Sunday, March 19, 2023

Red Letter Poem #152

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner






Red Letter Poem #152





It was discovered in 1896 by two tenant farmers who were double-plowing Joseph Gibson’s field – Broighter, near Limavady, County Derry.  At first they thought it a large clod or stone, but were surprised by the stickiness of the surface. They carried the black bundle home in their arms and washed it in a sink.  As the water splashed down, the gold gleamed through.


They’d unearthed a cache of gold artifacts from before the time of Christ: two chain necklaces, several decorated torcs, and this miniature gold boat marvelously fashioned, outfitted with oars and rudder, mast and yardarm, bench and spear.  Along with the Book of Kells and the Tara Brooch, the Broighter Hoard is considered one of Ireland’s proudest treasures.


Ireland’s at last – but England’s first, as the landlord sold the objects to the British Museum for the princely sum of 600£.  It took seven years of wrangling in the courts to bring the archaeological find back to its homeland, the case hanging mainly on a technicality: the imagined reason the items were committed to the earth.  In a legal oddity, if the burial was votive in nature – a gift to the Celtic gods – then it was an archeological find and the British Crown could demand possession.  But if it was instead a treasure trove, intended to be unearthed after a time, then this was a private possession, and Ireland’s claim would prevail.  The latter argument won the day – even though the Irish eventually admitted the gold might indeed have been an offering to the sea-god Manannan mac Lir, the waters of Lough Foyle shimmering close by.


My wife and I saw the gold boat during our first visit to Ireland, nearly forty years ago, and the memory of it remained with me.  It resembled a sea-going currach, a traditional Irish wood-framed, skin-covered fishing craft.  A little over seven inches in length, it was the perfect dream-vessel: an exquisite representation of what is, which compels the imagination to envision what might be just out of reach.  And isn’t this precisely what every artist aspires to: some image, gesture, rhythm, word which permits the maker (and invites the viewer) to step, with keen delight, inside the breathing present – and to sense, however briefly, something more.


    *     *     *     *

Today is, of course, St. Patrick’s Day – and the holiday prompted me to share today’s poem.  But, if you’ll permit me, a few additional thoughts came to mind.  One concerns the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney who I was fortunate enough to interview, photograph, and then correspond with until his death in 2013.  The conversation was part of my poetry interview series – a project which eventually became the collection Giving Their Word (University of Massachusetts Press.)  I went to purchase what was then his brand-new collection – Seeing Things – and there it was again: the gold boat, in all its glory, gracing the cover.  It felt like a good omen.  Seamus’ greatness was not only as a poet but as a human being (and it seems everyone who knew him takes pleasure in affirming this.)  Could one ask for a better legacy?  Which makes me think of a second individual: Brian O’Donovan – broadcaster, writer, concert presenter – whose Celtic Sojourn program on WGBH Public Radio features the best of (as Brian likes to phrase it) the roots and branches of music from across the Celtic world.  I can think of few cultural ambassadors who have had as far-reaching an effect as Brian.  I’ve listened to his programs for decades and been educated by his musical curation and on-air essays (my favorite being one he did on the poetry of Seamus Heaney.)  Brian received a rather terrible health diagnosis this year but has continued to speak publicly and eloquently about the importance of living/savoring each given day.  I try to take his message to heart.  Both of these gentlemen helped me to realize how that something more I spoke of is always more precious and closer-at-hand than we’d imagined.  




Gold Boat


            The Broighter Hoard; County Derry



Hull, a hand’s length of beaten gold.

Gold straw for mast and spar and,

both port and starboard, nine bright twigs

for oars.  The artist’s burnished craft –


unearthed by a plow blade near Limavady, 

after twenty-one centuries becalmed.  Time

might easily have crushed it for good – and yet. . .  

Tonight, the moon’s a currach, cupped


like my father’s palm.  Memory in its hold.

A word-hoard massed like stars.    

Our vessel, large enough to carry a single

warm breath across the tideless dark –


yet small enough to ferry

all the names of the dead from

the providence of our saying

to the perdition of the said.



                 ––Steven Ratiner




The Red Letters 3.0


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