Orpheus Plays 1: Callander Poetry Festival 2006
For Iyad Haiatley, a Palestinian poet, finally granted political
asylum in December 2006
Poetry in the Garden starts
when Colin strikes the small Tibetan bowl.
The warmed and singing bronze awakes
a humming clarity, which sounds
through noise of knife and fork, book sales,
poets checking one another out,
and gathers stillness from the rainy night.
Later, Gaelic, Arabic and Greek
will take the song from tongue to tongue
goltraighe, geantraighe, suantraighe. It seems
presumptuous to claim
that poetry has power to move
much in the grinding moneyed world,
but Iyad, remember Orpheus
playing before the Faerie King,
on bagpipes, lyre or Breton harp,
the notes of sorrow, notes of joy and notes
of peace, while Hell falls silent.
All the cruel and unusual pain
stops for one moment, the lifeless courts
and derelict halls resounding
with the music, with the chance
for respite, wisdom, hope.
The Gaelic terms describe the three traditional modes of music.
Goltraighe = ‘the weeping strain’ – laments, the notes of grief
geantriaghe = ‘the laughing strain’ – dance, the notes of joy
suantraighe = ‘the sleeping strain’ – lullaby, the notes of healing
When I wrote the Eurydice Rising sequence, (published in full in Wherever We Live Now)I was much preoccupied with the role and purpose of poetry. It seemed frivolous and self-indulgent to take time to write when there was so much in the world needing done. Orpheus, of course, never doubted it, and the double story of my sequence is the story of how he resolved, or failed to resolve my conundrum. This particular poem reflected the long and tortuous process by which my friend Iyad became accepted as a resident here, at the time when I was actively engaged in the campaign to treat asylum seekers with dignity, and close the immigrant detention centres at Dungavel and Yarlswood.
It’s an even more important issue just now, as what we are calling a ‘migrant crisis’ – in a piece of newspeak dishonesty only rivalled by the pretence of calling prisoners of war ‘enemy combatants’ or ‘insurgents’ so that we don’t have to recognise their rights under the Geneva convention – gathers pace.And yet I have been much less active, barely able to watch the news, feeling powerless and ashamed. Yes, we have given money. Yes we will be leaving a candle in the window tonight in solidarity with all the people trying to escape from whatever field of war, land degradation, drought or economic piracy has driven them from their homes. It’s not much, but I honestly don’t know how to do more, where to start, where the energy is to come from, what I can do that other people can’t do so much better.
Then I heard of another asylum seeker this year, Ayham al-Ahmad, the pianist from the destroyed refugee camp of Yarmouk. he played his piano in the ruined streets, a sign of hope for the children living there. Now he has been forced into exile, because Islamic State burned his piano, telling him that music was forbidden. I remembered my vision of Orpheus playing in the lifeless caverns of the underworld. Northern versions of the Orpheus story could not accept that Eurydice was lost, and in those stories he and Eurydice regained the upper world and ruled their kingdom wisely, courageously and with grace. I have my answer now. I truly believe that poetry, music, or art is not an escape or a consolation in hard times. It is a way to say that hell stops here, to put the very best we can find of the human spirit in the midst of the desolation, never to give up hope.