|Medieval woodcut of St. Brendan discovering an island|
Greetings fellow Toads, Brendan here. I’ve been extended the opportunity to take part in offering poetry challenges to the community. Who could resist? So here we go with my first Sunday Mini-Challenge …
Some history before I beg your mysteries. To be a poet in pre-“literate” Ireland, a bard had to memorize the entire songbook of the oral culture, spending seven years in dark “singing-huts” listening and repeating the tales. (The scriptorium in which the oral tales were later written down are survivors of that tradition, as I suspect the survive and thrive whenever we close our eyes and listen to the singer within.) A poet was not allowed to write a lick of his or her own poetry until they could recite the entire canon. (What is creativity without that great springboard?)
The body of tales they learned to recite was divided into four branches—the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. However, storytellers did not order their songs in that manner, nor by any chronological method; instead they classed them by life events—births, youthful exploits, battles, wooings, adventures, visions, glorious deaths.
One distinct class of these events was the immrama or “rowing-about,” tales of sea-voyages to strange and wonderful islands, each of which were Otherworlds of their own, places so unique and strange as to fully name—or harrow—a wonder in the catalogue of experience. How else to truly know a Thing but out on the salty margins of being?
In the “Voyage of Maelduin,” 33 islands are described: an Island of Great Birds, an Island of the Little Cat, an Island With a Wondrous Fountain (milk on Sundays, ale and wine on feast-days), an Island of Black Mourners, an Island of Great Horses, an Island Whose People Shout “It Is They!,” an Island With An Arch of Water and—most strange and wonderful to this singer—an Island of Women.
In the Christian era that came to Ireland in the fifth century, these immrama were saved—as with much of Ireland’s ancient oral culture—by the monks who wrote them down. It was one of the rarest survivals of an oral culture into the literate, enabled perhaps by the new-found wonder of books themselves—each an island of God’s glory, both in description and decoration. (Have a gander at the Book of Kells, and you’ll see why.)
In the Christianization of old Irish culture, the ferryman of souls, the “wave-sweeper” Mananann, became the great angel Michael, and the immrama were converted into tales of the “white martyrdom,” saints who commended themselves to God by setting forth upon the wave in their frail coracles, going where God bid them. (Poetry is a little like that.)
My avatar Brendan was one of these voyaging saints. Clara Strijbosch writes in “The Heathen Giant in the Voyage of St. Brendan,”
According to “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” Brendan burned a book containing stories about the wonders of God’s creation out of disbelief. For this reason he is sent on a voyage so as to see with his own eyes certain divine manifestations which earlier he had refused to credit. In this way he is to recover the book by refilling it with the wonders which he witnesses on his voyage. The majority of the phenomena which he comes across are related to man’s actions and behaviour in this life and the circumstances consequent upon them in the Afterlife. Brendan encounters souls in hell, heaven and paradise. The astonishing and sometimes frightening experiences restore his belief. (School of Celtic Studies DIAS 1999, p. 369)
Islands are the dark night of the soul, the blossoming of our art, a season in which we grieved deeply a loss.
Islands are the Otherworlds of your poetry, each poem an encounter, a Thing both hallowed and harrowed in the naming.
For this Sunday Mini-Challenge, write about a situation or time or relationship or in your life as if it were an island encountered on the wide wild sea. Land us there, tell us what you found or learned there or what it looked like diminishing behind you as you moved on.
The only stylistic requirements I ask is that your poem is a new creation and that you include the word “island” in your title.
Lets gather our islands into a Real Toads immrama, a book of voyages which any saint worth his salt would burn as too wild for belief. A ocean wilderness of wonders may come into view, even if we haven’t left our little pond.
I look forward to the voyage soon to begin!
One of my favorite poems is by William Stafford, and it is as much about finding islands as having the faith that the next poem will reveal them:
Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.
Some time there will be a tomorrow without any
island. So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.