Sunday, 29 June 2008



Hunger makes a person lie down --
He has water in his knees.
Hunger makes a person lie down
And count the rafters in his roof.
When the Muslim is not hungry he says:
We are forbidden to eat monkey.
When he is hungry he eats a baboon.
Hunger will drive the Muslim woman from the harem
Out into the street,
Hunger will persuade the priest
To steal from his own shrine.
"I have eaten yesterday"
Does not concern hunger.
There is no god like one's stomach:
We must sacrifice to it every day.

Yoruba Oral Poem

I recorded this poem a number of years ago into a binder in which I keep bits of poetry which catch my interest; unfortunately I did not record the title of the book that it came from, although I do remember that it was a collection of oral poetry from around the world.

I tend to write about the happy side of food here. I enjoy eating - well, we mostly all do, don't we? especially when we get to eat what we want - and I enjoy experimenting with it and sharing it with others. It gets harder and harder, though, to forget how incredibly fortunate I am to be in the time and place that I am. I get to struggle with the problems and temptations of having too much food; lucky me.

The unhappy side of food, of course, is that inadequate quantities (and quality) prove fatal. Inevitably, when hunger jumps from the individual level to the community level, it starts with a natural trigger (crop failures, generally) but is in fact a human-created disaster; war, politics, bureaucracy and ideology, complacency and indifference, environmental degradation, already existing poverty and lack of resources, and poor agricultural practices all take a far larger toll than mere weather or disease ever could.

If you are looking for poetry and writing about famine in English - and an exemplary model for just about every subsequent famine - the Irish potato famine of the 1840's is the place to look.

Famine & Exportation

Take it from us, every grain,
We were made for you to drain;
Black starvation let us feel,
England must not want a meal!

When our rotting roots shall fail,
When the hunger pangs assail,
Ye'll have of Irish corn your fill --
We'll have grass and nettles still!

We are poor, and ye are rich;
Mind it not, were every ditch
Strewn in spring with famished corpses,
Take our oats to feed your horses!

Heaven, that tempers ill with good,
When it smote our wonted food,
Sent us bounteous growth of grain --
Sent to pauper slaves, in vain!

We but asked in deadly need:
'Ye that rule us! Let us feed
On the food that's ours' ~ behold!
Adder deaf and icy cold.

Were we Russians, thralls from birth,
In a time of winter dearth
Would a Russian despot see
From his land its produce flee?

Were we black Virginian slaves,
Bound and bruised with thongs and staves,
Avarice and selfish dread
Would not let us die unfed.

Were we, Saints of Heaven! were we
How we burn to think it -- FREE!
Not a grain should leave our shore,
Not for England's golden store.

They who hunger where it grew --
They whom Heaven had sent it to --
They who reared with sweat of brow --
They or none should have it now.

Lord that made us! What it is
To endure a lot like this!
Powerless in our worst distress,
Cramped by alien selfishness!

Not amongst our rulers all,
One true heart whereon to call;
Vainly still we turn to them
Who despoil us and contemn.

Forced to see them, day by day,
Snatch our sole resource away;
If returned a pittance be --
Alms, 'tis named, and beggars, we.

Lord! thy guiding wisdom grant,
Fearful counselor is WANT;
Burning thoughts will rise within,
Keep us pure from stain of sin!
But, at least, like trumpet blast,
Let it rouse us all at last;
Ye who cling to England's side!
Here and now, you see her tried.

John O'Hagan

In 1840, the population of Ireland was about 8 million. By 1855, it was closer to 5 million. About a million (or rather more; no one is quite sure) of the difference had died; another 2 million had emigrated. The currant population of Ireland and Northern Ireland is about 6 million. Certainly, I remember travelling to Ireland in the 1970's and seeing the decaying cottages which had never been re-inhabited. (Although Germans were starting to buy them up cheaply to rebuild for summer cottages.)

The Irish potato famine also left an enormous mark on Canada - we think of ourselves as founded as a country by the English (and French) but many Scots were driven here by the highland clearances, and large numbers of those 2 million Irish immigrants came to Canada. (I number both groups amongst my ancestors.) Emigration was no guarantee of survival. The immigrants were weak and ill, and many died during the journey. To this day, you will find francophone Canadians with Irish surnames - surviving children were readily adopted by the French-Canadians, who identified with the Irish troubles as fellow Catholics and fellow victims of British colonialism.

And the Irish potato famine still resonates, as with this recent poem, which I recently found on the blog Poem of the Week:


In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Eavan Boland

How accurate are my numbers of the dead in the Irish famine? Not very, history counts its skeletons in round numbers...

Hunger Camp at Jaslo

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
they all died of hunger. “All. How many?
It’s a big meadow. How much grass
for each one?” Write: I don’t know.
History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one remains a thousand,
as though the one had never existed:
an imaginary embryo, an empty cradle,
an ABC never read,
air that laughs, cries, grows,
emptiness running down steps toward the garden,
nobody’s place in the line.

We stand in the meadow where it became flesh,
and the meadow is silent as a false witness.
Sunny. Green. Nearby, a forest
with wood for chewing and water under the bark-
every day a full ration of the view
until you go blind. Overhead, a bird-
the shadow of its life-giving wings
brushed their lips. Their jaws opened.
Teeth clacked against teeth.
At night, the sickle moon shone in the sky
and reaped wheat for their bread.
Hands came floating from blackened icons,
empty cups in their fingers.
On a spit of barbed wire,
a man was turning.
They sang with their mouths full of earth.
“A lovely song of how war strikes straight
at the heart.” Write: how silent.

Wislawa Szymborska

Poetry and Being
(He Mahajiban)

No more of this poetry.
Bring on the hard, harsh prose instead.
Let the jingle of verse disappear
And the strong hammer of prose strike.
No need for the serenity of a poem;
Poetry, I give you a break today.
In the regime of hunger, the earth belongs to prose,
The full moon burns like a loaf of bread.

Sukanto Bhattacharya

The picture at the top of this post is of Bridget O'Donell and her children, from the London Illustrated News of December 22, 1849.

No comments: