If you were a beast and it was May,
I would say
Listen to me, you golden beauty,
we must walk through those flames.
Do not fear. Shhh, calm,
calm your hooves. Calm your trample, trampling.
Look at me.
With my hands to the muzzle
I lead the prosperity of my summer yield,
garlanded in cowslips, buttercups and wild daffodils,
through the Beltane flames.
Afterwards, I sweep up cold ash and protection for you,
cold ash for me and mark: here, our foreheads are signed
to welcome prosperity.
It is May, and livelihood is not a golden beast with deep eyes
left to summer fields and prophecies. The bonfire –
a stupid superstition swept away.
It is May, we step through cables, then through screens
and the unseen marks our foreheads.
Out of curiosity, over the bank holiday weekend I looked up details about May Day festivities. I wanted to unravel the relationship between pagan May 1st festivities and the International Workers’ Day association. The latter stems from the Haymarket Riots, confrontations between labourers and police in Chicago during May 1886. These pivotal events led to the institution of International Workers’ Day (for more details read here). However, it was the descriptions of the pagan, Gaelic, Celtic Beltane festivals that captured my imagination. I have relayed the captivating information (i.e. vivid scenes) to almost every friend, associate and family member with whom I have had a conversation during the last couple of days. Now, dear reader, I have incorporated the fascination into a poem for you.
One of the practices during Beltane was to usher cattle, beasts that provided the livelihood for the people of the settlement, between two large bonfires. The beasts were sometimes garlanded in yellow May flowers. Ash from the bonfires was considered sacred, so it was swept up and used to mark the cattle. In some instances, it was cooked into food (such as oatcakes).
The difference between our present and times past is a recurring theme at the moment. It surfaced in the recent poem ‘Beacons for the utterly lost‘ and my dystopian short-story ‘Gone are the cars‘. Admittedly in ‘Livelihood’ the ‘past’ is a constructed and sanitized pastoral one. It is possibly more like the mythical pastoral that crops up in Friday’s short story, ‘Running in the wood‘. Furthermore, I am also aware that not everyone in our current times is beholden to cables, screens and whatever those ‘unseen marks’ on the foreheads might be.
However, the screen-bound, desk-bound condition is for many the locus and source of a contemporary livelihood. As an artist, the fascination is in the stories that are to be found in the workplace experience, including, as this poem explores, how own might coax a livelihood through flames, or mark it for prosperity. The Beltane acts might strike sceptical office workers as ritualistic hooey, yet there are contemporary equivalents. Organisational targets and projections, meetings and elaborate strategies – all those documents, spreadsheets, published reports – make rational, tangible sense today. In seven hundred years’ time, will Trello boards look like the wild flower garlands on a dairy cow? This may seem an outrageous comparison, for current office methods underpin efficiency and the measurable results prove as much. The movement of money proves as much.
In the days of Beltane festivals, there were fewer bank accounts. Instead there were hungry stomachs to fill. The marked dairy cows provided for the celebrants and then their children’s children, who went on to produce more children whose descendants perhaps send emails and hit targets in this contemporary age.
It bothers me a great deal that all that might be left of my writing output will be a couple of filed applications, some reports and a virtual mound of emails. All this will be destroyed when my workplace footprint has run its course. Whenever I have produced written content for job purposes, it has served such a small audience. Sometimes it has served barely any audience at all. While the same may be said for my posts (and the growing pile of miscellaneous unseen material), it is my hope that eventually my writing will be of substance such that it will endure. It is my hope that writing I produce will touch people in the future and that something endures as good, worthwhile craft. It is my hope that I shall be able to send meaningful work of beauty and value into a realm beyond my present time.
In the interim, practicalities require that I must also earn my livelihood. May rent must be paid, groceries need to be topped up and my cracked tooth needs to be seen by a dentist. I am on the search for a new position of paid employment and watching the bank balance decrease. Once again, the tension between desk-bound livelihood jobs and having head space to create gnaws at me. I am both grateful for the creative bonfire and terrified by the prospect of a summer devoid of a harvest, so my next writing task is to revive my CV.
P.S. If you enjoyed the mash-up of Beltane bonfire and office job, you may enjoy my poem about El Dorado’s operations meeting.