CONFESSIONS OF A PAGAN NUN by Kate Horsley (Review)

This book is set in the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland.

Gwynneve trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid who is watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.

But two different stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. One is Gwynneve’s story of her childhood with her wonderful mother –

My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase “It was given to me that “

– and then, when her mother has died, the story of her life with Giannon the druid.

And meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who originally joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit on equal terms but who has now assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.

It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving, and even uplifting.

Take some of Gwynneve’s views and comments (recorded in the secret diary).

Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth “

And later: For we both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know.”

On the loneliness of incarnation: Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences.

On God and nature: I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird’s song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe.  Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry.”

On Christ and kindness: That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness.”

It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.

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DONKEYHOOD (by Moira Clark)

When I first decided to become a donkey
it seemed so natural.
I’d actually been one for years
only no one had noticed;
not even my husband.

It was a slow change –
didn’t want to alarm the children –
a slight growth of facial hair
(well, I was post-menopause)
and toes that glued hoof-like together
(unseen in slippers, shoes, and certainly my most
unattractive feature, so no one bothered to look).

When my voice became hoarse I feigned a cold
but heard the change, was resigned to a laughterless life.
‘Mum’s depressed again,’ the children said
but when they were all out having fun,
I’d laugh for all I was worth, marvel at the heehaw sounds.

My secret was uncovered when I’d forgotten
to push my tasselled tail out of sight
but by then there were nodules of ears
growing from my scalp and I knew
it was only a matter of time.

‘I’m a donkey,’ I admitted casually,
one day over a bowl of carrots,
when I couldn’t stand upright any more.
You should have heard their laughter
until I reminded them of genetic inheritance
and the wonderful world of DNA …

SISTER PUMPKINHEAD FAILS THE INTERVIEW (by Valerie Sinason)

The words in the corner of the playground
with no-one to play with
the words not picked for the
hockey team, the netball team,
the words not invited to the party

‘We are sorry to have to tell you,’
intones the letter.

‘Not for you! not for you!’
screeches the parrot
in the golden brain-cell

It is midnight and pumpkin-time

and down fall the words
down the shining palace of brain
down the libraries of bone

Down fall the words
through the graduation ceremonies
of blood cells

The words,
still in their state robes
their ballgowns and tiaras
their ‘We are pleased’s
clenched in their jewelled evening bags

The words in their best school uniform
scrubbed and plaited
with their daffodil-growing certificates
and monitor’s badge

How to pick up pick up

The words in the corner of the playground
with no-one to play with
the words not picked for the
hockey team, the netball team,
the words not invited to the party,
given the bit-part in the end of term play

The words with their anguish and anger
searching for the right face
the right way to face to fall
how to miss the knife in the funeral
under it all.

Cinderella is not going to the ball.

How to see the missing shoe,
the tear in the gown
the straw castle falling down

How to understand the words’ sad mime
It is always midnight and pumpkin time.

HELL IS A LONELY PLACE (by Charles Bukowski)

he was 65, his wife was 66, had
Alzheimer’s disease.

he had cancer of the
mouth.
there were
operations, radiation
treatments
which decayed the bones in his
jaw
which then had to be
wired.

daily he put his wife in
rubber diapers
like a
baby.

unable to drive in his
condition
he had to take a taxi to
the medical
center,
had difficulty speaking,
had to
write the directions
down.

on his last visit
they informed him
there would be another
operation: a bit more
left
cheek and a bit more
tongue.

when he returned
he changed his wife’s
diapers
put on the tv
dinners, watched the
evening news
then went to the bedroom, got the
gun, put it to her
temple, fired.

she fell to the
left, he sat upon the
couch
put the gun into his
mouth, pulled the
trigger.

the shots didn’t arouse
the neighbors.

later
the burning tv dinners
did.

somebody arrived, pushed
the door open, saw
it.

soon
the police arrived and
went through their
routine, found
some items:

a closed savings
account and
a checkbook with a
balance of
$1.14
suicide, they
deduced.

in three weeks
there were two
new tenants:
a computer engineer
named
Ross
and his wife
Anatana
who studied
ballet.

they looked like another
upwardly mobile
pair.

HANK (by Cliff Yates)

for Brendan Cleary

Woke up this morning in Arizona,
a filling station on the highway,
under someone’s pick-up, dismantling the gearbox
which is a joke
because I’m the kind of bloke
who starts looking for the left-handed hammer.

My name is Hank, I smoke roll-ups,
call you ‘Bud’ and have a wife called Gloria
who hangs endless items of clothing
on the washing line out front
when she’s not in the kitchen
singing along to Country and Western
on the radio.

Men just turn up and say, ‘How’s it going Hank?’
I hammer repeatedly on the silencer
pretending I can’t hear,
hoping they will go away
and thinking, ‘Who the hell is this?
What does he know
about me that I don’t know?’

I inspected the washing, worked out
that we have eight children
between two and sixteen. Also,
judging from the patches
on the jeans and shirts
and the state of repair of the house,
we’re not rich. And, judging from the way
I’m going at this gear box with a monkey wrench,
not likely to be.

THE LAWS OF GOD, THE LAWS OF MAN (by A. E. Housman)

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I.

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I. Let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.

But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.

And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.

From VILLA STELLAR: XIII (by George Barker)

Yes, it is heavenly here. But I think of the misted November
evenings and clouds coming up over the Cairngorms

And there in the May Borghese Gardens with a foam of
blossoming flowers around us as we sat at a small table
she with a hat like a huge waterlily and a glass of iced
lemonade sweating in sunshine and the Roman sky like the
interior of an enormous pearl, and semi-precious lizards scooting
among the hibiscus. I said: ‘It is pleasant here.’

She answered: ‘The sun is not Scottish. I feel faint.
Yes, it is heavenly here. But I think of the misted November
evenings and clouds coming up over the Cairngorms
and the violent gusts of rain and the cold amber streams jumping
among the lichened gullies and the rowans hissing in rain
and a single horned sheep standing still as stone against the sky.’

Hill of Allargue viewpoint at Corgarff