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Lines of Thinking #1: "From the Republic of Conscience"

Welcome to “Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment will feature a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.  

February, 2017

These days we must consider whether and how our moral geographies are being disrupted by new political realities and what capacities and obligations we retain to hold or retake our home ground. In the first instance, if you live in the United States or any other nation-state on earth for that matter, please consider that we are all trespassing on land that once belonged to other humans and before that to other species.  

All borders are, in the very least, a concoction and even the great walls viewable from space are collapsed by nature and easily traversed by the exercise of our imagination and conscience. If exercised, these most precious birthrights shall not be long thwarted by politically constructed barriers, racism, misogyny, ideological orthodoxy or other fear-based policies.

Here is a poem, “From the Republic of Conscience,” by the late Seamus Heaney. It was written in 1985 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International and yet it might have been written only months ago to remind us that we are each dual citizens and life-ambassadors for a simpler, more principled country; a place I am fairly certain that Horace Mann had in mind as a destination for Antioch’s first study-abroad program.

 

From the Republic of Conscience

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

When I landed in the republic of conscience

it was so noiseless when the engines stopped

I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

 

At immigration, the clerk was an old man

who produced a wallet from his homespun coat

and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

 

The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

 

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

 

II

Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning

spells universal good and parents hang

swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.

 

Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells

are held to the ear during births and funerals.

The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.

 

Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.

The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,

the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.

 

At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office –

 

and to affirm their faith that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept

after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

 

III

I came back from that frugal republic

with my two arms the one length, the customs

woman having insisted my allowance was myself.

 

The old man rose and gazed into my face

and said that was official recognition

that I was now a dual citizen.

 

He therefore desired me when I got home

to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

 

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere

but operated independently

and no ambassador would ever be relieved.