For as long as I can remember I have loved hares and probably one of my earliest memories as a child is that of seeing a hare in the fields of Ballyglass, near where I grew up in Coosan, just outside Athlone. In Irish mythology, as in many other cultures, the hare has a unique place and it is often linked with other worlds, shape shifting and magic. It’s not always pleasant magic though, sometimes it’s revisiting the old dark superstitions that we know electricity and science haven’t managed to shift completely from our psyches. Paula Meehan’s poem “Island Burial” makes me queasy every time I read it, the story of a girl turning into a hare after she died. “I know a family had to watch their dead daughter turn into a hare before their eyes. They coffined her quick but swear they heard paws against the coffin lid as they lowered her down as the clay fell.”
When I started to write poetry about four years ago, one of the first poems I wrote was about a hare. It recalled an incident I witnessed in my 20’s in the Shannon Callows, those flower-rich flood plains that run through the Irish Midlands. Among the long grasses and purple loosestrifes, I saw a full grown hare caught in the mower which a farmer was using to mow his fields. The poem tells what happened.
Barney stopped the mower and looked down.
Full-grown, it was twitching in its soft fur.
I twitched when he mumbled “kinder to kill it.”
With a mossy stone, he crushed it.
Its liquid eyes and long ears
stayed with me for weeks.
sacred to Eros,
shape-shifting Celtic woman,
Eostre’s favourite animal.
I dreamt of it dancing in the callow,
when the moon was out.
Threading the faint light
between dusk and dawn,
thresholds of transition.
next time I saw him
climb out of the tractor.
In Ireland, we have two types of hare, the Irish Hare and the European Hare. I love the naming of things and I was fascinated when I read about hares to discover the Latin names they had been given by that great namer of things, Linnaeus. The European Hare is Lepus europeaus, unsurprisingly but the Irish Hare is Lepus timidus, the timid hare. I think this is lovely and it caught my attention. The more I looked, the more names I found, white hare, mountain hare and the blue hare. The name the blue hare kept my attention because I couldn’t find out why it had this name. Blue isn’t a colour we normally associate with a furry mammal. When I translated the poem into Irish, I loved the guttural alliteration –giorria gorm. I also loved that the word gorm is the Irish for blue and it is the origin of my own surname. “Giorria sléibhe giorria bán, giorria na hÉireann, giorria gorm.”
I live now in a workman’s cottage in the centre of a busy town but I’m surrounded by hares in various forms in art and illustration. Over my writing desk hangs a large charcoal drawing of a leaping hare by the artist Sylvia Parkinson Brown. This hare [named Jasper by the artist] encouraged me to take a chance when I started to write the poem “The Blue Hare”. As I live on small but busy side street which is often used as a short cut to get to the nearby theatre, I regularly walk out my door to find a car almost on the path. This happened one day and I felt the car brush by my coat and the germ of the poem begin in my mind. “Stepping off the path, a silver car rushes by. I never saw it coming, yet I felt the ground give way. I knelt down within myself.” With the same insistence and sense of surprise as the hare in the charcoal drawing, the hare that lives in my mind jumped into the poem and made it about what it would be like to be living like a hare. “What does it mean to be free ? Hare breath touching the ribs.”
At first, I wasn’t sure about this poem as it felt like quite the leap [pardon the pun] from being brushed by a passing car on my street to being a hare running through gorse and sedge but it also felt right. They are an iconic animal that for many represent freedom and many poets have written about them. Also above my desk is a poem by the late and dearly missed Westmeath poet Dermot Healy. “The Hares On Oyster Island” is one of my favourite poems and every time I read it, I feel sorrow that Dermot is gone, he was an amazing novelist and poet and is gone too soon from this world. “Praise be the hares on Oyster Island ! Put there by huntsmen. Loved by poets. And gone at last beyond the reach of dogs. They eat with the sheep and the guinea hens, and run short distances between bouts of contemplation. May they have long lives, the hares that afford us a break from the language that would explain them.”
Maybe that’s what poetry does, it affords us a break from the language that would explain what we are trying to say, from the language that would explain ourselves. From broken hares to blue hares, they break free with and from language and give us a chance to say something fleeting about freedom.
Jackie Gorman is from Athlone. Her poetry has been published in a number of publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Honest Ulsterman, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Lonely Crowd and Obsessed With Pipework. Her work has been commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards. In 2017, she won the Listowel Writers Week Single Poem Award for the poem “The Blue Hare”. Her work was included in the 25th Anniversary Edition of the Windows Anthology. She is currently studying for an MA in Poetry Studies at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies at Dublin City University and is part of the Poetry Ireland 2017 Introductions Series.
© Jackie Gorman, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.