it and the world as it is, has been, will be for others, throughout all times, and across every space.
It is fifty years – a Jubilee – since another poet, contemporary with Glissant, and home-close for Scottish readers, the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, saw the publication of one of his key works: Fishermen with Ploughs. In this poem cycle, as with so much of his work, Brown invites readers to experience a both real and imagined Orkney. The poems are redolent with both hope-nurturing and apocalyptic visions concerning the effects of anthropogenic progress upon culture and environment for successive generations aspiring to sustain island lives and livings over several centuries. Through these poems Brown involves his readers in a ‘poetics of relation’, a phenomenon identified and characterised as fundamental to poetry by Glissant. In Brown’s work the immediate effect of such poetics is to implicate his readers in his creative disruption of the Imperial concept of time as being linear, uni-directional and progressive. In Brown’s poetry, and the poetics that underlie all of his writing, readers join in experiencing his characters participation in the synergistic cycles of everyday recalling, living, and future-dreaming across and between multiple generations of people – living, dead and not born. In Fishermen with Ploughs these characters include first settlers, inhabitants, and, ultimately, recursive migrants living in his re-imagining of Rackwick, in the island of Hoy. Brown uses metaphor and imagery with powerful dexterity to give texture to a narrative thread that binds these people and this place (a place he loved dearly in its reality) through times and across spaces. Ninth century fisher tribes, and their descendants, are depicted living in an ongoing dialogue, with each other, and with the mythic dragon that connotes the encroachment of the modern Anthropocene. Brown’s Rackwick dragon also breathes a ‘pentecostal fire’. In the poet’s iteration of this truth speaking spirit of a ‘pentecost’, the fire both symbolises and illuminates the near omnicide of the dwellers in Rackwick, who, in succumbing to the abstractions and distractions of industrial consumerism, almost forget to hold fast to the seed corn jar that contains their potential sustainment for futures. Brown introduces this jar as a motif at the outset of the poem cycle. It becomes a transitional object between poems as it is passed between generations, and continuously both emptied and filled. It is a powerful example of generative, poetic communication, a translation of regular imagery in language to connote the both/and dynamic of living: that all being happens in a renewing continuum of constancy and change.
Brown University Professor of Modern culture, Ariella Azoulay, writes today out of her experience of researching photographic representations of the formation of the state of Israel, in Palestine. In recent works she has presented her thesis that being able to access and be resourced by both the traditions of what have been, and imagine the traditions of what can be, enables people to carry out the restorative work of making ‘potential history’. In precis, her argument is that without knowing and/or being excluded from the plurality of past lived experiences – the historicity of the place and people with whom we make our home in the world – and full experience of the environments that have given these experiences (and the knowledges they form) context, we cannot unlearn the Imperial forces of separatism and unconscious consumption. Azoulay’s theorisation resonates with Glissant’s ‘poetics of relation’. Both ideas support the understanding that people are cut-off, distracted or dislocated from their traditions of wisdom and creativity, their seed corn jar, will struggle to imagine their place in the relational work of assembling sustainable and socially just futures. Being in poetry (thinking in poetic and relational ways) can help to reunite us with and mobilise our shared ‘potential history’. In a previous edition of Bella Caledonia, Caithness Makar – playwright, essayist, novelist, journalist and poet – George Gunn, expressed the radical power of these processes of linking language, idiom, imagination, inquiry, inspiration and action most eloquently:
“… there is a sacred bond between thought and action and it is this bond which energises our lives. Our collective power comes from understanding what has gone before so that we can best anticipate what is yet to come. Our poetry is the code of that power, it is our footprint on the beach of time. No government or dogma, no social, moral or political force has a mandate on that or any real power over it.”
This democratic, relational way of thinking and acting is a refutation of the politics of exceptionalism. It is a recovery of ways of seeing and expressing for all people, wherever their place and belonging in the world, so that they might belong, in place, and from this belonging, make place for others. Such repudiations of tyranny have drawn down the rage of tyrants. In Myanmar, today, revolutionary poets (including the late Khet Thi, quoted below, taken from his home and found dead two weeks ago) risk their lives to translate and give voice to the determination of the people in the face of military brutality:
They shoot in the head, but they don’t know revolution dwells in the heart
Brown’s poetics, while they were cultivated in the specific environment and relations of his daily life in Orkney, were expressive of this expansive, connective, generative tissue – opening-up the importance of being fully emplaced in one’s own environment, historicity, and people, for growing our understanding of the need for others to be similarly emplaced. Far from being a form of exceptionalism, Brown’s ethos and aesthetic, identified by his friend, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, was one of transformative openness. As Heaney put it, Brown first transformed ‘everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney’. In turn, Heaney observed, this transformative activity (similar to the polyvocal powers of translation given to the disciples at Pentecost) enabled Brown to induce in readers ‘a feeling of being newly wakened, of the lens widening’. Brown’s readers were brought ‘beyond the usual and found the terra still firma as it were’. We might wonder how these poets, Glissant, Heaney and Brown, might ‘widen the lens’ in this year and more of pandemic time, when the apparent terra firma beneath the feet of the world’s people has been revealed as something queasily uneasy? What sacred bonds between words and action might the poetics of relation inspire in a time when, as writer-activists Gehan Macleod, Jason Hickel, and others have recently intimated, the pandemic has rushed like a ‘pentecostal’ wind-fire to shoot illuminating flares over the inequities and injustices that underlie our global connectivity.
I opened this essay with a description of an upcoming festival, one borne out of a tradition of festivals, each celebrating anniversaries of thanksgiving for continuing of living, and of memory. This second year of pandemic will see many anniversaries, including the centenary of George Mackay Brown’s. Some have already occurred. For instance, the 26 April marked the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, an event that, like George Mackay Brown’s dragon, reared up out of a progress-oriented fixation that not only cut the corners of caution, but also of wisdom. The sparks of Chernobyl’s fires reached far beyond the Red Forest in its Zone of Exclusion, and its uranium embers still smoulder today. In many ways, the impact of this disaster epitomises the complex nature of our global entanglements, extending well beyond the imagined definition of national territories in ways that the practiced relational poet George Mackay Brown understood well:
Everything we do sets the whole web of creation trembling, with light or with darkness … a good word spoken might help a beggar in Calcutta or a burning child in Burundi; or conversely. (Brown 1997, For the Islands I Sing)
After Pentecost, on Monday 25 May, this pandemic time will bring us to another sad commemoration. It will be one year to the date since George Floyd was killed by, then, serving police officer Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis. Filmed and shared via social and news media, this killing, and, most plaintively, the desperation of Mr Floyd as he was subjected to cruel, slow asphyxiation, reached the world with all the speed of ‘pentecostal’ winds. It is a shadow the Pentecost story; one of the extinguishing of life’s breath, a terrible antithesis to the meaning of the Christian festival. George Floyd’s killing has also become an index for global connectivity. The worldwide sharing of his last words, his last breath, evoked immense empathy from many. The transmission and translation of his last words also inspired creative and critical responses from numerous people, ready to expand their imaginations and thinking in order to connect the circumstances of his death under a white person’s power to traditions of what had been – the displacement and enslavement of African people in the Atlantic Slave Trade – and traditions of what can be in the proclamation that Black Lives Matter. In these responses, we have witnessed what George Gunn and Édouard Glissant both committed themselves to and have invited all of us to practice: poetry in our social actions together as people willing to be transformed.
There will be other anniversaries in this second pandemic year. Some will be jubilees: celebrations of the discovery of new vaccines, recollections of lives saved, and celebrated. There will be other commemorations: recalling the losses of lives, of habitats, of species; conflicts, and migrations, forced or necessary. These are the constant and changing events of our Anthropocene. Mothers will mourn children; women, and men in London, Chernobyl, Tuam, Glasgow, Uttar Pradesh, Jerusalem and Gaza. In all this, although it may not seem evident at all, we will have a choice to refuse the darkening and the confusion of mistranslation. This choice for relationship, engaging our critical and creative curiosity; our imagination and empathy, and to form new links between thought and action, may inspire us to new poetics. We can choose to find the language, metaphors, and imagery, to tell and listen to our world’s stories – the myths and the encounters of the everyday. We can let them bond us in relations with people and places; to the lived experiences, and knowledges that can help us to know how to be in the world. We can grow our own sense of belonging with people and places, to connect to the belonging of all being, throughout our world – through times, and across spaces. As Ariella Azoulay encourages, we can make ourselves allies with the plurality of traditions and wisdoms that have been, and with ways of being that will sustain people, equity, and justice today. We can choose to renovate our world together in relations that imagine and compose our future traditions; to practice the poetics of our ‘potential history’.
Three poems of relation: A pandemic triptych
a man cries
one voice on a crowded street
on the bitter beaten earth
one voice and twenty-eight cries
can you hear him?
he cries out his last breath-of-life
his body and blood and his breath
and you crush him
and the world watches
as you kneel and kneel
and it seems so easy to empty out a life
like you would let out the air from a tyre
five hundred and seventy seconds
‘I can’t breathe’
how can he?
you have him under your knee
he cries, we cover our mouths
someone’s precious child cries
‘mama, mama, help, help me, help’
how can we breathe?
we watch until he cannot cry
‘this should not be so easy’
but you kneel so hard
and it is so easy
to take away breath
and to pour out a body
here on the side of a road
like you would let out a tyre
but we can kneel
and we can raise our voices
can you hear?
on this bitter beaten earth
on every street and shore
sharing out the breath-of-life
you see it and you can hear it
and we can say it
‘we will breathe’
The Red Forest
The Red Forest bleeds
and we have been drinking from it
the rust that began in fiery frost
lit by an Easter sun
has crowned the north
and cloaked it in a cloud
the forest spawns new spores
sparks quartz to flame
at Maes Howe and at Navan
in Jelling, at the dragon stane
at Cnoc Na H-uiseig by Little Dounreay
gods and sheep are felled
the outshone sun sinks to the sea
and graphite fires consume the land
they make shadows of its people
these flames mock the sky
stealing its colours
they have withered our canopy of hope
and still, the forest sends out its branches
The Red Forest is part of the zone of alienation, established after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 1986. It still covers an area of approximately 2,600 km2.
For the mothers and children of Tuam.
For our better potential futures
to remind me that the sun will return
I paint ochre onto your body
this unruly loll of limbs and hair
and I chew the deer’s hide soft
to make a shroud of teeth and hooves
for you, birthed but never borne
wings clipped at your moment of flight
I bury you among the mounds
they circle this turf like beads of coal
your body, I give to oil and quartz
to this necklace of jet and bog
cradled upon the wing of a swan
and stories swarm like beetles from your grave
carved between the care of the earth and the stars
torn from this throat tarred with tears and dirt
they fall like arrows from a bow
and they tell of swans and geese
and hungry women who hunt
each tale is like a fawn lost in the forest
in the quietening, we hear its pulse
people, who will always be poets
will search the whole world’s ebb for your stories
they will tell how the fire-ochre sun opened-up your wings
and how you fanned its flames all about the earth
In Vedbaek, part of modern Denmark, 7,000 years ago, a girl and her new-born baby were buried together. The baby was laid upon a swan’s wing. The child’s foot was placed so that it touched the arm of the girl; their poetics of relation inscribed for all to see.