Drop in by Raine Geoghegan

I’m incredibly thankful to Nigel Kent for inviting me to write about a poem from my new collection, The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh which is due out this spring with Salmon Poetry Press, an Irish/International publisher. This collection contains poems, monologues, haibun and songs, mostly based on my Romany family. I have been working on them for over three years and many of them have been published before both online and in print and in my two pamphlets, Apple Water: Povel Panni and ‘they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog’ with Hedgehog Poetry Press.

‘a song to rest the tired dead’
im Celia Lane 

it is dusk 
she has come to wash the body
a table is set by the bed
a bowl of lavender water
clean muslin cloths
a white towel

       ‘too young for death’

she thinks as she removes all the clothing
and jewellery from the body of her niece
 
she notices stretch marks on the thighs
how the breasts have dropped
from feeding the chavies
    
   ‘forty years ago, just been borned
sucking at her daya’s breast’

taking a cloth
she dips it into the water
squeezes it hard in her hand
sets about her task
malts stand by the door way
aunts, daughters, sisters and the daya
singing in low soft voices
a song to rest the tired dead

she speaks quietly 
to her loved one as she gently cleans
lifting one arm up then the other
holding it
placing it down carefully
as if it was made of glass

the others won’t move too close
it is mokkadi to do so

this woman who washes the dead
now holds both feet
letting them rest for a while
blessing them for all the miles
they have trod the earth
she dresses her niece in the finest of clothes
combs her dark tangled hair
places the gold chain and ear rings in the palm of 
of the right hand
puts the wedding ring back on
the third finger of the left hand

       ‘such small fingers’

bending forward, kisses them
 
‘you are ready now my gel, sov well’

Romani words: Chavies – children; daya – mother; malts – women; mokkadi – unclean; sov – sleep.

I have chosen the above poem which describes an old Romany ritual of washing the dead. Even though it is primarily about death it celebrates and honours life and there is a vitality and energy running through it. It is based on a ritual, that of preparing the body of the deceased for her final journey. It’s a poem that has already been published multiple times, online and in print, as well as featuring in my third pamphlet, The Stone Sleep with Hedgehog Poetry Press. I feel that ‘death’ as a subject holds much power and mystery but is often pushed aside. As I reflect on what compelled me to write this poem, my mind goes back to the early days of research into my Romany family. I remember a lot about my childhood, living with my mother, sister and grandparents, listening to the Romani jib (language), but I didn’t remember the fact that my great aunt Celia was the woman who was called in to wash the dead. A cousin of mine who has helped me with research mentioned this aunt to me. She told me about the time when my mum’s cousin, Ria, had died of a stroke at the age of forty six. Great aunt Celia was called in, as usual. Obviously I didn’t know exactly what the ritual would be so I closed my eyes and allowed myself to imagine the scene.

       I had a vision of a group of women, standing together, looking on as my great aunt washed the body, these are ‘the malts who stand in the doorway, aunts, daughters, sisters and the daya (mother)’ I sensed the energy in the room and how the emotions were high. Ritual is something I have always been drawn to.  There is a sense of order and of completion within ritual, whether it’s making a pot of tea or performing a simple ritual for the full moon. I knew that I needed to set the scene for this poem, hence it happens at dusk. The tools for the ritual are set on the table. I, as the poet and narrator, am also the witness. I give Celia a voice. She is able to comment/ think on the body and life of her niece. The first thing she thinks, ‘too young for death’. She says other things but I decided not to include everything. It is the ritual that is the most important part of this poem. Celia works meticulously and with reverence, this aspect is important. She has done this many times but each time she does it anew, honouring the body that she is washing.  I used minimal punctuation and kept the lines short. I also introduced a lot of white space as a way of slowing the poem down. When I read this poem aloud, I speak slowly, pausing a lot. I’m a great believer in the power of reading aloud. It can bring a poem to life and also give it another level of meaning.

       This poem as many others in my collection can be seen as ‘poetic memoir’. I am saddened that there is no one now in my family that washes the dead. Our society has changed so much. I remember as a young teenager seeing my grandfather in his coffin in the sitting room of my granny’s house. In Romany households there would have been the usual sitting up through the night, drinking tea and whiskey, eating and sharing stories. I like the fact that my work honours those who have gone before me. I see this work as a form of ‘ancestral healing’ and a way to reclaim my connection with my Romany family, those I knew and those I didn’t. The title of my collection is actually based on an old Romanichal  (English Gypsy) custom, called ‘the talking stick’,  and it’s made from the blackthorn bush and I actually have one that a friend carved for me. The idea was that one end of the stick was given to an elder in the family that was ill or dying and the other end was placed in the hand of the youngest, usually a baby or toddler. It was said that the wisdom and knowledge from the elder would pass through the stick and into the hand of the youngest. There was usually a person in the family who would conduct this ritual. It’s not practised now but I rather took to this idea, as did my publisher, Jessie Lendennie, who saw the actual book as a ‘talking stick’, being passed around and the stories inside being shared and teaching the readers about the Romany culture. My hope is that this collection will stimulate discussion and further investigation into my culture. I am proud to be a Gypsy and I have loved writing about my culture.

(‘a song to rest the tired dead’ has been published in the following publications: ‘Witches, Warriors, Workers’ – Culture Matters, 2020 (an anthology); online at ‘Poethead’ – 2019; Online at ‘Here Comes Everyone’ – Rituals Edition, 2019; ‘The Stone Sleep’ – Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2022.)

Saboteur Awards 2022

This drop in/review feature was set up in August 2020 to promote debut collections from small publishers without access to the marketing budgets of larger organisations. It is intended to help new writers get their work known. Since that time it has received over 8,500 views.

If you have enjoyed it, I would appreciate your support for the Reviewer of Literature in the Saboteur Awards, 2022, currently being voted for (deadline April 7). Click here to lend me your vote. Such an accolade would help publicise the feature and help further promote the work of writers like Raine which so deserves to be read!

Catch Up on Poets Previously Featured

Pocket Full of Stones by Zoe Siobhan Howarth-Lowe is her first full collection, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. It draws on the thoughts, imaginings and experience of growing up as the odd one out, the outsider in the corner.

Click here to purchase

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