The Violet Jacob poem Norland Wind (set so hauntingly to music by the singer Jim Reid in 1984) has been on my mind for the last three days, since the wonderful event I went to in the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was called Innu Poetry from the Canadian Tundra, and featured three Innu poets Josephine Bacon, Nataha Kanapé Fontaine and Naomi Fontaine reading from their work, with responses from Scottish poets Anna Crowe, JL Williams and Rachel McCrum. It was profound and thoughtful poetry, but I want to make special mention of Rachel McCrum’s poem Do Not Alight Here Again ( the title-poem of her latest pamphlet from Stewed Rhubarb), dealing with the pressure on Irish children to leave home:
Leave while you can—
Be better than us.
Do not alight here again
and Josephine Bacon’s Someone Seems to be Calling Me where the northland laments the loss of its inhabitants
It’s been so long
Since I heard
the sound of the drum
he seems to be saying.
Where have the Innu gone?
I have responded to the Irish Diaspora myself in several poems in Wherever We Live Now, and what surprised me most about that experience was that the longing for the homeland does seem to be mutual. When I tried to find my ancestors in Waterford, the staff in the library suggested that they might find long-lost cousins who would like to meet me, and at the Dunbrody, the famine ship in the harbour at New Ross, there is a record of every emigrant who left from every port, The Irish Emigration Database, between 1846 and 1890. I did get the eerie feeling that Ireland itself was asking ‘Where are the children? What happened to them? Do they remember me?’
Violet Jacob’s poem reminds me that Scotland feels this too. It is not just a historical perspective. Naomi Fontaine writes in her poetic novel about white farmers who buy land, exclude the Innu from it and develop it for money. We have Donald Trump, building a golf course that excludes his neighbours from their own beach.
So far so easy. But there is a twist in this tale. I’m working on a new poem – not got far, it’s still a bit raw and diagrammatic, and maybe it is too big and complicated a subject for a single poem anyway:
Forbidden to own land,
forbidden to teach our children,
even to speak our own language,
what else could we do but flee?
And in that new place,
we took what we wanted.
No-one to hunt us or stop us.
We did to the others
what had been done to us.
Our guilt is the greater.
But I am thinking that the problem of our disconnection from nature, our longing for wildness, has many layers, and not all of them comfortable.