For the last 8 months, read.live.learn, a community-focused literary initiative, has been running a shared reading project with the women in Hydebank Wood. During this time, we have established an engaging and dynamic weekly group who read and talk together. Primarily, we read for the sheer pleasure of the text, but the reading experience offers much more. Often, it is (unpremeditatedly) a catalyst for many things – identification, evaluation and re-evaluation, reliving, feeling, experiencing. We read, not to find some presupposed ‘truth’ of the text, but to discover its meaning potential – what it means for and to us.
We read good literature – books and short stories with depth that challenge us to think beyond the words on the page to what is often inexpressible or difficult to articulate in everyday discourse. We read Dickens (well, who hasn’t felt like Pip in Great Expectations, reappraising themselves when an impressionable character points out their flaws):
He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. ‘And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!’ I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.
And, of course, there is always poetry, the ‘digging’ pen of Seamus Heaney precipitating the excavations of our own collective and individual consciousness.
It is 11th December - almost Christmas – and today we are welcoming Belfast’s first Poet Laureate, Sinéad Morrissey, to our weekly group. Given the context, a bit of seasonal ambivalence – antipathy even - is to be expected here (Christmas is a time for families, from whom these women will be separated), yet the women are pleased to see her. She begins by greeting every woman in the room – conversation is effortless. We have non-native English speakers in our group who, at times, struggle to make sense of the readings and the often fast-paced conversation. Yet, as Sinéad chats to them about where they’re from, she discovers that she shares memories of their hometown. ‘I’ve been there!’ she tells us, engaging the girls in a conversation about this lake, that bridge, this town, ‘Is that the one near the village…’, ‘Yes, Yes, that’s my village!’ squeals one lady. They are as excited as I’ve ever seen them, frantically translating Sinéad’s revelations to each other, chattering and laughing at their pleasure in connecting, so unexpectedly, with ‘home’.
Over polystyrene cups of tea, Sinéad offers out copies of a poem that she learnt as a child, Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. With no copy of her own to read from, and in spite of what might well be its hundredth outing, Sinéad speaks it anew. In a room normally filled with the babble of voices (the women don’t get to speak to each other often as they don’t share the same landing) you could hear a proverbial pin drop. Jenny* is listening intently, eyes closed, head back. When she finishes, I half expect Sinéad to talk about the poem, its poetic cadences, what it means to her, to us. But she doesn’t. She says, simply, ‘well, did I get it right?’ This humble question, so incredibly powerful in a room full of women from whom opinion is rarely – if ever – sought, floors me and I can see the impact of its sincerity on the group. ‘You did’, confirms Maria*, ‘perfectly!’ offers Kate*. Attention turns to the poem’s theme as Jenny interjects, ‘I could see that – the snow, the cottage, the trees – feels like I’m there. It’s nice’. Nods of agreement follow, and Jenny’s comment momentarily transports me to the lines of another poem, this time by Caeiro,
Because I’m the size of what I see
And not the size of my stature.
After some discussion, we move from the sublime to the sex. A few weeks previously, we read Sinéad’s poem, ‘Blog’, from her recently published collection, Parallax (“whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions”, OED). The poem begins:
I don’t have girlfriends but I do have sex
with a different woman about three times a month.
During our initial reading, we had a range of responses from schoolgirl giggles (‘look at that bit, “It’s easy and clean and consensual”), to quiet reflection (‘but look there, he’s not that happy – “Then it happens again. Loneliness’s overblown” – it’s like he’s glossing over whatever pain that sex is covering up’). So, with Sinéad here, the women are straight in with it – ‘tell us about that poem, Sinéad’. Hoping for some salacious response (or maybe that’s just me), Sinéad talks about her inspiration for the poem (you’ll have to read it – no spoilers) and we are reading it again, a different story against the backdrop of the story that Sinéad has just shared with us. It is different, somehow. Even more felt.
We turn our attention to ‘Fool’s Gold’ and as Sinéad talks about the poem she is interrupted by Jenny who begins to read it aloud in full. Its ekphrastic form and (sometimes) archaic vocabulary (“glint and heft”, “the famed alchemical ingot”) mean that this poem is not the easiest one to read aloud for the first time, but she goes for it:
a rose from my
and then lifted it out transmuted
into gold – you proffered
the key and did
not know it
to a blissful
plenitude, my soul’s
ultimate, jubilant relief.
On finishing (‘did I do that ok?’) both she and Sinéad seem justifiably proud. The room is calmer, the women are thoughtful, all of them quietly engaged in poring over the words, drinking them in, feeling them.
This is not an English literature lesson or a linguistics class, for Sinéad is not here to teach. I can’t help wondering if it’s precisely because of that, that the women are so eager to learn from her, to know more (more than poetry), to discover how ‘Fool’s Gold’ comes to life, to understand how the form of the poem (‘I wanted it to look like a candelabra’) becomes part of the poem’s substance. Everyone contributes and there are no wrong answers. We all feel like we have learnt something, not just about poetry, but about life.
This is what powers our group every week - a sort of 'parallax', if I may graciously borrow from our poet. Sinéad's visit has brought a different perspective, a way of seeing in words and images the potential of what's out there, outside the page, outside the cells. Something good has come of this, something enduring. Appropriating her own words, in a way, Sinéad’s infectious, uninhibited wonder at the words on the page has been for us a kind of rejuvenative and fulfilling "noble elixir".