Let me tell you about countries: nobody has their own and where we come from moves. Our mothers’ wombs aren’t where we left them. Continents calve. Jerusalem holds a tray full of glasses which a scrum of men take and put back, take and put back, unworried for the weight she must shift. Let me tell you: some of the countries aren’t where we left them. Someone pulls a string and six tumble from Yugoslavia’s pocket. Someone halves Sudan like a branch over their knee. Someone crumbles a bailey between Berlin and Germany is one place again. Only Adam had his own country, and he could not go back. A country is land that’s learned to disown.
This poem has been reproduced with the poet’s permission. It first appeared in Contemporary Verse 2.
If a poem has love I will call it lovely. If a poem rings powerfully true I will call it stunning. This is a lovely, stunning poem which begins so well with a request to come alongside and explain. “Let me tell you” – that is such a good way to begin a poem, and such a good way to start to complicate a racist and nationalistic mindset with the thought that wombs and countries are never where we left them.
The UK Government has announced plans to take “full control” of borders unveiling an Australian-style points system to overhaul immigration law and close our borders to unskilled workers and those who can’t speak English. When we talk about taking “full control of our borders” aren’t we just allowing fear and anxiety to take control of our borders? Are we forgetting border controls escalate and will be reciprocated? Have we given any thought to who in the end will wipe our bums?
This is all part of the deceit of government. I have been intrigued by the stories about Jacob and Laban from Genesis 29-31. Jacob is the “leg-puller”, the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”. Laban is the “white man”. Laban means white. The story of Laban and Jacob is a saga of deception – the white man deceiving the deceiver. Was Jacob the outsmarter of the two?) They come to terms with each other by building a witness heap of stones laid by their families as a commitment to peace. It marked the first bilingual place name recorded in the Bible – Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed – the translations of “witness heap” in their respective languages.
Galeed, (we would perhaps call it a cairn) stood as a landmarked prayer. It provided a boundary to their hostility, an end to it. Significantly both Jacob and Laban refuse to take control of their new border. Instead they pray: “The Lord watch between you and me”. The Lord is the one they want to control their border and to watch their limits so that they never cross for harm but only cross for peace.
I wonder when we pray, when we put or hands together, whether we are building a cairn – a knuckle-boned physical structure to mark the limits of our hostility and anxiety, to say “beyond this only peace, beyond this only love”. Are our churches also cairn like landscaped prayers – places to confess our hostility, to find better ways to deal with our differences and markers within our communities beyond which we commit to “go in peace”? “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (Genesis 31:51f)
Borders are worse for our control when our export is fear. The boundaries of our Brexit mindset become brickset – walls built against others deconstructing differences, obstructing relationships, restricting trade and exchange.
Where are we building our witness heaps and our places of commitment? How are we replacing walls with cairns? How do we lament our nationalism?