Saturday, 24 March 2012

A grand stretch in the evening on the beach and marshes in Kilcoole

The channel and tide at the Breaches south of Kilcoole form a landscape that looks like moonscape – but a moonscape with water (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

At this time of the year, people in Ireland start saying: “There’s a grand stretch in the evening.”

An certainly there is going to more truth in that tomorrow, when the clocks have moved forward, summer time has started, and we have an extra hour of daylight in the evening. To add to the joys of that, the weather forecast this evening is promising temperatures up to 20 for much of next week.

With the temperature already reaching 16 this afternoon, two of us went for a walk on the long stretch of shingle beach at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow.

The railway line at The Murrough separates the long, shingle beach from the floodwaters that are trapped in a low-lying marsh, with its channels and saltmarsh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Murrough is a shingle bank stretching from Greystones south to Wicklow town. The railway line separates the long, shingle beach from the floodwaters that are trapped in a low-lying marsh, with its channels and saltmarsh.

A 15-acre field immediately south of Kilcoole railway station is a BirdWatch Ireland reserve, and there are splendid views of it from the path alongside the railway line.

The whole area holds a good selection of wintering waterfowl and in spring and summer these marshes, the reed beds and the shingle beach host a wide variety of nesting birds, with many rarities.

This long, straight, barrier beach was formed when the sea-level was higher after the last Ice Age. Alternate layers of marine and freshwater sediments in the marshes show that the sea has breached the barrier several times in the past.

We walked as far as the Breaches, a narrow channel beneath the railway bridge where the sea now enters the marshes. Occasionally in winter, this channel up blocks with beach material, causing the marshes flood extensively. But much of the original saltmarsh has been drained and claimed for agriculture.

Birds rising and circling above the beach and the marshlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The open beach near the Breaches holds nesting ringed plover and oystercatchers and a small but important colony of Little Tern, which are the rarest breeding seabird with only 170 pairs on the island. Although their choice of nesting sites on the open shingle beaches leaves them exposed to human disturbances, tidal variations and predatory foxes, Kilcoole is now the most important breeding colony of Little Tern in Ireland. These graceful seabirds can be seen fishing in the shallow offshore waters and in tidal channels in the marshes.

The sun had yet to sink to the west behind the Wicklow Hills, when we walked back down on the shingle beach beside the Breaches. The channel changes shape and direction with the currents and tides, and here and there we could see isolated pools of seawater. The shapes formed by the channel and the tide in the grey shingle and the brown landscape gave the appearance of a moonscape – but a moonscape with water.

We walked back up to the car park behind Kilcoole’s simple railway station, and drove into Greystones, where we sat with a double espresso and a large Americano outside Insomnia, watching life pass by on Church Road on what could pass for an early summer evening.

Reeds lining a channel behind the railway station at Kilcoole (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Poems for Lent (29): ‘Here It Is,’ by Leonard Cohen

‘Here It Is’ was first recorded on Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen’s tenth studio album

This morning I have chosen as my Poem for Lent a poem/song written by Leonard Cohen, ‘Here It Is.’ This was first released on Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen’s tenth studio album, which was co-written and produced by Sharon Robinson and released in 2001.

I first used this poem in a Lenten setting when I was asked to preach at the Three Hours Devotion in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, by the then dean, Michael Burrows, on Good Friday, 9 April 2004.

This poem has the capacity to touch the reader or listener in painful places we do not care to search or reach.

Leonard Cohen himself once said: “It’s nice to write a catchy tune about death.” But, while, some people may like poems that talk about blood, sweat and tears, I found out in Cork that Good Friday eight years ago that many people are uncomfortable with a poem that uses a word like “piss.” Yet surely Christ must have suffered to this extreme of anxiety in Golgotha, and must have emptied himself completely of all human fluids on the cross on Calvary.

Who speaks in the poem? Whose voice do we hear? Who is singing? Who narrates within the lyrics? Is it God? Is it just Leonard? Is it his soul? Does it really matter?

Some of those questions may be answered if we read this poem in the light of Lent and the journey towards Good Friday and Easter.

Is this a legitimate way to read this poem? In his introduction to his Harvard lectures, The use of poetry and the use of criticism, TS Eliot wrote: “The poem’s existence is somewhere between the writer and the reader. It has a reality which is not simply the reality of what the writer is trying to ‘express’, or of his experiences of writing it, or of the experience of the reader, or of the writer as reader. Consequently the problem of what the poem ‘means’ is a good deal more difficult that it first appears… But a poem is not just either what the poet ‘planned’ or what the reader conceives, nor is its ‘use’ restricted to what the author intended or what it actually does for readers.”

Some commentators say the speaker in this poem by Leonard Cohen is God, others say the poet is speaking to himself at a point in life where death seems near, and he feels the need to collect his thoughts, recollect the past, and to face the future in truth.

And here is your love,
That lists where it will.


In this poem, God is taking an overview of a life and mixing in a bundle of opportunities in which a person has the opportunity to love. In each of these love/desire experiences, one has the opportunity to feel God’s presence.

In the first paired verses, 1 and 2, God is King of the universe and Lord of Creation, and shows his majesty and his lordship through his love of all created things:

Here is your crown
And your seal and rings;
And here is your love
For all things.


In verse 2, the “cart” is the human body that Christ is incarnate in, and in which he moves around in God’s royal domain, the “cardboard” the weak and flimsy body of his suffering, and the “piss” the loss of all human life in his dying. In his life, suffering and death, he gives his all in love for all:

Here is your cart,
And your cardboard and piss;
And here is your love
For all of this.


In the second pair of verses, verses 3 and 4, the “wine” in verse 3 may mean our thoughts and spiritual ideas. But I find resonances with the wine of the Last Supper and imagery that reminds me of Christ falling under the weight of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, for the sake of his love for all:

Here is your wine,
And your drunken fall;
And here is your love.
Your love for it all
.

The “sickness” in verse 4, may be the love we have for each other, a love that may keep us away from loving God, and therefore perhaps defined as a “sickness” as it detracts us from our divine purpose, to “love” God” first and then to love others. The bed and the pan also echo the “piss” in the second verse:

Here is your sickness.
Your bed and your pan;
And here is your love
For the woman, the man
.

In the four sets of two verses, the third line of each verse points to ways that we may love. But love is not mentioned in the third set of paired verses (5 and 6) – instead, we have the lines:

And here is the night,
The night has begun;
And here is your death
In the heart of your son.

And here is the dawn,
(Until death do us part);
And here is your death,
In your daughter’s heart.


Instead of love, he uses the word “death” in the third lines of each of these two verses, emphasising the depth of love a parent feels for a child, and so the even deeper love God feels for us as his children in the death of Christ on the Cross.

Those verses reiterate the idea of the living and dying of every moment; the following of day with night, and night with day.

Night could represent ignorance and not knowing. But for mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, the night is also the beginning of the mystic journey towards communion and union with the Father, the “I Am Who Am.” The Son must die in order for us to recognise his inherited unity with the Father.

Night turns to dawn with the resurrection, dawn is no longer night, the conscious is united with unconscious, night with day, and the soul with God.

In the last two paired verses, 7 and 8, he warns us in verse 7 of “hurried” desire and reminds us of how we hurry because we “long” for something to be fulfilled or over or experienced. Instead, it is love on which everything is bui8lt and has its foundation:

And here you are hurried,
And here you are gone;
And here is the love,
That it’s all built upon.


In the final, closing verse (verse 8), the reference to Christ’s death, when he is nailed to the cross on the Hill of Calvary, becomes the summation of the poem:

Here is your cross,
Your nails and your hill;
And here is your love,
That lists where it will.


The word “lists” in verse 8 may be a “list” of objects, names or experiences. But to “list” is also to listen, and also to “lean” one way or the other, as when a boat leans to one side. Is he suggesting that our love may lean in different directions as time goes by, or that the love in each verse is different, listing or leaning in a different direction?

The refrain after each paired set of verses says:

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.


We keep living and dying each moment. May we just do this.

Here It Is, by Leonard Cohen

Here is your crown
And your seal and rings;
And here is your love
For all things.

Here is your cart,
And your cardboard and piss;
And here is your love
For all of this.

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.


Here is your wine,
And your drunken fall;
And here is your love.
Your love for it all.

Here is your sickness.
Your bed and your pan;
And here is your love
For the woman, the man.

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And, my love, Goodbye.


And here is the night,
The night has begun;
And here is your death
In the heart of your son.

And here is the dawn,
(Until death do us part);
And here is your death,
In your daughter’s heart.

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And, my love, Goodbye.


And here you are hurried,
And here you are gone;
And here is the love,
That it’s all built upon.

Here is your cross,
Your nails and your hill;
And here is your love,
That lists where it will

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.


‘Here It Is’ lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.