Ahead of chairing a bilingual session at the Cardiff Poetry Festival: Panel Barddoniaeth A Noddfa / Poetry and Sanctuary (31st July), Angela Graham introduces her new poetry collection on this theme and describes its innovative nature.
I have always understood that sanctuary is to do with power. It prioritises the claims of mercy over those of law. It sets a limit to human power, drawing a line in the sand.
Human beings need the concept of sanctuary: the belief that there is a place of respite and restoration; somewhere that provides the conditions that will allow the balance to tip in our favour. This ‘place’ may be a person, a community, a divine presence, an inner refuge. The notion of sanctuary has existed, across human culture, for almost three thousand years.
That I should write a collection of poetry on the theme of sanctuary was a conviction which arrived suddenly. This was summer 2020. The need for sanctuary – for a place in which to be safe − seemed pre-eminent. It wasn’t only the acute pressure of the pandemic. Millions were facing life-and-death situations in their search for survival. The planet was burning up under our feet. Our politicians were draining the meaning out of public discourse with a disregard for ethics and truth. What could be believed in?
A collection of poetry is never going to be much of a bulwark against storms of such magnitude. It isn’t asked to be. The duty placed on it is to let itself be born, to make its way to the light and to flourish in spite of everything that questions its relevance, potency, scope. It had better, in this case, contain something worth saying. When I had asked myself what I could do in response to the many challenges of my time, part of the answer was this collection. There are many things I can’t do, but this I could.
I knew that I would learn much in creating this collection but let me share with you first something that came as a surprise – or a shock.
I thought I understood the religious power of a sanctuary. Hadn’t I spent long chunks of my Catholic childhood staring at the awe-inspiring sanctuary of our parish church in Belfast? I considered myself quite the expert.
Built in the 1930s, my former parish church has an atypically plain interior for the period and is cruciform, without pillars. Nothing blocks the impact of the huge stained-glass window of the crucifixion above and behind the altar. Its almost life-sized Christ, nailed and slumping, is rendered in sepia but everything around him, including the human figures, burns in intense, jewel colours; thousands of glittering shards. The window dominates the interior and particularly the sanctuary, the area immediately around the altar. We never approached or passed it without a genuflection. This was sanctuary as holy of holies. The church was a sacred space − no mere building, but the house of God − and the sanctuary was its core.
The following poem records a moment of illumination that broke my imagination open in the way a powerful blow cracks open a rock and reveals a beautiful crystalline interior.
Not metal railings. Briars of thick mottled marble barred the way
and steps, one on the other, insisted on an effortful ascent.
God lived on that altar – never slept, said the two red wakeful lamps.
He was there inside a domed brass tabernacle whose doors, if opened,
opened onto curtains so you never could see in.,
and behind, above, purples and magentas, perplexed and broken,
toppled around his pinioned son. The Son was always dying.
God’s hand, at the apex, open-palmed, proffered
the only – irrelevant – stabs of light.
The likes of us stood well away, not to get burned.
Women especially. He let them clean the steps
and the marble-panelled walls, heads down.
This was power, and unapproachability. This was God.
Sometimes a phrase just turns you over.
It’s a corner that you walk around and everything
opens up. The previous falls away:
always about Him – His sanctuary, His place.
Instead, it’s ‘where God’s people come
to know that they are loved’.
What has occurred here is an inversion of power – from the power of domination to the power of cherishing. I had failed to see this before – or half-seen it and looked away.
Another poem in the collection about this same Belfast sanctuary is based on an event which exemplifies both how a sanctuary is impotent without acceptance of its sacredness and the widespread impulse to destroy whatever is sacred to one’s enemy.
I grew up in a part of Belfast where there were very few Catholics. The church had been built in the face of sectarian opposition. It is located on a main road and there was a police station one block away. Over the decades the Catholic population grew, especially in the vicinity of the church. The early 1970s saw the development of a junior branch of Loyalist paramilitaries, the Tartan gangs. These youths, usually directed by adults, played a significant part in impressing the error of their ways upon their Catholic neighbours or those fellow Protestants considered insufficiently loyal.
On February 6th 1973, a preacher had whipped up the emotions of a crowd of adults and teenagers and that evening they converged on the police station. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (the largely Protestant police force of the time) was alleged to be kow-towing to nationalist interests. The police station was impregnable and the crowd’s attention shifted to our Catholic church.
After Iconoclasm; A Teenage Tartan Gang Member in St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, Belfast, February 6th 1973
I always picture him as half-way down the aisle,
frozen suddenly, as the others thunder past
towards the shallow steps that hem a place
he has no name for.
The altar he does know, now that he sees one,
and how they swarm it – bending its gleaming cross
from head to toe while someone jemmies open
its golden cupboard.
He’d relished the bounding up the steps outside,
the mighty push to breach the massive doors,
the surge into the porch – unstoppable, even
by its man-on-a-cross.
Hands were laid on, that plaster idol wrenched
down, trampled, and they were through the inner doors
into a raftered, eerie, night-filled space
he had no name for,
nor for the wall of shadowy figures up ahead,
nor for the black explosions in the ribs and chest
and shins of its brittle Christ who was dying again,
nor for the energy
unleashed on the long-haired girl in tears at those feet.
Someone is flinging white confetti from a goblet:
‘This is their god!’ Someone orders him to shoulder
a wooden bench
out to the flames. He stumbles on the wreckage in the porch
and falls. In dreams, he feels again that fall
and gives a name to breaking it with the heel
of his hand on a face.
This was an act of iconoclasm, the destruction of images believed to be heretical. But, I wondered, is that what those Tartan teenagers thought they were doing? How many of them knew anything about the things they were attacking? The poem attempts to get inside the head of a youth who has never been in a Catholic church and is suddenly propelled into one, in darkness, among a crowd of his own ilk, being bidden to destroy this and smash that. That sanctuary, which to me was holy space, would be to him just a weird place, a place of wrongness which had to be destroyed, and that destruction would be a good thing. I doubt he would have thought in terms of purification. He was probably acting in the cause of righteousness, as far as he understood that. But what might he perceive of the link between the destruction of things and the destruction of the people who care about those things? Decades on, how might he view that night, looking back?
He and I would be the same age. It was only two years ago that I had a conversation with any witness to this event. It’s not something that people are in a hurry to talk about. A Protestant boy of my own age, who lived near the police station, witnessed the attack on the church. He was so repulsed at what purported to be a demonstration of ardent Christianity that he sought out its opposite. As an adult he committed himself to ecumenism and became an Anglican bishop. I wish I’d known him at the time.
The parish’s two priests survived the attack only because of the arrival of the army. After that night, I and my fellow parishioners had to go to a church that told us from every damaged wall, and especially from that window, that we were powerless and vulnerable. The plaster, near-life-size crucifix in the porch had been pulled down and smashed up but the left arm, nailed through the hand, had broken at the elbow and remained pinned to the wall. (It is still there, along with the ghostly outline of the targeted cross.) Our sanctuary had been breached, the tabernacle ransacked, our God trodden underfoot. And this would be our fate if we stayed in the area. A lon-term army presence was established at the church. We could worship only under their protection.
This poem is my attempt to build a bridge in my imagination towards those contemporaries of mine. It’s a bridge of the imagination but the imagination is a precious sanctuary and the purification of that sanctuary from bitterness or prejudice is never fruitless.
The sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were in my mind when I wrote this poem. These sculptures were destroyed by order of the Taliban in 2001, to international outcry. Paradoxically, the destruction on images is a de facto acknowledgement of their power. In the collection is a set of six poems on the subject of iconoclasm − a phenomenon to be found in the secular sphere too. I designed the book to embody the notion of sanctuary as a hosting space. I looked for other poets to join me. It would not be enough, in this context, to ask them to contribute a poem they had written on their own, nor would an editorial role for me be sufficient. I should aim for co-creation. This would require a deeper engagement all round.
I looked for two poets from Wales and two from Northern Ireland (since I live in both places) with an expertise in an aspect of sanctuary and I proposed that they each write a poem with me. We would be sharing each other’s creative space, that sanctuary of the imagination. In addition I asked a poet to be my mentor, allowing him into my ‘sanctuary’, though in a critiquing rather than co-creating way. I believed that, overall, this approach would broaden the book as a whole and widen my own perceptions of the topic. I was right.
I don’t have first-hand experience of being an expert in sacred places or a refugee or an economic migrant nor have I had many of the other sanctuary experiences of the four poets who co-created a poem for the book. Their poems greatly extend the reach and richness of the contents. And my mentor, Glen Wilson also contributed a poem of his own about migration into the USA.
Csilla Toldy writes about her flight from Communist Hungary and being a refugee in the ‘free’ West. Italian economic migrant, Viviana Fiorentino, a writer, poet and academic, writes profoundly on an ecological theme. Iranian, Mahyar journeys through crises and joys in the company of the mysterious ‘You’. Welshman Phil Cope, an expert on shrines and holy wells, sees in his beloved Garw Valley something of a portal to the infinite.
I am particularly pleased that the poet, George Szirtes says of the collection: “Sanctuary is primarily physical but it… offers a spiritual place of safety too. It is a token of generosity from the giver and a source of inner comfort for the receiver… This collection is full of moving, serious poems and individual voices. This too is sanctuary.”
The book moves from war, to migration, to the alienation imposed by illness (a kind of expulsion from the sanctuary of Eden), to the numinosity of the natural world, to the pandemic, and ends with an assertion that sanctuary is something we can be.
I’ll leave you with the poem that provides the book’s title.
There Must Be Somewhere
That is safe from violation.
Childhood. Being son, or daughter. Pregnancy,
old age, infirmity – none of these.
The corridors of hospitals, asylums, refuges
- places we thought were sacrosanct –
are roamed by predators
and though the innocent fox has his earth
and the birds of the air their nests, we are un-homing
ourselves, and ravaging even our own minds.
Yet we hope for sanctuary, a nook out of the wind,
shelter in the cwtsh of someone’s overcoat,
a harbouring gaze, if nothing else.
I often think about that song The Parting Glass.
The last toast raised, the one who has to leave
steps out, across the threshold, into the turbulent night;
that brilliant room,
(where the worst of him was known, forgiven, shouldered)
remains his compass, carried always.
Nowhere is safe. We know that.
And we know that somewhere is
because we’ve been there, irrefutably,
and we can find it,
open its door,
return to the welcome that we left.
The bilingual event Noddfa A Sut Mae Byw Ynddi / Sanctuary And How To Live It is at 11.15am, Sunday 31st July. It features poet, Gwyneth Lewis; novelist and poet, Dylan Moore; Rev Aled Edwards, co-founder of the Wales Nation of Sanctuary movement and Joseph Gnagbo, linguist and trainee teacher of Welsh.
Angela Graham will also be reading from Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere in a session on new poetry on Saturday 30th July at 4pm, with Hannah Hodgson and Ben Wilkinson.