The Burren is a limestone plateau in County Clare, Ireland. Occupying more than a hundred square miles, it is one of the quietest places on earth, and its gray expanse has often been likened to a lunar landscape. Yet it also hosts more than six hundred varieties of flowering plants, which thrive in reflected light.
Here is a poem set in the Burren. Its author is Michael Longley, one of Ireland’s finest poets and a lifelong resident of Belfast:
AT POLL SALACH
Easter Sunday, 1998
While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills
You showed me, like a concentration of violets
Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky
A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.
Poll Salach (pronounced pole sol-ock) means “dirty pool” in the Irish language. Poll Salach is situated in the northwest region of the Burren, where the limestone pavement runs into the sea. Despite its name, it is an austere and beautiful site.
The narrator of this poem is walking at Poll Salach, and with a little help from an unnamed companion, he discovers a spring gentian (Gentian verna), a solitary flower. Its five petals are a bright blue, and to the poet the flower resembles a “concentration of violets.” At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning.
It is significant that the narrator of this poem was looking for one thing—Easter snow—and discovered another. As the Zen teacher Toni Packer has remarked, most of the time we are looking for something, but we can also cultivate pure looking, or looking for its own sake. In that way we open ourselves to what is present in the here and now.
Something of that kind happens to the narrator of “Poll Salach,” though he is also thinking of the future. For him, the blue of the gentian conjures a “future unimagined sky,” which is to say, a future that has yet to be envisioned, much less determined.
Michael Longley wrote “At Poll Salach” on Easter Sunday, 1998, two days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement signaled an end to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which had claimed more than 3,000 lives. In the ensuing decade, paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict have relinquished fighting and put their faith in peace and reconciliation.
Last month that truce was threatened, when dissidents from the Irish Republican Army killed two unarmed British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is now composed of Catholics as well as Protestants. This time, however, the leaders of the once-warring sides united in condemning the atrocities and renewing their commitment to peace.
It remains to be seen whether that peace will hold. Edna Longley, Michael’s wife and a prominent literary critic, has described the “shivering” gentian in her husband’s poem as a “tentative floral image,” which indeed it is. But it is also an image of hope, as potent in its way as the lilies of Easter Sunday.
“At Poll Salach” appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Weather in Japan (Wake Forest University Press, 2000). It is reprinted here by permission of Wake Forest University Press (http://www.wfu.edu/wfupress/index.php).