This Strange Country
Into this strange country
the godtree grew,
taking root in ground
we did not trust
in some other
unrecognised by us.
grew a life
that, by and by,
we recognised as living.
It discerned the
seasons in a
climate not our
it has shown us
This short poem by Padraig O Tuama is from a 2012 collection of poems from Canterbury Press in England, readings from the book of exile. O Tuama is a poet recommended much by, among many others, Peter Rollins who came to Gainesville and talked about his pyro theology, a theology of the fire of the Spirit. O Tuama lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and takes part in peace and reconciliation initiatives there, as well as in the long reconciliation work of the Corrymeela Community which you can find more about at http://www.corrymeela.org/
This poem, like many of O Tuama’s, is simple and available in ordinary language and grammar. His poetry is first meant for oral performance, and you can feel that in the directness of his speech, even when, as here, he is developing an image and a metaphor of much resonance with the Gospel.
O Tuama’s poem begins in a riff on an early Western medieval tale that connects the cross of the crucifixion is connected with the Anglo-Saxon tales of all creation as Yggdrasil, the great world tree that connects all life from the depths of fire and ice trolls to the heights of the heavens. Early English acceptance of Christianity melded these different tales, just as the stories of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar as Sons of God from virgin births were matched and developed in early Christian stories of Jesus as the Son of God.
O Tuama for me does two amazing things in this poem. First, he uses vegetable notions of God and Christ in terms of “the godtree”, growing in another earth, another nutrient and nourish of life, something and somewhere we do not recognize.
But then, in time, with us long we begin to see that this is life indeed, “we recognized as living.” And once that connection opened, the very seasons and climate of life for us shifts from our ordinary “own”, such a solitary desolate word.
And even more, all that strangeness, rooted in another earth for nourishment, has grown, like the mustard seed of the parable of Jesus, to shelter abundant birds. Then even beyond “shelter”, the longing of all the people displaced in our lives by geopolitical violence or by being undone out of our lives in dismay — beyond “shelter”, this tree of the cross, of the mustard seed, of Yggsadril the World Tree, this splinter rooted in “some other/earth”, reaches forth and blossoms in leaves of welcome and shade.
Not just “shelter” we find in this “godtree”, but brought in and home — “Its boughs / have made / our homes.” Out of roots in a foreign earth, unrecognized by us, arises the welcome home our hearts have longed for.
And that’s just one run amidst the lines and stanzas of the poem. O Tuama and Rollins and Jesus would all say, run through the leap of words and rhythms in such a simple poem. We each skip and hold still and jump in our own ways out of our own anxious listening, out of our own fear and longing, and so find each our every way wondering and home.