Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Sligo and Yeats, Mrs. Furey and an Early Pilgrimage

As part of my preparation for teaching a class on travel writing this May, I've been reading Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage. Some of this very fine book deflects into popular religious writing—I figured it would, given the traditional associations with "pilgrimage", so I ventured into it with full knowledge that those parts of the book would not be too much in my wheelhouse—but I'm still seeing strong questions raised by a book that is more supple, more searching than I had first assumed.  It's making  me think about pilgrimages of my own, of  qualities that turn sight-seeing into pilgrimage, destination into shrine.

The first pilgrimage I took, or at least the first I recognized as pilgrimage, was in Ireland in the late 90s.  It took a conventional form: we took a bus up to Sligo from Galway, the idea being to touch the hem of Yeats' garment and to see the country of his poems.

I would have preferred train to Bus Eireann.  Everyone who knows me knows my love of rails.  But the Intercity Line—then and now, as I understand—sent the traveler way east into central Ireland to connect from Galway, and so we took the bus, on roads that were still winding and through a cloudy West of Ireland terrain that reminded me how I loved the countryside there, but how it always felt as though you took in the landscape at a gloomy slant, at wintry dusk even though our trip was in June.

We arrived in Sligo at an equally somber moment.  Our June was the June of 1997, and the Troubles had flared up again following the shooting of two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  The political climate was as somber as the weather, and we were dropped off in a hushed, even gloomy heart of the town, where we made our way to the tourist center and stood in line for one of the standard tours until a Mrs. Furey came up to us and offered her services as chauffeur and guide.

Needless to say, it's a good rule of thumb to avoid offers you meet in these circumstances.  I accepted, though, relying on what I'd admit was a degree of sexism (yes, women would be capable of a good old-fashioned kidnapping or drygulch, but let's face it: they are much less likely to do so than men), but also on my seasoned intuition when it came to character.  Mrs. Furey was warm, humorous, but altogether businesslike: we would pay for the trip, but she would deliver our money's worth.

Also, wasn't Michael Furey the young man from the west of Ireland who died for the love of Greta Conroy in James Joyce's magnificent story, "The Dead"?  The one that Gabriel Conroy dreamed his wife was dreaming of?  A young man obscured in the fiction of memory, in the memory of memory, and then to make obscurity complete, only a fictional character to begin with?  And was Michael Furey Mrs. Furey's oblique ancestor,  recalled vaguely by a latter-day writer on a quest preoccupied with visiting a dead poet's grave in Sligo?  The temptation deepened enough to give in to it, to surrender the facts and the good sense, and we were off in Mrs. Furey's van through winding, obscure roads, to Innisfree and Lissadell and the grave at Ben Bulben.

Yeats people know these places filtered through the glamour of the poems.  So in ways it becomes superfluous to go on about how one or the other of them might have disappointed when you see them firsthand.  Yeats brought poetry to them to understand them, to connect them with his life and people,  and now we bring that poetry with us, and a dim island like Innisfree becomes unique and evocative because the poetry mediates our experience.  And Lissadell, the great home of the Gore-Booth family and the center of what Auden called "that parish of rich women" who were Yeats' patrons and companions,
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle…
was barely furnished, the floors checkerboarded with dust framed by the carpets' stripped-down warp and weft.  Mrs. Furey's story about Yeats and the male friends of the Gore-Booth family sitting in the kitchen and throwing knives at rats seemed appropriate in the surroundings. 

I understand that there is no longer public access to Lissadell.  The current owners restored it then raised objections, whether from some dog-in-the-manger possessiveness or from a justified nervousness about trespassers.  In either case, it was good to go when we went, years before that litigation, and to know, having seen the place, that the great poet was right about something more than its decrepit beauty:

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful.
Have no enemy but time.

On from there we went, Mrs. Furey and Rhonda and I, to the banks of Lough Gill, staring out across the waters at the famous Isle of Innisfree, a shoulder of green amid gray waters.  At that distance the "bee-loud glades" and the perpetual, beckoning call of the Isle were inaudible.  The only wonder that I felt was the one I had prepared myself for—the resonance of the place, having decided its meaning before I arrived. 

All I remember of the island was there before I saw it.  I had done my share of traveling, but I was new to pilgrimage.

When we arrived at Drumcliff Churchyard, under the distant hulking shadow of Ben Bulben, it was the moment of epiphany.  It was my version of Canterbury, Bodh Gaya, the Kaaba.  Because I've lived my days in more secular poetry, and though Yeats was hardly a saint, the poems were to me the relics of sainthood. 
But of course, the grave was the shrine.  Limestone, stark in its simplicity, inscribed with the famous epitaph he wrote for himself (about casting "a cold eye/on life, on death"—I knew it by heart in my 20s, still recalled from memory all of the poems I've used in this piece, an indication that I've never quite left the faith).   But no epiphany, no cemetery revelation.  A reverent hush, a sense of homage, but no different from that by any graveside.  It could have been anyone buried there.

And the funny thing is that, indeed, it could have been anyone.  A decade later I learned that it is probable that Yeats is not buried in Drumcliff Churchyard after all.  Yeats died in France in early 1939, his body buried there, intended for transport back to Ireland when, according to the poet, the newspapers would have forgotten about him and the final internment could happen with a minimum of fuss.  But 1939 marked the outbreak of the war.  The body in the French grave was ostensibly moved to Drumcliff in 1948, but in the intervening years, confusion has risen, Yeats not alone in being "transplanted" after the conflict.  In short, though the body in the Sligo grave might be Yeats', it is far more likely, people think now, that some unknown Frenchman awaits eternity on a high rocky spot in Ireland.

Which speaks to pilgrimage, doesn't it?  I've traveled since, and I've thought more about my travels, and now I think that pilgrimage is less a journey to a place than one guided by an inner prompting—something you need to do, perhaps, to get out of your system, to say you have done it, to follow, in some way, the poetry to its source.  Only to discover, perhaps, that the poetry itself was the source, and that wherever you go, that pilgrimage is with you.  It's what the old man said in "The Circus Animals' Desertion," or something near it:

Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.

©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, March 1, 2014

On Pest and Heroes Square, and Alms for Oblivion

"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion."
                        Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Buda is the glamour half of Budapest, east side of the Danube, home of the Castle District, Matthias Church, the Fishermen's Bastion, and highly expensive housing.

Pest, on the other hand, is the place where Hungarian things get done, from the Parliament east to Heroes Square, that brilliant, almost sepulchral plaza of arches and statuary nearby our lodgings while we stayed in the city.

The first night in Budapest, wearied by the long flights and a delay in London Heathrow, we decided on a walk toward Heroes Square (or Hősök tere),  the tourist site on my map that was closest to the hotel.  I was unprepared for Heroes Square, proceeding under the assumption that it was the Statue Park, the odd reliquary for Soviet communism that in reality lies a short distance outside the city—a place that we ended up not visiting this time in Budapest.  So I imagined those dismal Eastern Bloc constructions—outsized remnants of socialist realism, where the men all looked like Stalin, and those women who didn't look like Stalin looked like Stalin's mistresses.  We were headed, I assumed, toward the kind of display that our own Cold Warriors would have warned us about in the Missile Crisis days had they cared anything at all about poetry or art, had they not vied with the bleak propaganda of communist art by simply not caring about any form of artistic expression that didn't sell.

In short, I expected very little.  It was a first-night, off-the-plane excursion.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The statues around Heroes Square were indeed outsized, and a kind of late 19th century Romanticism that's not necessarily to my liking.  But at least it wasn't the Politburo.

Two colonnades form a half circle at the eastern edge of the plaza, atop them symbolic figures representing War and Peace, Work and Welfare.  Within the colonnade stand the Heroes, and it is immediately apparent that War is the most influential of the stone emblems: kings and commanders dominate the lineup.  I suppose that the sentiment of its time was not unlike 19th century America's love affair with its generals.  And yet among them were men of peace—or at least the peaceful faces of men of war.  King Matthias and his scholars.  Coloman of Hungary, king and bishop, who stood against the witch burnings of his time, burnings still recalled by the sculpture at our hotel entrance, where the witch, entangled in blackened bronze, fades into the surrounding buildings and the power lines.
A more magnificent statue dominates Heroes Square. Standing tall and brilliant in front of the intersection of the colonnades is the famous statue of the Archangel Gabriel.  We were told by our guide the next day that this statue was "voted the best statue of Gabriel in the world, by those who know"—an enigmatic statement that left me wondering who those Gabriel experts might be.  Nevertheless, the statue—the archangel holding a crown—is impressive, and perhaps “those who know” are altogether right in this matter.

The square is framed by art museums.  On the north side is the Museum of Fine Arts, which when we visited was, to my delight, housing a traveling Caravaggio exhibition. The Palace of Arts, on the south side of the square, was a center of performing arts, and the events scheduled for the time of our stay were specifically national and contemporary, so we picked tradition over exploration and planned our Caravaggio visit for the following day.

Which speaks to a point.  As an artist of sorts, I am usually inclined toward the new and experimental.  But here on markedly foreign turf, more tourist than artist, I gravitated toward the known, the sanctioned, the familiar.  Caravaggio wasn't even Hungarian, I would remind myself in the days that followed, as the opportunity offered by the Palace of Arts faded behind me on the train to Vienna.  In Hungary I brushed against a vivid culture and history almost completely alien from my own, and it made me think about anonymity, that sometimes good work is lost in place as well as in time. 

And as an artist of minor sorts, I am more and more humbled by the inevitability that the survival of my own work is dependent on these large and immovable things: that it is limited by the restraints of home geography and sequestered talents.  That as writers we see things pass from print, search for recommended books to find they haven't been published in years and that the search in the most obscure sites may roust no words out of oblivion and decay.

Only a block or two from the square is the bizarrely eclectic Vajdahunyad castle, a relative newcomer to the cityscape when you consider the old origins of some of the structures across the Danube. Built in the same era (and with the same impulse) as Heroes Square, it is a gallimaufry of architectural styles—Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque all gathered together and lost in a strange larger purpose—entire in its oddness, occasional awkwardness, and beauty.  It houses two famous statues: one of Bela Lugosi, of course, and another of Anonymous.

A testimony to all writers, artists (and people in general) whose names have been lost to geography and time, the statue supposedly commemorates a chronicler of King Bela (not Lugosi, but a 12th or 13th century Hungarian monarch—for here the trouble lies, in that there are several King Belas, and we don't know to which this writer attached himself).  At the foot of the statue, I'm told by a favorite student of mine, the mathematician Paul Erdos met with a number of his fellows, apparently an unparalleled assemblage of mathematical genius, although again these are names as lost to me as that of Coloman, Matthias, or the "true identity" behind this statue.  The pen the statue holds is the subject of a local superstition: it seems that students rub it for good luck on their exams, summoning recall out of bronze and oblivion, hoping that memory and insight will have their academic backs until the test is over and time begins again.  ©2014 Michael Williams