How to kill a living thing –
by Eibhlín Nic Eochaidh
Criticize it to its face
Say how it kills the light
Traps all the rubbish
Bores you with its green
Harden your heart
Cut it down close
To the root as possible
For a week or a month
Return with an axe
Split it with one blow
Insert a stone
To keep the wound wide open.
Woman With Flower
by Naomi Long Madgett
I wouldn’t coax the plant if I were you.
Such watchful nurturing may do it harm.
Let the soil rest from so much digging
And wait until it’s dry before you water it.
The leaf’s inclined to find its own direction;
Give it a chance to seek the sunlight for itself.
Much growth is stunted by too careful prodding,
Too eager tenderness.
The things we love we have to learn to leave alone.
This series being about twins, I have to bring forward an old twin-themed book. Angela and Diabola, by the inimitable Lynne Reid Banks,* is about twins who are polar opposites—one all good, one pure evil. If you have a dark and silly sense of humor. enjoy British understatement, and have 8-10 year-olds in your circle, check it out. I read Angela and Diablola out loud to the kids one summer and I don’t think any other book we read together had us laughing so much.
The book came to mind because these two poems, “How to Kill a Living Thing” and “Woman with Flower,” sit together like twin sisters, one bad, one good. Both poems are written in the imperative and could almost be lifted from parenting advice columns in alternate universes. Both speak of human growth in terms of vegetation, one how to nurture it, the other how to suffocate it.
“How to Kill a Living Thing” is a biography of trauma, not intended to be instructional, but still, it is. With shame I recognize myself in the second line: Criticize it to its face. It’s an uncomfortable read, the pacing harsh and relentless as the swinging axe in the third stanza.
The tone of Madgett’s “Woman with Flower” is gentle, kindly, philosophical. Advice is given without aggression—I wouldn’t coax the plant if I were you, she begins. But the poem also leads to uncomfortable self-reflection. Watchful nurturing, too careful prodding, and too eager tenderness could be chapter headings in the tale of my mothering years.
I’ve always loved advice columns, and one of the pleasures of reading them, beyond the salacious aspects, is to see how you measure up. An Examination of Conscience of sorts. Have I ever done something like that to someone? Have I hurt or offended someone that way? Am I good enough/strong enough/brave enough to do what is advised?
And so with these poems. I read them as a mother does, with regret and tiny flickers of pride.
I left the poems in the unmowed grass of the Washington Ballet school near my daughter’s apartment. She can watch the young dancers at the barre from her living room window, delightful.
I’m unable to find any biographical information on Eibhlín Nic Eochaidh beyond the fact that she’s a living poet from Belfast. Her poem is popular on survivor websites, although that’s not where I found it. Here’s a video of her at a poetry reading.
Here’s a bio of Madgett from a previous post:
Naomi Long Madgett was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1923, the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her father was a preacher. He took a job as pastor of a New Jersey congregation when Madgett was a baby. East Orange was a segregated town, and there she attended a school where prejudice prevented her from receiving the academic honors she had earned. When the family moved to St. Louis, she went to an all-black high school and was finally able to soar academically and artistically.
She studied at Virginia State University. During her years there corresponded with Langston Hughes who encouraged her writing. After graduating she married, moved to Detroit, had a daughter, got divorced and took a job with Michigan Bell to support herself and her daughter. She earned her masters degree from Wayne State University and began teaching high school English in Detroit public schools. As an educator she fought for inclusion of Black writers in textbooks, offered the first course on African American literature, and taught the first accredited course in creative writing in the city. She continued her work of inclusion of Black writers in the curriculum and in textbooks when she became a professor at Eastern Michigan University. She founded and ran Lotus Press from her basement, seeing a need to get more Black writers published.
For a celebrated writer, she seems to be unusually other-centered, quietly writing her own poetry while promoting the work of others. I love this quote of hers—
“It was only when I gave myself away that I found myself. Service, I have learned, is where true happiness lies. It has provided me with a compassion that I didn’t have in my youth. It has permitted me to walk in the shoes of many and feel the warmth of their feet as well as the pebbles that injured them. I have discovered that cheerfulness, kindness, and helpfulness bring as much joy to the one who extends them as to the ones who receive them — perhaps a good deal more.”
She won multiple awards, was named Detroit Poet Laureate, and was the subject of a documentary, “Star by Star: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet & Publisher.” She died at age 97.
* Lynne Reid Banks wrote the great Indian in the Cupboard series which is a fantastic in the audio version, narrated by Banks herself.