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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ADRIFT (by Deidre Cartmill)

I sniff the duvet as I pull it close
and wrap my arms around your memory

I lie in the smell of your aftershave.
Sweat drips off the sheets onto my skin.

One black sock, discarded by the bed
rolls under to hide with the bogeyman.

I sniff the duvet as I pull it close
and wrap my arms around your memory.

I wonder what phantoms you cling to –
my bruised lips skimming your stubbled cheek

the imprint of fingers on your pulsing
my photograph pinned above your desk

with the other fantasy images.
As I lie in the warmth of your absence

lulled by illusions of intimacy
I pull the memories close and drift back to sleep.

WILLOW-SONG (by Roy Blackman)

A beautiful poem for the wonderful Dorothy Nimmo

(for Dorothy Nimmo and in homage to Anne Stevenson)

I went down to the river
to see the winter willow,
the old white willow blazing in the sun.
The river soiled and swollen,
dead weeds flat and matted,
the willow had collapsed and most was gone.

The inner trunk was rotten,
like chunks of painters’ ochre
to grind and scatter on an Old One’s grave.
I went down to the river
for comfort in mid-winter
but comfort wasn’t what the river gave.

The willow’s near immortal:
the roots around its ruin
will flaunt new shoots to flutter in the sun;
next winter by the river
the bush burn on, as ever,
but Dorothy my dear be dead and gone.

A willow is a flicker,
rivers aren’t immortal,
seas, planets, solar systems come and go;
everything pours forward
towards its dissolution;
her living and her writing made it slow.

I’ll go down to the river
and cut a wand of willow
and plant it in my garden in the sun.
Each winter that is left me
I’ll see it growing brighter
to blaze a little while when we’re both gone.

(from) TWELVE SONGS (by W. H. Auden)

(XI)

Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos, and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.

Let the aeroplanes circle, moaning, overhead,
Scribbling on the sky the message, He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves.
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last for ever. I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean, and sweep up the wood,
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

AT PARTING (by Ann Ridler)

But when you are sad, think, Heaven could give no more.

Since we through war awhile must part
Sweetheart, and learn to lose
Daily use
Of all that satisfied our heart:
Lay up those secrets and those powers
Wherewith you pleased and cherished me these two years.

Now we must draw, as plants would,
On tubers stored in a better season,
Our honey and heaven;
Only our love can store such food.
Is this to make a god of absence?
A new-born monster to steal our sustenance?

We cannot quite cast out lack and pain.
Let him remain – what he may devour
We can well spare:
He never can tap this, the true vein.
I have no words to tell you what you were,
But when you are sad, think, Heaven could give no more.

REMEMBRANCE (by Emily Brontë)

Sweet Love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along

Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along:
Sterner desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven;
No second morn has ever shone for me:
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy;

Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And even yet I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in Memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

TO LARA (by Virginia Rounding)

“out of fiction into history and the death camps,
lost in a multitude of women with no names”

I went searching for my muse and I found you –
sleeping between freshly laundered sheets
while wolves you took for dogs were howling
in the dark beyond your safety zone.

Iced rowanberries in the snow and strong white arms –
your concentration in the library at Yuryatin –
abandoned weeping on the coffin of your lover:
you stole my mind to live through for a time.

The sleigh is swallowed into distance. In your final
understated disappearing a part of me goes too –
out of fiction into history and the death camps,
lost in a multitude of women with no names.

Julie Christie as Lara in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago