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What Compels Us
“This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up…”
Hallo to you from Memphis. I’m here for a few days of engagements on poetry and theology.
This week was Saint Patrick’s Day, a day I love, although in the last few years, I’ve often been away from Ireland for the day. (Decades ago, a colleague from Boston said, “You haven’t been in Boston for Saint Patrick’s Day? You’re not Irish at all.” We were in Dublin when she said this, and it was my introduction to the audacious charm of the Boston Irish.)
Patrick, who lived during the fifth century (scholars debate whether he died in the 460s or 490s) left behind a confessio, a document that tells part of the story of his life. It’s about six pages long, and is a mix of story, trauma, kidnap, escape, religion, self-consciousness, and a life that was guided by dreams.
He was from the town of Bannavem Taburniae, a place that hasn’t been traced, but almost certainly somewhere on the island of Britain. Sometimes people say it’s in modern day Wales, but more often, I’ve heard it speculated that it’s somewhere in what is now the north of England. He tells of how he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland, forced to work, escaping after six years, following a dream where he saw a way out. His return to his parents was not straightforward (other pirates, and shipwreck), but once home he continued to be visited by dreams that compelled him, eventually, to return to Ireland:
I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up…
He listened to his dream, and returned to Ireland, living the rest of his life there; a life that had vocation, politics, resistance, misunderstanding, determination, and fulfillment at its central energies. He often felt ashamed of his lack of education; in his confession, his self-consciousness is a recurring theme. Dreams continued to guide him throughout his life, too — he paid attention to them, and used them almost like a dialogue partner for his decisions.
When I read about Patrick’s dream-life, I often find myself calling to mind a line from the first part of Joy Harjo’s poem, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: “The red shimmer of remembering will compel you up the night to walk the perimeter of truth for understanding.”
That word ‘compel’ in Joy Harjo’s poem comes from a Latin imperative meaning ‘to drive/thrust.’ For her, it was remembering that compelled. Remembering what? Land, it would seem from the poem’s content, as well as everything the land knows.
I see Patrick’s life and I am moved by how compelled/driven he was by a desire that often seemed to go against what others — including his poor parents, I’m sure — thought of as better judgment.
I wonder what has compelled you? Has that served you well? How do you know?
I’ll see you in the comments, friends.
PS: In the time between letters, I made a recording of Walter de la Mare’s poem “The Listeners” — I very much enjoyed reading your places of connection in the comments last week, and that some also found the pleasure of reading these stanzas aloud yourself.
Seattle Arts & Lectures Series | Seattle, WA
On Monday, April 3, I’ll be interviewing Chris Abani, the magnificent novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright, as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. If you’re in the Seattle area, I’d love to see you at the Rainier Arts Center. It’s also available to view live online. Tickets for whichever option is best for you can be found here. Whether in person or through the web, join us at 7:30pm PT.
Poetry Reading, Eckerd College | St. Petersburg, FL
On the evening of April 6, I’ll be giving a reading — followed by a Q&A and a signing — at Eckerd College in Florida. Details are still to be posted; we hope to share them here next weekend.