There has been a lot written about the discovery of the remains of 796 babies in the septic tank of a former Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, County Galway. As well as articles, news reports and other forms of communication, many poets have addressed it in verse. Vinny Steed’s poem comes at the subject in an unusual way. It’s very stark, deprived of detail. And the mention of the gruesome discovery only comes at the end.
Steed lulls us into the poem with interesting facts about acupuncture, science and other fields. He chooses the less obvious approach of curiosity whereas many would seek to wrestle the reader’s attention via indignation or horror. It’s a quiet, measured poem with a scientific flavour.
You could also say it’s a poem of patterns. Unfortunately, the poem ultimately shows us that the most despicable aspects of human nature – here, disregard for the lives of others, especially others we attach a label to – is a pattern which repeats itself throughout history.
We find life in numbers
In acupuncture, there are seven-hundred
paths of energy in a human body
A human eye can detect seven-hundred
tints of colour in a rainbow
but in this septic reality
when we tentatively scrape beneath the surface
we find death in numbers.
I am a 36 year old from Galway work who divides his time between writing and the banalities of retail. I have work published abroad and at home. Some of my work has featured in the Galway Review, Headstuff, Skylight 47, Crannog, Into the Void, Tales from the Forest, All the Sins, Ofi Press magazine and Ropes 25th edition. Some of my poems are soon to feature in Windows 25th edition and in Cinnamon Press.
I have been long listed for the 2015 & 2016 Over the Edge poetry competition and short listed for the 2016 Doolin poetry competition. Most recently I was long-listed for the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection. One of my poems was also nominated by Into the Void for the Pushcart Prize. I attend poetry workshops in the Galway Arts Centre.
Can numbers or mathematics be poetic? If so, how?
Why not? I think some of the best poetry can be found in the most mundane subjects. This is not to say that numbers and mathematics cannot be exciting. The Fibonacci sequence for example is a series of numbers where a number is obtained by adding the two numbers before it. The most interesting aspect of this for me is that this sequence exists in nature particularly in botany such as an unfurling fern or in the arrangement of leaves on a stem. Since poetry deals so much with the theme of nature they have become inextricably linked, then so too is mathematics and poetry.
You tackle what some might call a “political” or “human rights” issue in this poem, but you’ve placed the frame of numbers around the issue and twisted it slightly. Do you think such political or human rights poetry typically works best when it tackles the subject head-on or when it comes at it askew?
To give a politician’s answer on this one I would say that I think both methods can be effective. Anna Swirszcynska has a simple yet hard hitting poem titled “He was Lucky” that deals with Nazi Germany occupation and how one man escapes with his life. If delivered correctly I think the head-on approach can have a lasting impression on the reader. Similarly, I feel that intertwining a difficult subject with another theme can generate discussion and allows the reader to maybe think about a topic in a different light. That was my aim with this poem as I felt that it would be a topic that would already have much written and discussed about it.
You’ve used very spare, stark language to reflect the harrowing subject here. Did you consider a more detailed approach? What are the advantages of avoiding a great deal of detail in a poem?
It all depends on the subject matter. For me stark language was a necessity in order to reflect a stark reality. I would say that less can be more when it comes to poetry. This not only applies to writing about bleak or morbid subjects. Indeed, one of my favourite poems is by C.P. Stewart titled The Falconer. It is a short poem that beautifully captures a moment of lust between a man and a woman. There is not a huge amount of detail in the poem but the reader is perfectly placed in that scene and the mental imagery it evokes is fantastic. Letting the reader fill in the detail themselves often makes for varied and interesting thoughts on the same poem.
It’s been said that one death is a tragedy, while the death of many is a statistic. Maybe that reflects how the human mind fails to connect with, or focus its attention on, large or complex things. Are creative works especially equipped to focus our attention on important things? If so, why?
Technological advance has led to our desensitisation on many humanitarian issues. We are bombarded with news of human catastrophes daily. It is a well-known fact that our brains are hardwired to forget the ritual and mundane of everyday so that we can concentrate on more important factors. Unfortunately, I think that lack of connection that you speak of is a direct result of the intravenous line that has been created due to media overload. I think creative works can break this line and therefore has greater potential at refocusing our attention. Creative work has the ability to create empathy (something that I feel technology cannot ever achieve).
Why do you write?
For me poetry is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. When all the pieces come together it can be very satisfying – all too often the pieces might not fit but great enjoyment can be found in simply attempting it. If the finished puzzle appeals to other readers then it is an added bonus. Creating the time to write is in itself a form of meditation. You can be completely immersed by it and drowning in words is never a bad thing!
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Read everything around you from the bizarre to the thought provoking to the ridiculous. Everything you read and enjoy, ask yourself questions about it. What makes this piece of writing interesting? Why am I drawn to it? The more questions you ask the more you realise how little you know. As the famous philosopher Kierkegaard once said “The surest of all stubborn silences is not to hold one’s tongue but to talk”.