Wednesday, January 13, 2016
"The Realm Untenanted"
While starvation is the ultimate powerlessness and the
antithesis of survival, hunger strike is a remarkable vehicle
for gaining political clout. It is entirely disarming. The spectacle
of a human being who is wasting away physically for the sake
of an ideal is one that approaches the godly. The hunger strike,
an ancient Irish form of protest, found a ritual expression in 1981, when ten men, in utter discipline, fasted to their deaths in a
Northern Ireland jail. The way in which the fasts began, staggered
as they were, felt like a silent procession up to a great door,
one man standing to the side as the next was presented.
This was the door of institutional justice, but became a door into the dark, a dark that the men seemed to illumine as they entered.
It was, for me, one of the most profoundly affecting periods
of the Northern Irish conflict, and one that, when remembered,
arouses feelings of admiration, annoyance, and guilt.
Starvation always possesses an accusatory quality, whether
it is in the face of a Kenyan woman who glares at the camera lens,
or in the emaciated appearance of Lavinia Kerwick, whose anorexia seemed to me to be a form of rage against a system that
would send the man who raped her back onto the streets before
she had a chance to recover. In Katie Donovan's poem,
"Strike", the aggrieved hunger striker will feed the community
with the remains of her body. Her physical disintegration will
give life to her sense of justice, and give flesh to her ideal.
A fasting person may deepen my faith in human
transcendence;the first images I saw of early nineteenth-century
Famine victims sent me into denial. I still remember the moment.
It was in school, and I may have been around eight. I opened
a page of my History book and saw a drawing of a
starving woman and her child. Until then, I had been under the impression that only black people died of hunger, and
the only black people I had ever seen were small faces on
the sides of charity boxes. They were black babies, half-toy,
half-human,who lived in some land suspended between fantasy
and the earth. Looking back, I amaze myself with the efficiency that I deployed in blocking all reaction to the picture.
But when I sat down to write a poem called "Easter-1995-
Hunger", it was the first image that returned.
...a woman and her daughter in a history book,
their bones pointing out from their flesh.
They weren't even black.
And I don't want to see my face,
I don't want to stroke the bones of my disgrace.
That I could be the one to die
that I'd have the power to destroy...
~ From "Irish Spirit";
13 January, 2016