To breathe the air of peace: a review of 'Tomorrow's feast', by Gerda Stevenson
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:09

To breathe the air of peace: a review of 'Tomorrow's feast', by Gerda Stevenson

Published in Poetry

Tomorrow’s Feast by Gerda Stevenson is her third poetry collection. It is presented in several sections with a prologue called Albatross that tries to understand why the mariner in Coleridge’s great poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, decided to take up his bow and shoot the bird. By way of the sections called Heartwood, Corona and Collective Breath, the collection ends with the section Bought and Sold. The last poem in this section is called Mariner, a libretto in verse which offers a contemporary twist on Coleridge’s poem. By beginning the collection with a monologue from the dead albatross and ending with Mariner, the collection has clearly been cleverly choreographed.

The collection is dedicated to ‘all the young ones at tomorrow’s feast.’ Tomorrow is the future and for there to be a feast in the future we obviously have to come to terms with today’s world, and this is exactly what Stevenson attempts to do in this essentially optimistic collection. 

The local is the international

Stevenson travels widely, traversing continents and using both English and Scots, along with smatterings of Gaelic, to say what she says. This makes Tomorrow’s Feast international in its reach while still dealing with national, personal and local concerns. It was Tom Leonard who once said that the local is the international, and this is played out well in the poem Russian Gloves.

Life is beginning to open up, says Stevenson, ‘after the virus’ when a ‘red coffee van’ appears in her village. She is wearing a pair of gloves made and given to her by a Russian woman ‘who lived for a while/ over the hill.’ The gloves are admired ‘for their intricate pattern, Fair Isle style, with a Tatar touch.’ As she explains who made them and gave them to her in friendship, a man ‘casts a tiny grenade’ by saying ‘So they’ll be for the bin won’t they!’

Earlier in the poem we are told that the Ukraine war had started – ‘news of Ukraine bleeding from the radio’ - but in no way was this any justification for Stevenson to disown a pair of gloves given to her in friendship. The moronic man who uttered those words clearly swallows all that the media feeds him, and while war should rightly be condemned, in no way should we condemn all people in countries whose leaders perpetrate war.

An exercise of cold and brutal power

The poem Little Boy was written to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The poem was published first in Culture Matters. This act of evil should never be forgotten. While Stevenson takes the Enola Gay on its journey to drop the bomb of all bombs, we are told that a chaplain uttered the prayer ‘armed with thy might / in the name of Jesus Christ.’

The religious blessing given to an act of such horror is – to use Biblical terms – both blasphemous and lamentable. Nothing could have justified the incineration of 140,000 people, an exercise of cold and brutal power. It was good to see this poem in the collection, reminding us of the appropriation of Christianity by the United States to sanction its imperialist foreign policy.

Today’s Christian nationalism in the United States is being used for frightening causes. Certain sections within the evangelical and pentecostal movements are calling for the re-introduction of slavery, the burning of gay people, an end to the American constitution for being too secular, and a theocratic state to emerge instead. These ‘so called’ Christian groups even have their own theology, appropriately called prosperity theology, that maintains that because you are fabulously wealthy God has graced you. It has nothing to do with a rigged capitalist economic system, chicanery or corruption, but with God’s favour.

This theology is not only functioning in America, but has been exported to Latin America and to Africa. It helped secure the Presidency for Bolsonaro in Brazil.  Margaret Attwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) possesses a deeply worrying resonance of what is happening in contemporary America. As is so often the case, it is our writers who see more clearly than any politician.

The Unites States of Alienation

It can, of course, be explained by the mind-numbing conformity that exists there, something Sartre noted on a trip in 1945 in his essay Individualism and Conformism in the United States. But it is much more than that today as American capitalism has advanced since the Second World War. It is the new Imperium in our world and the dangerous rise of Christian nationalism comes as a result of the severe alienation felt by millions of people who live there and are being won for even greater alienation. This does not matter so long as vast profits are made and the super-rich stay super-rich.

Marx, in his A Contribution Toward’s a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), tells us:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The religious justification for using the atomic bomb in 1945 now justifies America’s relentless overseas conflicts as well as fierce condemnation of any opposition at home. The psychological disorientation this brings to the American masses who are fed endless media messages about the enemies who threaten their way of life, finds succour in these forms of Christian nationalism. Sadly, such adherents fail to realise that the world’s oppressive nature, its heartlessness and soullessness can all be attributed to the capitalist, warmongering state that they actually worship.

War and migration

War destroys, disfigures and dehumanises us all. It does not end problems but creates more of them. There are several references to war in Tomorrow’s Feast. The mariner who shot the albatross was African and war, he says, ‘had hijacked every shred of my humanity’. Similarly, the soldier who served in Afghanistan who is now coming home in the poem Hame-comin, says that he ‘canna come hame in ma hert / noo I’ve duin whit I’ve duin.’ Just as the state sanctified the dropping of the atomic bomb, so a state sanctions the killing of people in foreign places who do not look like us. Yet the Children’s Chorus in Mariner succinctly reminds us ‘we’re all from somewhere else.’

Many of today’s migrants are fleeing war and its aftershocks. They are unwanted despite our interference in their lands that made them migrants. The racism that seems to underpin such an outlook is based on migrants being foreign. Stevenson uses the Scots word for foreign in her poem Fremmit, telling us:

the hale warld, ow’r aa its airts
has boardit up and nailed ticht
its hert’s door fur fear o fremmit fowk,
their fremmit weys

As we know all too clearly, migration is being used to steer a rightward trajectory in our political life, Stevenson remains firmly on the side of humanity – of those forced to leave their homelands through no fault of their own. She reminds us in the poem Song of the Slabhraidh, how 298 people from St Kilda and Skye had to leave their homes and sail on the Priscilla in 1852 to their new home in Australia. Some 31 died on board and another 11 died at the quarantine station in Australia. Similar death tolls – and worse – happened to African slaves and to the Irish fleeing famine, and the forces who orchestrated such inhumanity are still active today.

In the case of the people from St Kilda and Skye, their reason for having to leave was the way their lives had been transformed by Union with England and how land use had changed from communal to private ownership. The ‘mighty mill-men of Yorkshire’ were active in the wool trade and this trade turned ‘wool into gold.’ Human beings became surplus to requirements. Donald and Anne McPherson, along with their hungry child, took with them the slabhraidh, the chain and hook that held the pot over their peat fire. It has been handed down to their descendants.

There is a powerful chorus that goes with this poem which could so easily be applied to all today’s migrants who may carry similar items –

I am the slabraidh, the hook and chain,
each link holds a story, the old refrain
of loss and profit, greed and gain,
of people and places, so many faces,
and too many farewells, again and again.

Such a Chorus is in support of migrant populations everywhere, to be seen as fellow human beings who share our world. Gerda’s poems speak of a shared humanity and differences in ethnicity and colour are deemed irrelevant.

In Mariner a Refugee Chorus, Gerda poses the question ‘Are we the cost of the world’s other half?’ The answer is yes, of course. The inequalities in our world are all designed this way by the rich and powerful who manipulate their elected politicians to do their bidding. However, at the end of Mariner, a song is sung where it is hoped we can all meet, ‘beyond beliefs of wrong-doing and right-doing’, where we can all ‘breathe the air of peace.’ Aye, to that.

A world to be cherished and shared

Peace is the key to any future but in all the pages of Tomorrow’s Feast it is implied that peace must come with justice. Migrants must be treated as our fellow humans, never demonised, war should cease and the young should be enabled to have their ‘dreams migrate like paper kites.’

Gerda’s poems remind us what it is to be fully alive. The wondrous skies above us light up the world we live in. It is a world full of beauty and wonder and it is a world to be cherished and shared rather than exploited for the benefit of the few. And this world must be the inheritance of the young.

The bright colours that adorn the cover of this collection were painted by Gerda’s daughter and in the poem My Daughter’s Painting, the poet tries to understand what her daughter saw as she painted it. She questions if it was maybe ‘the first garden, where all was new and equal, and knowledge good?’

This is the creation story as metaphor for Tomorrow’s Feast as a whole. The collection is commended for its humanity, its refusal to accept how things are and for its dogged optimism for the future of all our young people to one day ‘breathe the air of peace.’

Tomorrow's Feast, publiched by Luath Press, is available here.