In “Song”, Helena Kilty gives us a glimpse of another world, then wraps us in her own experience in the west of Ireland. The wilderness of a tribeswoman becomes a wilderness of distractions: traffic, sea spray, shopping for presents.
There are some who might seek to use the sentiments expressed here (in terms of the preciousness of life) to support the pro-life cause and keep the eighth amendment intact. While there’s clearly a certain amount we can’t control in our lives, of course, it’s important to note the element of choice here. The speaker of the poem has chosen her lovers, for instance.
But it would be wrong to claim this poem lends itself to either side of the right-to-abortion argument. It’s simply a universal experience, powerfully told. Or sung, even.
A tribeswoman in Africa goes to the wilderness
to quest the song of her unborn child
and sings it to him, calling him here.
Your song came to me in Salthill.
It was in the spray that
fogged my glasses, numbed my face.
I sing it as I walk the promenade
or buy presents to mark the birth
of other people’s happy accidents.
It’s there in the quiet that creeps upon me
when I’ve no more business to attend.
When I’m stuck in traffic and the car
ahead has that baby on board sticker
I sing it in the shower, in the sun, in the rain
across decades, continents
For the past number of years I’ve lived in Galway, where I divide my time between writing and working as a psychotherapist. I completed an MA in writing in NUIG in 2012 and have had poems and short stories published in various places since then.
Water turns up in a lot of the poems I write. This is largely influenced by the fact that I grew up by the sea, creating poems and stories while drifting off to sleep to the bellowing of the lighthouse off Shennick Island. In winters I cycled past the sea wall on the way home from school, daring storm waves to crash over and drench me. It was exhilarating even though there was always ground under my wheels and a large wall separating me from any imminent disaster. As I got older, I was reassured by the reliable ebbing and flowing of the tides, a contrast to the changing landscapes within and around me.
I’m interested in the way we mark life events and the changing seasons, so I organise Celtic fire festivals to celebrate these things. I’ve also been known to officiate at friends’ weddings and other events. This allows me to spend time with an amazing circle of people. I am inspired by nature and the people I share my life with.
You associate song with birth/life here. Do you feel any particular connections between song and poetry?
Yes I feel there’s a strong link between poetry and song, although whenever anyone asks me that question I panic slightly! This is mainly because I don’t have a language for music in quite the same way that I do for poetry. Writing has to flow; there needs to be a beat to it. When I’m writing a poem, I’ll read it aloud to myself, to get a sense of the rhythm. This is similar to when I’m practicing a piece of music, I need to hear it in order to understand the timing, so poetry is the same, for me at least.
Like the Joni Mitchell song “Little Green” (about a child she gave up for adoption), your poem strikes me as a bittersweet lament for what might have been. And yet there’s something hard to pin down about the mood (eg. singing in the sun seems celebratory). Can you tell us about the mood/tone you wanted to convey in the poem, and whether that came before writing or during the writing process?
When I was writing this poem there were a number of different elements to it. I’m interested in the way native communities mark certain rites of passage, such as becoming a parent. I’d heard the story of a tribe whose women go off to the wilderness when they’re trying to get pregnant and quest the song of their unborn baby. The story tells of how this song is then sung by the community at the birth of the child and again to the child whenever s/he is struggling in life, so that they will remember their essence and will find their way back. I was moved by the idea of a community gathering together to remind someone of their basic goodness. So the poem started with that.
The tone of the poem changed as I was writing it, as is often the case.
There is a slightly bittersweet tone in that the poem is also about the wish to have a baby and the loss of a pregnancy. I wanted to recognise how universal these themes are and to acknowledge how unseen this loss can be for some women; both the loss of the pregnancy and also the loss of motherhood and its associated hopes and dreams.
I’ve found that when I write about challenging or emotive topics, it’s better if the tone is restrained; so that was the aim.
Water features in your poem a few times (sea spray, shower, rain). Was this a conscious echo of a pregnant mother’s water breaking? And how much of your poetry-writing is conscious and unconscious, do you think?
I’d like to say the water images were a conscious echo of a pregnant mother’s waters breaking but that is not the case. I tend to write poetry from an intuitive place. A significant amount of poems have given themselves up to me as I’ve been driving along the Bearna road. I have a pen and paper on my passenger seat, so I pull in, get a few lines down and then finish it when I get home. Poetry often expresses my emotional world rather than my thinking world. After the poem has been written I’ll go back and tidy it up and it’s at that stage that I might add in some imagery to give the poem greater depth. However, in this case, I didn’t do that.
By the last verse, it seems that the song may have somehow become your own song, the song of your life experience, whether separate from the song of the child or attached to it like an umbilical cord. Looking back, are you using creativity (the song/this poem) as a way of exploring yourself at a distance, by exploring another?
I’d say I’m exploring myself pretty close up! I’m using creativity (the song/this poem) as a way of giving voice to universal themes that have a personal resonance.
Why do you write?
I write because it makes me happy and not writing makes me miserable. Writing allows me to express the deeper aspects of my being in a particular way. It allows me to explore certain themes, such as life, death and rebirth and creates a way for me to forge meaning out of some of the more difficult aspects of this wonderful, sometimes messy business of being human.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
My advice would be to read lots of poetry and also to attend writing workshops so you can have your work edited. It’s amazing what you learn from editing other people’s work and vice versa.