The Irish poet Medbh McGuckian writes about subduing “the disquieting existence of others” in her poem Drawing Ballerinas. Seeing through eyes she describes as “unnerving sparks of matter,” she brings to life another view of the feeling of anxiety, of worry, a knowledge that something is about to pass in this world of disorder and disillusionment. The anxiety may be more than just a feeling. It may be real loss, not just of home and land, but of innocence.
With winter already now upon us with its heavy paw of discontent, chilling days and nights without end, when our birds can’t get enough food, when the trees rub against one another and moan, and the contours of the hard earth don’t yield to any boot, I search for the “protective curve” that McGuckian says is there in the ballerina’s hair. Is this what she means when she talks of “the dip in the mountain” of our watchful scan, the memory of a time long before when we were behind the trenches, not yet in them, waiting to confront whatever it is to come.
At this time of year when we are besieged with de rigueur wishes of good cheer, peace and love, I find such commands ring hollow in whatever is left of my inner lining of consciousness. It is simply becoming increasingly difficult to accept the warped accommodations of what is expected, especially in these day when bombs go off with regularity, automatic weapons mow down the innocent who are just around the corner in their ordinariness, when as Yeats said, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It’s a wonder that most people don’t wake up to “one last feeling” that their lives have become little more than a contour of brittle irony. If only we could do a series of “looping rhythms” to return us to a solid sense of peace and safety.
So we beggars who do not look for tinsel or ribbon shuffle off and tell ourselves that we have to adjust to the specter that comes with so much change, the dogged unravelling of our cloth. We take for granted that there is some speck of truth in the cliché that life will go on, so we still cling to strange customs and traditions that are but little more than fairy dust.
We are becoming like so many others who tend to vote against their own best interests. History is marked more by violence and mayhem than it is by love and caring. We are drawn by temptation into believing saccharine nonsense as an aid to give us rest and to distract us from the frightening face of reality, the grimace that is always at the door, pushing hard against what we think are strong barriers.
I’m more content dancing around the fire of the Solstice rather than gazing at some plastic crèche in the front yard illuminated by colored lights. The symbolism is lost on this old pagan. I’m happy to say, however, that I’m more than willing to lift a mug of grog not just now but any time with a fellow traveler. Without the holiday fanfare, I’m content to sit back and enjoy more severe Irish poetry from the likes of Rita Ann Higgins, Eavan Boland, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, and others with piled up consonants in their names. These women see the world through the suffering eyes of mothers whose children have been lost, whose ambitions have been thwarted, whose dreams continue to be troubled for any variety of reasons.
They bring us real blessings and honest good will, though, not the kind of hypocrisy heard in too many sermons and worn-out songs that assault us without mercy wherever we venture. They are our modern shepherds come to greet us and provide new hope of authentic redemption, since they are the irenic ones who know how to hold families together, how to make our common hearts pump together in harmony, how to bring a sense of love and fulfillment into our beleaguered lives. Their gift of self has been affirmed through their message. They are not simply going through the motions. It is up to us to laud our gratitude upon them, to focus whatever admiration and adulation we can muster that is left in our cynical selves rather than trifle away our opportunity by mouthing words of praise to an unresponsive abstract.
What we need are swirling ballerinas to sweep us off our feet, to whirl us about in dizzying flights of fancy, paeans of love to the worthy ones who bring real joy to all and everything that matters. When I am in their company, I find it easier to forget those who would keep us in disquiet, drugged to the point that we cannot even find our compass let alone follow it. To all of the season’s simplistic celebrants, besotted by song, presents and gaudy trimmings, I offer another view, one that asks them to opt for a higher level of gifts: those of love, caring and sincerity which they can shower on all people not just now but throughout the year.
As we come back to McGuckinan, I note that she dedicated her poem to Ann Frances Owens, a schoolfellow and neighbor, who lost her life in 1972 when masked terrorists bombed the cafe where she was enjoying coffee with friends. Writing of Ireland’s present and past history of religious and political “troubles,” McGuckinan finds solace in the dance of the ballerina. She notes that the French painter Henri Matisse said he managed to survive as an artist during the worst years of WWI, by drawing ballerinas. “I may not be in the trenches, but I am in a front line of my own making.”
Come the end of the week, I’ll be happy and content to find a book of drawings of dancing ballerinas under my imaginary tree.