“Calm the heart’s dark waters,” advised the third-century Chinese poet Lu Chi. “Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.”
I was reminded of Lu Chi’s admonition the other day, when I came upon a poem by the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson (b. 1927). Entitled “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” the poem concerns the children of unwed mothers. Embedding Irish-Gaelic phrases within his English text, Hutchinson presents two, very different ways of describing such children. In so doing, he also presents two contrasting perspectives on human frailty.
“She fell asleep in the sun,” explains the narrator of the poem, is an Irish way of saying that a young woman got pregnant unintentionally. “That’s what they used to say,” the narrator recalls, “in South Fermanagh / of a girl who gave birth / unwed.” Shifting the scene to County Kerry, the narrator invokes a phrase used in that part of the country: “leanbh on ngrein: / a child from the sun.” As a third example, he describes another “child from the sun”: a “little lad running round a farmyard” in North Tipperary. Watching the child, his “granda” remarks that the boy is “garsuinin beag mishtake.” That phrase may be translated as “the little lad’s a mistake” or “the lad’s a little mistake.”
Taken together, the Irish phrases in Hutchinson’s poem express an attitude of realism, acceptance, and forgiveness. In subsequent stanzas, the narrator praises that attitude—and wonders whether it can survive in modern times:
A lyrical ancient kindness
that could with Christ accord.
Can it outlive technolatry?
Not to mention that long, leadranach,
latinate, legal, ugly
twelve-letter name not
worthy to be called a name,
that murderous obscenity—to call
any child ever born
that excuse for a name
could quench the sun for ever.*
Pairing a narrow morality, as preached in certain churches, with the worship of technology, these lines inquire whether the Christ-like kindness of the older culture can endure in twentieth-century Ireland. Embodied in the phrases of an endangered language, that kindness seems itself endangered, a mode of feeling that may soon be leaving the world.
Among the forces eroding that mode of feeling, Hutchinson cites a “legal, ugly, / twelve-letter name.” As the reader may readily infer, that unspoken, Latinate name is illegitimate. In contrast to the vivid, concrete Irish phrases, the abstract English word conveys a tedious (leadranach), judgmental attitude toward the mother’s “mistake” and the child who must bear the consequences of her actions. Rather than welcome the child into the human family, the English word defines him as an outcast, murdering his spirit and quenching the life-giving sun.
Of the two perspectives in his poem, Hutchinson clearly favors the first. Adopting that perspective, we might empathize with the plight of mother and child. We might look into the conditions that brought her son into being and try to imagine the life ahead of him. And we might also admit that at times we have done foolish, irresponsible things ourselves. Adopting the second perspective, however, we might observe that the child is indeed illegitimate, as judged by accepted norms, and that to call him a child from the sun is to soften a social reality, poeticize a legal fact, and implicitly condone unwed motherhood. In passing we might note that calling a child a “mistake” may be only a little less damaging than calling him illegitimate.
One of the virtues of meditative practice, Zen included, is that it allows us the space and freedom to examine our responses to human frailty, whether judgmental or compassionate or somewhere in between, before taking action or saying a word. In contemporary American culture, the judgmental response has become reflexive, even in putatively “spiritual” circles. But a compassionate response is also possible, and the mind of compassion is often more penetrating than that of moral judgment, which tends to distance us from the conditions of human suffering. And should we deign to look deeply into the heart’s dark waters, we may discover that in our own ways we too are children from the sun.
*Pearse Hutchinson, “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. Wes Davis (Harvard University Press, 2010), 183-4.
Garden sculpture by Robin Caster Howard.
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