In his book, The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel, Frank MacEowen writes about geancannach, an ancient Irish practice called a “praise poem.” Revived in recent years by the mystic Tom Cowan, geancannach translates roughly to “love talk” and recalls the bardic traditions:
…Celtic love talking isn’t about writing ‘good poetry’; it is about living it in each moment. In Celtic love talking, we become the poem. Geancannach is about your relationship to nature, to the life around you. It is about speaking that devotion and adoration directly to the forest, the mountain, the waterfall, a human lover or friend, or the Great Shaper of Life. The question is: Do you love any place or person so much that you will open your heart, eyes, and mouth and say so?
Now is a time for homecoming. In the words of the wise and radiant Lindsay Mack, it’s time to “come home and get ourselves.” And lately, I’m wondering how to do that. I’m thinking of the poem Beannacht by John O’Donohue. Of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Of my teacher Amanda Yates Garcia and her work with ancestral healing (and the inspiration to write my poem in Irish, below). Of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights.
My beloved surprise gifted me the Pagan Otherworlds Tarot deck for our wedding anniversary and I immediately fell in love as the images, the landscape, the Celtic themes settled deep in my bones. The first card I pulled from the deck was the 6 of Cups. When this card comes up, often we are being called to connect with our roots and our ancestors, with memory and home. I smile, acknowledging the medicine working its way in and through me right now. I ask the cards, how can we (re)connect with our true home?
Through ceremony, they say.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer describes a ritual her father would enact during canoe camping trips in the Adirondacks in her youth. Kimmerer is Potawatomi and her family’s tribal connections had been “frayed, but never broken” by violence and colonization. Each morning, her father would boil coffee, face to the sun, and pour out the first dredges in offering to the highest peak in the Adirondacks: “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.” He did not have all the right words; he was rebuilding an ancestral connection through ceremony.
That, I think, is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mingled with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
There is so much more I want to express to you. So much grief and sadness, so much about privilege and trauma. About queerness and the landscape and kinship with the natural world. I want to teach, I think. I want to facilitate. I want to reconcile and rebuild, to strip away and lay bare.
And yet, hours into writing, all I can offer you is this humble praise poem, this geancannach. An offering to my Irish ancestors and to the land. A ceremony. I write it in honor of spirit who spoke in the language of the tarot: 6 of Cups, calling me home. The Hermit, ready to share their wisdom with the world. The Lovers, the harmony of me and the land; the perfection of the integrated we. 8 of Wands, guiding me to slow down and connect. And the Page of Swords, the beginner, who starts and listens, again and again.
MacEowen gives the following example of a traditional praise poem:
Beautiful is the purple sky at sunrise; beautiful, too, is the soft morning breeze. Beautiful the sound of swaying oak branches in the wind; beautiful, too, the sound of the chirping wren.
The key, according to Cowan, is to go out into nature so that one may “become the practice.” You enter a heightened state of consciousness, a presence with the world around you, and take it all in. That’s all well and good if you’re able to leave your home. But if you’re not, as is the case with many right now (and has been the case for many before the pandemic), what if you opened your window in morning to listen to the sounds outside? What if, while taking a morning shower, you imagined you were instead in a crystalline waterfall? What if you, like me, took out your tarot cards and let your imagination flow?
I write my poem first in English and then – as I don’t speak my ancestral language (yet?) – enter it into a translator and write it again on the back, in what I can only assume is broken, imprecise Irish. But the words curl and flow like music from my pen. Over time, I’ll practice the pronunciations and speak the words aloud so my ancestors can hear the reverence and locality of my praise.
A Blessing for Home
Beautiful are the wheat grasses and oak trees in morning;
beautiful, too, the smoky blue sky.
Here’s to the old lantern that lights my way home.
Here’s to the not knowing why.
Beautiful, how the earth embraces and enfolds me.
Beautiful, too, the abundance all around.
Here’s to the slowness, the pause that aligns me
with the crows, with the sea, with the ground.
Beautiful, forgiveness, and the promise of tomorrow.
Beautiful, my home, full of beauty and sorrow.
Here’s to this land, inviting me in.
Here’s to my lush, rolling kin.
A praise poem is simple enough (for, thank goodness, it doesn’t have to be good). But its beauty lies in rhythm and formula. The formula I’ve used here is Cowan’s, described by MacEowen: “Beautiful…beautiful too.” With a modification – “Here’s to…” – inspired by Kimmerer and her father. Praise poems need not rhyme. In fact, I believe that most didn’t. But I find the rhyming meditative, and so most of mine do, even if the scheme is illogical and imbalanced. Again, it doesn’t have to be good.
Maybe you noticed another feature of my poem, an element that emerged subconsciously as I wrote it: triads. My poem has three stanzas. It also contains a list of three things: crows, sea, ground. I did not plan this; it simply emerged.
In Celtic spirituality, three is a sacred number. The universe is divided into three realms – earth, sky, and sea – which, interestingly, emerged in my poem as listed above. Three exists beyond individuality and duality. In the tarot, threes represent community and culmination. And then there are the Celtic triple goddesses – my favorite of them Brigid – and the neopagan Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype. According to Lunaea Weatherstone’s beautifully rich book, Tending Brigid’s Flame, Celts “used three as a learning tool, summarizing an idea in three parts for easy memorization.”
I recommend working with triads in your praise poems, too. Or maybe, as in my case, you’ll find they naturally emerge in your poem as you connect with the rhythm of your verse. Oh, you weren’t planning on writing one? Why not?