Social media has enriched my life in ways I never thought possible, while at the same time snuffing out a way of life for so many of us. I will always treasure the hand-written letters that also served as envelopes. Trimmed in red, white, and blue, those sky-blue single sheets, delicate as onion skin, were sturdy enough to make the journey par avion from Ireland to the other side of America. With only one sheet of thin paper, we had to be economical with our words, shaping our tidings with only the very best.
In school, I filled blue jotters with words that weren’t my own, but I learned by heart from favorite poems carefully copied in a fountain pen full of Quink. Love medicine on every page.
Before Skype, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother and my friends, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect over the time difference and the cost per minute. Before the Olde Antrim Photos page appeared on Facebook recently, now with 480 members all feverishly posting pictures and recollections of childhoods that have grown more idyllic over the passage of time – before all of that, those of us far from home relied on the pleasant interruptions of sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar, we fell simply and softly into conversation, all the comforting colloquialisms helping us pick up where we left off a lifetime ago. Unlike the phone or Skype which brings my mother to me whenever I need her, as though she is sitting across the table from me at lunchtime, it is the letter, with its faint fragrance of home that I have always found superior, because I could hold it in my hands.
Now, I cannot imagine a world without Twitter, its sheer speed and instantaneous access to the information I need. Bite-size chunks or, if I need more, connections to charts and graphs, studies and reports, to newspapers from every corner of the globe, to communities of writers, teachers, cooks, politicians, breast cancer patients, scholars, musicians, poets, readers et cetera.“Whatever happened to Tuesday and so slow, Going down the old mine with a transistor radio?”
Van Morrison asked in 1967. Almost my entire life later, he is singing in the background of my home far away from home, The Days Before Rock and Roll, and I am a teenager, once again sitting by my bedroom window, turning knobs on that old transistor, circling through Athlone and Budapest on the way to Radio Luxembourg.
It is National Poetry Month, and I no longer have to search through anthologies to find a favorite poem, or copy it out line by line in a book that will become a personal collection to lean on when I am weary. At my fingertips, at lightning speed, I can find any poem I need. I have needed Damian Gorman‘s “Devices of Detachment,” often throughout the years, especially when I am reminded of the extraordinary coping skills of ordinary people, revealed through their words, how we can turn a phrase, a word, a hint, around and around until we have successfully distanced ourselves from the subject. Then, we can feel no longer responsible or accountable. Terrorism. Cancer. The Wars on both. How well we use words and phrases to sanitize and glamorize the suffering and pain, to hide the horror and heartbreak so often visited upon ordinary people going about their daily lives.
While ruminating on the complexities of cancer and the politics of its lexicon, I rediscovered Damian Gorman and his spare but searing suggestion that the bombs and bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” all too familiar in 1980s Northern Ireland were far less deadly than the “devices of detachment” its people used to distance themselves from the violence. Aware of it, yet so removed. When we think we need to be, we are all very good at “detachment.”
Devices of Detachment by Damian Gorman
“I’ve come to point the finger
I’m rounding on my own
The decent cagey people
I count myself among …
We are like rows of idle hands
We are like lost or mislaid plans
We’re working under cover
We’re making in our homes
Devices of detachment
As dangerous as bombs.
Sometimes when I need my mother but she’s out shopping or the time difference doesn’t allow it, I turn to Seamus Heaney, the Nobel poet whose poetry so easily scoops me up and into the County Derry countryside where he grew up, just down the road from my mother. Recently, in an act of mild rebellion, I gave my ironing board to Goodwill. I couldn’t quite part with the iron, but that day is on the horizon. This was no small act, given that I was reared in County Antrim by a mother who ironed everything, including socks and dishcloths. Nonetheless, when I close my eyes and picture her, she is not as she was just this afternoon on Skype, inches away from me on a computer screen; rather, she is standing at the ironing board in our kitchen, in the house my dad renovated from top to bottom during my childhood. As plain as day, I can see her setting the steaming iron in its stand, while she shakes out one of my father’s shirts. As she resumes “the smoothing,” she is telling me a story she has told before or reminding me not to wish my life away because I’ll be a long time dead, and invariably, she is reminding me to consider the lilies.
Old Smoothing Iron by Seamus Heaney
Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at achor.
To test its heat by ear
she spat in its iron face
or held it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.
Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron
like a plane into linen
like the resentment of women
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass
through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.