Sursum corda by Séamas Patrick Patten with Review by Brendan McEntee

Sursum corda

I’m to remember footballs,
ewe grass and you,
who laughed and looked up to me.
It is right that I should do this,but my memories ochre over time—
go plumb in the end. And also with you:We are a preening of bobs, flexing
with cigarettes outside the cinema.
Someone claims with insider’s knowing
how black the furry baz grows
on that girl’s growler
and someone else is oh didja catch
the brilliant diddies on that coppernob?

Away in Dublin, I was reading books
in the lamps’ round cheeses of light

when they lifted you up and cut you down
off the dying chestnut in the grey snow
across the wet lane from the rectory.

Under that tree
I’d often footed reckless balls.
You’d stop, then skim them back—
a perfect two touch, passing,
like our voices,
over the green and into the shadows.

– Séamas Patrick Patten


Review by Brendan:

A memorial poem can go one of two ways: mawkish sentimentality that goes for the throat as much as the heart, putting the expression behind the sentiment being expressed or here, as in the case of “Sursum corda,” an effective poem that achieves the balance of both emotion and artfulness. The title is derived from the Christian tradition, which occurs during the blessing of the host. It translates to “lift up your hearts” (the response in a Mass would be “we lift them up to the Lord): the poet doesn’t seem to want or encourage wallowing, rather, a sobering reflection of a lost friend.

In the beginning, the poet answers his own doubts as to whether this poem should even be written (“It is right that I do this”) as a way to create something because “My memories ochre over time—/go plumb in the end.” There’s a “but” between “It is right to do this” and the memories line which establishes a concern for veracity, suggesting that memories, once expressed, become more than historiography; once written, they become fact.

The poet goes on to capture just such a moment, rife with colloquial expression which may or may not be known by the reader. By this, the reader may almost feel ejected from the poem, but it’s incredibly intimate: we’re getting the language and the tone shared by these two friends: it isn’t necessarily about the reader comprehending what’s going on, rather, it’s about the immediacy of memory. then we are quickly shifted:

Away in Dublin, I was reading books
in the lamps’ round cheeses of light

The narrator ferments, molding in academia, yet still whole (“reading books/in the lamps’ round cheeses”)

When they lifted you up and cut you down
off the dying chestnut in the grey snow
across the wet lane from the rectory.

The language here evokes without pandering, yet carries so much power. The chestnut tree is dying, the body is dead, a suicide, likely to be rejected a Christian burial. The passive of the “reading books” is in stark juxtaposition with the “lifted you up and cut you down.” That it occurs across from a rectory brings to mind Judas Iscariot, as if the suicide himself is rejecting the institution. What must be remembered is that this is second hand information for the narrator. Yet it is delivered cleanly: this is the memory in the mind’s eye. This isn’t experience but poetics, beautifully done.

The last stanza is a “true” memory of the same tree, of an easier time when the two would kick a ball around, when there was unity, not separation or loss, but ends with a mournful note: “like our voices,/over the green and into the shadows.” The green of life and the shadows of death: the two remain connected.
To effectively deliver emotion in a vehicle such as poetry, there needs to be a command of language as well as a willingness to allow the subject to sit still, to limn the experience. That is exactly what occurs here: the subject is; the poet makes it art.

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