‘Places You Want to Go’ revels in the excitement of travel to and experiences of being in four of the Earth’s most wonderful places. Writing while in the midst of his journeys, with fresh, rich and oftentimes poetic language, William Guest offers readers the experiences of travel to and enjoying the destinations. These four high profile places are the Antarctic, the Arctic, Peru including the Amazon Basin and Cusco, and the Yeats Poetry Festival in Sligo, Ireland. With the abundant color photographs and Guest’s thoughtful comments, readers can easily journey vicariously to four amazing parts of our planet.
Pick it up at Amazon, and please enjoy the excerpts below!
Santiago and Antarctic
Pablo Neruda’s house. Did you think I would pass by without speaking of it? It is awesome. I tried to think of a way to describe how I felt much of the time as our guide (Doris, a lovely American woman) led us from room to room. I thought: like the feeling that comes with a sudden gasp of breath much needed. A feeling of glad fullness, a viscerally tight happy inside.
The view: Perched on top of a cliff-rise above a small beach enclave and beautiful black rock-laced sand-shore, its rooms serve several scene-directions. The sea constantly inundates its splashing against the rocks and beaches, along in’s and out’s of an irregular cliff-based shoreline, spreading white water-spray that continuously unveils appearances and disappearances, like nature playing with smoke and mirrors to keep you mesmerized.
* * *
Set sail at 9:30! Marvelous! Dusk-quality hovering light. Cloudy. Misting a cold thin rain. Mountains along either side, monitoring the beginning of our journey beginning through the Beagle Channel toward Antarctica, 633 miles to our first destination: Elephant Island, across the Drake Passage. Stood on the 6thdeck bow of the ship. The steady blow of steady wet rain touching down upon my face as the ship moves into a gentle but firming wind. The poem: Oh westward wind, when wilt thou blow, that the fine rain down can rain. Christ, that I were in my lover’s arms, and in my bed again.So I was feeling the raining down of fine rain. (Not too fine, actually, even though I was remembering these lines. The rain had almost a sleet feeling – not exactly, just the hint. Enough to stimulate the skin’s pleasure.) Someone along side me remarking about Cook and Drake and Darwin, and sailors on ships in those days, their little ships, plying through windy and freezing seas, how exposed, discomforted, brave, remarkable. And I thought, yes, and why? And I knew why.
* * *
The ship’s engines hum. A never-ending hum, a continuous under-water, muffled roar. Oscillating hum with pitches interacting with the force of what the ship’s bow is doing with the plowing over the ragged sea-top. A long continuing string of extruded heaving, feeling like something that is not ever meant to stop. The ocean holds us, a ship we are, washing on its mighty surface, up and down, heave and ho, slow and o’ o’ o’, sudden rescues when that which held us dropped away, then it returns, pushing us up, to shift us over, then go away again, then re-appear, full and strong. A little ship, filled with 170 people, a tiny dot at approximately 57 degrees 13 minutes south by 63 degrees, 10 minutes west on this gigantic globe, where the ocean is the palm of an uncertain hand.
* * *
This afternoon, went ashore on King George Island, a Polish Research site. Penguins by the hundreds, maybe thousands. Chinstraps and Adelies. Very rocky, very picturesque setting. All around, icebergs, mountains, snow slopes and extensive white vistas of white regions beyond. While walking along the rocky shoreline penguins suddenly began popping out of the water, deftly “plopping” feet-first right on the shore after the “pop” out of the water. Some 15 penguins, popping and plopping, one after another. Then they waddle-walked along the beach, headed toward the rookery up to a next plateau, which was up the hill a ways, onto a higher elevation, a slope of penguins, dotted like a Surrat painting of penguin land. They walk upright – Penguin Erectus. Don’t know if they achieved this before homo. They are entirely confident of their mastery of the upright walking.
And I, walking along the beach alone, slowly, upright – marveling at the footing totally covered in small (3, 6, 10 inches in diameter) stones, smooth from untold years of nature’s rubbing – spliced, speckled, clean, multi-layered specimen of eras and eras of geological dynamics. How I longed to be able to read the stories of earth’s history held tight in the bodies of these eclectic stones, and yet the stories were there: beautiful, crooked, smooth, layered, tortured – written literally in stone. These penguins, these whales, these birds, these seals, these stones, these mountains, these seas – a soft rain was sprinkling, and light moved in and out of the clouds frothing above out heads, listening to the lapping of the seashore.
* * *
Went to the bridge and watched the ship’s bow dive and rise as it led the groaning ship up and down the wave-swells and ocean-wells. The dynamically churning of sweeps, lifts, liquid geometries, white-cap appearances and vanishings, and big swelling rising rolls of on-coming walls of heaving water with no heed for the well-being of the ship’s bow, and the bow fearlessly plowing straight at and into the pounding rolls of water, splashing huge frothing water spray, all airy, wet and powerful, against the wide-stretched windshield of the bridge. How the endless mass of sea crows out its lasting lust for unstoppable, chaotic ceaselessness.
The Arctic Circle is at approximately 66° north latitude. In the Hudson Bay/Hudson Strait, we were within, say, 100 miles more or less from the Arctic Circle. (Amy and I had crossed the Arctic Circle a few years earlier on a cruise of the Norwegian Fjords, when we flew over the Circle to the start of our cruise at the northern-most reach of Norway, and then we sailed south crossing the Circle again, along the western coast of Norway, resplendent with Fjords.) This fits into the question of “What is the Arctic?” because Norway’s climate is significantly influenced by the Gulf Stream, which means that in this region of the “Arctic” there is a milder condition, whereas on the
Alaskan/Aleutian side of the Arctic, the “Arctic conditions” extend much further south.
So the “Arctic Region” is not a cleanly defined “circled” area but varies, the Gulf Stream being a major variation factor. (The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line circumscribing the area north of which the sun does not set on the day of the summer solstice [usually June 21] and does not rise on the day of the winter solstice [usually December 21]. At the North Pole, daylight or night lasts up to six months.) If you look down on a globe on the North Pole side, the Arctic Ocean is on top, touching three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian), but the Arctic is an ice-covered ocean, not a continent. (Antarctica is a snow-covered continent.) Hundreds of miles (varying) south of the North Pole there are islands, etc., through which passage between the Atlantic and Pacific is possible, depending on whether we are talking about small wooden sail ships [17thcentury, say] or modern ice breakers, as well as whether the season is a cold, icy one, or not (relatively). Typically most of the water in these Arctic Regions is covered with ice during the winter, including large amounts of the Hudson Bay. This is the topic when asking, when, who and how was a Northwest Passage found from Europe (Atlantic) to the Pacific (the spice islands) which was so much sought after, while Magellan was finding such a route to the south of South America (in the 17thcentury). The Arctic is bordered by Russia’s Siberia to the point of the Bering Strait, across which there is Alaska, east of which there is northern Canada and the above-mentioned islands, extending to Greenland, a very large island at the top of the Atlantic.
[i]You can find the Arctic Circle maps and information at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_Circle, (marked to show the line delineating the “tree line” and a line delineating the area within which the temperature does not rise above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) during the summer (marked). All three concepts are used to “define” the “Arctic.”
* * *
We had landings by Zodiacs – this required boarding of these 6-8 passenger rubber boats down the stairs at the side of the ship and a ride into shore, where disembarking was generally into some shallow water (so we wore rubber boots, and then usually changed to hiking shoes upon reaching beach, and then boots again upon re-boarding the Zodiacs for the trip back to the ship). No docks exist for handling ships, and generally no docks exist. Usually each day we had a landing at a village, and also at a site for walking and looking (tundra, rivers, waterfalls, hills and cliffs). The Zodiac ride could be fraught with spray so we prepared as needed by wearing “shells” (water-proof cover over our trousers) as well as sweaters and windbreakers and, as it got colder, parkas, and as it got even colder, parkas and 2 or 3 sweaters, gloves, headgear).
* * *
For safety, each group was accompanied by at least one rifle-bearer, in case of a polar bear encounter. Noted is a small rock of an island our zodiacs passed that had dogs, all by themselves. The owner used it as a kennel, collecting the dogs by boat when needed, and feeding them on the island.
To sight the animals is another matter. Here let me make a comparison with Antarctica, to which I traveled in January of last year. In the Arctic, man has had a long presence and he is a very accomplished and feared predator. So the animals keep their distance. You need good binoculars and alertness. (“There, way over there, is a muskox. He’s moving over the ridge.”) Photos were next to impossible because, say, a muskox would be an unidentifiable dot on the picture. People were constantly saying: look at the ridge over there, then down to your right a little, or such guidances. Binoculars were passed around a little, because some were better than others. Fortunately, my binoculars were pretty good. In its own way, this approach had its interest, and we were all eager participants. In Antarctica, there have been no people (ignoring the recent vintage of some 20 research stations on a huge continent, only some 6 of which remain year-round). In Antarctica, the animals do not fear man. We could walk among colonies of Penguins. Right past pods of seals lolling in piles along the shore. We were required to keep about a 15-foot distance, but sometimes the Penguins forgot the rules and would walk closer by. Generally the animals seemed to totally ignore our presence. In Antarctica we saw lots and lots of animals up close, living their natural activities. Lots of birds, too. In Arctica, there were lots of birds also. Especially migrating geese (saw flocks of snow geese and Canadian geese, resting on the ground, flying past).
* * *
I’ve heard “tundra” many times. Now I have a deeper concept of “tundra.” At first it seemed to be a barren expanse of wasteland. As I paid more attention, to the land and what the naturalists were pointing out, I saw a richness of life. A special life adapted to survival in a harsh and frigid place of existence-striving. Another way to see life as a miracle. It has a beauty, a music, a proclamation, a yearning to go on, forever. I’m so glad I saw it, this barren tundra.
Often saw rocks stacked in “design” format, indicating or signifying something. As I understand it, if the rock formations have “sculpture” intentions, such as a representation of a human form, the Inuit name is, I think, Inuksuit. There are also “cairns” (if I use this word correctly) which are utilitarian stacks or formations of stones. (Travelers or explorers placed notes [information], as well as supplies, in such stone caches.) One very tall one (over 8 feet) was probably a landmark or reference point for land “navigation.” We had asked Mayor Moorhouse what these rock formations stood for (and the concept was “general”). He said several things and added: some of them may be just a statement: “Johnny was here.” A key use of piling stones was to stash excess food for a later day, to keep bears and foxes from taking it, so you could see that it had a “hollow” inside. On Diane Island we came upon a burial area. Graves delineated by stones piled in a grave-like form (another use). One stack of stones was a different approach. It was about 3-4 feet at the base, and about 5 feet high. It contained human bones, which could be viewed by peering through the openings between the stones. A way to bury a body and protect it from animals.
* * *
Northern Lights! Also known as the aurora borealis. They appeared at 10 or so each evening, and especially at 11, 12 or so, according to reports. Amy and I were missing them at first because of bedtime. One night Martin did us the favor of knocking on our door (as pre-arranged) and we went outside. Wow is what I said. Beautiful, ephemeral, gossamer, luminous, mysterious, ghostly, other-worldly, beautiful, changing before the eyes, streaks and colors, like a message or sign from some great being or place, dancing, beautiful. I began to think: somewhere down here is a small ship, with some small people, on a giant planet, inching along the arctic waters, looking skyward, in awe. I hugged my wife.
* * *
Human dreams of, and passions for, reaching the poles have been fuel for mankind’s indomitable spirit for “questing” that has written exciting histories of high adventures of discovery. There are two “poles,” each one marking the extreme “ends of the earth” characterized by special and extreme frigid conditions and “life” – and this happens because of the way the earth “presents itself” to the sun during its daily rotations and annual orbits. “Ice ages” also come and go across eons of time because of the vacillations of the earth’s “tilt” relative to the sun. The “pole” in each case is not a precise, immovable location (and “where” it is depends, for example, on whether you mean the magnetic pole or the geographic pole). You don’t have to fulfill a journey to the poles themselves to gain a view and some knowledge of the Polar Regions. In the case of Antarctica it was (for me) the Peninsula and its waters and islands; for Arctica, it was Hudson Bay and its waters and islands. There are other routes to take, other places to go, for experiencing a presence in the Polar Regions. My mind is not free from thoughts and wishes for more. But I find satisfaction in having experienced a presence in the Polar Regions of our earth, and thereby to augment my knowledge of who we are.
I’m also sort of sad that there are only two poles.
Peru, Lima, Amazon Basin, Cusco
Peru is larger than life. The long coastal region with desserts and riches. The Andes – like a backbone, majestic, running the full length, and on into Chile and southward nearing the tip of South America before it dives underground. The Amazon Basin, where the feeder-tributaries in this massively-large rainforest basin gather to produce that very long and very large river that conjures so much – the Amazon – a huge river for sure with boggling data scales. The Amazon Basin has rainforests, flora and fauna in varieties and splendor beyond imagination. Civilizations come and gone, leaving vapor trails of mystery, peopled by raw basic human grist, splendid works of man in ceramic, stone, metal and textile art, thriving skills and imaginations that blossomed across the regions of every kind,
and more. If you were headed for this place, what would your expectations be, without even asking why would you go?
* * *
The exit from customs is into a sea of waiting people greeting people. The people on the plane, in the immigration line, the exit sea people, present for me a “different look.” This is Peru, land of ancient cultures, indigenous Indians, propagations through the ages of battles and strifes, work and love, learning and doing what life on earth requires.
In the greeting sea placards are held up with names. I scan name after name hoping to find me, and do.
His name, like mine, is William. I had the thought: a Lima limo. A limo it was not. A small stick shift less-than-new car of a make not apparent to me. William’s poquito English, and pronunciation thereof, and my hearing deficit, invited a fair amount of re-runs. My Spanish was impeccable and fluent, of course, as long as we stayed with the “me Tarzan” range.
Between midnight and one a.m. our small box on wheels rolled along the streets of one- and two-story buildings that were mostly dark but for mild street-lighting. They even seemed unused, stacked and stuck together in continuous box-lines and variegated materials, windows, ledges, roofs, and significations of the absence of prosperity. At one intersection when stopped for a red light, a small boy – was he 8 or 12 or 14? – stepped in front of our car, holding three 18” sticks, each tipped with a vibrant ball of flame. There, like an impromptu magician out of the city’s dark hat, he performed a juggling artistry of dazzling sticks-on-fire from the arms and hands of a small Lima-boy-wanting-money. I made use of the cambio that I had just received at the airport, my hand to his through the car window, lowered by William’s touch of a button, that for a flickering moment drew aside the curtain between me and this boy-child of the dark 1 a.m. Lima street.
* * *
At about 130p we reach the little patch-work river-side town-cluster of Nauta, our bus crawling ever so slowly along a very bumpy dirt road to a make-shift-looking dock-place where we board 2 skiffs and cast off to go to our riverboat, La Turmalina. It is smaller than I had mental-pictured, 3 decks, green and brown, pretty. A Mississippi gambling boat without a paddlewheel would be its other life.
We’re now on the river (which river? – stay tuned). The skiffs-ride to La Turmalinagives us a sense of having come to the Amazon. The “moment.” A wide reach of river-water creating a sense of sprawling and continuing – a place where water and wetness reign supreme. It exudes peacefulness, a quietness, an openness. And in the mind is a knowing that this is where the Amazon gathers itself within a vast region of water-forces to grow and flow and become long and big and the creator of a unique experience for life on this planet.
* * *
Writing this now in the pre-breakfast hour in the stillness of the open upper (3rd) deck (covered but open sides with rails). Silently the mass of water is on the move, like a continuous mode of migratory instinct, water with the awakening that its time is here to make its long journey to the Atlantic 2,000 miles across a continent. I keep thinking the word “silence.” Numerous small bits of detritus dot the expansive flowing stillness, a veritable lake on the move. The washing curling, twisting and twirling of water surface-play is a mesmerizing vision of a quick/slow motion show of patterns. The sky overhead hangs out puffs and banks of light and dark clouds with no clear intention. Throughout the whole world everything has taken a time out, while water-on-the-move and sky-as-cloud-playground paste a holistic experience for a man on a boat in the Amazon Basin in early morning.
* * *
First, an overview. We are proceeding for a short time on the Tigre River (which flows into the Marañón River) which combines with the Ucayali River at the downstream confluence to be the Amazon. We soon leave the main stream (quite wide at this point – guessing ¼ mile or more) and take a tributary – 100 yards wide, quickly getting more narrow. I ask Victor: am I wrong? Isn’t the water flowing away from the big river “into which it’s supposed to flow”? He replies affirmatively, saying the big river’s rising water is backing water into the upstream of its tributaries. It’s a long course (again, 4 hours round trip) into the back-reaches of the wetlands. Very wet, as in swamp-like, as we journey deeper and deeper. Vegetation is thick, diverse, high reaching, vine-embroiled, water-rooted – teeming and streaming from its source of some hidden powerful (magisterial, mystical) force whose role it is from the other side of the threshold to push unceasingly into this world more and more and more.
Birding. The early morning is a thriving, robust bonanza of avian activity. They fly overhead this way and that way. Toucans, hawks, woodpeckers, and many other names bandied about by our naturalist and 2 or 3 other experienced watchers. The skiff’s flat-bottom 5-foot beam allows standing as we cruise slowly, turning about as needed, overhead this side, that side, both sides, overhead and both sides. We alter speed as the naturalist silently signals to the operator.
The language of species identification, mentioned above, is fascinating and mellifluous, with words that grab the distinctive features – often color – to tag a species with its appellation. The banter of words goes on and on. Victor exclaims op.op.op.op.op..look.look.little guy..little guy, as he’s pointing energetically. (Actually, “iddle/g’y..iddleg’y..iddleg’y” in Spanglish.) From the zone of birding ability that I have (or don’t have) I can see, enjoy and learn. It’s like the frequent sweeping into the skiff of a breeze of shared excitement, pointing, describing, exclaiming, trying to help one another locate the spotted bird. Some are better than others at spotting, and at being able to find the bird that the pointer-outer is pointing to. Moving from naked eye to binoculars is a learning curve. How do you fix the binoculars onto the spot “on the branch to the right just above the green bushy place about 15 feet up” and so forth. My binoculars are very satisfying to me. I gradually improve my skill of going to the objective. I would give me a grade for finding the bird is at times as good as 50-50, which means a lot of misses. I am not alone in this struggle. I am amazed at Victor’s skill. I fantasize that at one point I exclaim: look, look – pointing with authority – a yellow-tufted white-wing Amazon Eagle, just there, perched in the bonzo tree, watching the family of Cappuccino Monkeys in the trees below. And everyone ooo’s and ahhh’s, murmuring what eyesight I have, what skill to locate this extraordinary and rarely-sighted creature in the Amazon Rainforest. Waking up, I snap back to trying some more to improve my score at fixing my binoculars on something or other that is being called by a beautiful name from the robust and voluminous glossary of bird watchers.
* * *
I need to talk about the sounds. The scene is one of quietness hanging over us but there is also contained within this vastness a flittering of vocal pop-ups and quick-tune calls, the bel cantos of this wilderness. Sometimes a tune is bold and prominent, evoking a “what’s that”? It’s as though we are in a vast open Amazon water-laden rainforest jungle, warped by solitude, wherein beautiful sounding wind instruments, made of wild and wonderful birds, are making a performance for us. Thank you. Thank you.
* * *
I’m now at the airport planning to fly from 200 feet above sea level to 11,000 feet above sea level (straight up?). Some talk about high altitude behavior. I had a cup of coca tea at the airport Starbucks, a much-touted precautionary drink for what’s coming. One of our group says that she definitely gets altitude sickness above 7,000 feet, and has started taking some pills which are now producing some small unwelcome side-effects. I guess she really wanted this trip.
Short flight to Cusco (100,000 population). The airport is small with lots of gaudy-colorful stalls and signs displaying tour options. Our bus is relatively large and comfortable. We meet the local guide – Angel. (I know we are high up, but angels?) A map is handed out for Angel’s explanation of our itinerary during this stay (last 2 days will be back in Cusco itself). We now begin the departure through the somewhat level-base town with suburbs that rise off the floor-display reaching up into a sea of mountain-sides/shanty-quality adobe houses, close together, uniformly roofed with red tiles. Angel use the word “squatters” to say how these residents migrated here from farms looking for a better life but finding themselves still trapped in poverty.
* * *
From Chinchero we go down. The bus is smooth and quiet. A long descending ribbon road slowly snaking into the embrace of the valley. Dramatic but soft scenes of mountain meadows, grids of small cultivated fields, flowers unveiling themselves in here-and-there patches, wide-distant vistas of cultivated geometrics of shades of green – potatoes, beans, small sheep-herds grazing. Quite a beautiful glide along rich upland meadows over-watched by background peaks nestled under light-tossing clouds. The bus continues its glide into a gorgeously-designed valley of rolling hills, cuts of ravines and animals and stretches of astonishing vistas. There seems always to be the distant mountain-backing of a mist-ghosted dark Andean presence.
I could probably write a book about this 45-minute bus ride from Chinchero to Urubamba City. How much I’ve not told you about.
* * *
At 9a we meet in the lobby to go across the street to the Conventa y Musea de Santa Catalina built at the beginning of the 1600’s on top of an important Inca religious site. (Cusco was the capital, and the heart, of importance in Inca, so nothing was spared in creating what they sought, which was religion driven. Having said that, I note that I’ve read that the principle reason for this extensive enclosed facility was to sequester the Inca Emperor’s chosen Virgins of the Sun. (It seems that when men of mankind achieve a strategy to empower themselves with religious authentication and perhaps deification, they somehow add on a touch of my-chosen-women collection.) The Catholic Spaniards (or Spanish Catholics?) did their usual change-it-to-Catholic grand strokes, and converted (what was not destroyed or built over) into the great masonry structures to housing for monks and, next building, nuns, as well as chapels and other religious accommodations. From Angel we get information in front of us about how to know an authentic Inca wall masonry, and a pop quiz in a couple of places. It helps to sharpen the eye and appreciation for masonry skills and engineering that are probably second to none in the history of the world. The museum expresses a strong sense of old Inca and old Catholic – modern-day Cusco efforts to preserve the past and tourism.
* * *
When the Amazon Basin – its rivers and rainforests – are mentioned – or Cusco, or Sacred Valley, or even Machu Picchu – I will know a lot more about that than I did prior to this trip. It was an experience desired and fulfilled.
As a post-script, I will share with you my effort within a week of leaving Peru to bring my thoughts to a distillation which, for me, is often cast as a poem:
where are you?
Shrouded in the dark of no written language
and all your pre-Pizarro ruins are detritus
for us to wonder and guess at what you were.
Through five thousand years in pockets of time and place
in knitted groups you hunted and farmed and fished
and built, adding religions and art to your riches.
Why did you do this, religions and art?
You did it so well in imaginations that romped and played,
liberated like your multitudes of birds in your wild winds
of your endless coastal plains, your Andes and your Amazon.
We rummage our mental sticks in the ash piles
of cultures that took a wrong turn, or got fated away;
our eyes made wide to see the Inca civilization,
slaughtered by Pizarro and the likes of him
who came for gold but did not see the gold before their eyes.
Ancient Peru, we search through your ruins of temples and art
clearly seeing bright rays from your sunset, dreamed and painted.
Yeats Poetry Festival – Sligo, Ireland
Arrive in Dublin early in the day and go to Temple Bar Hotel in the Temple Bar section – pedestrian-dedicated narrow cobble-stone streets and pubs and shops and restaurants, a part of the heart of Dublin. The very popular band, U-2, is playing this weekend at the big stadium (they say a hundred thousand fans will attend), so Dublin is filled with band-going fans, filling up the hotels. (Temple Bar was a lucky one-room-left find by me on the internet, after several other choices failed.) During the day I enjoy very much strolling around this heart of Dublin area, Temple University, St. Stevens Green, Shelborne Hotel (where I have spent nights on several visits), etc. I remember a time when I had delicious kippers for breakfast in Shelborne’s dining room, and inquire. No kippers. (It turns out, kippers are not as ubiquitous as in the old days.) Where to find? I receive a reference that is a taxi ride away, which I do, to a small competent seafood restaurant, and have kippers because I’m in Ireland and I like kippers. Continue after lunch strolling along the Liffey River and soaking in the sense of Dublin. Light, simple dinner at Temple Bar Hotel before going to Abby Theater, which is a must for me when in Dublin. Afterwards I enjoy strolling around the loud, crowded and lively partying scene of Temple Bar U-2 phenomenon. I note that every female in Dublin wears blue jeans. I’m thinking thoughts about young Irish people, how it’s changed since my first trip in the early 60’s, a strong sense of “modern” has arrived, and I’m sort of experiencing the “generation gap” although I’m quite comfortable with the young people I’m beholding. Soon I brave it and wade my way up to one bar to have a Guinness but then head for my room: the young-crowd jubilation is too overwhelming for me.
* * *
Quick walk to Glasshouse, Maureen and I, then to Hawk’s Well Theater, a main venue for YF events, for the opening remarks. Then everyone boards buses for a trip for scene viewing, including a view of Ben Bulben’s Head, then to Drumcliffe Church (Episcopal) for an evening song service, running late, then outside viewing of Yeats’ grave and headstone. As Yeats commanded in a poem, his epitaph reads:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman Pass By
Very moving, to be at the grave of so great a poet, in his land (2 senses). I gleaned more insight not this enigmatic epitaph. An earlier version (before being revised out) had another line (first line), which was: Draw rein, draw breath (which has a rhyme with death, obviously). So, (and here begins the speculation) he envisioned a horseman riding by, pausing to gaze at the gravesite. Also I read that his mind was in the time when horses and landed gentry were the upper, ruling class, and that his emigrant grandfather, though very successful financially, always felt that he did not “make it” into that class, thus bestowing a kind of “the unattained” aura on “the horseman” who would ride by. His great grandfather was rector of this church, and a thumbnail of Yeats’s relationship with
Sligo is in this footnote.This year is the 70thanniversary of Yeats’s death in 1939, and the 50thanniversary of the Yeats Poetry Festival.
The church is small and beautiful. The setting is bucolic, with much of its border being its old old cemetery, but – in nearby proximity – a large parking lot due to tourists and a site for a tearoom and tourist office. We have off-and-on showers for our outing, beautiful country to drive through, and then head back to Sligo, just in time to change and board the buses again to Cromleach Castle for a big dinner treat.
* * *
Now for an excitement. I cross the street to enter the Glasshouse which as you recall is situated on Hyde Bridge Street, next to the bridge over the Garavogue River, where directly below the window of my 4thfloor room the river is a roaring rapids of arresting cascading of water and sound (the flow that was funneled through a sluice to drive the mill’s waterwheel that’s no longer there). A misty rain is in the air under low-banking clouds, variegated light and dark. I should say, rain is in the “wind” because as I cross the street the wind is whipping at a stimulating blow, tossing the blonde hair of a young woman across the street dressed sleekly in a black top and hip-hugging pants walking in a way that only women can walk, and I heavy in the traffic jam of my mind, and mindful incidentally of the traffic on the street, filled to my brim with the senses of the surroundings. Wet wind and roaring stream, percolating street of Sligo Ireland where the moment seems to me to be so much more than just right. It is not too much to say exhilarating.
The grand idea occurs to me, and grows in my mind as I cross Hyde Bridge Street to the Glasshouse in the mist and wind and river roar, that I will buy a pint of Guinness and take it to my room (with which I sit right now looking down on the cascading river just beneath my window, which I open to enhance the sounds of the tumbling water). I ask at the bar (through which I conveniently must pass on the way to the elevator) if I am allowed to take a pint of Guinness with me to my room and she says I don’t see why not. So it is done, midst 2 other kind approaches of waiters soliciting my needs. (One young waiter asks me if I have had a Guinness before, and I give a look of pensive pause and say: 17,344 times.)
* * *
Now it’s time to go to my Yeats seminar – an hour and a half with direct immediate attention to the poems of W. B. Yeats, led by the well-known and highly regarded Helen Vendler of the Harvard faculty. Delving into Yeats this way is awesome. He is so unbelievably good, and having a teacher of such excellence, and fellow students who’ve come because of the love of poetry and Yeats’s poetry. While I have read and re-read a number of his poems and know something about him and his poetry, my awareness of how much there is that I don’t know is increasing in leaps. We do the poem with a long title about a wealthy man who was foolishly (In Yeats’s view) placing “show me” conditions on a gift. Then “The Dolls,” then “the Magi” in this session. At closing Helen made very good comments about the value and fecundity of language in man’s journey. I start writing a note after the others have left, and she and I are alone. She asks what I’m writing, and I answer I’m making a note on a theme that I have in the works, that is, how today we struggle puzzlingly, in befuddlement and wonderment, and we have language, but what about man before language, his plight then. She and I shared comments on the cave paintings in France (which we both have visited), and a nice discussion.
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Seamus Heaney is present throughout, with his wife. Several of the other poets are also in the mix and are seen here and there, at Hawk’s Well, Methodist Church, various pubs at lunch, poetry readings, breakfast at the Glasshouse, or dinner or whatever. (James and I had a chance encounter with Seamus and his wife over a Guinness in a pub – a very convivial visit.)
Seamus is a fine looking man, experiencing at about this time his 70th birthday (it was mentioned from the stage 2 or 3 times). White hair, thinning. Just under 6 feet tall (mine is 6). Seems very gentle and kindly in demeanor and speech. Reads his poems well and modestly, with that good Irish flavor. Very good poetry. Very impressive man and poet.
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(I’m writing this the next morning, nunc pro tunc, as lawyers say.) The restaurant experience, the walk to it, the tolling church bell on the misty lamp-lit street of our walk, the pleasantness of the restaurant’s small interior and warmness of the waiters, the ambiance of being 2 friends sharing enjoyment. Maureen has salad and salmon. I have carrot soup and lamb. I had the carrot soup the night before. Excellent. Two kinds of bread. One is a saffron color and flavor. Outstanding. Makes you want to live on bread and wine. We order a Bordeaux, the same as what we had by the glass the night before. And as though that was not enough, because it wasn’t, we order a 2ndbottle of Bordeaux, a different vintage – just to compare, you understand.
A good recounting to each other of how we lived our lives that day. Maureen drove to Rosse Point and to the Lissadell House for a tour of it. Talk about its status, history, furnishings, outlook. I talk for approximately 10 hours about my 8 hours of poetry workshop and lunch with Deidra. I offer at times to stop but Maureen keeps me going with her questing interest in poetry and the mechanics of the workshop process.
We talk of what to do with our lives over the next few days of Sligo, poetry, drama workshop, the trip to West Cork (to visit for a week immediately following the YF) – shall it be Adair, or what, for a night, to visit Chris Ryan and the Scarteen hounds, and possible other friends such as Liz Barry (from her days of living in Galway and my years of annual foxhunting with the Scarteens and neighboring hunts), or Galway where Maureen’s poet sister lives, how long to make the journey to West Cork versus going straight to this place that is building in my mind? We walk back through the night streets, warmly lit for us by some friends who also have laid cobblestones and sidewalks and buildings and street lamps and moist soft air to usher us to the Glasshouse and a night’s sleep and dreams by a river in an Irish town.
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I’m thinking of winding down this journal although I have one more week in Ireland, since mostly my purpose has been to capture the Yeats/Sligo experience. We get under way at about 930a. Our projection is Galway, Gort (Coole Park to have a last touch of Yeats), Limerick, Killarney, Bantry, and Ballydehob, one of many small towns along the fingers of peninsulas that fan out along the radiating coast west of Cork, to Maureen’s house. This one-day drive from Sligo in the north to West Cork in the far south (along the West of Ireland) is a big anticipation for me. All of my trips to Ireland were mostly to a single area for foxhunting (near Tipperary, Limerick), occasionally with some day trips and especially to Dublin occasionally. This Friday drive will take me through new and exciting towns, landscape and geology.
We meet Maureen’s brother, Ross, (whom I know from over the years) at Yeats Tower at about 1p. We get to see the tower where Yeats, his wife and 2 young children, lived for a few years. Challenging to figure out the man and why? Very primitive, one small room per floor, 4 floors and a rooftop place. About 1920. No electricity. No running water, toilets, kitchen facilities like what comes later, etc. His wife (“George”) must have been really something.
Ross had prepared baskets full of a picnic lunch. We drive on for about 20 minutes to Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, where Yeats spent a lot of time, the scene and subject and idea-feed of much of his poetry, the convening grounds (courtesy of Lady Gregory) of many epic Irish writers. A table in a lovely sprawling park area near the “Signature Tree,” children and even adults and a dog or two, sunny, cool, a table cloth, a wealth of food and drink, and the pleasure of Ross’s thoughtfulness and display of that thing about the Irish that is such a shining generosity in spirit and deed.
Ross is a delight, a barrister by profession (formerly a practicing medical doctor), an inveterate horseman who regularly rides to the hounds, and an education in the classics which fuels very interesting conversation. I ride with Ross from Yeats Tower to Coole Park and we talk a lot about his hunting mare and the young (5-year-old) mare he’s bringing along. Both are about ¾ thoroughbred (1/4 draught, or draft, of course), so we talk about how these traits are playing through – performance, toughness of skin, etc. He’s thought about the young one for eventing and I’m not sure if he’s abandoning that idea. Etc etc. This could go on and on, as I wish at the time.
So we have a one-hour stop-over lunch at Coole Park in just 4 hours. As we depart, Ross leads us around Gort along narrow country roads to avoid single-lane caravans that we would have faced at this rush-hour (rush?) traffic time, and then he waives us on our way. What a great picnic experience!
* * *
We still had a wee bit of daylight as we got closer to the neighborhood towns with names I did not know at all and could hardly capture the pronunciation of in my head when spoken: Ballydehob, Skibbereen. One I know readily: Baltimore. I marvel at Maureen’s driving along the one-lane rows of high hedge-lined overgrowth, sometimes arching almost completely overhead such that we are in a tunnel. The roads are hardly larger than one lane, so when 2 cars meet (always suddenly, it seems, because the roads are hilly/curvy), there is serious adjustment that needs to occur – slowing down to a near stop, pulling into some area to allow the other car to proceed, etc. A sudden crossroad, a turn, motoring on, another turn – a labyrinth that only a rabbit could follow and then only if he knows his briar patch, and road signs haven’t been thought of here. Ingeniously, we arrive, about the same time as the sky is kissing the light goodnight. We drive into the driveway of a house that glows inside. Maureen comes home.