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SOULS ADRIFT

By Meg Harris



Sometimes I am brushing my teeth in the morning, remembering that my housemate will return later today, when I realise that I have not opened my mouth to speak in three whole days.


I live on a street full of houses, next to a street full of traffic. I hear the dog walkers, the school rush, the social joggers, the cyclists, and I am often struck that I don't know any of these people. My own people live far away – in Murray Bridge, or Clare, or Port Macdonnell – and I have no car, no way to reach them, only a phone that hardly ever rings, and nothing to say to them anyway. Worse, for months I haven’t even been able to attend lectures, or go to the supermarket, or the café, to pay for someone with a familiar face to ask me how I am and listen to my reply: "Fine, thanks, how are you?"


But recently, into this unemployed "iso-life" came an ancient poem about exile, written more than a thousand years ago, in an English I cannot understand.


The Wanderer begins: “Oft him anhaga are gebidedh.” The lone soul endures.


These opening words, in the context of the poem, carry strong implications of the presence of God. Gebidedh: to abide (with God), (to be granted the grace) to endure. Our very existence, and continuance of existence, is Providence – amplified in silence, made tangibly present by isolation.


The Wanderer continues: “Metudes miltse / theah the he mod-cearig / geond lagu-lade / longe sceolde.” In Your myriad mercies, the mind-weary soul suffers along the water-way. Our suffering is grace. “Hreran mid hondum / hrim-calde sae.” Hand-paddling the rime-cold sea.


Gratitude has been a big word for me, lately, particularly during the early pandemic panic. In The Wanderer, an Anglo-Saxon exile is courting frostbite, and here I am reading about it from the comfort of my own home. A mother of three can't buy toilet paper while my small household has enough. Other people are dying. But gratitude does not exist in denial of suffering; rather, it consists in the acknowledgement of the graces received in any circumstance: I had enough… I was able to stay at home… I had copious entertainment…. I was lonely.


When I first encountered The Wanderer I had never heard of COVID-19, but the poem resonated with me because it spoke about being disconnected from society, which I think we all experience in one way or another. We all have at least a part of ourselves that lives in exile.

The titular Wanderer was once a king's retainer, fighting and feasting in fellowship with the highest ranking members of his community. He used to be comfortable, proud, and to take things for granted. But now he has been brought low. His friends are gone, his king is dead, his civilisation overthrown in battle. Now, he wanders the open sea, alone, and contemplates the rise and fall of all human strivings, the humility of being, the mercy of God. He asserts that this is wisdom and entreats the young to listen.


I am young, and I have not suffered as the Wanderer has, but his story resonates with me as a story about leaving home, about fending for oneself, and about finding that the social context which was once your whole world is not as stable or eternal as you thought it was.

In homage to The Wanderer, I have tried my hand at Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and four-stress split lines. For example: Hreran mid hondum hrim-calde sae


Notice how the line has a caesura (or pause) in the middle, with two stressed syllables either side of the pause. Also, that the first and third stressed syllables (but never the fourth) must alliterate. This was a very interesting form to follow, and quite a departure from the iambic feet and set rhyme schemes I am used to challenging myself with. However, once I got into it, I found even my informal writing littered with alliterations in exactly this pattern. It is a form which is, as far as we know or can define, native to English, and it is a delight.

I find there is an inherent irony in my being able to connect with an ancient exile, in writing a poem about silence, in finding a modern sense of disjunction in an ancient poetic form, in having to translate English into English.


We are all souls adrift, even in our own language, our own society, even our own selves. Poems, all art forms, serve as anchors: “I am here,” they say. “Where are you?”

The Silent


Gardens of grace

grow through history:

from paradise

to paradise,

through the thorough

threshold of

the agony in

gethsemane.

The days of men

die like flowers;

wind-winnowed

wheat is left.


The sunlight sifts

silent here,

ornamenting

the over-canopy,

among the many

mellifluous songbirds

it lights on a lithe

limb bending

deftly downward,

down to me,

sitting still

and silent, listening.


Voices vaporous

vent through fences,

pedestrian dolours

double back.

Hushed and hidden,

here I listen,

tongue-tied,

troubled mute.

Closed mouth

clamped shut,

unopened,

unused;

weeks, weeks,

while by,

unspoken,

unsaid.

Speech sequestered

in silent thought.


The street is strewn

with strangers’ talk,

down the dog-path

disappearing;

phantom faceless

friends, unknown.


Listless,

lone watcher:

Eloi, Eloi,

alas! This

isolation

is not good

for man,

for me.


Where are the warbling

women gone?

The choir, quaint

and quasi-musical?

Let us loudly

laud our saviour!

Praise our precious

prince of grace!

My tongue, untethered,

turned to heaven’s

song, sung,

celebrated

in churches’ chants

and charming hymns.

Together, gathered:

God and us.


Now, not

a noise breaks.

Silent stands

the street a while

Barely breathing

being is.

The world waits

wondering that

existence

exists.


A blackbird

babbles lightly.

A pigeon purrs,

then pecks a little

—startled, stirs,

a striking flurry.

All life

lashes the air.


Separated songbirds

sing yet.


God’s garden

grows here:

heart unhidden

He knows.

Soon will songs

sound again;

Soon and very

soon return.



Meg Harris graduated from Tabor with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing in 2018. Her interest in Old English and foreign languages began when she read The Hobbit, as a child, and learned Tolkien's Dwarvish runes. She writes poetry and short stories and was twice co-editor of the Tales from the Upper Room creative writing anthology.


You can read The Wanderer on page 286 of the Codex exoniensis hosted on archive.org as of 27/May/2020. https://archive.org/details/codexexoniensisc00sociuoft/page/286/mode/1up


© 2020 inScribe Journal. In partnership with Tabor’s Creative Writing and Communication program.

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