On a flight into Atlanta a few years ago — a journey I had made many times — I sat next to a young man from Dublin, who was on his first trip to the U.S. As the plane made its descent, the young Irishman stared intently out the window and marveled at what he saw.
“It’s a city in a forest,” he told me.
I loved his fresh perspective on the city I knew well, and he was right. Compared to many cities, Atlanta still does have wonderful trees, despite an onslaught by developers determined to knock them all down.
I thought of that young man again today as I tried to cull through the books that are overflowing the shelves at my house. The city of Edinburgh, Scotland, is running a Carry a Poem campaign all this month, and in the spirit of that campaign I’m trying to identify a different poem that I appreciate each day of the month.
The book that came easily to hand offered up one of my all-time favorites.
My copy of the book is well-marked with underlinings and arrows pointing to favorite passages, and it’s annotated with my hand-written notes about sections that pointed me to one train of thought or another.
Before I even started reading the collection, I was intrigued by the dedication. It reads: “for my friends Betty and Jack W. Weaver who introduced me to the American South.” Who are the Weavers and what was their connection to Greacen? Some day, I still want to do a little research and learn the answers.
But I get waylaid every time I open the book. The first poem, “At Brendan Behan’s Desk,” introduces the title phrase, “A Protestant without a horse.” (Greacen was born to Protestant parents in the north of Ireland.) The second poem, “Procession,” focuses on a painting of a parade by Orangemen in Portadown in 1928.
It concludes with these lines:
The past invades the present,
The present lives in the past,
The future will never come.
These lines capture some of the ongoing tragedy of Irish history, especially the history of Northern Ireland in the 20th century that Greacen knew so well.
But, as I noted in the book on my first reading, it also captures too much of the experience of people in the American South.
The failure of American Southerners to confront our history honestly is a painful reality. But Greacen’s social commentary was focused on his own people, not on Americans. And in one poem in the book, he offers a soaring little anthem that I have always found as inspiring and revelatory as the words of the young man on the plane.
The poem is called “Flying Into Atlanta.”
It goes like this:
FLYING INTO ATLANTA
A velvet evening at fall’s end,
Day in retreat, I flying high
Look down on diamond lights.
John Keats, come with me now.
Let’s travel in these realms.
Un-misted, mellow, fruitful,
And drink from brimming beakers
Above this city’s radiance,
Nor speak of hemlock, nightingales,
Or northern islands we have fled.
Through this rich Georgian sky
We’ll ride in dazzlement
Deep in romantic images
Yet hear a voice proclaim:
O my America, my new-found land!
NOTE: Protestant Without a Horse was published by Lagan Press in Belfast and copyrighted by Robert Greacen.
Two obituaries for Robert Greacan with details about his life and career: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/robert-greacen-ulster-poet-of-considerable-gifts-832109.html